Happy Valentine’s Day! It’s the 2nd Day of Batman Week here on my blog, and I couldn’t possibly pass up the chance to talk about one of DC Comics‘ most notorious couples: The Joker & Harley Quinn. They’ve caused chaos, controversy and destruction, but just how did this villainous duo come about? What do they represent? How has their twisted relationship changed over the years?
Let’s start with The Joker. The Joker has been Batman’s arch-nemesis since the 1940’s, but no one knows his real name, and his only known origin story which is considered canon is portrayed in 1988’s The Killing Joke by Alan Moore, where he is portrayed as a former engineer failing comedian who agrees to work as the infamous Red Hood for criminals who plan to rob the playing card factory next door to his previous workplace. The comedian agrees to this due to lack of money to support his pregnant wife. During the robbery, he his informed that his wife had tragically died in a household accident. Batman shows up to investigate the disturbance, and the comedian has no other choice but to escape through a pound lock of chemical waste. This experience causes his change of hair, skin and lip colour to the iconic bright green, chalk white and ruby red. He is ultimately mentally driven to the brink of madness, and he blames Batman ever after for pursuing him that night.
Harley Quinn wasn’t introduced into the Batman universe until the 1992, where she made her first official appearance in Batman: The Animated Series in the equivalent of a walk-on role as the Joker’s accomplice. In the 1994 graphic novel Mad Love by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, her character’s origins are explored as she is reintroduced as Arkham Asylum psychiatrist Dr Harleen Quinzel, who is the assigned therapist to The Joker. Instead of curing his madness, Harleen becomes infatuated with him, she dives deeper into his psyche, and ultimately falls in love with him. Harley frequently allowed The Joker to escape. When he is returned to the Asylum badly beaten by Batman, Harley becomes insane upon the sight of his reduced state. She quits her job, disguises herself in a jester costume with a new alter ego and begins a life of crime with her beloved “puddin'”.
They say the line between love and hate wears very thin, and this has never been more truthful than compared with Harley and The Joker. Over the years, Harley and The Joker’s relationship has been portrayed as unhealthy, embarking on violent and abusive, both physically and mentally. Examples include The Joker pushing Harley into a vat of chemicals causing the bleaching of her skin to match his own, as well as consistently punishing her whenever he feels like it. He even trapped her inside a launching rocket! The list of incidents is endless. And yet, despite all this, The Joker has manipulating methods of reeling Miss Quinn back in, many of these methods striking similarities for victims of real-life domestic abuse.
The trouble with this pairing all boils down to one thing: a lethal dependence on each other. If it wasn’t for Harley, The Joker would still be holed up in Arkham, a lonely lunatic with no one for company. If it wasn’t for The Joker, Harley wouldn’t be living the criminal lifestyle she somehow deems liberating from her old life. Both of them know this, and that is the glue that has constantly bound them together.
In more recent times, namely the New 52 and Rebirth comic continuities, Harley and The Joker are no longer a couple. After a “falling out”, Harley has had a tonne of adventures on her own as part of the Gotham City Sirens, Suicide Squad and her new life as a landlady on Coney Island (just to name a few), proving she can be just as witty, intelligent and dangerous on her own, fighting new enemies and making new allies. She is far more independent and less naive than her former self, and she has even set out to strike The Joker down for his previous mistreating of her. She has left her life of crime behind in favour of fighting criminals aided by her superhuman agility, which was gifted to her by her faithful friend Poison Ivy. This is the Harley that many have come to love and appreciate, as she is a sassy, confident, fun-loving young woman who is a powerful survivor.
Of course, this is one of the reasons the recent DCEU Suicide Squad movie was critiqued, because it “romanticised” Harley and The Joker’s relationship. It’s true that several elements of this movie have edited the source material to do just that; instead of The Joker pushing Harley into the vat of chemicals, Harley herself chooses to fall in, and The Joker dives in after her. The Joker is seen attempting to rescue Harley on a few occasions, even saving her from death by pushing her out of a plane due to explode and appearing to sacrifice himself in the process. Amanda Waller describes the couple as “the King and Queen of Gotham City (and God help anyone who disrespected the Queen)” alluding that The Joker is somewhat over-protective of Harley. However, The Joker’s psychopathic abusive behaviour is still present in the scene where he repetitively gives Dr Harleen electric shock treatment, and in a deleted motorbike chase scene where Harleen concludes “a heart scares you, but a gun doesn’t?” when confronting him at gun point. Like many of Hollywood’s famous romances, this is a traditional story of a woman trying to “fix” the troubled leading man through love. It’s not the first time this toxic kind of relationship has been shown in modern media, and it certainly most likely won’t be the last.Let’s view the two characters at face value: they’re popular because they are psychologically fascinating. They’re entirely unpredictable, and keep us intrigued with what card they’ll play next. For me, personally, I feel that The Joker and Harley Quinn represent madness and insanity, whether they are working together or going it solo. They are both powerful adversaries in their own right with their own unique set of skills. They’re villainous clown imagery is iconic and synonymous with their personas. They’re the perfect polo-opposite to Batman’s solemn presence. I do believe that their relationship will continue to evolve, and whatever will happen next, we’ll continue to be part of their indelicate dance with daggers.