Friday, January 9, 2015

The Problem With Harley Quinn

Someone I know recently asked me if I was excited for the Suicide Squad movie.  I gave a bit of a half-shrug and said that while I thought it was great that there was going to be a Suicide Squad movie, DC's recent history with movies that weren't Christopher Nolan doing Batman had me wary.

I love the Suicide Squad characters, though.  Deadshot's one of my favorite DC characters.  Amanda Waller is one of the best characters DC has (or had, before she suddenly felt the need to become Yet Another Sexy Woman, but that's another rant for another day).  Rick Flag, Captain Boomerang, Plastique, King Shark, Killer Frost, even that time Grant Morrison joined the team as "The Writer" and died because he developed writer's block at an inappropriate time...I love it all.

But there's a problem.  Harley Quinn is involved, and the more I see of her in comics, cartoons, and other media, the more I fear that what made the character distinctive and unique is getting washed away in order to try to turn her into a "Generic Manic Pixie Girl."

If you don't know what that is, go watch anything with Zooey Deschanel in it.  Look at the character she plays.

Go ahead.  I'll still be here.  I'll wait.

Are you back?  Good.

Let's look at Harley's first appearance in anything, anywhere.

That's Harley, introduced in the Batman: The Animated Series episode "The Joker's Favor."  She's a pretty minor character, her sole real purpose is to wear a cop costume and wheel a cake filled with toxic gas into a party for Commissioner Gordon.  However, her popularity immediately skyrocketed as "The Joker's girlfriend" being something that fans hadn't really seen since, well, not really since the Adam West Batman series.  She was a twisted, warped version of Robin, because of course the Joker would want to have his very own sidekick if his arch-nemesis had one.

Harley is, naturally, madly in love with the Joker.  She wasn't really that in love with him in the beginning, but as she appeared in more episodes (thanks to the writers and producers realizing the vein of gold they'd struck) the fixation and relationship grew...on one end, anyway.  The Joker, naturally, couldn't really care less.  After all, he already has a fixation in his life, and that's a guy who runs around in a cape and punches the mentally ill to keep them from poisoning the water supply for the nth time.

Someone I read once described Harley Quinn as being "hopelessly in love" with the Joker, and not in the "sigh, so dreamily romantic" way.  He was emphasizing the "hopeless" aspect.  She'll never not be in love with a psychotic clown.  There's a very simple reason for this: she's an archetype.

If you look at all of Batman's villains, in some twisted, demented way they're all reflections of himself or something about him.  I've mentioned this before, about how the Riddler is intelligence twisted by ego, Joker is chaos to Batman's order, where Ra's Al Ghul is order taken to extremes.  Harley is a dark mirror to Batman in that his obsession is stopping crime while her obsession (rather, "addiction") is being in love with crime.

And the target of her fixation is someone who can never, ever, ever truly love her back.  All the fan art out there showing Joker and Harley happily settling down to do anything together, or just showing the two having a genuinely intimate moment...I'm going to ruffle feathers here, but those people don't get it.  It's just as impossible for the Joker to genuinely "love" Harley as it is for the planet Venus to suddenly spring to life and start loving that firefly in The Princess And The Frog.

But Harley just can't stop loving the Joker, overlooking the fact that he's an insane murdering lunatic who just as often hurts Harley as acknowledges her.  It's the absolute worst abusive relationship in comics, and every time I hear that song "He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kiss" I think of Harley.

Okay, I don't really hear the song all that often, but when I do, I picture Harley.

In his eyes, she's a tool to be used, and that's all.  There are only three things in the Joker's universe:

1)  Batman

2)  Batman's allies who stop the Joker from getting Batman

3)  Things the Joker can use to get Batman

"I dunno, maybe she means it this time."

At one point Harley got her own comic book series, which I'll admit I really liked when it began, partly because it focused on her trying to get other people into healthy relationships because of the neglect she was getting from the Joker.  Granted, this usually involved pitting the two of them against gangs, death traps, and other hazards, but considering what her relationship history is, that's about as good as you can expect.  It quickly spiraled out of control, though, and the book became a jumbled mess.

I think, though, that part of it was that by trying to take Harley away from the Joker, you took Harley away from what makes her Harley.  It's like taking Superman away from always trying to help everybody or taking the Riddler away from riddles to the point that it no longer shows up in the book at all.  We sympathize with Harley because everybody's idolized someone to the point of believing they were the "best person ever" and not seeing any fault in them.  Everybody's also known what it's like to "love" someone who, if you asked them the time of day, probably wouldn't even know you were there.

Granted, again, because it's comics, they can't do anything in small steps, so in Harley's case asking the Joker what time it is might end with him carving it into her face (get it?  Like a clock face?  HA!).

But she'll always forgive him.  And she'll always return to him.

Anybody who finds her relationship with the Joker "romantic" or at all desirable really needs to examine what they want out of life, because I guarantee you that even dying alone would be better than that.  You can do better than an abusive sociopath or an obsessive co-dependent.

But hey, she's popular, so writers and artists keep trying to do things with her.  One of the more successful approaches was to pair her up with Poison Ivy, a character who's also sympathetic (yet still evil), but able to say what we're thinking when she accuses Harley of being an idiot to stay with the Joker.  She's that friend you have who warns you when you're about to be in a relationship that's unhealthy, or about to do anything else that isn't in your own best interest.

Plus, y'know, there's the whole "femslash" aspect.  I'm pretty sure there's a target demographic for two attractive "bad girls" making out in fetish costumes.

There has to be someone who wants to see this, right?  Anybody?  Anybody?
Harley's been bounced around so many books now that when I try to pick up one with her in it, I don't see Harley Quinn any more.  I just see...well, some "manic pixie girl" who happens to be wearing a (pretty terrible) clown costume.  She isn't even able to be characterized well any more, because there's so many different versions of her.  There's the insane goofy girl, the "subtext as subtle as a Russian military action" Life Partner of Poison Ivy, the villain with the heart of gold, the insane killer who rivals the Joker...

Oh, and then there's the book published on 9/11 that had her blowing up hundreds of children with rigged video game systems.

That's right.  DC Comics published a book on 9/11/13 showing a woman blowing up children without caring.

This is the same woman who's currently once again headlining her own comic book being advertised as a "fun and wacky" series!

And this is why I have a problem with her being on the Suicide Squad.  Yes, she's been on it canonically in the comics (including having sex with Deadshot on top of a washer/dryer combo), and the Joker is scheduled to appear in it, but are you going to have her as the "hopelessly" in love sidekick?  The wacky pixie?  The sociopath?  The weirdly twisted person seeking redemption in the Injustice story line?  How far away are you going to pull her from the Joker's orbit, since the more you do, the less interesting she becomes?

I mean, I like Zooey Deschanel, but man can that character type get obnoxious after a while.

No comments: