Written by Rob Richardson @robbrichardson
“Sometimes, to get to where you want to go, you gotta be somebody else for a while. You just can’t forget who you really are.” – Harley Quinn, Joker Rising (2013)
The bizarre relationship that exists between Harley Quinn and The Joker looks to rise even
more to the fore of popular culture following the release of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, already garnering mixed attention from fans and movie critics. What cannot be denied though is the connection between the picture’s female Belle Reve incarcerate and the latest incarnation of the Clown Prince of Crime. A cursory viewing may initially reveal a love affair based on obsession however looking deeper at the coupling – particularly outside of their most recent imagining – unfolds a complex and intriguing dependency that has become intrinsic to both characters for the foreseeable future…
Harley Quinn is notable as a being one of the first popular Batman villains to emerge from a media other than comic books. Created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, Harley appeared in Batman: The Animated Series throughout the early nineties as one of the Joker’s goons and was further developed in the standalone Mad Love (again by Dini and Timm) as readers became more intrigue by the origins and motivations of this unique character.
Of course, what fascinated most (and is something which weirdly mirrors Harley’s origin) was her relationship with Batman’s most notorious adversary.
Arriving at Gotham’s most iconic sanatorium, intern Harleen Quinzel begins her studies of the Joker under the illusion that finding a reasoning to his madness will propel her to the forefront of psychological studies. Unfortunately, this proves to be her undoing as she falls hopelessly in love with her patient, succumbing to his infectious insanity and, after he becomes brutally injured at the hands of the Caped Crusader, devoting herself to his cause forever, adopting the moniker of Harley Quinn (harlequin, get it?) and dressing as a jester/sexy cheerleader from there on.
Now, the fact that Harley loves the Joker is not what needs exploring here. It’s more than mere infatuation – she is, without question, head-over-heels, truly, madly, and deeply in love with him – but why and how has she arrived at this place? And why would the Joker, a character so selfish and devoid of any relatable (or identifiable) emotion, even take a partner in the first place?
This is probably a contentious point (particularly following the couple’s most recent depiction in Suicide Squad) but the Joker does not love Harley. To him, it’s all about control and, once again, proof to Batman of his ability to manipulate and twist even the purest of souls. During the events of Warner Bros. Montreal’s Batman: Arkham Origins (the prequel to Arkham Asylum and Arkham City developed by Rocksteady), the Joker’s own back story showcases his twisted manipulation of Harleen in Blackgate Prison. Using a remarkable insight into his own psyche, he appeals to her scientific curiosity but also makes her believe that he dotes on her while actually discussing his own feelings for the Dark Knight.
Because that is the only relationship that matters to the Joker; him and the Batman.
The psychological damage he causes to Harleen is directly responsible for the development of her alternative personality, Harley. This new sense of self is dissociated from Harleen almost completely, preferring child-like language and mannerisms as well as a pathological need for violence. Interestingly, the transition Harleen makes is notable by its speed suggesting that perhaps she has using disassociation as a coping mechanism before; indicative of someone who has been a victim or trauma or possibly abuse as a child. This further makes her character even more tragic as exploration into her past reveals a woman who considered herself very alone in the world. Perhaps the Joker could sense this from their initial meeting (see Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight when Harvey Dent interrogates Thomas Schiff – Batman comments that this unhinged man is exactly the sort of mind the Joker attracts) or he could shortly after and developed her to this end?
The Joker is a character who, because he represents chaos, is fascinated by control. He has
to be. In order to knock everything down, you have to build it up first. His ultimate aim is to break Batman. This is something he cannot achieve physically (i.e. breaking his back like Bane) so he continues to attempt this mentally. In Harley, he presents Batman with another victim the Dark Knight cannot save. He has broken her beyond repair and controls her through his own affections (casting her aside and picking her up at will) in order to further convince her that he is her one true, love and his will is the only way. Its further evidence of the real danger the Joker represents – he can have all the Joker gas and Joker Fish in the world but his infectious insanity is where his real power lies. To him, Harley is a tool to use at whim but one he is obsessed over. Tattoo Man expresses interest in her at one point during Suicide Squad and this ends in disaster for the character but simply because the Joker doesn’t want to share – reinforcing (in Harley’s mind) his love for her.
Harley is dependent on the Joker. Her fractured mind and dissociated personality means she now doesn’t exist without him. She can’t because Harley needs his validation for everything she does. She knows that the more chaos she inflicts, the more attention she will gain from her lover. Interestingly, there are moments when Harleen reappears – it’s at this point that she is repulsed at the violence and physical and mental abuse she has endured at the hands of the Joker. Unfortunately, the Harley Quinn persona is too strong and, even though in recent years she has managed to break (somewhat) free of his grip, Harleen has become this dark reflection of herself, damaged forever as a tool in a madman’s fight against his oppressor.
Looking at the Dynamic Duo of Batman and Robin, it’s easy to see why the Joker would eventually pick at partner but, while Robin reminds the Dark Knight where to draw the line, Harley is Joker’s legacy – an example of the complete damage he could potentially (and would inevitably like to) inflict upon the masses.
Its poisonous, toxic and cruel but it’s never been love but I’m quite sure Harley and the Joker’s relationship will continue to endure and, in whatever form it takes, will continue to shock and awe us as it proceeds to be the weirdest and most successful affair created in the funny pages.