On Splattercast #479 we talked about the Suicide Squad movie and while we all agreed that it sucked, we had some differing opinions on the broader topics of Harley Quinn, her relationship with The Joker, and villainy in comic books. I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit lately, beginning with my rant on Batman vs Superman a couple months ago. (see Splattercast #470, at around the 37:00 minute mark)
I’ll preface this by acknowledging that it is probably a “me problem.” I think maybe I just don’t like comic books very much anymore. A lot of the stuff I’m criticizing is simply part and parcel of how comic book stories have always operated. If it works for comic fans, hey, that’s great. I certainly don’t presume to demand that anything change to accomodate my tastes.
I also do not claim to be a DC Universe or Harley Quinn scholar by any means. I have tried to read a variety of Harley comics and research some noteworthy story arcs while writing this piece, but please forgive me if I get some details wrong or miss some important context. If you want to hit me with something like “That doesn’t count because it was during New 52!” then I will just have to shrug and defer.
On Harley Quinn’s Appearance
Some have criticized the sexualized depiction of Harley Quinn in the Suicide Squad movie, the skimpy outfit and the leering camera angles. Being an insufferable prude myself, I understand the complaint but I will say that we are all very pick-and-choosy about our puritanical bugaboos. In many Harley Quinn comics from the last few years, she is wearing basically the same outfit and striking the same poses that people are criticizing in the movie. So, in fairness to the film, it really wasn’t treating Harley any differently than the comics have been doing for quite some time. Whether it’s in poor taste is a separate matter, but it is absolutely comic-accurate.
On Harley Quinn’s Relationship with The Joker
Harley Quinn, created by Paul Dini & Bruce Timm, first appeared in a 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series. Quinn’s definitive origin was fleshed out in the Eisner Award-winning comic Batman: Mad Love, also by Dini & Timm.
Mad Love depicts Harleen Quinzel as an intelligent, capable woman. She’s a doctor of psychiatry and also a champion gymnast. Sure, why not? While working at Arkham Asylum, Dr. Quinzel becomes fascinated with The Joker and surrenders herself to him. She forfeits her old life and transforms into his evil sidekick, Harley Quinn. She does have doubts near the end of the story but The Joker pulls her right back in with a simple “aww baby I didn’t mean it” gesture.
I think the issue is, right down to the basic premise of her character, i.e. a woman who continually chooses to return to her abuser, Harley Quinn is what we in 2016 might describe as “problematic.” She was created nearly 25 years ago and sensibilities have changed since then. If she didn’t already exist, I don’t believe a character with the foundational premise of Harley Quinn would be written from scratch in the present day.
As a similar illustration, consider Batman: The Killing Joke, another Eisner Award-winning comic. The Killing Joke was written in 1988 and for many years was lauded as an all-time great Batman/Joker story. More recently, though, The Killing Joke’s themes and especially its shock moments are out-of-step with contemporary sensibilities. When an animated adaptation of The Killing Joke was released this year (see Splattercast #477) many commentators took the occasion to weigh in with strong criticism of both the new movie and also the original book. (link, link)
Tragic Versus Problematic
Paul Dini writes in the foreward to the deluxe edition of Mad Love:
“We’ve all done it. We’ve all selected the wrong partners, all gotten hurt, and hopefully all moved on wiser for the experience. But there are those who, even in the face of constant disappointment, continue to believe that the intensity of their desire will be rewarded by an eventual jackpot of affection. And if that’s the slot machine you’re playing, friend, you’d better leave the casino ’cause that one don’t pay out. Advice to someone in the throes of mad love is pretty meaningless, because any capacity they once had for rational thought has long since split for Aruba. Despite the setbacks and heartaches, the pursuer tunes out their inner voice of sanity and is more than willing to swallow the tears, paint on a smile, and once again resume the chase.”
Dini here describes Quinn as a tragic figure but he seemingly isn’t aware that she is also a *problematic* figure. Indeed, our modern notions of problematicism (is that a word?) weren’t quite fully-formed at the time Dini was creating Quinn.
This is a tangent, I beg pardon but I can’t help wandering off. I anticipate that more and more things from the 1980s and 90s will become retroactively unacceptable according to contemporary standards and I wonder how it’ll be handled.
