Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Curious Case of Harley Quinn

To call Harley Quinn the most complex and interesting new DC Comics character of the past 40 years is to damn her with faint praise.

True, DC doesn’t make that many new characters who stick. But she’s making a run to be one of the all-time greats from Batman’s Rogue’s Gallery. Go to any comic-con and it’ll be dotted with tassels and colored pigtails, from her signature looks. If she’s not the most popular cosplay character, she’s in a statistical tie with the Caped Crusader himself—no small feat.

The white-faced, red-and-white checker-dressed jester—created 27 years ago as the Joker's henchwoman on "Batman: The Animated Series"—debuted her own new animated show on DC’s streaming service on Friday. In a few months, she’ll return to the silver screen in the gloriously titled “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn),” Margot Robbie’s second outing as the character and proof that Warner Brothers sees her as one of its most bankable characters.

It took her a long time and a lot of tears to work her way out of the Joker’s shadow. Along the way, she became something of a feminist icon—by never, ever trying to be.

Harley Quinn has an off-screen origin story about as interesting as any superhero’s.

For entirely practical reasons, "Animated Series" creator and writer Paul Dini needed a one-off Joker henchman for a particular episode. Stumped on what a Joker minion would look like, he stumbled onto a tape from his friend, actress Arleen Sorkin, dressed as a jester on “Days of Our Lives.” An idea was born, and Dini combined clown antics with an old-timey gangster moll’s charm to create a character who fit in perfectly with the pop Gothic noir aesthetic the show inherited from Tim Burton’s Batman movies. (Sorkin herself ended up voicing the role, with an adorable Brooklyn Jewish twang.)

Quinn was an unexpected hit, and become a staple of the beloved show. But she still needed a backstory. As time went on, it became clear she was no mere muscle-for-hire. Just why was this woman so devoted to the Joker? Dini and his co-writer Bruce Timm were wary of humanizing Joker with a standard Hollywood romance. Ultimately, a relationship based on manipulation and abuse was the only way it made sense.

Drawing on the experience of a mutual friend in a “stormy (but nonviolent) relationship,” according to Timm, the duo penned a special comic outlining Quinn’s history as the Joker’s former shrink. An ambitious and conniving medical student, she was sidelined into a life of costumed crime after Joker won her sympathy with fabricated tales about a sad childhood. Once she helps him break out of Arkham, he treats her with dismissiveness, rejecting her advances and literally kicking her out of his lair at one point.

But, whenever she seems finished with him, he knows how to bring her back.

In retrospect, it’s mindblowing that they got away with this—and they only barely did, due in part to the medium of a family-friendly animated after-school show. It’s the same basic principle that allows Looney Toons flatten Wile E. Coyote on a daily basis without getting letters from PETA. And yet, they created one of the most difficult storylines in the Batman universe.

The comic, "Mad Love," was a critical and commercial hit, winning the Eisner Award for best single issue and proclaimed by no less an expert than Frank Miller as the “best Batman story of the decade.”

Harley migrated to the official DC canon in 1999, but the transition was rocky.

She was cute enough as the sweetheart to the PG-rated cartoon Joker, a flamboyant crime boss. But it’s a different story when she’s attached to the psychopathic terrorist of the comics. The only way it really made sense was if Harley was just as depraved as he was, and that took the fun out of the character. Fan interest declined and the writers struggled to fit her in.

A darker incarnation of Harley, sans jester hat and with a skimpy two-piece replacing her jumpsuit, was a hit in the 2009 video game “Arkham Asylum.” But sooner or later, the only way to save the character was to liberate her.

In a solo 2013 series written by husband and wife James Palmiotti and Amanda Conner, Harley found redemption as so many others have, by getting the hell out of Gotham. Already operating independently from Joker with the Suicide Squad, she high-tailed it to Coney Island and built up a new gang of rabble-rousers, while getting by as a roller-girl and part-time therapist. And she picked up a more supportive lover with Poison Ivy, one of Gotham’s many dangerous femme fatales.

She returned to her deliriously fun roots, but in a new way. Gone was the moll persona and cutesy antics—she became a bawdy, anarchistic fireball, dropping real and figurative bombs on all of DC’s sacred cows. The fourth wall-breaking jester of this comics universe, a Joker whose jokes are actually funny.

By leaving Joker behind, she became an archetype that’s been one of DC’s favorites since Catwoman batted her eyes at Batman 80 years ago: the morally ambiguous anti-heroine. Well, maybe not all that ambiguous—she’s still a raging murderer—but in a world where Batman’s your good guy, everything is a bit skewed.

And despite her newfound independence, she can never be totally over Joker, because then she’d lose her signature harlequin look. And she'll always be quite a bit crazy.

That she’d be a popular character seems obvious, but it's a bit hard to pinpoint why. My theory is that millennials can identify with a character whose emotional life is a mess, but can still go toe-to-toe with Batman.

