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Today, all round media devotee Clare explains how she got hooked on Harley Quinn and why you should too.





Harley Quinn got me into comics.

Like every geek in the late nineties and early aughts, I had consumed a metric ton of anime and manga (Yu-Gi-Oh!, anyone?), but, unlike every geek in the late nineties and early aughts, my only experience with Western comics was with my brother’s lovingly curated Asterix collection. A collection which I had vandalized as a small child and was thus banned from touching. After my brother went off to college and my father and I began raiding his possessions, I finally came across his Big Two books: Marvels, Kingdom Come, and, most importantly, Les Daniels’ Marvel.

Daniels’ extremely biased account of the rise of Marvel gave me a quiet hankering for good old-fashioned superhero comics, although my fond childhood memories of Batman: The Animated Series and The Adventures of Lois and Clark steered me towards DC. I investigated the 1998-2003 Young Justice and liked what I saw (namely, nineties Superboy, who is my forever Superboy), but I could never quite get into it. Casting around for something else, I stumbled across the 2001 to 2003 Harley Quinn and devoured it in one of my teenage self-soothing media binges.

So when the first issue of The Unwritten finally lured me into a comic book store in 2009 (it was a dollar!), it made perfect sense to supplement that purchase with Gotham City Sirens, which started around the same time. I still give people that advice when they want to break into comics: find a character you like and just focus on them for a while to get your feet wet. Those two comics were the first in my now small but sizable comic collection, and Gotham City Sirens was the first comic I ever owned in its entirety in single issues. They’re special to me.

But reading Gotham City Sirens made me realize how lucky I was to start reading Harley Quinn comics with, well, Harley Quinn.

It’s no secret that Harley Quinn—née Harleen Quinzel—can be a difficult character to write well, or even, apparently, respectfully. She’s cute as a button—and almost dissociatively violent. She’s a whip smart psychiatrist and Olympic level gymnast—who slept her way to the top. She’s a brassy, sassy dame—stuck in an abusive relationship with the Joker. Synthesizing all of this into an engaging, compelling character who isn’t a punching bag is no mean feat, and a feat that DC occasionally fails to do. Gotham City Sirens’s basically decent writing was undermined by Guillem March’s inability to draw more than one female face; last September, an issue of Detective Comics found Harley murdering school children while sighing over the Joker; and even an art contest designed to promote her current self-titled series asked readers to draw Harley committing suicide in the nude.

Ouch.

But the Harley Quinn that results when all of these elements are in balance is an amazing character. Harley Quinn not only nails her complexity without undermining her, it also gives her back her origin story in a way that I think more people should know about.

Harley’s origin story is pretty straight forward: young psychiatric intern Harleen Quinzel begins working at Arkham Asylum and falls in love with the Joker, facilitating her transformation into supervillain Harley Quinn. But Harley Quinn takes us back further, to Harley in college, gathering evidence for her thesis that love drives people insane. And the best way to do that, of course, is to tell her college boyfriend that she’s murdered a homeless man and gauge his reaction. (It ends in a maybe suicide; Harley claims that she doesn’t remember who pulled the trigger.)

So when she sees the Joker on television and determines to meet him, it’s not because she’s in love with him. It’s because he’s the only other person who subscribes to something even close to Harley’s philosophy: that people are inherently chaotic. When Harley Quinn finally depicts their first fateful meeting as doctor and patient, the Joker attacks her, only to be utterly thrown by her affectionate response. She’s as chaotic as he is.

But the key difference, and the one that eventually drives them apart, is that the Joker believes in chaos for chaos’ sake. Harley believes that chaos is because of and in service of love. It’s this little detail that makes her character sing for me (although she doesn’t need any goading to do so), and it’s all over Harley Quinn. She cheekily sets up the two federal agents hot on her trail on dates, because they’re perfect for each other. Upon moving to Metropolis, she gets revenge on Jimmy Olsen for daring to lie to her about having a pregnant girlfriend, taking advantage of her romanticism (see Harley Quinn: Our Worlds at War). But my favorite moment from the series, and one that sums up my Harley in a nutshell, is this:

About two thirds of the way through the series, Harley goes to Hell. (Man, I love comics.) While in Hell, she, obviously, tries to escape, so the demon Etrigan sets an Old West gunslinger named Highwater on her tail by telling him that she has information about Nathan Drumm, the man he’s been searching for in life and death. When Harley and Highwater finally confront each other, a frustrated Harley finally asks what Nathan Drumm did. "He deflower your dainty daughter?” she bellows.

"Not my daughter,” he replies.

Harley, being Harley, bursts into laughter. "…[Y]ou don’t go to hell ‘cause of that! You go to Hell for lots of reasons—but not for lovin’ someone. Not for lovin’ anyone.”

