Have you ever gotten into a relationship with someone you really really like, only to suddenly realize that they have very few redeeming qualities? I’ve had a couple of break-ups like this, where, in retrospect, all I can see are the many red flags I ought to have seen from the beginning. “How did we spend so long together?” I’ll ask myself and my friends, bewildered. “Were they like that when I met them?” I was clearly brainwashed, somehow, to be so happy. It can be very, very confusing.
I get confused like that when I think about Harley Quinn. Maybe when I first met her she was charming, with her emphatic accent and boisterous insanity, but she’s devolved so thoroughly since Batman: The Animated Series that I can’t believe I didn’t break up with her sooner. Why did I spend so much time following her around?
I still don’t have a perfect answer for that question. The best I can figure is that it’s because we met when we were both so young, and because she was personally responsible for my adult love for comics.
You see, I’d loved the Batman cartoon as a kid, especially whenever Harley and the Joker were onscreen. Though I didn’t know the term, I recognized the humor in the way these villains acted as foils for the Bat. But when the series ended, pursuing those characters into the comic world never seemed like an option. Maybe it was because I went to a really small school, and didn’t know anyone who was interested in comics. Maybe it was because there were no comic book shops around. Maybe it just seemed like social suicide, particularly for an adolescent girl.
Whatever the reason, it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I got into comic books.
It started with a last-minute Halloween costume, which I pieced together from my memory of Harley Quinn, combined with a little black dress and a lot of red fabric. Then there were the “Batman: Arkham” games, which I never would have played except to see her, and the beautiful short film “Red Queen,” which I pushed on everyone who knew anything about her. But I got really sucked in by “Batman: Assault on Arkham” which simultaneously established Harley as an adult, and called back to the villain I had known in my youth. Honestly the film really ought to be called “Harley Quinn: Assault on Arkham” because she completely steals the show. I wanted more, and I knew the best way to get it was to get into comic books.
I think it was easier because I was only there for Harley Quinn. I didn’t have to read the entire backlog of Batman comics, because I was only interested in her.
I began with an early printing of Mad Love, which is the perfect gateway drug for any Animated Series Harley fan. When that was done I looked for my fix in Harley Quinn, Suicide Squad and Gotham City Sirens, which offered a slightly-less-palatable version of the woman I thought I knew. Here I was, a graduate student of literature (studying representations of females in popular culture texts), and I was blissfully ignoring everything awful about Harley’s character. I was so in love with her that nothing else seemed to matter.
If you’ve ever dated someone who’s a bad fit for you, then you can probably anticipate how things between Harley and me finally ended. I started to talk about my feelings with my friends, who knew I liked her because of my costumes and the books I was reading. I started trying to defend her– her horrible choice in men, her oversexualization, etc.– and started to have an increasingly difficult time of it. Imagine that your best-friend/sibling/child/loved-one tells you that they are moving in with their unemployed and potentially destructive significant other. Do you have concerns? I would, and they did too.
But I think it was Hot Topic that finally snapped me out of it. When I was a kid, Hot Topic was a lot scarier. The people who worked there always seemed really hard, and everything had spikes on it. Today, Hot Topic is the place where cult fandom goes to breed, spreading out into the mainstream like malaria on mosquito wings. I see young women in there all the time, picking up Disney, Doctor Who, and Adventure Time swag.
So when Harley Quinn exploded into Hot Topic, I suddenly realized that tons of girls were going to be exposed.
I guess it was one thing when it was me excusing Harley for her sins, and a completely other one when I considered the idea that young women might idealize a woman that we know primarily for being in an extremely abusive relationship with a famous villain. Even apart from him she’s sexualized and objectified and idiotic, not to mention psychotic. She’s the ‘manic pixie dream girl,’ on a terrifying new level, and, at any moment, she could go back to the Joker. I might be old enough to know that how I choose and treat my relationships ought to be different from how Harley would, but what about impressionable young girls?
I suddenly realized that if Harley wasn’t good enough for them, then she probably wasn’t good enough for me, either. I told my friends I was breaking up with her.
“You should try Marvel if you want a good superheroine,” said one, sounding annoyingly unsurprised. “They have some pretty good ones now.”
“Really?” I said, doubtful. I couldn’t think of any Marvel heroines except for the Invisible Woman, and Sue Storm had never interested me. But Harley Quinn had broken my heart, and I was vulnerable to suggestion.
I guess you could say I was rebounding, so I gave Marvel a chance.
I started reading Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel, and that lead to G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel, and then Thor came out, and I was reading that too. I was so stunned by the sudden availability of strong females in mainstream comics that I actually changed my graduate thesis to write about it, highlighting the way that Marvel has influenced the industry for the better. It taught me a lot about myself, particularly about what I spend my time on now that I’m an adult.
I still find myself grimacing whenever I find new Harley Quinn memorabilia spreading, because I know there are loads of other Harley fans out there who might never leave her. I worry that the upcoming Suicide Squad movie will make her even more powerful, and that DC will never really address the issue. But the truth is that I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Harley. Afterall, she did something much more valuable for me than simply making me a comics reader, though I’ll always be grateful for that. Harley Quinn forced me to break up with her, and if I hadn’t, I might never have given Marvel a chance.