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Friday, March 13, 2015 

The wobbly premise of Harley Quinn

NY's Vulture section wrote all about Harley Quinn a few weeks ago, the villainess who originally debuted in the Batman cartoon of the early 90s, and by the end of the century was already being integrated into the DCU proper. And their calling her the "most successful woman" in the superhero world is honestly ludicrous, and almost laughable, except it's not funny:
The comics industry is in the midst of a golden age for admirable female role models. Every few months, we get more series starring women worth looking up to: superheroes who work to fight sexism in the workplace by day and evil by night, hard-boiled detectives who battle to avert crises both public and personal, teenagers trying to build a kinder world free of prejudice. But there's a fly in the ointment, and she's wearing clown makeup.

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. [...]
And just how does that make her successful? More importantly, how does that make her somebody to admire? That's hardly the kind of person I'd think needs a book. And a villainess is honestly not the kind of character I would want to read about as a star we're expected to root for.
No one could have predicted that Harley would last beyond her first appearance, much less become the title character in a series that cracks the best-seller charts every month. Her real-world path to icon status is bizarre and unprecedented in the superhero ecosystem. But here she is: Jewish, queer, morally questionable, deeply imperfect, and beloved by millions. The company that owns her, DC Entertainment, has declared February 2015 to be "Harley Quinn Month," and now is the perfect time for us to ask whether Wonder Woman is comics' biggest female icon anymore. (And, if Harley's superfans are to be believed, she’s even more of a feminist character than the venerable Amazon.) Here, then, is the strange, hidden story of Harley Quinn, the superhero world’s most successful woman — who she is and how she came to be.
She may be successful in crime activities, but in sales, her book has been selling little more than 64,000 units lately. How does that prove she's loved by "millions"? As for WW, if she's not iconic anymore, it's because of bad writing, not because a 3rd-tier villainess supposedly usurped her position. Say, if icons matter, how come Black Canary doesn't count as an icon in the eyes of these propagandists?
Harley stories grappled very directly — albeit in exaggerated, cartoonish fashion — with cycles of domestic violence. In classic episodes like "The Laughing Fish," "Harley and Ivy," and "Harlequinade," Harley and the Joker map out a fascinating power dynamic. Like all great superhero-fiction relationships, Joker and Harley's followed a template. At the start, Harley is head over heels for Joker, but he treats her like dirt. Then they separate, usually because Joker kicks her out or Harley decides she's had enough. Harley strikes out on her own or shacks up with fellow villainess Poison Ivy (Dini strongly implied that Harley and Ivy have a sexual relationship, and this fact is more or less canon by now, though DC never officially confirms it). Harley fluctuates between pining for Joker and cursing his name. Joker realizes something's missing from his life without his gal. Then some explosive turn of events reunites the murderous twosome. There were all kinds of variations, but the core outline became like a Punch and Judy show: cyclical, violent, and compellingly simple.
Also compellingly questionable, if they treat abuse like a comedy. The Joker was casually brutal to her at times, yet she keeps coming back for more, and because she's so deadly herself, we can't sympathize with her. On that note, I don't see why we're supposed to like a woman who turns to violent crime and harms innocents. I thought we were supposed to root for Batman and company. But that's something which has gone out of fashion with today's scriptwriters, and Dini's running the gauntlet of villain worship, right down to this bit here:
(It's also worth noting that their star-crossed romance was inter-ethnic: Harley was written as Jewish, often uttering yiddishkeit words like plotz. As Sorkin put it: "At least we know the Joker isn't an anti-Semite!")
And that's supposed to make him better how? Most costumed villains aren't typically written as racists, but that'll probably change, and maybe it already has, making them all the more unpleasant. As Identity Crisis has proven, some supervillains are becoming alarmingly misogynist gender bigots.
Fans immediately responded to this strange, passionate woman. Tara Strand was about 15 and living in the Podunk town of Victorville, California, when she first saw Harley on The Animated Series, and right away she "felt this big kinship with her."

