Ask Chris #173: The Trouble With The Joker’s Girlfriend Harley Quinn
Q: What do you think about Harley Quinn? –@Gavin4L
I’ll be honest with you, Gavin: Harley Quinn is a tough character to write about. I’ve been struggling for a long time now trying to figure out how to get started, because there’s so much there built around a single character that gets into a lot of tricky, complicated areas, from her almost accidental creation and often mystifying popularity to how much she’s changed and been altered in a relatively short period of time, and how you can almost chart the changing aesthetic of the entire company just by looking at a single character. It’s a lot to get through, even if you’re someone who lived through every bit of it as a fan.
Really, I guess that’s as good a starting point as any. What do I think? Well, I like the character a lot, but when you get right down to it, she’s one of the most misunderstood and misused characters in all of superhero comics.
And when I say she’s misunderstood, I don’t just mean that in my usual grumpy, increasingly bitter old man way, where I’m frustrated with the creators and editors behind how she’s been presented in comics. It’s the fans, too, and that’s where things start to get dicey, but I’ll come back to that in a minute.
It’s almost impossible to really overstate the impact that Paul Dini, Bruce Timm and Batman: The Animated Series have had on Batman (and, by extension, DC as a whole) over of the past two decades. For a while, it was taken pretty much for granted that it was the single best version of that franchise that had ever existed, and even if you think that’s being a bit over the top with the praise, it’s a hell of a lot harder to argue that it didn’t launch DC’s most creatively successful venture into mass media. The movies are nice to have and all, and they probably brought in more financially than the animated series ever did — especially once everyone realized they really like superhero movies and you got a story where the Joker tried to blow up a couple of boats that literally made a billion dollars — but in terms of influencing and shaping the source material and bringing in new fans, BTAS beats ‘em all hands down.
You just need to look at the track record: BTAS definitely wouldn’t exist without the success of Burton’s Batman ’89, but while the movies stalled out after Schumacher, there hasn’t been a time since 1992 when Batman hasn’t been a fixture on television with those cartoons. Admittedly, he was never really gone thanks to reruns of Batman ’66 and Superfriends, but BTAS redefined the aesthetic, and provided a foundation that they’ve been building on ever since. All you really have to do to chart it is sit down and think about how many times you’ve heard Kevin Conroy growling about being The Night. We got Superman: The Animated Series because of Batman, and we got Batman Beyond and Justice League because of those. Even when the initial “DC Animated Universe” had run its course, it’s easy to argue that we got Batman: The Brave and the Bold specifically as a reaction to the darker tone that Dini and Timm had taken when they launched BTAS, and in terms of story and approach, we wouldn’t have gotten the Arkham Asylum video game without it.
That’s where the show really had its impact: with its approach. At a time when comics were getting increasingly caught up in continuity, BTAS was spearheading what would eventually become the movement towards focusing on the “iconic” versions of the characters. If you go back and read Dini, Timm and Mitch Brian’s original BTAS Writer’s Guide, which you should because it’s amazing, you’ll see that one of the first things they do is explicitly forbid origin stories in favor of focusing on a version of the character that’s already established and geared towards having adventures right now. They trim away all the baggage and leave just the important stuff — if you watch closely, they even establish everything you need to know right there in the 57 second opening sequence — and the result is that they’re operating with much leaner versions of the characters, where the metaphors and motivations are a lot closer to the surface.
That might be the greatest lasting impact of Batman: The Animated Series. It didn’t just give us a Batman who was stylish and cool and so dark that he was actually drawn on black paper, it gave us a Batman who was easy to understand and relate to. The darkness of his motivations is right there on the surface when he relives his origin after the Scarecrow doses him, but the affection for Alfred and the fatherly partnership with Robin is there too, right on the surface. That’s what really drew people in, even if the red skies, art-deco Batmobiles and blimps were more obviously awesome.
I mention all this because that approach didn’t stop with Batman. It happens with the villains, too — maybe the single best example of which is that the episode that introduces the Riddler is actually called “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?”, neatly summing up his entire motivation in an eight-word title card. It’s all right there, in a way that makes them accessible without sacrificing the complexity of their characters.
