On Harley Quinn, Comedy, and Catharsis

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Hello, everybody at NBC! I’m Katharine, the site’s biggest newbie. For my inaugural post, I thought I’d take a look at Harley Quinn #4 (you can read my thoughts on the first volume as a whole here). Why this issue in particular? Of all the issues, this one had the biggest flaw, and that’s what makes it the most fun to talk about. To me, this is the issue that took things a bit too far and went from funny to mean spirited. It pushes the boundaries of what makes a sympathetic character.

In theory, it should be pretty easy to write sympathetic protagonists, even one as nuts as Harley or Deadpool. Just give them some flaws, a distinct personality, keep their hearts in the right place, have them make mistakes and suffer the consequences. In my other review, I talked at length about how Detective Comics #23.2 made me lose most of my sympathy for Harley. Much of it was won back by the end of the volume, but this is the issue that crossed the line.

It starts out well enough, with Harley working as a psychologist in a Dr.-Harleen-Quinzel-and-Mrs.-Rubenstein-in-Harley-Quinn-4nursing home, a job she got in a previous issue. She’s talking to Mrs. Rubenstein, an elderly woman who complains that her family never visits her. Harley and the reader are moved by the story. She is so moved, in fact, that she leaves her job to go “talk” to the family. We cut to the Rubentsteins, who are your typical WASPy suburban family, with a video game addicted son, a wife that runs a group similar to pampered chef, and a husband obsessed with his model trains. So far, we’re on Harley’s side. These people look like the type who would abandon their grandma in a nursing home. Then Harley shows up in a bulldozer. She utterly demolished the house, smashes the boy’s games, takes the mother and son hostage, goes to the basement, destroys the model train set, and beats the father with it before stuffing them in the trunk and driving off. So far, this is pretty par for the course for Harley. It’s all perfectly in-character and these people come off as unpleasant. That’s what makes it funny; we think that these people deserve it. Harley proceeds to have lunch, kill an assassin who’s after her, and comically demolish a rival roller derby team before remembering about the “junk in the trunk.”

She then takes them to the docks and scolds the Rubensteins for ignoring Grandma. After telling them off, she pushes them into the water while still tied up.  She turns to the dad, telling him how he makes her sick. The father drops this issue’s plot twist: Mrs. Rubenstein has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t remember that they visit her three times a week. Harley lets the understandably angry dad attempt to rescue his family (they were fine but they didn’t know that).
Even ignoring that Alzheimer’s doesn’t work that way, this plot twist throws the issue in a whole new and unflattering light. Now Harley is firmly in the wrong. It was her job to read the files on her patients and because she didn’t, she destroyed the lives of an innocent family. Who were we supposed to root for in this issue? Harley, while her heart was in the right place, screwed up royally and ended up destroying an innocent family’s home.
This type of story attempts to cross the line twice, but fails miserably.

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Here’s why: the first rule of writing a comically sociopathic character like this is that you either don’t let them hurt innocents or if you do, don’t give the civilian any defining characteristics, especially if they don’t deserve any of the punishment. The second rule is that they have to be called out for it and work attempt to fix the problem that they caused. It doesn’t matter that she was acting in character. The issue fails to follow either of these rules. By the end, we find out that the Rubensteins are relatively nice people who care about their grandmother. This makes their punishment completely uncalled for, and thus, Harley is the villain of the issue. While this isn’t as bad as handing out explosive games to children (no, I am not over that) it’s still pretty mean spirited.

Comedy is mostly about catharsis. If you have flawed and wacky heroes, you want the reader on their side, and if they do harm, it should mostly be to themselves. If they hurt others by their own stupidity, they need to be called out for it and have it bite them in the behind. As far as I know, the family is never mentioned again. Much of comedy is about karma. People typically want to see wrongdoers punished. No one likes a karma Houdini.

Now, it’s not like this issue doesn’t have any positives. The art is very energetic and expressive. A lot of the funnier moments just come from Harley’s facial expressions. While there wasn’t anything that made me laugh out loud there were several great jokes and funny moments. But that ending, man, it just makes the entire story a lot less funny. If they had kept the family a bunch of jerks, then I’d say that the issue was fine, but as it is, I don’t really care for it. Hey, even a great series like Harley Quinn has a few duds here and there. I don’t want to end this review on a negative note, so let me just say that I’m glad to be here at Nothing But Comics.

This video doesn’t really have much to do with comics, but it out lines my points a lot more succinctly.

12 thoughts on “On Harley Quinn, Comedy, and Catharsis”

  1. Excellent article, Katharine. Your article has an excellent presentation of why the comic doesn’t work as a comedy or build sympathy for the protagonist (quite the opposite, it seems) Looking forward to reading future posts from you here at NBC.

  2. This was a well written article Katharine, positive debut. I haven’t read anything with Harley in it for years. I manage to miss her Batman comic appearances somehow so my only exposure to her is the “Batman the Animated Series” show from my childhood. Has she changed from a Villain to a Hero? I suppose they are doing a Venom/Hawkeye/Thunderbolts/Rogue kind of thing.

    1. Thank you. I think that her Batman TAS appearance is probably the best version of her. She’s become basically DC’s answer to Deadpool in her book, which is why Detective Comics #23.2 really baffles me. It’s just so strangely dark.

  3. Great article, Katherine. I don’t read the series, bu that issue does sound quite problematic. The whole Alzheimer thing sounds like lazy writing, tossing in a “shock” twist for the sake of it without taking a moment to think through how that effects anything else.

    1. It is extremely lazy, and, like I say, Alzheimer doesn’t work that way, so there’s no foreshadowing. If they had just kept the family as a bunch of jerks, then the issue might have worked. It still would have been a bit lame, but a lot of the problems would have been fixed.

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