5 Harley Quinn Comics Darker Than Any Superhero Movie
Harley Quinn fights bad guys who are way worse than her
Now that she’s more or less an antihero, Harley Quinn is running up against the kinds of villains that were once her peers. What qualifies as an antagonist to someone still willing and capable of murdering a person they don’t like with a giant mallet? Well, cannibals, for a start.
In the story arc “Red Meat,” Harley finds herself squaring off with the Mayor of New York City. While the not-de Blasio is no doubt running the subway system into the ground, making life hell for commuting bloggers isn’t what raised Harley’s ire. See, this mayor has decided to deal with the city’s massive homeless population by uh, having some people them. Why eat the rich when you can eat the poor?
HQ sets out to make herself bait for the would-be attackers, but in classic comic book fashion, is immediately kidnapped and threatened with the same fate of those she wants to rescue.
This isn’t even close to the first time Harley Quinn has been thrown into a room full of skeletons. She knows by now that all you gotta do is find the skull with the sharpest teeth and cut the restraints with those postmortem pearly whites.
After that, all that’s left is to murder an entire room of cannibals and go after their leader with the top of a toilet water tank.
They say that heroes are only as good as their villains. Without the eclectic rogues of Gotham City, Batman would have no one with which to test his mettle. Villains like Joker and Two-Face are so bombastic and exaggerated in part because they make Batman — a guy in a rubber suit who skulks around at night, searching for mentally ill people to punch — look sane in comparison.
Whereas Harley was once the spice to Batman’s stew, now that she’s out on her own, villains have to step it up a notch to seem even more wild than the antihero. And if that means eating homeless people, well, I guess that’s where comic books are at.
Harley does the unthinkable in the name of the Joker
She might have left that part of her life behind, but Harley Quinn still ran with the Joker for a long time. Years of her life were spent in service of a monster who took glee in committing mass murder. Harley didn’t just aid and abet these heinous crimes, either. She was often the one carrying out the deeds.
Take Detective Comics #23.2, for instance (yes, that numbering is correct, because comic books). This one-off story retells Harley’s origin story, tweaking a few details previously seen in the now-classic “Mad Love” storyline. One thing it adds is a subplot involving scores of handheld video game systems, given away to children at Christmastime.
If you live in a world where lethal laughing gas attacks are common and gigantic lizard men live in the sewer, you might be suspicious of a stand giving away high-priced electronics for nothing. But these are kids, and they want nothing more than to try and fail to get Fortnite going on a bootleg 3DS. Unfortunately, because this is a supervillain plot, that means that the “free” systems are holding a nefarious secret. In this case, the handhelds explode. While the kids are still holding them.
As pockets of the city ignite, vaporizing children and those around them, Harley appears detached from reality. She does mention that she is suffering from dissociation but she brushes it off because, well, she can’t see why that’s a bad thing. All she knows in this moment is that she helped her Puddin’.
This is no doubt one of the worst things Harley Quinn has ever done in a comic book, but it sort of doesn’t count anymore. See, this retcon of Harley’s origin was part of the New 52 reboot universe, but the New 52 has since been itself rebooted into Rebirth. Still, it squares with what we saw of original HQ, who showed hints that what she saw wasn’t exactly what was happening.
Harley doesn’t always know exactly how bad she is
Before the Batman Arkham games ushered in a new “gritty with pigtails” look, the classic red-and-black Harley was pretty Looney Tunes. This might have something to do with the character originating in Batman: The Animated Series before becoming comic book canon. The funny papers may have a slightly older target audience than those glued to WB Kids on a weekday afternoon, but Harley nonetheless managed to bring over some of her trademark cartoon zeal.
But here’s the thing about Looney Tunes violence — add about 10% more realism, and a lot more people will get hurt.
In the sixth issue of her first ongoing series, Harley is betrayed by a crew member (ironically named Margo). A Daffy Duck-style showdown ensues, culminating in a slapstick switcharoo. The colorful stars, planets and single yellow duck are a great example of what we mean when we say “Looney Tunes violence.”
But then you turn the page.
As Harley skips away, we see what really happened. Margo is not shellshocked or incapacitated — she’s dead. The way that Harley tells her victim to “stay and think about that” makes it seem as though she is not aware of the murder she has just committed. To her, it’s all a game, a cartoon.
You can delineate the universes by paying close attention to the art. When the goofy brawl breaks out, we get artist Craig Rousseau’s simple lines and exaggerated features. When the fight ends and we see the last of Margo, artist Terry Dodson resumes pencil duties a more grounded style. Comics use fill-ins all the time, so this could be a matter of one illustrator interpreting a script a different way than the other, but the placement here seems deliberate.
The end result gives us a window into the psyche of a woman who might not have realized how awful supervillains can be.
The Joker gets revenge on Harley in the cruelest way possible
When DC first rebooted its comic universe with the New 52, the Joker arrived fashionably late. It had been over a year since he had cut his own face off, mostly so he could be extra twisted and wear his own desiccated flesh as a creepy mask. While the Joker was killing time watching every episode of The Good Wife, Harley was getting on with her life. The reboot marked a turning point for the character, wherein she decided she was finally going to make a clean break from her former lover/tormentor.
The Joker didn’t much care for his lackey’s newfound independence, so he locked Harley away in a room full of skeletons. Weird how that keeps happening.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what Joker was up to here. He outright says that there have been multiple Harleys, pointing to the red and blue-clad corpses. If he’s telling the truth, the dozens of skulls that line the cell floor would imply a long lineage of sidekicks, a stretching timeline on which our Harley Quinn is but a blip.
But maybe that’s what the Joker wants Harley to think. This woman has cut her abuser out of her life, and nothing would make Joker more furious than to feel like he wasn’t absolutely necessary. Would he really go so far as to get a bunch of skeletons together and drape them in clownish clothing just so he could lock Harley in a dungeon and make her believe that she wasn’t his first (or last) sidekick? Yeah, I mean, probably. Joker would want to impress upon Harley that it is in fact her that is disposable and replaceable, not the unique, one-of-a-kind Clown Prince of Crime.
At least it doesn’t end in this dank pit.
Harley manages to break free through sheer resolve, even at the cost of her own wrists. But that doesn’t exactly mean she’s free.
Harley Quinn works out some feelings on Joker’s face (sort of)
Remember how I said the Joker cut off his face and kind of peaced out for a while? Well, while he was gone, Harley got a hold of that fleshy mask. And since her Puddin’ wasn’t around, she used it as a kind of therapy doll. But instead of putting the face on a plush toy or like, a pillow, Harley put Joker’s severed face onto Deadshot.
Deadshot did not volunteer for this plan.
At this point, Harley has a lot of feelings to work out. It might be for the best that Joker himself isn’t around, since he would probably toss her into yet another pit of skeletons, but a restrained Deadshot with Joker’s actual face on his head? That’s a start.
Well okay, it might be less than optimal. Deadshot, tied to a chair, doesn’t make for a great sounding board. And that’s just the thing — even though Harley has all of these emotions that she needs to work through, she doesn’t have a real outlet for them, not really. It will take years for her to find that solace, and even then, she will always feel a sharp tug whenever her abuser starts to pull her strings again.
In the meantime, Deadshot is desperate to say anything in order to escape.