That’s the kind of aesthetic that produced Harley Quinn, and it’s worth noting that she was created almost by accident. When she first appears in “Joker’s Favor,” it’s as a one-note joke, a gag character designed to set up the twist of the episode, that the Joker hounds and stalks and threatens this poor nobody over the course of years so that he can open a door as part of a larger scheme. Keep that in mind, too, because the secret of that episode is that it’s also Harley Quinn’s entire story in miniature.
That’s all Harley was meant for initially, but they’d accidentally hit on this magic combination that made her a keeper instantly. There’s so many great things just in that first appearance, from the incredible Bruce Timm design to Arleen Sorkin’s voice and mannerisms (on which the character was loosely based), but I think the most important thing is that she gave the Joker something he’d never really had. For better or worse, and for as many hack jokes as it invites, she was suddenly Joker’s Robin, in a twisted funhouse mirror way that shows exactly how different from Batman the Joker really is.
The Joker had a couple of short-lived associates before, of course, because when you’re a character that’s been a pretty constant presence in comics since 1940, there’s not a lot of stuff you haven’t done. There was Gaggy Gagsworthy, a truly terrifying one-shot sidekick from 1966 who also dressed like a harlequin (and was later resurrected by Paul Dini and Guillem March as a foe for Harley), and you could argue that Harley’s pretty directly descended from the various molls and henchwenches that palled around with the arch-criminals on the TV show, but there’s something different that sets her apart that was developed when she returned: She was hopelessly in love with the Joker.
When I say “hopeless,” I don’t mean it in the cute “I’m a hopeless romantic” sort of way, either. I mean that what she feels is utterly, tragically devoid of hope. Because she’s a Batman villain, she’s built around a simple metaphor that’s made to contrast with Batman. Since she’s inextricably tied to the Joker, that core metaphor is built around his, too, and because she was developed and honed in that lean animated series aesthetic that put that metaphor right at the forefront, she’s actually a really fascinating character in a lot of ways. At heart, at the core of what she is, she’s the living embodiment of obsession, in a way that contrasts with both Batman being driven to fight crime, and the Joker’s pseudo-romantic obsession with Batman — and only with Batman.
See, that’s the tragedy of Harley Quinn, the thing that makes her so compelling underneath all the bright, poppy cheer. She’s in love with someone who will never, ever love her back. Someone who can never, ever love her back, because he’s thoroughly obsessed with someone else. It’s something that we’ve all been through, and that’s what makes her so easy to identify and sympathize with. But because it’s an obsession, an addiction, it’s phenomenally self destructive (something else we can all probably relate to), and because it’s playing out in the grand metaphorical stage of superheroes, everything about it is taken to its horrifying extreme.
Ryan North did a great installment of Dinosaur Comics that perfectly captured the feeling of being a kid with a crush and believing that the object of your desire was “objectively the best girl ever,” and Harley follows that to its logical tragic end — the flaws she’s overlooking are that he’s a terrifying mass murderer obsessed with killing the Batman. That is not a solid foundation for a relationship, and when that relationship actually does happen, such as it is, it becomes one of the most genuinely tragic things in comics.
That’s the thing about superheroes: They don’t really do things by half measures. It’s not just that the Joker doesn’t love Harley back, it’s that he doesn’t even see her as anything that could possibly be desired. There’s only one other person in the Joker’s world, and everyone else is just an object that he can use against Batman. And to make things worse, it’s not just that he doesn’t return her love, it’s that he uses it. There’s no “let’s just be friends” with the Joker, there are just things that can be made into deathtraps. He’s every sociopath who broke someone’s heart taken to this huge extreme, manipulative and abusive in a way that’s frightening and disturbing, not because it originates from the shock value of hack writers trying to be mature, but because it operates on the same superheroic, metaphorical level of Batman’s determination and Superman’s kindness. It feels horrifyingly natural in that universe, and it all gets directed at Harley, because she’s the one object that’s always around, because she can’t stop herself from coming back. As far as he cares, she’s just there to open the door.
