Mad Love
December 6, 2013 12:17 PM   Subscribe

Chris Sims examines Harley Quinn, one of the most misused and misunderstood characters in comics, taking in her Batman:The Animated Series debut played by Arleen Sorkin (audio), through to The Batman Adventures: Mad Love and the New 52 incarnation which recently drew ire with a controversial try-out page for artists.
posted by Artw (40 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
I think the "controversial" link is 404? And so is "try-out".
posted by Brocktoon at 12:22 PM on December 6, 2013


Yeah I got the same 404s
posted by XMLicious at 12:23 PM on December 6, 2013


Correct link for "controversial."
Correct link for "try-out."
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 12:24 PM on December 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


WTF, man? I was just about to post this!

In all seriousness, this is one of the best articles by Sims that I've ever read, not the least because it actually made me tear up. It may be "just comics," but this is some wonderful stuff:
[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.
Read the whole thing, folks, it's really good.
posted by zombieflanders at 12:25 PM on December 6, 2013 [17 favorites]


Briefly confused Chris Sims with Dave Sim.
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:25 PM on December 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


Chris Sims is 100% right.

Also, I'd never seen that New 52 costume before, but that is beyond awful. Not just a terrible design, but also a design that doesn't seem to understand what the character is. It's just wrong, wrong, wrong.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:26 PM on December 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


Briefly confused Chris Sims with Dave Sim.

Same thing. Not that I wouldn't be perversely curious to read Dave Sim's take.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:27 PM on December 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Links should be: controversial try-out page
posted by Artw at 12:27 PM on December 6, 2013


Sims is really driving for that Eisner lately (and I mean that in the best possible way). This is something like the third straight Ask Chris where the introduction alone - here, the part that wraps up when he talks about Harley as a hopeless figure - would be a solid column in its own right.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 12:28 PM on December 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


[Fixed links, carry on. ]
posted by restless_nomad at 12:30 PM on December 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


On that Jezebel page, there's a link to the DC page announcing the contest. The comments are a horror show, especially the responses to an art student objecting to the contest. The sad, slimy underbelly of comics fandom.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:37 PM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


And re: New 52, it just seems like DC doesn't give a crap anymore. Their works have no rhyme or reason amongst themselves, never mind across mediums. Marvel may be commercializing their franchises like there's no tomorrow, but for the most part at least they make sense both separately and as a whole. Nor have they forgot that comics are meant to be fun, something that DC and Warner apparently think should be squashed. Well, except for Arrow, I guess, and that just seems to be because (a) they probably spend happy hour with the folks who work on Sleepy Hollow, and (b) it's not just aimed at young teen boys.
posted by zombieflanders at 12:38 PM on December 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Good piece. That Dinosaur Comic really is pretty sweet and sad.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:40 PM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I love it when somebody who loves something that I like is able to explain why I like them (and why fucking them up angers me) much better than I would have been able. This is just great criticism.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:41 PM on December 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


DC could have saved themselves a lot of trouble by pruning the art competition down to "draw 5 panels of Harley Quinn doing some Deadpool shit".
posted by Artw at 12:43 PM on December 6, 2013


Everytime I think DC can't get any worse, they go and have another mega-event.

The Joker cuts off his face and straps it back on? Could we get any more EXTREME without big shoulderpads and pouches everywhere?
posted by entropicamericana at 12:44 PM on December 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Hottest, and most sinister portrayal, of Harley Quinn ever.
posted by prepmonkey at 12:46 PM on December 6, 2013


When you remember that the current EIC of DC Comics was the prime enabler of the Pouches Era at Marvel, everything makes 100% sense.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 12:47 PM on December 6, 2013 [8 favorites]


The sad, slimy underbelly of comics fandom.

Depressingly it's not really the underbelly
posted by dng at 12:49 PM on December 6, 2013


It's funny thinking about how easy it is to get Harley Quinn's costume wrong. It sounds like nitpicking, but it's really not. Comics are a visual medium.

Grimdark Harley doesn't make sense, because the whole point is not just that Harley is trying to get the Joker to notice her, but also that Harley Quinn is relatable because her obsession is like a schoolgirl crush.

Emphasis on the word "girl". Her idea of what the Joker would like is very kidlike. Many aspects of her frame, costume, and voice emphasize her relative smallness, and exaggerate her youth. She's compact, with a nasal, teasing (as in "nyah nyah") girly voice.

The big hammer emphasizes how small she is. It makes her appear childlike. When her proportions are too adult, as in the New 52 redesign, then the visual metaphor no longer makes any sense.