And, yeah, Batman’s pretty messed up too--but he stubbornly insists that he isn’t, that dressing up as a bat is a normal and logical thing to do. Harley wears her craziness on her frilly jumpsuit sleeves. Of course a generation raised on social media would dig that.

"In some ways, Harley’s continued forgiveness and optimism are an exemplar of what’s supposed to be best about women, even though those are the same traits that make her a target for the Joker’s manipulation and abuse," Wind Goodfriend, a professor of psychology at Buena Vista University wrote to me in an email. "She lets her heart guide her, which leads to massive mistakes – and I think we can all relate to that on some level. Who doesn’t have some regrets about the choices we’ve made when it comes to our romantic relationships?"

Goodfriend wrote about the Joker-Harley relationship in “The Joker Psychology: Evil Clowns and the Women Who Love Them,” and argues that Harley is beloved, in part, because of the abusive relationship at the heart of her story, not in spite of it.

“While we don’t like to talk about it or admit it, one in four women (and one in eight men) is a victim of sexual assault or relationship violence at some point in their lifetime,” Goodfriend told me. “People are drawn to Harley because she has experienced something that so many of us have experienced, but we never see portrayed in mass media.”

Palmiotti, co-author of the 2013 Harley Quinn series, told me in an email that he and his wife Conner consulted mental health research while writing an arc in which Harley confronts Joker in his cell at Arkham. While the two characters "take things to extremes," being from a comic book, the writers still wanted the interaction to be grounded in real-life behavior.

In the series, Harley tells her confidante Ivy that part of her still loves him, while preparing for the infiltration. But that doesn’t stop her from winning a violent altercation with him and declaring her independence.

“We had a lot of fans come and thank us for writing those issues because they found themselves in relationships dealing with the same kind of abuse, and they told us how these books impacted their lives and inspired them to take a good long look at their situation and do something about it,” Palmiotti said. “These interactions with people are priceless.”

Quinn became an inspiring role model, precisely because “inspiring role model” was the last thing on anyone’s mind as they devised the character. Her independence from Joker feels earned that way—in a sense, she earned it herself.

“I don’t want to be condescended to with strong, independent female characters who don’t have any flaws and are just kinda perfect and sane and never make bad relationship choices,” said Harley Quinn superfan Elise Archer, who told writer Abraham Riesman that the character helped her get through episodes of clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“If you want to make the argument that we’ve gotta teach people how to be good and healthy, do it with the fuckin’ heroes,” Archer said. “Let the villains be the messy ones.”

Being a partial villain keeps Harley from ever totally being a victim, and it also gives the writers freedom to tackle these issues without the baggage that would come with a clear-cut heroine. The writers don’t have to navigate a minefield to avoid being “problematic.” This is Harley Quinn we’re talking about, for Chrissakes--she can be problematic as fuck.

The moral relativity of superhero comics, where the villains can be as celebrated and beloved as the heroes, became an unexpected environment to observe one of pop culture’s unmentionable topics. Not just to admit that domestic violence exists, but to show how it happens, and to give those affected someone to rally around.

Comics have always had a rocky relationship with mental illness. Psychologists have accused writers of misusing the medical terminology as a license to craft flamboyant villains, while perpetuating the stereotype that mental health disorders are linked to violence. (Those with mental illness are actually more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators.)

But there is a trend—minuscule, but noticeable—towards examining these issues with more earnestness and nuance. A recent series from Batman scribe Tom King, “Heroes in Crisis,” imagined how superheroes might deal with post-traumatic stress. And the hugely successful “Joker” linked the psychopath we all know to a backstory of abuse and mental illness. Whether these attempts worked or missed the mark depends on who you ask, but it’s stuff that would have been unimaginable a few decades ago.

And then there's Harley, who psychologists have diagnosed with histrionic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder. She takes the indefinable madness of the Joker and brings it down to Earth—in a sense, she represents his expunged human side.

And yeah, Harley was crazy (and a bad person) before she ever met Joker. But this is Gotham, after all.

Go through DC fan Tumblrs or Reddit and you’ll find passionate debates swirling around Harley. Does her new look sexualize her? Does her story idolize or exploit abusive relationships? Should fans sympathize with this criminal? Is it OK for fan couples to cosplay as Harley and Joker? Does the Joker really love her?

The character is a big bundle of contradictions, which is fitting for the comic book universe but also the real one. Comics were created as pure escapism but their fantastic and ever-evolving nature can often stumble onto truths that other forms of pop fiction struggle to express—that our brains can be used against us, that our decisions aren’t always totally our own, that being human is an often baffling and illogical experience.

That, no matter how much we might try to deny it, we’re all less like the calculating and precise Batman than the impulsive Harley Quinn.

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