“It’s happened to me, it’s probably happened to you, and if it hasn’t yet, rest assured someday it will. At some point you will meet that one special person who will put their fist through your heart. Forgive the gory allusion, but if you’ve ever been in mad love, you know what I’m talking about.”—Paul Dini, co-Creator of Harley Quinn
“Harley Quinn is the best-selling female character in comics, and she’s casually homicidal, gleefully amoral, and mentally unbalanced. There was a time when she was a mental-health professional, but she shredded her Hippocratic Oath when she hopped into bed with a mass-murdering, psychopathic patient and began a crime spree that would make Bonnie and Clyde wince. In the 22 years since she first entered our world as a one-off character in a Batman cartoon, she’s occasionally made the world a better place — but it’s usually by accident and never for truth, justice, and the American Way.”—A. Riesman, Vulture.com (17 Feb 2015).
I found it problematic at first to choose the comic book/issue I’m going to feature in this blog entry. For one, I’m not a comic fan; so basically I did not have the baseline [and the interest] to start with. Then I remembered that around last month, I came across this trailer of an upcoming movie, Suicide Squad, and my attention was caught by the girl who looks like a mess.
So that is where it started. And surprisingly, I was kind of hooked with her story line maybe because her story somehow speaks to me.
Harley Quinn or Dr. Harleen Quinzel (before she ganged with the Joker) is a DC Entertainment character who is originally created to be the sideline of Batman’s nemesis, Joker, in the Batman: Animated Series in 1992. Due to its success, Harley’s character became a regular in Batman Adventures comics. What I chose then for this entry is the Batman Adventures comic issue entitled, Mad Love, which is an Eisner Awardee (like the Oscars of Comic Books) in 1994. This single-issue comics story which revealed Harley’s origin story is said to be a gamechanger and made explicit of the impact of Harley Quinn’s character to the Batman story and to the comic book fans.
After a failed attempt to kill Commissioner Gordon in a dentist gag, The Joker retreated to plan for his next move. Harley Quinn, on one hand, was seducing the then problematic Joker. Not in the mood for “nonsense,” The Joker then blamed Harley for the failure of their last encounter with Batman. And as usual in the Batman series, The Joker pushed Harley away and threw her (verbally and physically) out of their hideout. On a different location which was simultaneously happening with the Joker-Harley scene was the conversation of Batman and Alfred about how ingenious Harley is. This scene gave a few background of Harley—being a gymnast scholar who made it through the psychology department of Gotham State University out of illegal means.
Next scene was a reflection by Harley in which she rationalized that Batman is the culprit why The Joker could not give his love to her. This premise was further strengthened by a flashback scene of Harley as Dr. Quinzel who was working in Arkham Asylum. In this, the Joker became his patient. With sad stories as an abused child and a loving son to his father, the Joker won Harley’s sympathy and later, her heart. The turning point of Dr. Quinzel’s transition to Harley Quinn was when The Joker escaped from the asylum and was later returned by Batman with a lot of bruises. Harley Quinn was enraged with what had happened to her beloved Joker. She decided then to transform herself and to devote her life to be The Joker’s partner, in hopes that she could win his love.
Going back to the present, Harley Quinn then swore to kill Batman for The Joker. She then executed Joker’s plan and was successful in taking Batman as captive. This was followed with a turn-of-event when The Joker, instead of being ecstatic, became furious of the idea that Harley Quinn got Batman. The Joker pushed (physically) Harley Quinn out the window, causing her to have a fatal injury. The Joker then tried to kill Batman singlehandedly, but once again, failed.
The last scene was Harley Quinn in the hospital, swearing that she’ll never be enslaved with The Joker again. But this was later contradicted with her last line when she saw a flower with Joker’s message on it, implying her being into him despite of what had happened.
CRAZY IN LOVE
As Edward (2003) noted (as cited by Dittmer, 2011: 3), “[s]ymbolic meaning materialized through popular culture.” In this case, I saw three pressing themes in the story of Harley Quinn: (a) Women Empowerment; (b) Women Stereotypes and Gender Violence; and (c) Geopolitical Scripts.
HARLEY AS A FEMINIST
As I am limited to this issue only, I was not able to really compare Harley Quinn as presented in different formats. But based from reading commentaries from the first appearance of Harley Quinn in the Batman: Animated Series, up to this issue of the Batman Adventures, her story was said to somehow portray themes of feminism.
“Feminism is about showing women as fully fleshed out human beings, and that’s what Harley is,” Strand said. “She doesn’t make choices that are smart or good for a woman, but she gets to make those choices.”—lifted from A. Riesman, Vulture.com (17 Feb 2015).”
Back then, portrayal of women, at least in the comics, were said to be idealized. The reason why most people relate to Harley is because she is presented as human—messy and imperfect, yet compassionate and clever. She is not as righteous as how Wonderwoman is portrayed. Harley Quinn is said to stand out from other female characters, because for one, she’s an anti-hero. She is portrayed as a woman who get to make her own choices.
HARLEY QUINN AS A STEREOTYPED WOMAN
Ironically, Harley is also presented as a stereotyped woman. Especially with her imaginations with being the Joker’s wife, with their family. She somehow verified society’s association to women’s roles in homes. In addition to that, and maybe the most compelling theme under this category is domestic violence. Not only in this issue, but also in almost all Harley Quinn’s appearance with the Joker involve physical and emotional violence.
Maybe we can credit the fan’s fascination of Harley Quinn with the idea of domestic violence being relatable. On the back of my mind, Harley Quinn, despite challenging the norms of being a stereotypical woman fantasy, is also embodying women who choose to love their assailants despite the violence they’re experiencing. I believe it would be nice to study the actual effect and the level of relatability of Harley Quinn’s story to her fans.
Though not really that prominent, the following geopolitical scripts I’ve seen are as follows:
- Harley Quinn came from Brooklyn, New York (This is inspired by the voice characterization of Harley Quinn in the original animated series, which was later applied in all its adaptations. This also influenced Harley Quinn’s core as a character—“full of nicknames and delightfully early-20th-century idioms;”
- Inter-ethnic relation with the Joker—Harley Quinn is said to be Jewish; and
- Harley’s ways are not the “American Way”—Despite being a villain, Harley Quinn made it through the hearts of many people by being human, relatable. The American way was maybe referring to righteous ways like that of the usual heroes—Batman, Wonderwoman, etc.
As noted by Raeburn (2004, 11, as cited by Dittmer, 2010: 222), comics is a map of time. In this case, the style of in Mad Love varies from short-term (facial expression and gestures while talking) to long-term (flashbacks).
As for its share in the market, the writers noted that most of Harley Quinn’s fans are women. As Dittmer (2011) noted, it is true that “expectations of ‘audience’ reading practices serve as the basis for producers’ attempts to convey visual narratives.” In this case, the Mad Love issue was proven to get the right formula for women to be interested. But I think the artist, subtly, tried to include teenage boys in their target market by showing Harley Quinn with “some skin.”
More on Harley Quinn
Some say that Marvel’s Enchantress, Shriek, Typhoid Mary, and White Rabbit are the closest equivalent of Harley Quinn because of their almost comparable insanity and with love as their weakness. But unlike the four, maybe the reason why Harley Quinn is much more successful is because of her devotion to the Joker, which is considered as the core of her character. I think it’s interesting to understand in depth how such character, despite of her being deviant from the ideal, was able to form a fan base. In addition, I think it’s interesting to look how and why the follow-up adaptation of Harley Quinn comics (2001) failed the market, and was successful as a sideline goofy-but-sexy jester character in an animated series, and as a dominatrix-looking gal in video game, Arkham Asylum.