The fall and rise of Harley Quinn

A drastic makeover of female DC character Harley Quinn earlier this year left fans incredulous.

Harley Suicide Squad

It’s fair to say that Harley Quinn is well-liked. Initially created as a one-shot character to aid The Joker she was then given a regular slot on Batman: The Animated Series. Quinn’s popularity lead to her making the jump into the comics and, more recently, as the leading female villain in the Arkham Asylum game.

Quinn sparked controversy last summer after images of her revamped costume sprung up online. The redesign was meant to compliment Quinn’s move to the team-book Suicide Squad, one of DC’s ‘edge’ books rated T+ to go with the more edgy stories. The new costume was criticised mostly for its highly sexualised style and impracticality – after all, who can do Quinn’s signature acrobatics in a corset and hot pants? Harley’s role as the only female member of the Suicide Squad team was also criticised.

Despite this upheaval, however, Suicide Squad has turned out to be that rare gem of comics. The book manages to keep its individual issues satisfying with a self-contained story about the Squad’s current mission, but also an ongoing plot throughout the series.

The premise of Suicide Squad is that the hardest lifers of Belle Reve, the DC Universe’s highest security prison, attempt to work off their sentence by performing missions for the government. The programme is under the immediate control of the machiavellian Amanda Waller, and the missions are so dangerous they are ‘sheer suicide’.

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Suicide Squad’s stakes mean that the roster of the team is rapidly changing, and there is strong sense that anything can happen. Over the first four issues it becomes clear that there is a core element of the team: Batman-villain Deadshot, Harley, Diablo and King Shark. I include King Shark simply because I can’t imagine anyone killing him off, not because he’s contributed greatly to the story so far.

Anyone else may be expendable. The story is violent and more adult as could be expected from a T+ rating, but it has an element of B-movie satire that prevents the book from getting too heavy, despite the material. This kind of black humour is not to everyone’s taste, but if it is something you enjoy, Suicide Squad has it in abundance.

The Squad may have started on shaky ground, and many people had reservations about the character combinations and how Harley would fit into the team. Over time, however, the switching roster, the conflict between members of the team and the book’s extreme plots are making it a very compelling read. A particular favourite moment is Deadshot’s put-down of Captain Boomerang in issue #4 – I won’t spoil it. Harley and Deadshot are the runaway favourite characters – as it was probably destined to be – and the provide much of the humour in the book. Harley’s flirtations with the other characters and Deadshot’s power struggles are both major points of character development.

One of my main reservations about this book was my disbelief that Harley could have done anything bad enough to have ended up in Belle Reve. Harley may have been in The Jokers side-kick, but she has always had a nature that is, somehow, forgivable. Sure, she’s crazy for love, but I can’t help but feel that Arkham is as far up the river as Harley would ever get.

Somehow this incarnation of Harley is a little more ruthless than the animated series version, but she seems to fit well with the vision of Harley portrayed in the closing issues of Gotham City Sirens, showing just how dangerous she can be if she is pushed in the right way. The opening issue of Suicide Squad glimpses a grieving Harley on a bit of a rampage. Distraught after losing Mr. J (and alluding to the opening of Detective Comics to explain why) this shows that she has been pushed further than ever before.

Occasional references in Adam Glass’ writing to elements of Harley Quinn’s unhinged nature and masochistic tendencies – as well as implications of sexual promiscuity outside of her relationship with The Joker – can still read uncomfortably. For the most part, Harley has been written well and brings that kind of silly humour and colloquial dialogue that made her so popular to begin with. What’s even better is that it the book does seem to be improving with each issue. It was quite possible that the new creative team of Glass and artist Federico Dallocchio just needed to find their groove.

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Harley’s role is mainly as one of the team. The issue of sexism could easily be forgotten, as she is just as formidable as any of the other characters, but the occasional appearance of her cleavage reminds us of the costume controversy earlier this year. Again, the writers allude to how silly her costume is with a line from her about removing a wedgie – the possibility is that Harley has chosen to wear this outfit herself and is willing to suffer the consequences.

After an unexpected interaction with Deadshot in issue #3 I wondered if the character had perhaps strayed too far from her lackey roots with The Joker. However, there is beautifully understated moment in issue #4 when new team member, Captain Boomerang, informs Harley of the latest news regarding The Joker. It’s a wide-eyed moment that prompts the reader to sentimentality toward Harley’s former incarnation.

The worry and snap judgement of this book a few months ago was that Harley felt like a token female character in a skimpy outfit. While there is an element of this in the plot, the context of the story makes it feel more forgiving: how many female supervillains are there that could hold their own on this squad the way that Harley seems to be managing?

In fact, just how many recognisable female villains are on DC’s character roster anyway? Very few in comparison to the number of men. Chances are that Harley would be the only woman on such a team, and she certainly holds her own, as hinted at during the ending of issue #4.

Suicide Squad has a strong tongue-in-cheek feel and seems to counteract some of the stereotypes and reservations many people had when it was announced. The result is far from perfect, but it is shaping up to be a good comic with a strong female lead – even if she is dressed in a horribly impractical outfit.

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