I recently rewatched The Gate, a kiddy monster movie from 1987 and I noted 2 or 3 lines that were very problematic. Nothing thematically important to the movie, just certain words used by the characters usually in the context of ribbing each other. I know The Monster Squad, also 1987 and a huge personal favorite, has some identical issues. The other night I watched The Little Rascals movie from 1994 with my kids on Netflix and there was a bunch of stuff in there that might be offensive to some 2016 sensibilities. Not to mention it also features a cameo from Donald Trump, which could be triggering for some.
I would not be surprised to pull up The Monster Squad on Netflix in the future and discover that certain lines had been cut out or even dubbed over with different words. Maybe that’s crazy to say, and I’m not accusing Netflix specifically of having that philosophy, I’m just describing a hypothetical that I find plausible. I can easily envision “cleaned up” versions of older films appearing, the reasoning being something like: “If we can enjoy this movie while also removing outdated hurtful elements, why not cut those parts out?” We’ve seen variations on this concept before.
Not Allowed to Lose?
Now, back to Harley. Considering her problematic origin, it is difficult to tell any Harley story at all that doesn’t touch on those elements. It’s just sort of “who she is.” Her story, in a sense, is that she repeatedly loses to The Joker. Is that premise somehow not allowed? Are writers forbidden from writing a female character that loses?
Do we just want a carbon copy of Jessica Jones, wearing a clown costume?
And if The Joker is supposed to be one of the greatest, most menacing villains in all of comicdom, why is it at all incredible that he could succeed in subjugating one particular person? Especially considering that, in Harley’s case, she willingly joins him at the outset?
Not to get ahead of myself, but please ponder for a moment why you are more troubled by The Joker treating Harley Quinn with callous disregard than you are by the scores of innocent people that The Joker and Harley Quinn have murdered across two decades of stories.
You Go Girl, and Nevermind the Murders
More recently (Harley Quinn #25, February 2016) Harley has had a reckoning with The Joker, kicking his ass and declaring her independence from him. So, in current continuity, that seems to be where she’s at: an independent anti-hero having her own adventures without The Joker’s evil, controlling influence poisoning her mind. Batman even loans her his boat in this issue, giving her a stern, Batmanny warning to keep her nose clean. Pretty nice that she’s apparently off the hook for everything she did prior. You know: all the wanton murder?
Which brings me to my next point…
On Villains & Villainy in Comics
Killing people means nothing in comics, least of all in Batman comics.
Murder means nothing in comics, least of all in Batman comics.
The Joker has slaughtered countless innocent people. Harley Quinn has also killed many innocent people. At the very least she’s an accessory to many of The Joker’s crimes. I read one Harley story where she straps a police officer to a carload of dynamite and detonates it inside of a police station, and then proceeds to kill several dozen (hundreds?) of children via bombs planted in their Game Boys. She’s not even teamed up with The Joker in that one, she does that all on her own!
In most comic book stories, the villains are not committing petty crimes. They are not simply robbing a bank or stealing some valuable jewels. If they were, it would be a police matter and we wouldn’t need a superhero with a bat-shaped jet to address the situation. We always understand that lives are at stake in some way. Usually the villain is depicted doing something splashy that results in some amount of people dying or at least being gravely imperiled. This is necessary to establish the villain as a serious threat.
Yet, our superheroes deal with the murderous supervillains as if they were merely common thieves. Scores of people are dead, families are destroyed, buildings are smoldering rubble, but Batman’s going to punch The Joker a couple of times, slap the ‘ol batcuffs on him and toss him back into the clink – only to have it all invariably happen again sometime in the not-too-distant future. The cognitive dissonance has gotten to be too much for me.
Somewhere around the tenth time that The Joker escapes from Arkham Asylum and kills a bunch of people, I start to think that Batman’s a piece of garbage for not doing what needs to be done to protect the innocent people of his city.
You’re not supposed to think too hard about the people that The Joker and Harley Quinn kill in these stories. You’re supposed to just credit those acts of violence to The Joker’s “evilness account” so that he can be understood to be a fearsome foe for Batman. Likewise, Batman gets credit to his “righteousness account” every time he chooses to not kill The Joker. Then, with our characters thus clearly established, we get to enjoy seeing them do battle over and over again.
It’s basically the same as watching pro wrestling, another medium that I struggle to understand yet find strangely fascinating. It’s a couple of charismatic characters brawling with no lasting consequences for anybody. The Joker’s victims in the comics are just props, akin to folding chairs in a wrestling match. Just something that gets thrown around to make a situation appear dangerous. After the big fight is over, the props are all swept up and put away, and nothing much has really happened.