[Y]ou could argue that Harley’s pretty directly descended from the various molls and henchwenches that palled around with the arch-criminals on the TV show, but there’s something different that sets her apart that was developed when she returned: She was hopelessly in love with the Joker.
When I say “hopeless,” I don’t mean it in the cute “I’m a hopeless romantic” sort of way, either. I mean that what she feels is utterly, tragically devoid of hope. Because she’s a Batman villain, she’s built around a simple metaphor that’s made to contrast with Batman. Since she’s inextricably tied to the Joker, that core metaphor is built around his, too, and because she was developed and honed in that lean animated series aesthetic that put that metaphor right at the forefront, she’s actually a really fascinating character in a lot of ways. At heart, at the core of what she is, she’s the living embodiment of obsession, in a way that contrasts with both Batman being driven to fight crime, and the Joker’s pseudo-romantic obsession with Batman — and only with Batman.
See, that’s the tragedy of Harley Quinn, the thing that makes her so compelling underneath all the bright, poppy cheer. She’s in love with someone who will never, ever love her back. Someone who can never, ever love her back, because he’s thoroughly obsessed with someone else. It’s something that we’ve all been through, and that’s what makes her so easy to identify and sympathize with. But because it’s an obsession, an addiction, it’s phenomenally self destructive (something else we can all probably relate to), and because it’s playing out in the grand metaphorical stage of superheroes, everything about it is taken to its horrifying extreme.
Ryan North did a great installment of Dinosaur Comics that perfectly captured the feeling of being a kid with a crush and believing that the object of your desire was “objectively the best girl ever,” and Harley follows that to its logical tragic end — the flaws she’s overlooking are that he’s a terrifying mass murderer obsessed with killing the Batman. That is not a solid foundation for a relationship, and when that relationship actually does happen, such as it is, it becomes one of the most genuinely tragic things in comics.
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