Joker by Brian Azzarello
The above image, a panel from Azzarello’s Joker, has been the source of a lot of unrest for me ever since I first saw it. The book, which ultimately hardly features Harley at all, is set within a very Nolan-esque, reality-based Gotham which has since become quite pervasive within canonical DC.
On the surface, this image simply struck me as beautiful. I’ve been drawn to the Joker and Harley dynamic ever since I was a little girl. Initially I loved it for it’s abject silliness—it was far more amusing to see a dysfunctional, crazy relationship rather than the alternative. As I’ve gotten older, there’s been a growing need—from outside forces—to justify my enjoyment of a potentially “problematic” relationship. I’m not going to write about that, as I have no actual obligation to justify why I like these two. That, and I’ve beaten the subject to death.
So, as a very blatant display of affection and validity of some of my feelings—I enjoyed the image when I first saw it. As soon as I’d turned the page, though, I’d already begun to have misgivings. Was it a “cheat” that bucked defined characterization? Was it too easy?
It’s necessary first to excuse the obvious offenses—Joker crying for goodness sake, Joker under the influence of drugs (shown in the previous panel)—all of which can be spirited away by remembering that this is set within a “real” Gotham. If Joker existed in the real world, it isn’t beyond belief that he would experiment with drugs. It also isn’t beyond belief to think that a sociopath is realistically the slave to some manner of emotion. Perhaps true empathy is improbable, but biological and neurological reactions certainly aren’t. Mentally disturbed people are still people.
My real problems came with characterization. It’s something I’m interested in, it’s something I can’t help but be too illustrative about in my own head. It’s something tumblr has certainly taken to a new, exhausting level.
Would Joker allow himself to break down in front of anyone? Is this a completely false characterization? Following the release of The Dark Knight, and the casting of Heath Ledger, there was an obvious rise in the sexualization and romanticizing of Joker’s character. You’d see it all over the internet. Along with the urge to romanticize a character comes the need to justify it—maybe let’s call it “the Loki effect”. Regardless, fandom new and old felt uncomfortable with a truly remorseless psychopath with whom they were attracted to in some way or another.
So, make him squishy. Make him cry as he puts on his pancake makeup. In other words: deviate from what he is.
This was, initially, why I had so many misgivings about this panel. I remained uneasy with it for four years, until I heard an interview Paul Dini did with Kevin Smith on his podcast Fatman on Batman.
PD: And actually, Brian Azzarello put in this great panel—did you read the Joker graphic novel? That he did a couple years ago?
KS: Yeah, the painted one? Is it the one where everyone—everything’s set in the real world?
KS: Killer Croc is just a real big dude.
PD: Yeah. He came up with this great, you know, Harley never really talks in that, but he came up with this great image of this thug—it’s from the thug’s point of view—where he walks by an open door and the Joker is there. And the Joker is just sittin’ there, weeping with his eyes open on Harley’s lap. And Harley’s just having a smoke and a drink and kind of patting him on the head. And that, to me, is kind of their private life. Joker opens up, and in those moments he is whatever he is at his core and all his demons come in. And the only one he trusts with that is Harley. Or, Harley is the only one who knows how to deal with him in those moments.
KS: And then when other people are around, he’s just ‘HAAAAR-LEY,’ putting her down.
PD: Yeah. And she takes it, you know. And I thought: ‘Man’. I thought that was a great way to redefine the character, you know, for a live interpretation. Or, a more realistic interpretation.
I was listening to this podcast at work. When Paul Dini, the man who created Harley Quinn and has had such a profound effect on how I view the DC universe, professed that this image not only didn’t give him pause about characters he had intimate knowledge of—but was beautiful—I got emotional. Here I am, fighting (and losing) against tears in the university library because I finally had confirmation on something I’d been struggling with for four years. It may sound silly, but it was just an incredible feeling of relief.
So I’ve been thinking about this panel since that podcast came out (June 1st, 2012). And, more and more, I feel such a tremendous affection for it. Throughout my life I’ve been able to relate to Harley in one way or another, and now I have new reason through this graphic novel.
I have been in a number of relationships, most of them either forgettable or perfectly horrible. At one time I was involved with, and in love with, a man with a number of problems. Physical ailments aside, he was bi-polar and wrought with anxiety. He was also an alcoholic. It was an emotionally abusive relationship, although I do not now, nor did I then, think of myself as a victim.
Tying yourself to someone that you know in your heart of hearts you are actually incapable of helping in any meaningful way is beyond difficult. It’s even more difficult when they love you as fiercely as you love them. You, in effect, become their anchor. You are what keeps their feet on the ground. You are the one person on whom they can depend. It is a terrible responsibility.
For Harley, a woman involved with, let’s be honest, the single most disturbed mind in the DC universe, I can’t imagine that burden. Because I know it isn’t as easy as moving along to something easier. No matter how many Poison Ivys you have in your life telling you that there are alternatives, it isn’t that easy. Both for the responsibility I mentioned earlier in being that person’s safe haven, and for the simple fact that love—true affection and care—isn’t something that just switches off one day. I fancy myself an intelligent woman, much as Harley is. Brains have very little to do with it.
Harley Quinn is a villain, she’s a shit-kicker, she’s a menace. She’s totally irresponsible and campy as all get-out. She’s funny, she’s intelligent, she’s ambitious. She’s also got the biggest heart in the world which, for all intents and purposes, shouldn’t even be beating anymore. But, she’s a survivor, too.
It’s astounding to me that years after falling in love with Harley in BtAS, I would keep finding shadows of myself in her character and continue to find new ways to love her. Harley Quinn is the single most meaningful character I have probably ever found in fiction for myself and I’m so pleased to uncover new facets to her with every re-reading I do.
Now, if I could just bring myself to stomach New 52 Harley.