HARLEY QUINN #25
Written by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti
Art by Chad Hardin and Alex Sinclair
Published by DC Comics
Release Date: February 17, 2016
The most anticipated showdown in recent memory is finally upon us, and it has nothing to do with Ben Affleck or Robert Downey Jr. Harley and The Joker come face to face for the first time in over two years — the length of Conner, Palmiotti, and Hardin’s run — putting everything on the line for the most pivotal moment in her publication history.
When the current volume was first announced, the expectation around the series, despite Harley’s perennial popularity, was that she didn’t have the substance make it on her own without The Joker for long. In some corners, that mentality persisted long after the first year’s monumental success. After two years of wild success and the questions around her viability as a solo act quieting down to a murmur, it’s the ideal time to bring him back into the picture for more than just the satisfaction of silencing dissent.
Underneath the embrace of a neo-burlesque aesthetic and darkly satirical humor central to the title’s success, Conner and Palmiotti have been rewriting Harley’s relationship with The Joker with this collision as the eventual end goal since their first issue. The genius of the execution is that even as they weaned his presence out of the narrative to let Harley stand on her own two feet, they began introducing plot elements that explored the nexus of sex, violence, submission, and dominance that informed their relationship — but had, up until now, never been satisfactorily explored. The most visible way that they achieved this was by introducing BDSM imagery and dynamics into the comic to provide a context to differentiate between healthy explorations of transgressive sexuality and abusive relationship dynamics.
Prior to Palmiotti and Conner’s conception there was always an implicit understanding that The Joker held a certain allure to her and that his manipulations were near impossible to overcome. But those prior incarnations insidiously undercut Harley’s competence and agency in a way that has frequently implied that she either instigated or was in some way deserving of the abusive dynamic that she fell into. Harley, as a psychiatrist, has always been portrayed as being somewhat of a crank, up to and including being a Dr. Phil parody in The Batman 2004 animated series, which, on the surface, is par for the course in Gotham. The contemporary Batman mythos is, after all, very consciously and proudly built on crank psychiatry.
Hugo Strange is frequently depicted as a parody of the worst excesses of Freudian psychoanalysis and The Scarecrow is generally portrayed as an equally extreme reflection of Jung. The difference between them and Harley, up until now, was that their villainy has been defined by their brilliance and hers by heavily implied incompetence, when it’s remembered at all. The dominant version of Harley’s backstory that came out of the otherwise fantastic Kesel/Dodson run was that Harley hadn’t really earned her credentials as a criminal psychiatrist. She’d slept her way into passing grades. So, falling prey to the Joker’s depredations has carried with it the implication of cosmic retribution for taking those shortcuts. Portraying Harley as being weak willed, incompetent, or simply ditzy has never done anything but reinforce painful stereotypes about victims of intimate partner abuse.
Which is why the current portrayal of Harley as a working psychiatrist is so critical to the run and the execution of this issue in particular. Harley is still, by real world standards, a crank whose methods seem to be loosely based on the work of Wilhelm Reich and Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston for her iconoclastic ideas about sexual liberation and frequent employment of bondage play as a therapeutic tool. More importantly, she’s portrayed as being as effective and dedicated to her work as both Crane and Strange, removing questions of competence and agency from the conversation around how she could fall under the sway of The Joker. We’re meant to believe that all it would take to turn Batman into The Joker is one bad day, and yet Harley is repeatedly portrayed as being unable to have one good day where she can escape the inexorability of his grasp.
Questions of class and education play very dangerously into conversations around intimate partner abuse, and so as trifling as the topic of how Harley is perceived within her field may appear, comparing her dynamic with The Joker to the next nearest equivalent, Bryan Fuller’s conception of Hannibal, puts things into sharp focus. Mads Mikkelsen’s portrayal of Hannibal Lecter, who seduces, manipulates, and destroys people of both sexes is received in a very different manner than The Joker, which in turn alters the perception of his victims. Lecter is presented as being a man of great intelligence and refined taste that people cannot help but be drawn to, and his victims, Will Graham and Bedelia Du Maurier in particular, are depicted as being at the very pinnacle of their fields. Everyone is helplessly in Lecter’s orbit and the audience accepts it at face value because of the aspirational qualities of everyone involved.
Imagine seeing both scenarios through the eyes of a typical prosecutor looking to bring either man to justice. Would you prefer to prosecute Lecter or The Joker? Would you prefer to present the case on behalf of Bedelia or Harley? Both victims are pre-eminent crank psychiatrists in fictional worlds built on crank psychiatry who fell under the sway of irresistible predators. Yet Harley wears her hair like that. Dresses like that. Hangs out with those kind of people. It’s easy to look disdainfully at Harley Quinn, The Joker, and the people who find either character enticing, but at the end of the day the difference between the Hannibal and Harley Quinn fan base is the number of zeroes on the price tag of a pop culture branded dress at Hot Topic and a Jean Paul Gaultier one at Nordstrom. The appetites being catered to are fundamentally the same.
I don’t pretend to understand the particular attraction to The Joker, largely because I have no particular attraction to men, but I can see the importance of taking great care in constructions of abusive relationship dynamics within spaces that explore transgressive sexuality, especially in light of both the abominable way that Kate Kane’s abuse at the hands of Nocturna was portrayed in the most recent volume of Batwoman and the exemplary way that Midnighter recently portrayed the revelation and aftermath of Prometheus’ depredations. There is a very acute need in popular fiction for narratives that make clean and clear distinctions between healthy depictions of consensual sex and the abusive dynamics that can result in the absence of those distinctions. Harley Quinn is one of the few mainstream examples that deals directly with BDSM and focuses on a queer protagonist.