What I love about this is the obvious—the queer-coded Harley laughing in a bigot’s face—and the subtextual—that Harley is aware that she is a bad person. A simplistic reading of Harley simply states that the only reason she’s a supervillain is because she’s in love with one. But Harley Quinn argues that Harley would have been that way without the Joker—perhaps she would have been worse, had she become a successful psychiatrist, able to manipulate the system to her ends. Harley’s in Hell because she is a bad person, but she gets out of Hell because love is her guiding light. When she dares Highwater to let go of his hate so he can join his son and his partner in Heaven, she’s promptly kicked out, because there’s no room for love in Hell.

But Harley was in Hell, because she’s, let’s face it, a very bad person. She’s petty, impulsive, violent, and drawn to people who are even more of those things than she is—the Joker and Poison Ivy, specifically—who she then enables. What makes her interesting and what some people tend to forget is that she does have a moral code—and it isn’t the Joker’s every whim. "Love,” Harley states at the beginning of the run, whilst literally knocking the Joker out of an amusement park, "means never having to say you’re sorry.”

There are other things I adore about Harley, of course. She’s heavily queer-coded, to the point that many fans simply take it as writ that she and Poison Ivy are as on-again, off-again as she and the Joker are. Paul Dini has apparently said as much, but the only source I can find is Harley’s Haven. (Gotham City Sirens does end with Harley finally asking if Ivy was in love with her, but Ivy never answered her. They’ve been pretty cozy in the current Harley Quinn series, so I think they’ve made up.) My comic book pin vest sports Harley and Ivy pins on the shoulders accordingly. At her best, she gets to be cute and grotesque in a way that’s not utilized for a lot of female comic book characters. And I don’t know any other fake blondes in comics, besides Black Canary, so she’s follicularly relatable to me.

But, ultimately, why I love Harley Quinn is that she’s got her heart in the right place in the worst way. And that has nothing to do with the Joker.

Recommended Reading

Books

Comics

  • Harley Quinn: Our Worlds at Warby Karl Kesel, Amanda Conner, and Aron Wiesenfeld
    • This 2001 comic from a crossover event is about Jimmy Olsen lying to Harley about a pregnant girlfriend so she’ll rescue him. It does not end well.

  • The Joker’s Asylum II: Harley Quinn #1 by James Patrick, Joe Quinones, and Alex Sinclair
    • A one shot comic about Harley getting ready for Valentine’s Day. It pushes a little too hard on her hopeless love for the Joker, but it does feature a well-drawn Harley who looks like a real person who can be cute and grotesque, sometimes at the same time. This comic is easiest to find in the trade paperback Joker’s Asylum: Volume 2, although I got my copy on eBay.


Television

  • Batman: The Animated Series, "Harley and Ivy”
    • The episode that first saw Harley and Ivy pair up.

  • Batman: The Animated Series, "Harlequinade”
    • This episode covers everything about original flavor Harley—her doomed love for the Joker (complete with a climax that actually puts them on a remotely even footing, which is better than expected), her singing abilities, and her hyenas.

  • Batman: The Animated Series, "Harley’s Holiday”
    • Harley gets out of Arkham and tries to buy a dress. When the security tag goes off, so does she, and eventually she kidnaps an heiress. It’s a very kind episode to Harley, even seeing Batman treating her nicely. Aww.

  • The New Batman Adventures, "Holiday Knights”
    • This is a holiday-themed episode composed of three vignettes. The first finds Harley and Ivy getting the better of Batman and then going on a shopping spree. It is delightful.

  • The New Batman Adventures, "Mad Love”
    • The animated version of the comic, which served as the series finale to The New Batman Adventures. While I will always prefer Harley Quinn’s version, since she has way more agency in it, this episode is iconic. It also seriously deals with the abuse Harley suffers at the hands of the Joker, neither softening it or sensationalizing it for its audience.


Date: 2014-11-13 06:05 pm (UTC)
chaila: Diana SWORDFIGHTING in a BALLGOWN. (wonder woman - fight)
From: [personal profile] chaila
I'm so new to navigating comics and comics are so huge, so I knew almost nothing about Harley Quinn, beyond her relationship with Joker and having her show up as a secondary character in a few things. This is fascinating! It seems like such an astute character analysis, and definitely makes me reevaluate the times she showed up in something I read, and makes me want to check out more of her stuff.

At the very least, I want to see Harley and Ivy get the better of Batman and then go shopping. :)

Date: 2014-11-23 02:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] theliteraryomnivore.wordpress.com
Aw, thanks! I hope you enjoy whatever Harley things you see/read next.

It's so much fun. There's a trying on clothes montage.

Date: 2014-11-17 10:07 am (UTC)
beccatoria: (Default)
From: [personal profile] beccatoria
Hey - I don't really have anything to add because this is a really comprehensive overview, but I did want to add that, as someone who loves Harley but thinks it is extremely easy to miss the mark (she walks a highwire between brilliance and awfulness depending on execution?) I thought you did a very good job of capturing why and what makes her so interesting. Great read!

Date: 2014-11-23 02:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] theliteraryomnivore.wordpress.com
Thank you so much! I think she gets overlooked a lot because her brilliance is so dependent on execution.

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