Or at least I did, before the New 52. Unfortunately, I can say that about a lot of DC characters. Harley is, as I have mentioned, my favorite deranged clown-babe (although this perhaps begs the question of how many deranged clown-babes do I like…). Like everyone else in the world, I was introduced to Harley Quinn through “Batman: The Animated Series.” Her introduction and popularity was the opposite of Jason Todd. Harley was meant to be a one-off character but she was so popular she migrated to the comic book canon. Jason Todd was meant to be the new Robin and presumably stick around for a while, but was so unpopular the writers let the fans vote on whether he lived or died (spoiler alert – he died [further spoiler alert – at least for a while]).
I’m not sure what Paul Dini and Bruce Timm were thinking when they created Harley Quinn. She was so perfect I’m sort of surprised no one ever thought of a “Joker’s Girl Friday” before. The fact that Joker does almost nothing but heap abuse on her throughout the series highlights more of his character. Harley is clearly a broken individual on almost every level, and yet oddly compelling. The animated series didn’t go too much into her origin (except for the fabulous episode adapted from a comic, “Mad Love” which is just perfect in nearly every way and I can’t believe I forget about it when I originally posted this); it focused mostly on the present. She had a bit of character building throughout the series as well, including at one point walking out on the Joker and moving in with Poison Ivy (who gave her an immunity to all poisons and toxins). Her relationship with Poison Ivy was left deliberately vague, but there were certainly enough hints and allegations (my own thoughts – yes, but it’s not romantic, as such).
Robin: What was she before she went bonkers?
Batman: A clinical psychiatrist.
The comics detailed Harley’s origin as the psychiatrist Harleen Quinzel who was so chock full ‘o issues herself she fell in love with the Joker and volunteered to become his crazy sidekick. I hearted Harley Quinn so much I actually subscribed to the “Harley Quinn” comic although I had to give it up before the run ended because I was strapped for cash at the time. I thought it was well done. One of my favorite parts of the comic was “Harley-vision.” The actual artistic style changed to reflect reality as Harley saw it. Seeing the world through Harley’s eyes made it easier to understand why the character was so dangerously violent; in some ways she really didn’t understand she was. On the other hand, since she in fact was a trained psychiatrist, maybe the Harley-vision was her rationalizing away the terrible things she had done. The only thing about the art that bothered me was that Harley was a gymnast but was drawn way too voluptuous. Unfortunately, that’s a common complaint with comics. Some people liked the Harley Quinn solo series, some didn’t; but I enjoyed them.
I even enjoyed other animated versions of Harley (as I may have mentioned, I’ve watched almost all the “Batman” I can). I liked her in cameo episodes in other shows in the DCAU (like “Static Shock” or the “Superman” series). It’s important to note she’s not just the Joker’s distaff counterpart. She’s a companion, yes, but her character is more complicated than just the Joker in drag. She’s perky and bouncy and it’s so hard to take her seriously until she tries to smash Batman’s face in with a mallet. She’s not one of the quiet ones, but the danger of Harley Quinn is along the same lines – she’s not the one a hero thinks they need to worry about. In fact, she’s come closer to killing Batman than the Joker ever did. And unlike the Joker, she can pretend to be sane, which makes her a good henchwoman.
Harley: You think I’m just some dumb blonde. Ha! Well, the joke’s on you! I’m not even a blonde!
Now, if it seems hypocritical I advocate my liking of Harley Quinn when I have derided the way other women in comics are portrayed, allow me to posit this argument – Harley is supposed to be broken. There is no doubt that however good or ambitious or clever Harley once was, her interaction with the Joker has left her a dangerous psychotic. Her relationship with the Joker is the most extreme outcome of the actual consequences the “All Girls Want Bad Boys” trope results in. Harley is not held up as a hero or role-model. She’s clearly broken and her appeal is much the same as any anti-hero (see, I’m not actually opposed to a good anti-hero; at least not in moderation). In my opinion, one of the best summaries of their relationship (if you don’t have time or access to “Mad Love”) comes from ItsJustSomeRandomGuy and his parody of “Twilight.” This video clip manages to highlight everything that’s wrong with “Twilight” and incidentally pretty much encapsulates the actual dynamic of Harley’s relationship with the Joker. Audiences (or at least me) cheer for Harley to assert herself and break free of the Joker’s influence (or Ivy’s influence) and be truly independent, even if that means she’s still a villain. And yet she never does and in general the writers have been honest about that.
Of course, then there’s the New 52. Her classic and distinctive harlequin-inspired costume was replaced with another generic goth-wannabe get-up. By the way, while the picture I linked to in artistic conventions is a great example of color-blocking nudity, this picture of the new Harley is almost as bad, although now that’s because it falls into both stripperiffic and “is that even a costume.” I’m not saying I don’t think Harley wouldn’t wear a corset top and a pair of Daisy Dukes (she wore something similar in “Harley’s Holiday“). I’m just saying it’s not a costume; it’s what’s left on the rack after Hot Topic has a sale. Worse, much of the character was changed and not for the better (again, her origin became much more generic and uninteresting except for all the sex that was added [hm, I just realized I could be talking about Starfire as well]). I’m also not saying Harley wouldn’t have sex; I just don’t like the emphasis on it rather than her character, which she really doesn’t have anymore. The New 52 makes me so sad sometimes.
I’m going to go watch “Harley’s Holiday” and “Harlequinade” to cheer myself up. Harley would want me to have a smile on my face.