Harley Quinn has the kind of easy charisma that charms geeks of every inclination to her side. It used to be that she enthralled us through a black-humoured cuteness, her twisted naivete encouraged by the Joker’s sporadic affection. Her chase for his approval was the lens through which we could empathise with her actions, whether giggling aggressor, capricious chameleon or the pleading idealist.
Although her first jaunts with Poison Ivy in Batman the Animated Series (TAS) were some of her most empowering moments, she never quite broke out to become her own character. She was impossible to imagine without her puddin’ stalking somewhere close behind, and even when she made a bid for freedom, it was only ever to win back his favour. In her maiden origin story, as written by Paul Dini, she comes out of the dark deco world of TAS an untarnished outsider, a beacon begging to be defiled. All her grades and potential as a criminal psychologist are in the right place, and so she’s given the toughest clown to crack. A dream job, as it happens.
When Dr Harleen Quinzel sits opposite the Joker, she places herself in the twisted hands of his romantic ideal, as that’s what he believes himself to be; the artist, representing the truth of a mad world that Batman shadows with his overbearing ideology. Where the Batman signifies the ideal of an ultimately unattainable order, Joker is the acceptance of a shattered world in extremis.
Somewhere inside, Harley is doubtful of her ability to do any good. Just as the true identity and mask of Bruce Wayne and Batman are inverted, Harley’s consistent poise as Dr Quinzel was her mask, the harlequin Harley Quinn her hidden truth. As she comes to empathise and then fall in love with the Joker, she feels that truth awaken within, expressed as unconditional devotion. But since she broke the psychopath’s heart, and a few other things besides, in her comics run under Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti, she’s transformed. Given free roam in the sisterhoods that did her more good since her early days, she can make the tragic slapstick, and the sentimental truly powerful.