Conner and Palmiotti take great pains in establishing and maintaining Harley’s agency as she undertakes to break Mason out of Arkham and risk running afoul of The Joker in the process. Everyone close to her, Poison Ivy in particular, offers her assistance and express concern for her ability to get through it without backsliding, but all understand that succeed or fail, it’s something that Harley has to confront on her own. In previous, lower stakes situations, Ivy has been there to bail Harley out, most notably in Harley’s botched attempt to rescue Ivy from Arkham in the last Annual, and more recently in a dream sequence featuring Harley and The Joker as rival pirate captains and Ivy as the mermaid at the center of their dispute.
In the latter instance, Harley gave into the mutually destructive attraction between her and The Joker in a heavily eroticized sequence that intelligently explored the hold it still had over her, but as Harley locks herself in with The Joker for real, that element dissipates entirely. The Joker is the same as ever and wants to force it into a sexual encounter, and for that reason this issue is potentially very upsetting for victims of sexual trauma, but there’s no thrill or joy in this for Harley. She’s there to send the message that she’s no longer under his control and she’s her own woman. To Harley, this is the equivalent of Batman’s fight with the mutant leader in The Dark Knight Returns.
While the result of the confrontation was never truly in doubt, it remains a harrowing experience because of all the times before that she did fall back in with him. Conner and Palmiotti, however, are very aware of the sensitivity of the issue, especially after having heard from readers who have gotten out of abusive relationships and found strength in the current run. The rumblings around the upcoming Suicide Squad film and Harley’s hair moving to the dip dye look worn by Margot Robbie brought with it speculation that the pair would be reunited, but the cover revealing Harley’s new hair came with a cheeky parody of the jacket Robbie wears in the film. The film version proclaims that she’s The Joker’s property. Conner’s cover has a graphic of him behind bars with “Owned!” written above it. As much as anyone wants the thrill of going into a good story without knowing the ending, this is one situation where the right call was leaving the resolution in plain sight for those who needed the reassurance.
What is surprising, however, is how they choose to resolve the situation that brought Harley back to Arkham: Mason and his conviction for killing the mayor’s son. The boat that Ivy stole to ferry them back to New York was, of course, Batman’s and he intercepts them, none too pleased about the joyride. However, while Harley was in Arkham, Tony negotiated Mason’s surrender with Batman, arranging for him to go into witness protection with his mother in exchange for his help in bringing down the mayor. Instead of being rewarded for her clean break from The Joker with the chance to pursue a healthy relationship with Mason, that relationship is the sacrifice Harley has to make in order to get clear from The Joker.
It’s interesting to note that when pressed on the question of Harley and Ivy fully consummating their relationship, Palmiotti deflected by saying that if he committed to an answer on the topic it would spoil the lead in, should they pursue it. While it’s far too soon to say with any measure of certainty, we may in fact be staring right at that lead in with this development. Either way, the message for now is that Harley has achieved something worth having and protecting on Coney Island. Something she can appreciate while also being effectively single, and that’s the higher priority.
While Harley Quinn has benefited from a broad array of fantastic artistic contributors in its two year reign of terror, the sensitivity of this particular issue required that it be a solo effort for Chad Hardin on line art with Alex Sinclair on colors. It’s easy to gloss over Hardin’s work as being conventional and an easy choice for this title because of how similar his figurative work frequently is to Terry Dodson, who brought Harley from animation to the comics page alongside Karl Kesel nearly a decade ago. But Hardin’s unparalleled grasp of body language has delivered on all of the most pivotal moments in the series. There isn’t a single word necessary to understand the clear difference between the bloody make out sequence between Harley and Mason prior to his transfer to Arkham and the fight between her and The Joker this issue, but Hardin goes much further than simply clarifying intent.
There’s a keen spacial awareness in how he portrays the fight, integrating details like the cot into relevant panels to maintain a keen understanding of just how small a space they’re occupying, but the most impressive bit comes right back to body language. There’s a panel where Harley takes The Joker’s back and prepares to punch him in the head, but Hardin doesn’t take the expected route of a bent elbow cocked back to strike. Instead she holds her arm out straight with her wrist angled inwards, which is exactly how a trained MMA fighter would do it. There’s many ways to draw a fight, and depending on what the intent is, there’s rarely one clear best way to do it. Bengal stands out as being one of the best current artists at communicating the force behind a blow in motion. Jason Latour is unparalleled for his ability to render a punishing point of impact. Chad Hardin’s particular skill at replicating the true to life choreography of a judo throw or the most effective way to punch someone in the side of the head while straddling their back takes a bit more attention to detail and several hours worth of UFC consumption to fully appreciate, but is no less praiseworthy.
It doesn’t take much to pick up this issue and understand why Harley locking herself in a cell with the Joker and beating him bloody is remarkable. This is a watershed moment for the character that many longtime fans, myself included, have waited twenty years to see. It’s an issue that everyone, regardless of their opinion of this particular run, who has any interest in Harley Quinn needs to see. That said, the longer you’ve been on this ride and the closer you scrutinize it, the greater it is.
The Verdict: 10/10