Is Harley Quinn a Sympathetic Character?
The fact that Harleen Quinzel aka ‘Harley Quinn’ is still a canon character is an unexpected turn. Most new villains and supporting characters get a dramatic introduction in the comics with an initial story arc planned in advance, and often fulfil a specific role in relation to the hero. During the production of an episode of Batman: The Animated Series that featured The Joker and a small group of cronies the animators decided to mix things up and make one female. They dressed her up in a harlequin outfit and named her in an appropriate fashion. The character was plenty of fun so when The Joker returned to wreck havoc Harley returned with him.
As the series continued the character grew and started to take up more of the spotlight. In later seasons Harley started to have entire episodes dedicated to her, such as her attempt to go straight in Harley’s Holiday. As a new fan favorite the viewers wanted to know where she came from. The episode Mad Love was written by Paul Dini as a way to put the story straight. Dr. Quinzeel was an intern at Arkham Asylum and hoped to make a name for herself exploiting Gotham’s super-criminals. Focusing her attention on The Joker she soon became a victim of his mind games and eventually fell in love with him. Donning her new identity she broke him out of the asylum and the pair started on a crime spree. This origin story also confirmed that their relationship was both a romantic and sexual one.
Before long Harley Quinn had made the jump to the comic series where she again took her place at The Joker’s side. The animated series had already shown that The Joker is an abusive partner but it was on the pages where this dynamic began to become explored in more detail. It’s often depicted as many abusive relationships are – when things are good between them they are really good. The two are very much in love and are committed to each other. When things are sour The Joker is the worst possible person to be in a relationship with, and Harley has been left close to death more than once. Her closest friend in the world of crime, Poison Ivy, plays a role in trying to protect Harley from The Joker and herself, offering her support and discouraging her from going back to him.
This leads Harley Quinn to be one of the most conflicted characters in the comic world. On one hand she’s a naive young women whose been manipulated by an older, charming and diabolical madman and is now trapped in an abusive cycle. On the other hand she met the Joker in an attempt to exploit him for her own means, and in the name of ‘love’ has become a deadly criminal and murderer.
Looking back on the fictional history of Harley Quinn provides some clues as to why she has turned out the way that she has. Throughout school and college she found it very easy to manipulate men into letting her have her way and would have been unprepared for the kind of mind games that The Joker unleashed on her, preventing her from seeing that she was being manipulated. The Joker certainly seemed surprised as to the extent of her dedication when she broke him out of Arkham. It is also revealed that another student she was in a relationship with at college committed suicide, leaving Harley emotionally damaged and susceptible to the machinations of The Joker. Having someone close to her end their own life also lead to Harley’s fascination with deranged characters like the inmates of Arkham.
During her life of crime Harley Quinn can show more sympathy and self-awareness than her contemporaries. In an early team-up with Poison Ivy she convinced Ivy to spare the life of a captured vigilante. On one occasion Harley has given herself up to incarceration at Arkham having recognised that she needed help, and on another reformed herself to work at a women’s shelter. Harley also earned her parole from Blackgate when she volunteered herself to assist Commissioner Gordon in capturing the Ventriloquist.
Regardless of some genuine attempts to better herself Harley usually finds herself falling back into bad habits. Possibly as a result of her naivety Harley is strongly influenced by those around her. When with The Joker she is almost as unpredictable and dangerous as he is, but when teamed with Poison Ivy she’s more inclined towards heists. During her periods of improvement the people around her play an important role in ensuring that she can follow that path. This attitude does lead Harley to under-appreciate the seriousness of the situations in which she finds herself, often viewing conflicts with Batman as a friendly rivalry rather than a brutal vigilante trying to take down criminals.
Although we do witness the atrocities that Harley has committed either by herself or alongside the Joker she’s often the character that the writers go to when they want a villain with an extra emotional push. When she blames herself for being abused by The Joker, or when she breaks down on learning about his death in the recent Suicide Squad, it creates a pretty hard hitting moment for a villain. In the recent game Arkham City‘s expansion pack the player must confront Harley to stop her terrorist activities, but when she’s left dangling from a rope, weeping over her lost love, it’s difficult not to feel sorry for her.
Ultimately she’s a character who can sway back and forth between being sympathetic and being feared. Her motivations come from an illogical, passionate love but she often lets herself be manipulated and abused as a result. One of the best stories that explores the dual perception of Harley Quinn comes from the Gotham City Sirens story that shows Harley confronting her own history with The Joker, and planning to break into Arkham and kill him. The story spends a considerable amount of time detailing Harley’s progress through Arkham, and depicts her collapsing mental state and her growing anger at Joker reaching a fever pitch in flashbacks and angry scrawls of ink. When she finds the Joker all it takes is for him to claim that he missed seeing her and she finds herself falling back into his arms.
As a villainous character she certainly can be sympathetic, and when she does try and go straight we want her to succeed. One the other hand we’d miss her madcap antics. For this reason Harley Quinn ranks as one of the best comic characters to emerge in a long, long time.