Movies & TV / Columns

411 Comics Showcase: Harley Quinn

August 19, 2016 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

I feel fairly confident in saying that Harley Quinn is one of the greatest comic book characters of all time. Not a top ten villain or anything, but probably in the top twenty. Which is really kind of incredible when I consider that Harley Quinn isn’t even as old as me. And yet she managed to have a starring role in a blockbuster film before The Flash, Aquaman or Wonder Woman (who had more of a glorified cameo in Batman v. Superman) and didn’t really feel out of place. That’s quite an accomplishment, and not many other comic book characters have been able to achieve that kind of pop icon status in such a short amount of time. Deadpool is one, certainly, but how many other characters that have been around for less than three decades have really been able to break out?

I certainly don’t think Bruce Timm and Paul Dini could have guessed that Harley would be all over merchandise, video games, movies or even comic books when they created her. Then again, maybe they did: she debuted in an episode of Batman: The Animated Series called Joker’s Favor as a lackey for Joker, and by next season she already had episodes devoted to her like Harlequinade and Harley and Ivy. Her origin story was revealed in Bruce Timm’s Eisner Award winning comic Mad Love just two years after her first appearance, and soon she debuted in proper Batman comics as part of No Man’s Land. Not bad for a character who was probably intended to be a one off.

Really though, I don’t think it’s that surprising that Harley turned out to be such a breakout character. She started out as a clever one note idea: “What if Joker had a colorful sidekick like Robin?” But even then, she was given a unique, memorable appearance and Arlene Sorkin voice and personality helped distinguish the character. Having her be in love with the Joker and examining what kind of person does that sort of thing, and what the consequences would be, helped to make her a more layered and interesting character.

Perhaps the smartest decision about Harley was making her madly in love with a deeply abusive partner. It made her extremely sympathetic and easy to root for; after all, she’s not as crazy or murderous as Joker. Most fans tend to have a strong opinion on what they want from Harley; some prefer her being with the Joker, but I am firmly in the camp who wants Harley to move on from Joker and do better for herself. I think it’s a more positive, not to mention safer message for younger audiences who do see themselves in Harley.

That very thing is usually the key to success for comic book characters or anyone. Harley’s personality is pretty distinct, but oddly kind of broad. Her personality is rather ditzy, but she’s also extremely smart and may be more capable than Joker when she sets her mind to something. She’s simultaneously “cute” in a baby doll, innocent kind of way, but is also extremely sexy for largely the same reasons. Combine that with humor, charisma and more than a bit of insanity, and you have someone that almost anybody (but especially people in my generation and younger) want to be or want to be around.

Harley can be whatever someone wants her to be; villain or hero, funny or terrifying, crazy for real or crazy for fun. Not all comic characters have that sort of narrative flexibility, and it makes Harley easy to project onto. This does have some negative side effects, as Harley definitely fits into a Deadpool group of anti hero that the most casual of superhero fans will treat like the greatest thing ever. I don’t hate this in and of itself, people can like what they like, but when these relatively clueless fans act like Joker and Harley are “relationship goals” material, I can’t help shaking my head a bit.

One aspect of Harley’s character flexibility that I really support is her relationship with Poison Ivy. The two femme fatales were paired together early on in the animated series in an episode that heavily hinted at them being more than just friends. Fans have largely embraced this, and after dancing around it for a bit, DC has finally confirmed that Harley and Ivy do have romantic feelings for each other. This is the pairing I enjoy most, and it goes back to that first episode; Ivy picks Harley up when Joker throws her out, and they both build each other up. Since that whole “escape from abuse” theme is what I like most about Harley, it’s hard not to support it.

Harley and her antics one of the things I enjoy most in comics and comic book related media. She just makes me happy. I love her by herself, I enjoy seeing her team up with Joker, I love seeing her with Poison Ivy, and she’s a perfect fit for the Suicide Squad. I’ve enjoyed her in animated TV, comic books, video games, animated movies, and just the general culture that’s built around her. I even enjoy her as played by Margot Robbie, and would love to see her again. I can’t be the only person who would shell out cash to see a Gotham City Sirens vs. Birds of Prey movie.

Whatever form it takes, I’m sure we’ve still got plenty more Harley Quinn to come. She’s one of the biggest names in comics now, arguably just as iconic in today’s pop culture as her puddin’.

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Michael Ornelas and I write weekly on 411, taking turns introducing each other to films the other hasn’t seen. Last week, Michael introduced me to Gattaca, which is now one of my favorite science fiction films. This week, Michael and I go on a holy crusade to review Monty Python and the Holy Grail!