One of the highlights of this year’s Comic-Con was the new slate of DC/Warner Bros trailers. Two comic book juggernauts, Batman vs Superman and Suicide Squad, are due out next year, and already fanboys and fangirls are up in arms over every tiny detail. Speaking as a fangirl, I prefer to focus on the big issues. Specifically, how are they going to handle the big screen debut of one of my favorite DC characters? How are they handling Harley Quinn? In the trailer Harley looks more like a sex toy with a baseball bat than I’m comfortable with. The sex toy part, not the baseball bat. I’m worried that they’re going to ignore her rich back story and character in place of some T and A. That would be unforgivable; it wouldn’t do justice to her.
For a character with such personality, it’s surprising that she’s not that old. She didn’t debut on the pages of a comic book either. Harley first appeared in Batman: The Animated Series where I, and other fans of my generation, first saw her. She was created by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, masterminds of the DC Animated Universe, and made her first appearance in 1992. A casual fan might be surprised that for many years, Harley’s original outfit wasn’t a tutu and crop top – it was a classic jester’s costume, complete with domino mask and bells on the cap. She was devoted to the Joker. She called him “Mistah J,” and “Puddin’.” Dancing around his lair in a skimpy nightie, she cooed, “Aw, come on, Puddin’, don’t ya wanna rev up your Harley? Vroom vroom!” (If this line isn’t in Suicide Squad I’m going to be very disappointed.) What really set Harley apart was her motivation. She wasn’t a criminal for money or the fun of causing chaos. She did it for love.
In the introduction to the compilation Batman: Mad Love and Other Stories, Dini revealed the driving force behind Harley’s love for the Joker. “Mad love is when you fall so passionately for a person (particularly the wrong person) that nothing else in the world matters. . . . You believe that you have finally found that one magical being who suddenly brings a sense of meaning to your existence . . . Even in the face of constant disappointment, [they] continue to believe that the intensity of their desire will be rewarded with an eventual jackpot of affection.”
Harley Quinn started life as Harleen Quinzel, a Brooklyn girl with a fascination for the darker side of life. She won a gymnastics scholarship to Gotham University, where she majored in psychology. Her first job was at the notorious Arkham Asylum, where she met the Joker and became entranced. He fed her a sob story about his abusive childhood (which turned out to be a lie) and she fell for him. She grew to hate Batman, who she believed was “determined to make life miserable for my angel.” Afterwards being fired, Harley snapped. She put on the harlequin costume and broke her puddin’ out of the asylum.
Of course there’s more to Harley than what she come across as. She’s a psychiatrist, a Ph.D, and she can read people expertly. She knows the Joker well enough to give him exactly what he wants. Addressing a group of hogtied spectators, she says, “He made me understand that in order ta be free, I hadda push aside what I knew an’ become a whole new person. Someone who could be anything they wanted . . . He really loved the ditz, so I played along.” That’s mad love for you.
Harley is more interesting when she’s away from the Joker. In her current comic title, she’s dumped him and moved back to Brooklyn, where she gets into crazy hijinks with the crew of a burlesque show, her newly formed Gang of Harleys, her sometimes-girlfriend Poison Ivy, and a stuffed beaver named Bernie that talks to her. It’s sexy without being sleazy and funny as hell. Harley might not be a hero but she’s making a new life for herself. Dini is hopeful for her: “No one should stay pining for someone (particularly that someone) too long. . . . It’s a tentatively hopeful step in a detestably right direction.”
That’s the Harley I want to see. Sure, she’s made some regrettable decisions, especially when it comes to romance, but she’s still optimistic about her future and willing to greet life head-on. If she’s got a baseball bat to wield, so much the better.