Imaginary Story 4: The Batman Adventures: Mad Love

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This is the big one.
A special issue of Batman Adventures outside the normal numbering, Mad Love is, famously, the origin story of Harley Quinn, drastically expanded from the brief summary given by Batman in “Harlequinade,” and interwoven with a story about Harley trying to kill Batman in an attempt to get the Joker’s attention. It is by turns dark, disturbing, funny, and creepily romantic/sexual, basically everything the relationship between Harley and the Joker can be at its best. Also incredibly unhealthy and abusive, which is also (sadly) the best the relationship can be–there’s a reason Harley comes across as happier and healthier when she’s with Poison Ivy.
The comic is nearly identical to the New Batman Adventures episode of the same name, which we’ll eventually be covering. The only major difference is a brief scene, included in the comic but not the episode, in which Batman recounts Harley’s life prior to interning at Arkham Asylum. According to Batman, she attended Gotham University on a gymnastics scholarship and then slept her way to top grades–she is depicted in the flashback as seducing a teacher to change a D to an A.
This scene is suspect on multiple levels. It seems to serve no purpose except to establish that Harleen Quinzel was not ever an academic success, but instead someone who relied entirely on her physical assets and abilities–specifically, athleticism to get into college, and sex to get through her coursework once there. She is tied closely to performance: gymnastics is one of the more performative sports, and her stated goal is to become the host of a psychology-themed talk show. The professor she sleeps with is depicted as hapless, helpless, left frazzled and bemused by her attentions–we have regressed back to the “Pretty Poison” model of the female villain, as well as an assertion of Harley’s inherent criminality, since she was already cheating long before she met the Joker.
Except that Batman’s narrative is nonsense. Harley would have had to earn an MD before she could even start an internship as a psychiatrist, and there’s simply no way she could have gotten through a decade of medical training–at what is stated to be a highly prestigious program!–without someone noticing that she was terrible at it. Medical school is notoriously competitive; if nothing else, a rival student would have caught on to and reported her affairs. Not to mention that we’ve seen how good Harley is at reading and manipulating people, skills closely tied to an understanding of psychology. Her “ditziness” or “stupidity” or whatever you want to call it is very much an act, one she maintains in front of the Joker or in public, but which she largely dropped in much of “Harley and Ivy.”
It’s narratively odd, too. Much of the story is about Harley Quinn being better than the Joker, as we’ve observed before: over the course of Mad Love, she breaks the Joker out of Arkham, comes closer to killing Batman than he ever did, and succeeds in making Batman laugh. Had Batman not exploited the Joker’s psychological weaknesses, turning him against Harley, she would have won! Why, then, do we open with what amounts to character assassination?
There is a way out of this apparent contradiction, but it requires something fairly rare in the greater Batman oeuvre generally and Batman: The Animated Series in specific: Batman has fallen for her act. Remember, the Harlequin is an actor, trickster, and magician; Harley is triply adept at projecting a false self. She puts those skills to good use in this story, successfully tricking Batman at least once, when she pretends to be a frightened damsel in distress to draw out and trap him. We see her construct the Harley Quinn persona in the comic, very much framed as a performance she puts on for the Joker so that he will give her the attention she wants from him.
On both diegetic and extradiegetic levels, Harley is a highly intelligent, complex, powerful woman. In a very real sense, she is the destroyer of BTAS and the mother of the DCAU, a sorceress of apocalyptic power. But she is contained within a skintight jester’s outfit, within silliness, sexiness, and performativity, the “ditz” or “bimbo” to Ivy’s femme fatale. After all, up until this point she has mostly been written by Paul Dini, who on the one hand gave us episodes like “Harlequinade” and “Baby-Doll,” but on the other penned “Pretty Poison.” It therefore shouldn’t be that surprising that within the rather stereotypical performance (again, very much a mirror of how he originally wrote Ivy) there is a much more complex, interesting, human woman.
That woman’s name is Arleen Sorkin. Her role in creating Harley Quinn is all too often forgotten; to his credit, Dini typically makes her contribution clear, but it is nonetheless frequently erased among fans and int he press. Wikipedia,the DC Database , and The New York Times  all credit Dini and Bruce Timm as her creators; the DCAU Wiki  does as well, albeit with an aside that she is “based on” Sorkin. Vanity Fair credits Dini alone, although they do mention part of Sorkin’s contribution.
In short: Sorkin was an experienced comedy writer–her credit list includes Tiny Toon Adventures, among others–and actress, who performed as a “ditzy” comedy relief character named Calliope Jones in Days of Our Lives. After watching The Princess Bride, she suggested to the showrunners that they should write a dream sequence with a fantasy or fairy tale setting into the show. Sorkin helped write that sequence, in which her character appeared as a rollerskating Harlequin who told Vaudeville-style jokes.
Later, while working on “Joker’s Favor,” Dini was trying to decide how to characterize the henchwoman he was writing into the episode, when he happened to watch a tape Sorkin had given him of her favorite moments in her run on Days. Inspired by the Harlequin in the dream sequence, he decided she should be funny, and named her Harley Quinn. Timm then designed her costume essentially as a sexed-up, villainous version of the traditional Harlequin, and Dini called Sorkin in to voice her.
Rewatch “Joker’s Favor.” Harley’s design is good, yes. Her dialogue is very good–but Dini wrote it specifically for Sorkin, which is to say it’s an old friend of Sorkin’s trying to emulate her voice. It is Sorkin who animates the character, who brings her to life, Sorkin’s original idea that brought the Harlequin into the picture. Sorkin is where the magic comes from.
And yet Dini gets the credit. She’s just an actress, after all; she can’t really have the skills to meaningfully contribute to the creation of the most prominent character to come out of the DCAU.  And Harley’s just a gymnast who wants to be on TV; she can’t really have the skills to become a psychiatrist.
The apocalypse can’t come soon enough.

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3 thoughts on “Imaginary Story 4: The Batman Adventures: Mad Love

  1. I believe that the (otherwise forgettable) ongoing Harley got from the “mainstream” DCU in 2003 offered an alternative explanation to the whole slept-with-my-professor thing – something about her doing it to make time for herself in the stressful and, as you noted, cutthroat world of premed training. I haven’t read it myself, mind – can’t even find the Tumblr post discussing it.
    That aside, I feel the point of Batman’s flashback isn’t to paint Harley as stupid, but as amoral (if not downright IMmoral). Remember how Batman opens the flashback: “Even from the beginning… Harley Quinn was no angel.” It’s a near-stock “yeah, they were a bad seed from the start” device, roughly comparable to comics!Riddler cheating on a jigsaw during his childhood, or Scarecrow terrorizing birds in his.
    … which, now that I think about it, is its own flavor of problematic. Where’d I find that essay discussing how even BTAS Gotham is inherently a Calvinist setting…?
    (You may be interested to know that Dini also supplied Harley’s origin on The Batman, where she’s actually attained her goal of being a TV pop-psychiatrist. It’s not a terribly flattering picture, but even there she’s more ruthless than stupid.)

    • Interesting! I’d love to see that essay if you find it again. I would say, though, that even if it’s about her morality it’s still depicting her as unable to pass on her own. Not to mention the whole problem that she’s being depicted as the seductress pulling in a helpless professor, when as the authority figure the onus is on him.

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