May 12th, 2008
By God I’ve written some long winded posts. Everyone else has only managed to throw up one or two bigguns, but this here mindless poodle has at least five to his name and it’s time to give myself a break, in the name of my love-life, my free time and my sanity. So here it is, the first of a what will be an occassional, but altogether less masochistic, series of posts where I try to get to grips with what makes some of our fave baddies tick and why they have proven to be so popular. And maybe along the way unearth a few ideas that will serve as pointers, guiding today’s creative powerhouses towards a deeper understanding of their subject matter and, resultingly, a brighter, altogether more interesting future for the characters themselves.
Because everyone at DC gives a flying fuck what I think.
I’ve got this annoying writer’s nervous tick which means I try to make sure that each of my posts somehow segues neatly into the next – that there’s a thematic throughline, even if it’s only tangential. Of course, with this in mind, it makes sense that today’s Rogue of choice, Harley Quinn, should initially spring from a cartoon.
And you can tell because, to this very day, no matter how much time is spent on trying to flesh her out, she still retains cartoonish qualities: she’s wildly expressive, kooky and wide-eyed, she wields Acme style mallets and, moreover, there’s something springy, two-dimensional and slippery about her – all that insane bouncing and backflipping between frames and the way she pours herself across the panels. But there’s something else that adds to the general feeling of intangibility that pervades Harley. Something to do with her obsessive love affair with the Joker and the way that it’s almost her one, essential, characteristic. The way he defines her. She’s incomplete. Ephemeral.
But we’ll save further musings on that score for later….
There are very few comics characters who have successfully made the transition from cartoon to comic book. To be honest, I really can’t think of any off the top of my head – certainly not any with the enduring power of Ms Quinn. So why is she so popular? Well, I would hazard that there are a variety of contributory factors. To begin with, she has oodles of cheesecake potential – I had to wade through a sea of Harley porn in order to find the images that litter this post. Fandom just loves to slaver over a new, curvy, supervillain, but I think there’s more to it than that. As I mentioned above, her toonish roots come with the suggestion that she’s a caricature of a person. The line is simpler, less complex and perhaps less threatening, and her overall *plasticity* allows for a multitude of (im)possible permutations and violations – we’re back in Wile E Coyote territory, but for mature readers. Nasty. This combined with her potentially slashable relationship with Poison Ivy and the strong S&M dynamic between her and the Joker (more on both of these things later), make for some very dodgy, err… ‘fan art’ indeed.
Okay, Harley Quinn equals sexy-time – so far, so good – but moving on (because, you know: Eyyeuew!), there’s another good, surface, reason for her mass appeal…. Batman’s rogues can be divided into roughly two camps, the flamboyant colourful lunatics with their special gadgets, themed crimes and punned names (The Riddler, The Penguin, The Mad Hatter, Calender Man) and the leering, bestial, monstrous grotesques (Clayface, Bane, Killer Croc, The Joker). Alright, so there’s some overlap, but broadly speaking I’d say Harley fits very nicely into the former category. No matter how backbreaky the Batbooks get, this 1960s type tendency always makes its voice heard – it never quite goes away – and Harley remains its most recent, and consistent, expression. If Batman’s Gotham is, quite literally, an Underworld – with all its mythic conotations of dream, delirium and madness – where one man attempts to engage in battle his primal demons, then it makes sense that the shapes it adopts should occassionally veer towards the garishly improbable and dementedly carnivalesque. Psychosis doesn’t just come in grey – sometimes it sports its very own jokermobile and oversized, branded, chainsaw.
How’s that for a defence of the sillier aspects of the Batverse?
So Harley’s representative of a grand old bat-tradition, but she’s also reflects a more modern comic book trend – reiteration. If Botswana Beast ever gets it finished, you can look forward to a more complete overview of the new Prismatic Age and what it means bedecking your screens at some time in the future, but, for today’s purposes at least, the basic idea doesn’t require a great deal of preamble: comic book fans have started to really dig *anti-matter* knock-offs of their favourite heroes and villains. Just look at everything from early nineties Spiderman, to Supermans Red and Blue, to the replacement Batmen. Something about these clones serves to reinforce the original, underlining their iconic status and extending their reach. They appeal to the post-modernist in all of us, who secretly enjoys seeing the superhero subverted, reappropriated and transformed. Harley performs this function in relation to the Joker. And that really leads me onto the core ideas that inspired me to put together this article.
