Batman: Harley Quinn (1999)

There were a couple reasons why I picked this particular comic this time out. The first is the Birds of Prey movie is coming out in a few weeks. The second is Thundercats Roar snuck onto the internet, and it made me nostalgic for a time when cartoon series looked good. With stuff like Rick and Morty and Teen Titans Go, I wonder when animators just stopped caring. So yeah, I felt this intense nostalgia for what is arguably the greatest cartoon of all time: Batman: The Animated Series. Oh sure, you have your Scooby Doo fans, but really the only good season was the first. Johnny Quest? Outstanding art to be sure, but the voice acting hasn’t aged well. But B:TAS? Still gold. And it was a series so good and so influential that a character from the show, Harley Quinn, crossed over into the comics. That sort of thing just doesn’t happen everyday; the only time I can think of where something similar happened was when Walter Gibson, writer of the Shadow pulps, was told to include Margo Lane, a character from the radio show, in his stories.

Quinn first appeared in issue #12 of The Batman Adventures, but that was only natural, as that comic was an extension of the animated series. I was tempted to recap that issue, but Harley barely registers in the story as it’s really a Batgirl origin tale. So I decided to take a look at her debut into the mainstream DC Universe, which was in this one-shot, an extension of the Batman No Man’s Land mega event. I give you Batman: Harley Quinn.

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So a touch of background. No Man’s Land was a story line which was the culmination of a couple plots taking place in the Batman universe, where after an earthquake the federal government abandons Gotham, so the city is carved up by various criminal factions. There are changing allegiances and interesting alliances. And we see one of them when the story opens, and find Batman nemesis Poison Ivy in a produce-laden cart being drawn by what looks like a horse made of vines. She complains that Batman’s forced her to feed the “starving hordes” and now it seems she has to play trash collector as well. Hey, lady, they’re called “sanitation engineers”, thank you. She gets off the cart and has to remove the rubble blocking the street and discovers something else.

Ivy ponders what to do with this interesting piece of refuse, saying, “It’s no leaves off her bush” if she lives or dies. But living in a post-apocalyptic dystopia is pretty damn boring and the lady in the clown get-up might provide some amusement. Said lady wakes up with her head bandaged, crying out “No, Puddin’!” and recognizes her emerald-hued host. And Ivy also recognizes the woman as Doctor Quinzel, hotshot Arkham Asylum doctor. Ivy threatens to kill her and Quinzel dares her to do it since she’s got nothing to live for any more. And I guess it takes a psychologist to know how to manipulate a madwoman, because Ivy realizes the doctor has an interesting story to tell and she wants to hear it. So we flash back to when Quinzel worked at Arkham during her first year residency and she somehow talked her bosses into allowing her private one-on-one sessions with the Joker so she could write a book on “serial killer mystique”. So… they left her alone with a mass murderer? What the hell did they think was going to happen?

Well, probably not that. Harley reveals that she’s the reason why Joker was able to escape so easily all those times. Okay, now as a rule, I’m not crazy about retcons, but damn if that one doesn’t work. But Quinzel got caught and in no time flat, she had her doctor’s license revoked, and in a piece of irony became an inmate in the same facility she had worked in. Weeks turned to months and she was afraid her “puddin’” had forgotten about her. And then one day, the cell door was unlocked and the power was out, and it looked like a bomb had hit the place. A bomb… or an earthquake. So… why didn’t Harley feel the earthquake? It was a 7.6; that’s nothing to laugh at. Anyway, Quinzel was able to slip out of the asylum… and she was the only one left? Nobody checked on her? I’m starting to wonder if Quinzel is lying through her teeth which is why this story feels like it has so many holes. Maybe I was supposed to read one or more of the twenty tie-ins.

Quinzel found an abandoned lab coat and a van that wasn’t too busted up and drove all around town until it ran out of gas. She stumbled across some police officers, and also victims with their faces drawn back in the smiling rictus which is the signature of the infamous Joker venom. The one still living croaked out that the guy who gassed them looted their joint. Quinzel abandoned the patients and cops and made her way to a costume shop for a makeover to show Joker she was his one and only.

