Harley Quinn has been on my mind a lot recently. Even though I’m a fan of both Marvel and DC, she is, without a doubt, my favourite comic book character. There is a huge neon poster of her above my bed, and on the opposite wall, a signed poster by cover artist Laura Braga.
To mentally prepare myself for the Birds of Prey movie, I decided to haul out all my Harley Quinn, Suicide Squad, DC Bombshells, and Harley & Ivy comics to get into character, so to speak.
I also delved into the semi-recent Harleen graphic novel, which sent me down the rabbit hole of other origin stories about the “dizzy doctor” (as Joker refers to her in 2015’s Batman: Harley Quinn) as well as the new Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity reboot.
The comic book multiverse is kinda like an episode of Black Mirror. How many times have the same characters been reinvented, reborn, and recast? Doomed to play out the same tormented scenes over and over and over. How many times has poor Harley been double-crossed by her crown prince of crime?
But out of all the origin stories out there, what is the truth behind the devoted doctor?
We know she was a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum with direct access to the Joker. In one arc, she is an intern, in another, she is a researcher trying to pinpoint the moment a patient loses their empathy. In all these incarnations she believes she can help the grinning supervillain. (In Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity she is a criminal profiler helping Gordon with a serial killer case.)
For me, this need to help others is the true essence of the character. Harley Quinn is a defender of the underdog; this is obvious in all her capers – a villain with a heart of gold. A great take on this is offered by Mariko Tamaki’s reimaging of teenage Harley in Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass.
Yes, she can get pretty violent with a baseball bat or a giant mallet (even a gun), but this chaotic character’s intentions are ultimately good.
In the new DC animated series Harley Quinn, now in its second season, Harley goes into her own mind to change her origin story. She decides that she wasn’t created the moment she dives/gets pushed into the giant vat of acid, but the moment she leaves the Joker’s side forever.
Her persona of ditzy sidekick to the Joker, like an old-school mobster’s broad, also changes. In universe after universe, Harley has always been unceremoniously ditched, abused and nearly killed by her bad-boy beau, only to forgive him after one buttery word. Once she branches out on her own, she retains the cutesy, fun-loving persona as she unleashes her carnage on the world at large, but amplifies it into a new kind of crazy.
Her larger-than-life teenager on steroids personality is the antithesis of the serious Dr. Quinzel, trying to make a name for herself in the dry halls of psychiatry.
Perhaps its because this persona is the very opposite of Dr. Quinzel that she decides to keep it after the big break up. After all, we know that her background was hardly one of privilege. In Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass, she grew up in a trailer park where she brawled frequently with neighbourhood kids. In Harleen, she’s stigmatised for sleeping with her college professor and that reputation follows her wherever she goes. She thinks she’s found a kindred spirit in the Joker, another outcast, only to be abandoned by him as well.
The Harley Quinn persona represents the free-spirited, new-hair-don’t-care attitude that the world has judged her for in the past. And she’s owning it. She’s still the kind-hearted soul wanting to help the little guy, but she does it on her own terms, without anyone holding her back and without fear of reprisal. Who in their right mind would take on a crazy-haired villain with a giant mallet and a dead beaver?
This is the origin story I like best. Harley had a tough time in the past and now she’s free to be herself – larger than life, silly, sexy, and very, very dangerous. She is the Patron Saint of the Underdog, the hero of the downtrodden, and the girl who gave her all to someone only to reinvent herself after been betrayed one too many times.
In this way, Harley represents the freedom and liberation all women strive for. She’s liberated herself from the Joker, and now has the freedom to do whatever the hell she wants.
Hard relate. In fact, I’m sure most of us can relate, but we can’t just let go and go after those who wronged us with an Acme wrecking ball.
She is the ultimate villain in the world’s eyes, but to me, she’s a revelation, and I will continue to live vicariously through her adventures.
So if anyone out there is part of the Harley fandom, take a leaf out of her book during these dark days of self-isolation. Wear what you want. Eat that junk food. Dye your hair. Laugh out loud. And talk to your stuffed animals. Why should we care what others think?
And if you are going to spend some time working on your Harley fan art, make it a happy story. After what she’s been through, the girl certainly needs a break.
Don’t we all.