If people think Wonder Woman is hard to write for (an idea Christopher Bird examines and demolishes here), then the very thought of writing for Harleen “Harley Quinn” Quinzel must surely generate nightmares. She’s brassy, sharp, and cute as a button. She’s violent, immature, and quick to anger. She’s one-half of comics’ most legendary abusive relationship and one-half of one of comics’ most legendary female friendships. And that’s when you’re doing it right.
To best understand both the contradictions and appeal of Harley Quinn, I usually refer people to her self-titled series from the early aughts. It incorporates Mad Love, her Eisner Award-winning origin story, into a monthly comic about Harley going solo. There are a lot of fantastic moments—such as her literally knocking the Joker out of the park while saying “Love means never having to say you’re sorry!” and the way it reframes her origin story—but the one I tell people about the most happens when she goes to Hell. (“It’s a long story,” said everyone about mainstream comics ever.)
Due to her efforts to break out of Hell, one of its demon overlords sends a ruthless bounty hunter from 1873 after her, telling him that she has information about Nathan Drumm, a man he’s been looking for in Hell to utterly destroy. When he catches up with Harley, she mocks his obsession with Drumm and figures out that Drumm is his son’s lover. “You go to Hell for lots of reasons—but not for lovin’ someone. Not for lovin’ anyone,” she tells him.
At the end of that story, she gets evicted from Hell for daring the bounty hunter to love his son as he is, because love doesn’t have a place in Hell. And that’s her, really: a starry-eyed romantic who nonetheless knows she’s a bad, amoral person, a fact that does not dampen her spirits one bit.This is the woman who rescued Jimmy Olsen from aliens because he told her he had a pregnant girlfriend and then turned around determined to murder him when she found out he was lying.
In the right hands, she is one of my absolute favorite characters.
While I did read Gotham City Sirens, I didn’t follow Harley to Suicide Squad. Her redesign frustrated me, since it seemed to veer away from her own clearly defined aesthetic (as set forth by her creators, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm), but it was the grimdark tone that really turned me off. Harley doesn’t need to be darker and edgier to be scary, interesting, or sexy; she just needs to be, as unapologetically as possible, herself.
When I heard that she was getting a monthly series helmed by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti, I perked up, especially when I saw that Conner was taking Harley’s design into roller derby territory. It felt like a step in the right direction.
I don’t know if there’s really a better image to represent how DC has been treating its female characters lately (I say as someone who only reads Wonder Woman from them these days). To watch Harley go from the three-dimensional highlights of her first monthly series to an impending and, given DC’s taste, most likely sexualized nude corpse in her second is to see the evolution of how DC has been treating a lot of its female characters in microcosm. Obviously, I can’t speak to every book of the new 52, but on the heels of the announcement that W. Haden Blackman and J. H. Williams III will be leaving Batwoman because DC forbids them to show a lesbian wedding on-panel and what’s been happening to Catwoman, things are looking very grim(dark) indeed for the ladies of Gotham, for the enjoyment of…
Who? I think a lot of DC’s problems at the moment stem from this simple question. Who is this all for? It’s certainly not for people like me: I like my Harley cheerful and terrifying, my lesbians married, and my Catwoman drawn by Adam Hughes. But whoever this audience is, is it really worth pushing away so many people to do so?
The real magic of a comic book character is that their longevity determines that they will recover from whatever has been visited upon them. Remember the time Captain America died? Yeah, that’s what I thought. In time, I am confident that both a well-written Harley Quinn and my favorite Harley Quinn will resurface. But I don’t know if the broader audience that she could appeal to will stick around for this round of masochism to find out.
Until then, I have appointed Nicki Minaj Harley Quinn.