"There weren't a lot of female characters at the time like her who were so human and unique and refreshing and weird, and not just sexy," she said. "Harley was the one person who can handle what the Joker can dish out. She’s maybe a little masochistic, but the Joker needs somebody who can deal with the Joker, and Harley’s it."
I am so not happy reading this. Feeling kinship with a lethal villainess, but not with the lady vigilantes of Gotham like Huntress? Or is the above supposed to mean women should be involved with a violent criminal and put up with his abusive spasms? Just how is it that Harley can handle the Joker, but Huntress can't? If any writer wanted to, they could depict a toughie like Helena Wayne/Bertinelli taking down the Clown Prince of Crime, and overcoming any difficulties he put in her way too.
Strand, like countless other viewers around the world, became Harley Quinn obsessives. She sought out fellow enthusiasts on the nascent World Wide Web and made friends as far away as Germany and Australia. (It's hard to get a number demonstrating the breadth of '90s Harley fandom, but Sorkin, Dini, and Timm all recalled torrents of fan letters.) And for the most part, Strand's Quinn-thusiast friends were women. Together, they compiled online indexes about Harley and composed long essays about what makes her tick. Building a woman-dominated superhero fandom in the mid '90s was a remarkable thing, and Harley had inspired them to do it.

"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. Men are allowed to be fuck-ups in all kinds of characters, and women aren't. We have to be idealized. She gets to not be."
This is ridiculous. What about Queen Bee, a villainess who appeared in Justice League of America during the 60s/70s? What about Golden Glider, the one female adversary Barry Allen had as the Flash, who appeared more than once? What about Poison Ivy, Killer Frost, Phobia, Morgaine Le Fay, Circe, Plastique, New Wave, Granny Goodness and Cheetah? Aren't they also villainesses who got not to be idealized? But honestly, what is so wrong with being idealized? Or is that TV couch potato suggesting heroines are only portrayed infallibly? Not so at all; there's plenty of heroines in past history who screwed up efforts to bring down a baddie the first time, and have to work hard to succeed the next.

As for feminism, if it's about developing 3D women in personality, don't heroines also count? Unfortunately, feminism, from a left-wing perspective, hardly makes women out to look human, and that only makes the TV couch potato's words mind-boggling.
DC had a hit on its hands unlike any it'd seen in a long time. Harley was the breakout star of Batman: The Animated Series, and the show was a massive success, giving way to spinoff and tie-in shows that would last until 2006. Harley was a character invented in a non-comics property with little fanfare and very few top-down editorial edicts. But now she was generating a tidal wave of fan response demanding more of her. Toys were made, more episodes penned, and soon she was called up to the big leagues, where she had a meteoric rise — followed by a depressing fall into irrelevance.

In the early aughts, Harley was everywhere. In 2001, she got her own monthly comics series, the eponymous Harley Quinn. The next year she became a recurring character on TV's Birds of Prey, a loose adaptation of a comics series of the same name. She starred in a goofy web-only animated series called Gotham Girls, which aired as minutes-long Macromedia Flash cartoons. She bounced and laughed her way across DC's various platforms.

The high times were not to last, though. In the mid aughts, things fell apart for Harley. Her solo comics series was something of a bomb and veered wildly between forgettable fluff, awkward neo-noir, and larger-than-life nonsense. It was canceled in 2003. Elsewhere in mainstream comics continuity, she was used only sporadically, rarely generating the kind of buzz on the page that she'd generated on-screen.
In that case, she wasn't that successful, was she? The TV adaptation of BoP was a flop, by the way, and come to think of it, the solo book for Harley was too.
What went wrong? Comics essayist and Batman historian Chris Sims offers a theory. "When you move her into mainstream continuity in 1999, it immediately changes things, because she’s in love with the Joker we have in the comics, not the one in the cartoon," he told me. "And comics Joker has killed a million people. He’s a sadistic, torturing murderer. You can't sympathize with her when that's the Joker she likes." On the other hand, if you move her away from the Joker, you remove her defining relationship. It would be like writing years' worth of Joker stories that didn't involve Batman: empty and confusing.
Umm, if she committed any of the same deadly acts as he did, in or out of the comics, then you can't sympathize with her regardless. And making her obsessed with being the Joker's slave is honestly aggravating, even if she is a villainess.
[...] In 2011, DC kicked off a company-wide relaunch of their comics, rebooting their entire universe and giving many characters a complete makeover. Harley was one such character. She became one of the stars of Suicide Squad, a series about super-criminals hired by the government to go on high-risk black-ops missions. Before the first issue even came out, it caused a furor among longtime fans. The cover prominently featured Harley, hips cocked, hair dyed, and wearing an even more revealing corset than the one she'd worn in Arkham Asylum.