Could you retool her character to make her more womanly? Sure! But, that would require some thought. You would have to change the character in order to make it work with a more adult-looking Harley Quinn.

...

As a corollary to this article, it's worth reflecting on what happens when people discover a fun character and then incorrectly surmise that it would be fun to make that character into a main character. Many of the best characters will always be side characters, just as many main characters are far from the most interesting in their own stories.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:54 PM on December 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Briefly confused Chris Sims with Dave Sim.

In light of the content of the piece, that's actually hilarious.
posted by The Bellman at 12:55 PM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd never seen that New 52 costume before, but that is beyond awful. Not just a terrible design, but also a design that doesn't seem to understand what the character is. It's just wrong, wrong, wrong.

Sadly, the makeover's based on Harley's redesigns for the Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City videogame adaptations, with particular emphasis on the latter's add-on mission. Though Chris Sims lightly mentioned the influence of the games, they're as much a part of DC's rebranding for modern tastes as Superman snapping Zod's neck in the Zack Snyder film or the oral sex scene in the pages of The New 52! Catwoman #1.
posted by Smart Dalek at 1:40 PM on December 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Project Rooftop had a recent interesting re-imagining of Harley and Mr. J. This is one of the best versions of her costume that I've seen in a long time.


Also, whenever I think of Harley Quinn, I can't help thinking of this song.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:43 PM on December 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


I am cautiously optimistic to see what happens with Dr. Quinn in the new Batman '66 comic.
posted by ckape at 1:56 PM on December 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


From another thread: Some good links to some Sims articles on the subject of WTF is up with DC, and a very good summary.
posted by Artw at 1:58 PM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've heard Harley's redesigned costume described as "Juggalo stripper wear", which describes it about as well as possible, I think. That alteration, along with the changes to Amanda Waller, was the main reason I gave up on DC as a whole. And after I stopped reading I heard that they decided to have Superman and Wonder Woman hooking up.

The thing is, this article by Sims is the first time I've ever read anything even approximating an argument in favor of the new design. The idea that Harley would change her look to match the new X-TRRRREEEEEEM version of the Joker holds a fair amount of water. I don't think that's what the writers and artists actually conveyed, though, I just think it's just headcannon that provides thin justification after the fact to a terrible artistic decision. And even if you accept it, it really only lays bare that the decision to have Joker get his face cut off was way too fucking juvenile in the first place. None of these characters have gained anything in the way of storytelling usefulness from what the Nu 52 has made of them.
posted by Ipsifendus at 2:08 PM on December 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


God, I enjoyed this earlier today. Harley has become an unexpected hot button issue for me.

Sims' stuff is easily one of my top 20 favorite things about the internet. His recent thing about DC trying to be like Marvel was really really good.
posted by middleclasstool at 4:41 PM on December 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


This Nu 52 stuff makes me really sad, not least because of my fondness for Brubaker's run on Catwoman. God, it was so, so good. (It really reminds me a lot of what Fraction is doing with Hawkeye right now.)
posted by dogheart at 5:54 PM on December 6, 2013


THE LINK AT THE END OF THE ARTICLE TO THE TOP TEN BTAS EPISODES HAS WRONG THINGS ON IT AND I AM UPSET
posted by The Whelk at 6:10 PM on December 6, 2013


Just finished reading the Sims article. Harley Quinn did WHAT in DC's recent Villian Month? Murdered a bunch of children? Jeebus, talk about fundamentally breaking the character. Part of the point about Harley is that she's willing to murder for the Joker but she's incapable (whether through external forces or her own limitations) of actually going through with the deed. I don't know who this murderous Juggalo wanna-be in the New 52 is but she is NOT Harley Quinn.

RIP, Harleen "Harley Quinn" Quinzel. 1992-2013. We hardly knew ye.

.
posted by KingEdRa at 6:26 PM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Could we get any more EXTREME without big shoulderpads and pouches everywhere?

Dude, please, don't dare them.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:35 PM on December 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


What gets me with Harley is that she's fucking smart woman, not some bubble gum teeny bopper. She was Mister J's shrink for heaven's sake. You don't get to Arkham in that capacity without being pretty solidly good at what you do, very gifted, or both. That's one of the things that irritates the bejesus out of me when it comes to how she's often depicted, especially within fandom. She isn't fifteen years old and having a teenage crush. She's a grown ass woman with a pathalogical fixation, but a grown ass woman nonetheless.
posted by Jilder at 6:48 PM on December 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


Okay article, but I don't agree with aspects of Sims' core reading of the character, or his view that she's inherently unsuited to stories that don't include the Joker.