Quinzel got word on the street that there was one person who was still able to get supplies into the city: Oswald Cobblepott, the Penguin. Joker met with Cobblepott in the wreckage of his club, the Iceberg Lounge. Joker didn’t want much: just weapons, ammo, food, generators, gasoline, explosives, etc. But unfortunately for the clown prince, Cobblepott’s operation was now running on the barter system. But hey, Joker was willing to trade lead for gold! Before the transaction could go down, the now-costumed Quinzel bounded in and provided enough of a distraction to give Joker the upper hand. Penguin’s guys went down and Cobblepott gave up the goods. Literally. And Quinzel found herself as Joker’s new mascot. Unfortunately, “Puddin’” still didn’t have digs, so she went house hunting. After convincing the squatters in the amusement park’s tunnel of love to move on… with an assist from a Molotov cocktail, she redecorated and a couple weeks later showed the place off. She said Joker couldn’t stop raving about how great the place looked. The reality?

And there we maybe get a clue that the former Dr. Quinzel ain’t telling the whole story, or twisting things around. Life was good with Joker as she helped her “Puddin’” expand his empire. Then yesterday, Joker attempted to expand into the docks and the negotiations went well… which means Joker got what he wanted and somebody died. Unfortunately, Batman was spotted and Joker was miffed; Batman showed up and Joker was totally unprepared for him. Seriously, Joker ain’t wearing his signature suit, and he blew the charge in his joy buzzer. But not to worry, Quinzel’s on the case! She dashed off to take on Batman all on her own. Fighting Batman one on one? That’s craz—oh, never mind. Calling herself “Harley Quinn” for the first time in the comic, our, um, hero [?] faced off against the Dark Knight. He recognized her right away. B-but how?! She’s wearing a domino mask, the most impenetrable disguise since Clark Kent’s glasses. The pair fought and, well, she didn’t get caught and distracted Bats long enough for Joker to get away, so score a win her first time out. Meanwhile Joker, and Co. slipped away and the clown louse of crime wrote Harley off. Imagine his surprise to find her on the hood of his pimped-out ride. That night Joker and Harley consummated their relationship, and she describes how it felt.

Harley: I felt my heart do flip-flops! I was fainting! Swooning! Senseless with delight! Everything after that was a blissful blur!

In the present, Poison Ivy immediately discerns the truth; Joker drugged Harley. The next morning when Quinn woke up, Joker was gone but he had left her a note to have her go the rocket ride. Can you guess what happens next?

Joker called in to the rocket as Harley took her one way ride, and explained he began to have feelings for her, and began to care for her, and he realized it was confusing him, and distracting him from taking over Gotham City. He mourned the only way he knows how: with hysterical laughter. Finally faced with the true nature of her homicidal sociopathic boyfriend, Harley lost her cool and trashed the controls of the rocket. She then discovered she could kind of, sort of steer it by twisting certain wires. She crashed but hey, at least the statue of General Gorfunkel broke her fall. Which brings us to the present, with Harley feeling like world class chump. And then Poison Ivy kills her.

Naw, just kidding. Ivy asks Harley if she wants to get even and she replies that yeah, naturally she would. Our green-hued villainess forces Harley to drink a potion, explaining that she ain’t called “Poison Ivy” for nothing; people around her tend to get, y’know, dead, so she makes Harley immune to toxins. The stuff also ups Quinn’s natural strength and agility. So… she was a normal person before when she fought Batman to a standstill? Seriously? Was Batman hung over or something? Or did Harley misremember that fight? Or did Batman just feel sorry for her and let her win? I’m going with option C. Harley wonders why Ivy’s been so nice to her. Well duh, it’s to mirror the relationship the two characters share in the TV series! But in the comic, Ivy explains she has a truce with Batman and she’s forced to grow food for the Gothamites. However, Harley’s not bound by the truce, now is she? Harley agrees to take down both Bats and “Mista J”. And the first thing she needs to do is get Batman’s attention:

Batman tells Harley he’s taking her to Commissioner Gordon, but she explains she wants to help him take Joker down, since he tried killing her. Batman notes with a wry smile that she discovered Joker’s “henchman retirement program”, which does make me wonder why anyone would take that job. At least Nolan came up with the idea that people worked for Joker either out of fear or were insane themselves and easily led, but that only works short-time. In a comic series, after a while you’d think the word is out that working for Joker is career suicide. Ahem. Quinn explains Joker’s plan is to use medical supplies on a ship as a way to lure in relief workers. When they get onboard, he’ll press a button and it’ll all go boom, and he’s doing it just for giggles. Batman knows it’d be stupid to follow Harley anywhere, so he gives her a tracer so he knows where she is at all times. Quinn looks away and starts giving Batman some psychological advice, but when she turns back, he’s gone of course.

