The Ascendance Of Harley Quinn edited by Shelley E. Barba and Joy M. Perrin (book review).

Batman has new villains added to his rogues’ gallery from time to time. Some like Killer Croc and Bane have become more prominent over the years. What was the biggest surprise was Harley Quinn as she came from ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ in 1992 as a character originally intended to pop out of the Joker’s birthday cake and caught the viewers’ imagination and became his hunch-person instead. Well sort of. As you read this book, you’ll get to learn more about her if you didn’t know enough before.

Creator Paul Dini developing Harley Quinn and she finally made the transition to the comicbooks medium in 1999, which he was also involved in. I think the biggest surprise was discovering I actually reviewed her first stories in the ‘Mad Love’ graphic novel without realising it. They also recommend you read that graphic novel as many of the writers here refer to it a lot as it defines her character. Harley Quinn has a timeless quality that makes you think she’s always been there. Probably the most significant thing was to pull her away from the shadow of the Joker which would have limited her appearances to only with him. She’s even adapted to the various DC Universe changes over the years.

The various writers in this book, ‘The Ascendance Of Harley Quinn’ examine her history and popularity. When you consider that most of Batman’s villains are also insane, it’s hardly surprising that Harley Quinn fits right in as she used to be the Joker’s psychiatrist. Mind you, avoiding the Dark Knight also seems to be part of her plan. Just in case you think this book is all optimism, Brandon Benge doesn’t think Harley will last although I doubt if many will agree with him in this book after over 20 years. Quite why he bases that purely on sales doesn’t make sense. Most comicbook characters go through phases of popularity and sales aren’t likely to reach the heights of days of old anymore.

It would hardly be surprising that these writers examine the Joker’s connection to Harley and how much of a love/hate relationship for both of them. Michael Sirimski points out that she is a victim of hybristophilia – a condition where women are attracted to imprisoned serial killers regardless of their ways. The analysis is fascinating and disturbing, more so as those who are studying these killers are not immune to their…for the want of a better word, ‘charm’. As this doesn’t appear to be male-orientated, it does suggest more should be done to protect the fairer sex who are studying such criminals.

The analysis of Harley Quinn’s appearance in the animation series is very thorough. I wished their budget had extended to photos, more so as her costumes are discussed. I find it less surprising that her early appearances had had dressed as a harlequin. After all, that is what her name is based off. It’s only in later years has her wardrobe been extended but that’s true of all the Batman’s villainesses.

Therein also lies a problem that none of the writers really pick up on. No matter the medium, when a writer creates a character, they really don’t do the kind of analysis as shown here on creation. They might research a particular condition if they want to stay true to it but not from a psychological profile. A lot of the time, it’s more a matter setting some perimeters and how and who they react with and recycle variations of it. With Harley Quinn being dotty or besotted on the Joker and him not understanding or abusing the love or trust is more to do with dramatic needs. This happens a lot in perpetuity in comicbooks and there are a lot of examples of that across the entire media. Changing that was more to get Harley Quinn to stand on her own, making her rather unusual in that regard. Crazy characters have a way of becoming popular with fans. If anything, it’s more of a surprise that we haven’t such groupies with other Batman villains.

I would correct the writers on their list of comicbooks and that villains with starring roles was a 1990s thing. Marvel had ‘Super-Villain Team-Up’ back in the mid-1970s which, in return, DC Comics not only had a ‘Joker’ title but also ‘The Secret Society Of Super-Villains’ and even Catwoman. It’s hardly a new phenomenon even 30 years ago.

There is a lot about Harley Quinn’s appearances so you might find it easier to track them all down, especially her animated tales.

Reflecting on this book, I do wonder if Harley’s fans are suffering a form of hybristophilia. Not that they like to see her abused by the Joker but see her as someone whom you would like to see get better or maybe they are taken by how she sees the world. The fact that Harley might not care and just enjoys the mayhem probably has its own attraction as she is probably doing things no one in their right mind would do. Then again, Harley is definitely not in her right mind.

GF Willmetts

July 2018

(pub: McFarland, 2017. 229 page indexed enlarged paperback. Price: £20.50 (UK), $19.99 (US). ISBN: 978-147666-523-8)

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