"It's that classic idea of 'show us as much skin as possible because it'll bring in those teenage boys,'" said Laura Hornack, a Harley Quinn superfan from Germany. She launched an online campaign attacking the visual change and even went so far as to organize a protest at 2011's San Diego Comic-Con. Turnout wasn't great, but she wasn't alone in her skepticism about the character's direction.
Actually, what I find off-putting is making a villainess sexy. IMO, it's preferable for heroines to be. William Marston had it nailed down a lot better when he was creating Wonder Woman in the Golden Age. Why make us guys lust for a murderess? Ugh, that's sick.
In 2013, DC wisely tried to turn a new leaf with Harley. The company announced it’d be launching a new solo Harley Quinn series and hired acclaimed husband-and-wife duo Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti to write it. The series got off to a rocky start because of a poorly worded contest and subsequent bout of bad press for the first issue. But to DC’s relief, future issues have drawn no such ire. In fact, the series has taken a cute and experimental new direction for the character, unlike any she’s ever had. Conner and Palmiotti have had Harley strike out on her own after a rejection from the Joker, and she's moved to a place well known for housing over-the-top eccentrics: Coney Island (New York City does, indeed, exist in the DC universe, although it’s not as major a city as Metropolis or Gotham).
Well at least they're not latching her onto the Joker now. But I still don't see why we should root for a woman who's homicidal.
The formula is working, at least financially: Harley Quinn is consistently one of DC’s top-selling comics. The character’s popularity is also soaring in other mediums, most notably with her upcoming big-screen debut in 2016’s Suicide Squad movie, where she’ll be played by Margot Robbie. She’s still a major figure in the Batman world’s most lucrative products, the Arkham video games, as well as DC Entertainment’s extremely popular Injustice video-game series. Though she may have evolved substantially since that fateful cameo in “Joker’s Favor,” Harley has never been more successful, and her star shows no signs of falling.
Until you take the pamphlet sales numbers into consideration. Again, I'm not sure how 64,000 copies translates into a blockbuster, and it's not clear if the spinoff merchandise is proving much either.
And although there are longtime diehards like Strand and Hornack who have abandoned DC’s current iterations of Harley, they should know they have ideological allies in her current comics stewards, Palmiotti and Conner. The writing team considers Harley a feminist character, drawing comparisons — and contrasts — between her and comics’ longest-standing female icon, Wonder Woman. “Wonder Woman sort of represents perfection, whereas Harley represents everybody else,” Conner said.

One of the biggest Harley fans I’ve encountered is an Australian named Elise Archer, who’s been a fan since the early days and says her fixation on Harley has helped her through her own battles with PTSD and clinical depression. She was adamant that Harley was one of the most important feminist figures in superhero fiction — not in spite of her shortcomings, but because of them.

“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,” she said. “For me, the freedom Harley’s been given to be a fuck-up is much less misogynist than all these other hackneyed stories thrust on female characters again and again.”
I beg to differ, if only because I think it's stupid to sympathize with a violent villainess. It's not even clear what they mean by perfection. Does that mean in their personal lives whenever the superheroines are not out fighting baddies? It's always possible to create both heroines and female co-stars with moral and combat flaws that they have to overcome, and I'm sure there already have been. But that doesn't seem to matter, to the interviewees or the reporter. How come Black Canary and Oracle don't matter here? Chuck Dixon made an effort to do something to the effect they speak of.
“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, her voice quivering with emotion. “Let the villains be the messy ones.”
You know, it's sad, but this does hint at the sorry state of superhero comics today - the goodies are depicted as messy, and for all the wrong reasons.

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I like Harley. But not in the New 52.


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