Harley Quinn’s origin story can be summarised like this: top psychiatrist, Dr. Harleen Quinzel, sets out to unravel the mystery of the Joker, but very quickly becomes dangerously infatuated with him, spiralling into a psychotic love affair that spells doom for all things bat-related. It’s the classic needy oddball meets charismatic murderer and falls head-over-heels narrative all over again. We’ve heard it all before – in the movies, the cliches people spout over a pint in the pub about the magnetism of the psychopathic personality type and in a million fan letters winging their way to the maximum security wing of your local prison. It’s a cliche, and, frankly, pretty boring. So why should we give a shit? Why on Earth does Harley’s tale resonate so powerfully? Because, inspite of some crappy writer’s best attempts to make him so, the Joker is no ordinary psycho.
Say what you like about Grant Morrison’s Joker diagnosis, at least his Joker-as-reflection-of-this-year’s-current-shadowy-zeitgiest is as brave, insightful and ambitious a take on the Clown Prince of Crime and his instruction manual as any I’ve seen. It explains away his unpredictability and all his various, disjointed incarnations better than any other model so far. In short, it makes him scary again. Just as, I would argue, the sad fate of Harleen Quinzel does too. You see, I relayed the skeleton of the Harley/Joker pairing above, but I think there’s a different, deeper and infinitely more terrifying story to tell that roils and churns beneath the surface. There’s a new myth here that the readers feel in their hearts and bones. What really happened there in that padded cell that night, as the lightning flashed outside and the madmen wailed and Harleen Quinzel gave way to Harley Quinn?
A lot of the bat-writers seem to forget that the Joker is a supervillain. Sure, thay pay lip service to the idea – they give him grand crimes to commit, they dress him up in his costume (that old purple suit) and he hangs out with other spandex-clad bad guys – however, they often forget, or fail to convincingly articulate, his real power: his insanity. the strength of his ability to irrationalise the world around him is of a comparable magnitude to Superman’s abiltity to bench-press mountains. Any story that breathes new life into his super-karayzeeness is going good guns as far as I’m concerned. Harley’s is one such story. So here’s the way I’d tell it.
After months and months of meditating upon the occult mysteries of the leering mandala of the Joker’s face, Dr. Quinzel reached a kind of transcendent state, where she achieved a perfect union with the unearthly madness he represents. This unholy, inverted, enlightenment – this triumph of the qlippothic over the divine – effectively overthrew her old, human, personality, replacing it with a cancerous, soul obliterating fragment of the Joker’s. In short – fancy language aside – after peeling back his mask and penetrating his heart, the object of Harleen’s affections retaliated by crawling into her and murdering everything she was.
This isn’t the stuff of Montell Williams.
This is the stuff of horror stories.
So, in true prismatic style, everything that’s great about Harley reinforces everything that’s great about the Joker. At an essential level, the tragedy of Harley Quinn is her inability to return to total selfhood. From a certain point of view she functions as a free-wheeling homuculus of the Joker. So what else does she have to say about him? To begin with, there’s the notion that the Clown at Midnight’s mind isn’t simply diseased, but rather it is the disease itself – that it’s not, in reality, a ‘mind’ at all – and that prolonged exposure to it results in death and madness. Harley embodies this. The Joker’s psyche is the evil, DC universe duplicate of the Frankverse discussed below. It has viral qualities. Arkham Asylum doesn’t just act as prison and rehabilitation centre, in the Joker’s case it acts as quarantine too. He’s a psychic bio-hazard. But if that isn’t enough freaky bad shit to be going along with, there’s also some other really hair-raising stuff to explore. And for that we have to take a slightly closer look at the sort of being Dr. Quinzel has become. Oh, and a quick detour to Tibet.
I first came across the tulpa in one of the many books on Tibetan buddhism that litter my Mum’s house, years before Doctor Doom made an appearance as one in Fantastic Four 1234. Basically, the idea goes like this: if one combines a colossal effort of will with the right magicky hoohaa then one can produce a living, breathing mental projection, with opposable thumbs, consciousness and a personal mission statement. And what a fantastic lens with which to view Harley! I mean, it’s tempting enough to view her as a clear cut case of possession, what with all that Rag Dolly Anna-style twirling and flip-flopping about (and with her history as a toon and those jingly bells, she looks like a toy, afterall). That would be enough wouldn’t it? It certainly explains away why a boring, untrained and all too human psychiatrist should suddenly, overnight, have the agility, speed, flexibility and high-kicking potential that you’d need to take on Batman if it’s just the Joker virus pulling the strings. Yeah, I like that take – Harley Quinn as living doll/toy – but the tulpa one’s just as fascinating: Harley as solid state thoughtform.