I thought Arkham Origins was a total snooze, and I thought it was goofy as all hell that they condensed the Joker’s seduction (such as it is) of Harley into a five minute cutscene rather than playing it out over the course of months, but I actually do like the way that it’s presented. It’s done as a conversation between the two characters that you hear while you’re playing from the Joker’s point of view, and he’s talking about his obsession with Batman, using those same terms that cast it as a twisted version of romance, this obsession with his perfect match that he knows he’ll be with forever, while Harley is getting flustered because she thinks he’s confessing his love for her, which she’s more than willing to accept. Again, it’s as hilariously over-the-top as everything else in that game, and falling head-over-heels for the Joker in the span of ten minutes doesn’t really do Harley’s character any favors, but it’s a nice presentation, carried off well by Troy Baker and Tara Strong’s acting.
Dini and Timm’s Mad Love, which tells Harley’s origin story, however, is darn near perfect. It’s a great piece of comics, because it takes those exact feelings that we’ve all had in those self-destructive crushes and plays it right out on the page. It’s the Buzzcocks song translated directly to the page, and one of the things that really makes it work is how easy it is to find yourself in her shoes. She doesn’t just develop a crush on someone, she obsesses over him and tries to make herself more like something she thinks he’d like:
Incidentally, this is a scene that actually made me re-evaluate her godawful redesign for the New 52. I mean, look, it’s still awful, but if you look at it in a certain way, it kind of makes sense. When Harley reinvents herself for the Joker, she dresses herself in a way that’s explicitly designed to be for him, and that fits with the way he presents himself. That classic Bruce Timm costume is great, and part of that is because those vivid, blocked colors look like they fit next to Timm’s Joker. One clearly follows from the other. If, however, Harley was reinventing herself to fit in with a version of the Joker who cuts his own face off and wanders around for a year with no face on and then ties his face skin to his head with a pair of belts, then she’s probably going to end up with something a hell of a lot dumber, which she did. I hate to admit it because neither one of those things is actually very good, but you have to admit they’re equally stupid. It might not look good, but it highlights the obsession, and that’s the key part.
Getting back on track, it’s that obsession that motivates her, just like we’ve all had that intense infatuation that’s made us want to change ourselves to better fit someone’s idea of what we should be like. But because that obsession is operating at a superheroic level, once she reinvents herself like that, there’s no going back. She’s too far gone to ever fully pull herself back. She can’t quit loving the Joker, no more than Batman can stop fighting crime, or Spider-Man can stop helping people who need him. It’s stitched into the fabric of who she is.
That’s what makes the end of Mad Love so tragic and affecting, because we all want there to be hope for her, just like we want there to be hope for ourselves that we can get over our broken hearts and move on, but for Harley, there never is. No matter what the Joker does to her, no matter how blatantly he’s manipulating and abusing her, she just can’t get out.
She’s hopelessly in love.
It’s great, but it’s also where the misunderstanding starts. There are fans out there who have what I’d consider to be weird ideas about almost every character that spring from not quite getting what they’re all about — you know, the classics like “Batman should just kill the Joker!” “Superman’s too nice!” and “People care about Aquaman!” — but there’s a strain of Harley Quinn fandom that creeps me right the heck out. Like I said, she’s an easy character to identify with, and the reason she’s so tragic and compelling is precisely because she’s built on a metaphor that’s simultaneously universal and personal. It’s something that resonates with me as much as any other character.
It’s when they start idealizing her relationship with the Joker that things go off the rails. They’re not tragically star-crossed lovers, they’re not two people madly in love and united against the world. She’s obsessively codependent and he’s an abusive sociopath. If you finish those comics and wistfully sigh and hope you can find your own Harley and/or Mistah J someday, then you should probably go back and read them again. But, you know, to be fair, taking any relationship advice from an Ask Chris column is probably not a good idea either.
