Harley Quinn is not the Joker’s moll. She’s his victim. Or, she was.
The most appealing and crucial aspect of Birds of Prey is how it removes Harley from the shadow of Mr. J. Their story is one of domestic violence. The saga began as a cute little curiosity, but as various writers dug into the relationship, it was exposed as an ugly tale of obsession and manipulation. Your heart breaks when the narrative is told well (see “Mad Love” from Batman: The Animated Series), but when scribbled poorly (see Suicide Squad), it infuriates and belittles the horror of similar real-world tragedies.
Harley’s allure comes from how she breaks away from the Joker and discovers an identity apart from his evil. Stories that lean on his influence, or fetishize his dominance are repellant. The Joker is a demon, whether portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix or voiced by Mark Hamill. Harley is a champion who fell into the void of his smile but wrestled free before he consumed her whole.
Poison Ivy is a big reason why Harley was able to tear herself from the Joker’s gravitational pull. Hearing that Cathy Yan is interested in adding the righteous fire of the villainous botanist to the roster of Birds of Prey 2 (if a sequel happens) is incredibly tantalizing, for their romance is one of the most healing in comics. If we gotta ship a Harley couple, her and Ivy should be the pairing we demand.
My wife, Lisa Gullickson, and I have been hosting a weekly podcast called Comic Book Couples Counseling for a little more than a year. We’ve covered everyone from Batman and Catwoman to Midnighter and Apollo to Rogue and Gambit. We’re not relationship experts by any means, nor trained psychologists — just geeks, so we have to rely on a few chosen gurus to help us wade through the murky waters of romance. Pulling from a wide array of self-help bestsellers, we apply all manner of advice to aid these fictional duos throughout their massive continuity. Most importantly, we work out our own kinks (no, not how you think, but also, kinda) experienced through our eleven years of marriage.
Cathy Yan is not the only enthusiast out there excited to see Harley and Ivy together forever. We’ve wanted to discuss this particular couple for quite some time, but we were waiting for the second season of the Harley Quinn DC Universe series to drop before we did so. That time has come, and we’ve unleashed our first episode detailing the early days of Harley and Ivy’s friendship when Harley needed someone to encourage her to shake off the deviant grimace.
In Harley and Ivy, we have found one of the warmest and most rejuvenating relationships in comics. As partners-in-crime, they make each other better, recognizing the flaws that hold them back from being the best versions of themselves. Sure, Batman cannot possibly approve of their methods used to reach happiness, but who is he to judge anyone on what’s a healthy expression of love?
While most Batman rogues have been around nearly as long as the Caped Crusader, Harley Quinn is a relatively new addition. She first appeared in the 22nd episode of the first season of Batman: The Animated Series, entitled “Joker’s Favor,” which aired on September 11, 1992, credited to writer/producer Paul Dini and artist/producer Bruce Timm. Her creation spawned from a desire to build character, not just nameless goons amongst the Clown Prince of Crime’s henchman.
Her design was inspired by a dream sequence from the television soap Days of Our Lives, in which actor Arleen Sorkin appeared in a rather terrifying jester’s costume. The small scene haunted Dini, who offered up a rough sketch before Timm refined her look to what we all eventually saw on the series. When it came to casting her voice, the producers thought, “Why mess with perfection?” Sorkin was tagged to bring the spirit of Harley to life.
Harley began as a glorified walk-on role, but when Dini saw the animation produced by AKOM, he fell in love. He told Timm that he was determined to bring her back over and over and over again as long as the fans responded well to her. Despite having no roots in the comics, Harley became a sensation.
As such, she required an origin. Dini and Timm first revealed her backstory in their Mad Love graphic novel published in 1994. Before she was Harley Quinn, she was Dr. Harleene Francis Quinzel, an Arkham Asylum psychologist assigned to the Joker. During their sessions together, she fell hard for her criminal patient and eventually aided him as an accomplice. In 1999, The New Batman Adventures cartoon would make Mad Love part of its reality, forever cementing Harley Quinn as a tragic figure who lost herself to another man’s madness.
Harley and Ivy first clicked in this reality, specifically in the first season episode titled appropriately “Harley & Ivy.” The two reluctantly team-up after Ivy triggers an alarm at the Gotham Natural History museum while stealing a caseload of toxins from their research department, spoiling Harley’s already-in-progress heist of a big ol’ diamond. Dini and Timm would further explore their dynamic in an identically named three-issue comic book miniseries that sees Harley falling into another submissive/dominant role with Ivy.
Operating in the sequential art form, away from the prying eyes of Warner Bros. studio executives, Dini and Timm are allowed to push the envelope a little further. They tease the possibility of Harley and Ivy as a couple through flirtations and not-so-subtle innuendo, but they still refuse to go all the way. Ivy spends most of the series frustrated, or downright rageful toward Harley, but no matter how bumbling a buffoon her partner becomes, she never rejects her as the useless hanger-on that Joker often would.
Harley is not a tool to Ivy, nor does Ivy need the ego boost frequently required by the Joker. Next to Ivy, away from the other guy, the audience sees Harley as the joyous, butt-kicking kooky rogue she should be. Their friendship shatters the Joker’s exhausted spotlight and shines a new beam of radiance upon Harley Quinn. She’s wacky, but she can hold her own.
The more romantic undertones of their relationship were not explored until DC Comics relaunched their entire line with The New 52 line in 2011, although alternate reality versions of the characters hooked up in the DC Bombshells and Injustice universes. The closest DC ever came to officially announce them as a couple was in a single Tweet issued in 2015, stating Harley and Ivy as “girlfriends without the jealously of monogamy.” At this point, Harley Quinn was now dominating in her solo title, written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner.
For my money, their series is the definitive take on the character. While the J-word is uttered here and there, for the first time in her existence, the clown does not define her. She says goodbye to Gotham City, staking a new residence on Coney Island. Here is where Harley finds new life as a brawler within a roller derby team, but Palmiotti and Conner also take time to remind the reader that Harley holds a Ph.D. in psychiatry, finding plenty of opportunities to show off her brains as well as her comically large mallet.
Last year, once again, Harley and Ivy found themselves the star of a DC Comics miniseries. Spinning out of the Heroes in Crisis event, which climaxed with the two sharing a passionate embrace sans liplock, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy caused quite a bit of a stir amongst those rooting for their coupling. Without getting too far into the weeds here, as a result of Lex Luthor’s tampering, Poison Ivy uncovers a clone in need of her aid. Harley cannot help in this scenario, so the series ends with the two departing, yet again, without a passionate kiss, just a mere peck on the forehead. Sweet, but chaste.
DC needs mainstream approval before they’ll go any further with Harley and Ivy. Cathy Yan could be the key to securing the romance Harley so desperately deserves. If Birds of Prey 2 succeeds in highlighting a glorious love affair between Harley and Ivy, just as how Batman: The Animated Series forced them to accept the badass villains in the first place, the sheepish comic book company will follow.