I mean, I don't believe that Harley Quinn is portrayed just as an obsessive romantic. She's really a sort of quintessential, tragic abuse victim, who will take any bad treatment as a sign of love and always return to the Joker, no matter how crappy the situation is. Sure, her obsession might be self-destructive, but it's not as if she's the sole source of pain in the relationship. There's a reason why "Mad Love" ends with a nod to "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)"...

This dynamic has driven a lot of the best Harley/Joker stories, but I think writers eventually start to feel constrained and a little uncomfortable working that angle again and again, especially since Harley is such a likeable character in her own right. She genuinely does have attractive and sympathetic characteristics beyond "she's obsessively in love, just like you were that one time!".

So I think when writers have Harley as the star of her own stories or put her in situations away from the Joker, they're not misunderstanding or misusing her. They're trying to say "hey, there might be more to this character than just her relationship with the Joker, and there are other facets we want to try and develop".

I feel like the idea of Harley having hidden depths and potential as a solo villain is something that has been around for quite a while and is consistent with the original conception of the character. In "Mad Love", for example, she manages to subdue Batman and shut him in an inescapable deathtrap, before the Joker sabotages it out of pride. It's part of her tragic nature that this potential always gets quashed by her unflinching devotion to the Joker.

Sure, a lot of the recent Harley stories have been badly executed (and yes, her new costume is awful). But "these solo Harley Quinn stories were poorly written" does not equal "Harley Quinn has no potential as a solo protagonist, full stop". It just takes the right creative team.

Besides, at this point Harley is pretty much an iconic comics character in her own right, and iconic characters can be subjected to a fair degree of artistic experimentation and reworking (even if it is poorly done or misconceived) without eroding their core themes or appeal.
posted by fearthehat at 6:51 PM on December 6, 2013


What gets me with Harley is that she's fucking smart woman, not some bubble gum teeny bopper. She was Mister J's shrink for heaven's sake. You don't get to Arkham in that capacity without being pretty solidly good at what you do, very gifted, or both.

You're not necessarily wrong, but I had the sense that Harley was at least a bit in over her head at Arkham. Paul Dini suggests in "Mad Love" (at least the comics version, if not the animated one) that Harley made it through university by engaging in a bit of office-hours hanky-panky with her male profs. And her whole reason for going to Arkham was because she wanted to write a true crime best-seller, not because she had any special insight into the criminal mind. Not necessarily an enlightened depiction of female professional success, but I don't see particularly Harley as a role model for girls, regardless of her sympathetic qualities.
posted by Strange Interlude at 7:01 PM on December 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't see particularly Harley as a role model for girls

Well, no.
posted by Artw at 7:09 PM on December 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


Yeah, I wouldn't call her a role model at all. I just get a bit fighty at the teenage tits ahoy juggalo stripper take on Harley. She's a tremendously interesting character that has a lot more depth than that.
posted by Jilder at 7:25 PM on December 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


There's more to Harley than just being lovesick, and she can have stories centered around her, but they require a lot more finesse than just giving her the proportions of a stripper who's been forced to assemble a costume out of garbage. Also, she wouldn't kill kids with exploding video games.

You know what would happen instead?

A Juggalo stripper would try to impress the Joker by killing kids with exploding video games. Then Harley would find out about that, and she would be absolutely mortified. How horrible! How terrible! Kids come and kids go, but Mistah J would never be so tacky.

No, she'd attach rocketpacks to dogs with fake antlers, and she'd have them pull a sleigh, so that she could sneak into every kid's house and replace their booby-trapped games. She'd give each kid an increasingly bizarre substitute present, knocking out their parents if and when they catch her in the act.

And then she'd take her big fat burlap sack of explosives, and she'd shove it down the chimney of the Juggalo stripper. And she'd sing Christmas carols during the ensuing light show.

And then she would come home, to find that the milk and cookies that she'd left out had been eaten.

And she would smile.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:53 PM on December 6, 2013 [24 favorites]


Sure, a lot of the recent Harley stories have been badly executed (and yes, her new costume is awful). But "these solo Harley Quinn stories were poorly written" does not equal "Harley Quinn has no potential as a solo protagonist, full stop". It just takes the right creative team.

The main thing is that, if she doesn't have the character she currently has, then either they need to figure out a good reason for her to evolve, or they need to come up with a compelling reboot. "Harley Quinn is now a grimdark child murderer" is not a compelling reboot, and it doesn't make any sense from what we've known her as before.

I'd be all for separating her from the Joker, and it could be a great arc to have her cut the cord, but that would take creativity and effort.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:55 PM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh god.
posted by Artw at 1:25 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


So I see you've found my autobiography.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:42 PM on December 11, 2013


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