Back at Joker’s lair, he decides he and the boys should stay in. Soon, the talk turns to women and he asks one of the guys, Ronaldo, if he’s got a girl. Ronaldo admits she’s a dancer and starts to complain about her.

Okay, that made me laugh. The three remaining henchmen make a beer run and Batman stealths his way through the amusement park. The trio of goons talk about how rough it is working for Joker (then quit! Go away! Move to Chicago or Detroit or Baltimore. The fact that you probably never met somebody who worked for Joker before should tell you something!) and one of them finds Harley’s tracer on the floor where she tossed it. And then it’s time to Bat-dance.

It’s okay if you don’t know the steps; Batman’ll lead… while you’re conscious. While Batman is turning faces to goo, Joker is having an introspective conversation with Headless Ron. And that’s when Harley Quinn comes back for revenge. Her augmented body allows her to beat the crap out of Mista J, and he’s unable to land a hand on her. That’s when he breaks out the tried and true Joker gas from his fake flower lapel. But Harley is immune to poison now. Batman steps in and lays out Harley then chases down Joker. He catches up and the Clown Prince expresses honest shock at the ship full of medical supplies story yadda yadda yadda. It seems Harley’s tricked both men into fighting each other. You’d think Batman would have double-checked her story but okay, whatevs. Quinn knocks Bats out with a giant mallet and Joker takes a powder.

Harley chases him to one of the amusement park rides with an elevator, and the pair fight and once again Harley gets the best of him. Joker is left dangling, helpless, and it looks like curtains for him. And then he pulls out the one secret weapon every bad boyfriend should have in their arsenal: he says he’s sorry.

Batman wakes up to find Joker and Harley Quinn speeding away in a boat, but she’s left a note behind explaining they’re in love again. Batman realizes that reading the note was meant to delay him, and he manages to dive into the river before being caught in the massive explosion that wipes out the amusement park. It makes me wonder how many amusement parks there are around Gotham. And joke factories. And playing card factories. I’m guessing next time Joker turns up, he’ll be based in the basement of a comedy club or something. Later, Batman is recovering back at his makeshift base, which is Arkham Asylum. I guess he moved in after Harley Quinn left? Alfred patches Bruce up and he quickly dons his cowl, saying he can’t rest while the peacekeepers hide in the asylum while the madmen roam the streets. Batman’s work continues.

As origin stories goes, this one’s not bad. I appreciate the fact that Joker’s character isn’t changed; he’s still a self-centered bastard. And I liked little touches, such as Harley Quinn being responsible for some of Joker’s infamous escapes from the asylum. The tone is kept light and it’s fun, and I thought it a good idea to give Quinn a couple superpowers to compensate for a lack of twenty years of martial arts training. As for Yvel Guichet’s and Aaron Sowd’s art, it’s… serviceable. I’ve seen worse, and they do a credible job in regards to action sequences. But I think if they had gone with a more mainstream artist like Jim Lee, then they would have missed the point; this is a story about two mentally broken people and the art should have an off-kilter style to it. So while I’m not totally in love with it, I respect why these artist were assigned to the project.

Next week: I look at where it all began, the first Birds of Prey comic.

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  • Kradeiz

    Too bad Harley’s creators got screwed out of royalties because they created her for an animated series and not the comics.

    • Xander

      Well, DC can almost argue that it’s a completely different character who just happens to share the same name at this point.

    • Jose Gregorio Bencomo Gomez

      Are they? I didn’t know that. Harley gets a “Created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm” credit in all movies and videogames, and Dini and Timm seem to hold no grudges with DC and still work with them regularly, so I always had assumed they were compensated properly.

  • GreenLuthor

    I suppose the only real problem with the “Harley secretly helped Joker escape Arkham” retcon is that it doesn’t really explain why everyone else is able to get out of Arkham so easily also, or why Joker seemed to escape just as easily after Harley got caught. Still, they tried.

    • Thomas Stockel

      Yeah but it seems Joker has a superior track record to sneaking out of Arkham. And hey, maybe he left the door open on the way out so others slipped through too. I could see him “accidentally” setting Scarecrow free just to keep Batman busy while he planned some psychotic shenanigans. :D