I said there was something ‘slippery’ about Harley earlier, when perhaps I should have used the word fluid. She’s like a strip of playing-card coloured mercury, unspooling across the fight scene. And mercury is the sacred metal of Hermes, god of communication, language and thought. In many ways she has more physicality than her pale-faced progenitor – the Joker’s never been that tasty in a fight – and she could be described as affording him the ability to act on (and communicate with) the world in a way that he couldn’t before. She’s his dreams made flesh. This perspective makes sense of their strange but undying love affair. He could never kill her – she’s part of him. She’s an expression of his being that from time to time he may tire of and set the thumb racks on – the Joker’s relationship with himself is anything but coherent and consistent – but will always hold some fascination. She, in turn, desires nothing but to return to him, to clamber back inside the clamouring, relentless hell we might loosely describe as his soul. And there’s a certain poetry to the idea that this blurry, red and black protrusion of same should take the form of a woman, implying not only their intrinsic, satanic union, Lakshmi and Vishnu-style, but also the captain and his ship, the driver and his car…. Without him, she’s a Mary Celeste of a person, floating empty and unruddered, drifting out to sea.
But with him, she kicks ass! In fact, as part of a team, Harley’s always hot to trot. It’s rare, apart from in her recent, *yawn*, rehabilitation storyline, that you happen across the subject of this post alone. If she’s not breaking into Arkham to rescue the Joker, she’s cosying up in bed with her sometime flatmate, Pamela Isley, and this also serves to illustrate her obsessive desire to complete herself. One might argue that the Ivy/Harley relationship is far healthier than the one she enjoys with the Joker, offering, as it does, the possibility of a life beyond being the cackling one’s uber-henchman. Still, though, ultimately Harley comes off as a symbiotic beast, and I think this frustrates traditional readings of Harley as bisexual. I would proffer the idea that her sexuality might be more accurately described as queer, in that it makes no distinction between male and female and will flow in whatever direction her whims, and her desire to connect, take at any given time. She isn’t fifty/fifty either way, but a shape-shifter whose lusts are contigent on her needs. Needs which may very wildly according to who’s around and who can act as an outlet for her zany psychosis.
I think its fair to say that, when unpacked, there’s something frighteningly misogynistic about Harley Quinn. Whatever way you look at it, she loses a large degree of her iconic power when she’s not a vessel for her ghoulish father/lover. Her entire raison d’etre centres around him. But since when has a bit of misogyny daunted comicdom? We may not like the idea that she’s been mind-raped by the devil, and we’re not supposed to. This stuff should be unpleasant. The Joker is pure bloody evil and what do you think he’d do with the soul of a bendy, pliable, female super-fan? Okay, sometimes he’d just kill her outright or get her up like an elephant, but, depending on how dreadful he was feeling that day, he might try another tack… It’s a good thing all this horribleness is subtext, but we’re all adults here (I hope) and this is the over eighteen version of events. As I mentioned a post ago, it’s an essential component of the cartoon that the characters exist in a state of almost divine grace, where, despite being put through the physical and narrative wringer, they’ll always come up smiling next week, unscathed. And it’s the same with comics’ characters. The successful ones are a brand too, and to retain brand integrity they naturally refute any real change. You can kill them, reform them or dress them up in different costumes, but they’ll always come bouncing back, revised very slightly for a new readership, but in all the ways that matter largely unchanged. It’ll be the same for Harley Quinn, whatever the outcome of this bold new Amazonian course she’s headed on. And for those of you that doubt her intrinsic link to the Joker and think she can exist for any significant amount of time outwith it? Well, just wait and see, guys and gals – Harley will be back in his ever-lovin’(?) arms in no time, just as she is in the ‘toons. It’s her fundamental, perfected state – her status quo:
a sad, wise-cracking puppet zipping in bullet-time over and under and through the laser beam alarm systems of Gotham’s high-security vaults, actualising the nefarious schemes of her terrible master.