Either way, this is where you start to see problems from a character standpoint, too. Because she’s so easy to identify with and relate to, and because she rocketed almost immediately to a level of popularity that was pretty evenly split between people who identify with her central tragedy and dudes who just want more sexxxy chixxx in skintight latex, there’s a push to take what looks like a pretty obvious step and recondition her as a protagonist in her own right. The thing is, as obvious as it might seem, it’s not so simple.
It never really works, because it can’t work. Harley orbits around the Joker in the same way that the Joker orbits around Batman. You need to remove him and at least partially resolve that obsession if you’re going to have her as a protagonist, because you can’t really have your protagonist obsessively pining for a character you’ve spent 70 years shaping as a remorseless obsessive and utterly unsympathetic killer. But if you do that, if you remove that obsession, then you’re not only taking away the foundation of the character, you’re also taking away the one thing that makes her so easy to relate to. You’re left with just a standard issue manic pixie dream girl, and that gets real old, real fast.
I think that’s why the original Harley Quinn ongoing series, despite launching with a creative team I really like, ended up being kind of a mess, and got downright unreadable when it got a new team that attempted to make it a dark, gritty crime book starring a lady in a clown costume. And by the same token, I think that’s why people tend to gravitate to those Poison Ivy/Harley Quinn team-up stories — for reasons beyond the obvious slashy sexxxy chixxx action, I mean. Ivy herself is one of the more sympathetic villains, but she’s still rooted (haw haw) firmly enough on the side of the bad guys that it doesn’t pull Harley too far out of her orbit. Even better, Ivy works as a viewpoint character for the reader. She’s eternally frustrated because she sees exactly what we see, and her annoyance with Harley comes from knowing that she’s never going to be able to free herself from the Joker. She cares, but can only express it in that same negative, villainous way that leads her to hold the city hostage until they have ended the tyranny of lawnmowers. But even that can’t last — it only works in short bursts.
Harley just fundamentally isn’t built to be a protagonist, even a damaged and psychologically scarred antihero. And yet there’s this myopic idea that continues, that a character this compelling and popular needs to be a star, and of late it’s created this schizophrenic take where she’s being bounced around from one incarnation to another. I mentioned that her terrible new costume actually does make a certain amount of sense, but that’s about the only thing that does. She’s been bounced around since the reboot, where people are trying to fit her into the roles of a vicious killer on par with the Joker and wacky lovesick rascal at the same time, and the end result is a character that’s now impossible to relate to.
Nothing quite solidifies it more than her atrocious “Villain Month” appearance in Matt Kindt and Neil Googe’s Detective Comics #23.2, which casts her as a Joker-in-absentia in a way so tone-deaf that it tanks the past 20 years of the character. If you missed it, well, lucky you, but the core idea is that having freed herself of the Suicide Squad, Harley decides to murder children on-panel by giving away exploding video games.
There’s no way to come back from that. If Harley’s aiding and abetting the Joker because she’s obsessively in love with him, then she’s a tragic and sympathetic figure. If she’s deciding on her own to commit acts of mass murder and terrorism, that’s a fundamental change that removes that sympathy. Unless you choose to ignore this particular issue, and I can’t imagine a scenario in which this is not the sensible choice, she’s impossible to root for. She killed a bunch of kids. That’s a big deal. And then a month later they launched an ongoing series that promises zany adventures featuring roller derby and puppies.
Any chance that I had of getting behind this new version of Harley Quinn as a character in her own right, any hope that I would’ve had about their chances of synthesizing what works about the character and putting in a new form that could be separated from the Joker without losing its foundation, is now completely overshadowed by the fact that a comic with her name on the cover featured her murdering around twenty people on-panel (with more implied), most of whom were children. How fun is that roller derby comic going to be when it’s following that? How am I supposed to reconcile these two ideas that they’re giving to me about the same character at the same time?
And in the end, that’s what we’re left with. A fascinating, compelling character that was created to perfectly fit into a specific role in a larger context that ended up working so well that she outgrew it, and has spent the last few years being hammered into shape to fit a new role. She’s a character I like a lot, but they sure are making that a difficult thing to do.