We've talked at length many times about DC's propensity towards rebooting their universe here on What Were They Thinking. This is because they invariably end up being terrible, misguided messes and that fits right in with our M.O of looking at the stupidest and most ill-advised things in comic book history. However, sometimes a DC reboot will throw up a nugget of gold and these tend to be new origin stories for classic characters. The first DC reboot saw new versions of classic heroes like The Flash and Green Lantern introduced and these were so successful they form the basis for DC's business to this day. The second DC reboot, the one that started the Post-Crisis era of DC continuity, saw Batman and Wonder Woman get revamped origins, giving us one of the greatest comics of all time in Frank Miller's Batman: Year One and saw the start George Perez's seminal run on the amazing Amazon. Even the New 52 had, if not a nugget of gold then at least a nice chunk of pyrite, in the form of the Justice League Origins storyline, which gave us a new take on the formation of DC's premier superteam and a new origin for Cyborg which wasn't all that bad. However, that's not to say all revamped origin stories have worked. We mentioned Hawkman when we talked about how DC keep screwing up with their reboots, but their are other examples. And today we're going to talk about one of them. This one to be exact:
Harley Quinn is one of the last truely "classic" characters to have been created by either DC or Marvel (pre-dating Bane by little over half a year and being a few months younger than either Carnage or Deadpool). Introduced in Batman: The Animated Series Season 1 Episode 22 Joker's Favor (interestingly, first broadcast on September 11th), she was originally only meant to be a "walk-on role", a character cameo that was only meant to be in one episode. However, the character became such a hit that she became a full character on the show, before making the transition to print in February 1994, for a one shot comic The Batman Adventures: Mad Love, a comic set in the Animated Series universe that explained the origin story of the character. The origin story laid out for Harley in Mad Love is the one that we all know and associate the character with: Harleen Quinzel is a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum who becomes fascinated by The Joker and offers to treat him, however during their sessions she falls in love with the mad man (hence the title Mad Love) and starts to help him escape, before finally becoming the Joker's sidekick when Batman returns Joker to Arkham in a badly injured state. This origin is so good that the only changes DC made when transistioning Harley into the main DC continuity (in October 1999's Batman: Harley Quinn), is that she was given a special formula by Poison Ivy after the fact, in order to make her a bigger threat to Batman.
I'll break down why the animated series/ original origin of Harley Quinn is so good in a minute, but first we should take a look at her New 52 origin. Again it has Harleen Quinzel as working at Arkham and becoming fascinated by The Joker, even falling in love with him. When this is discovered she tries to kill her supervisor (who discovered her infatuation in her research notes) and then breaks Joker out of Arkham. After escaping, Joker takes Quinzel to the chemical plant where he was "born" and, after a struggle between the two, throws Quinzel into a vat of the chemical that he fell into. This changes Quinzel in the same way as Joker was changed. Her skin becomes paler, her hair changes colour and she becomes irreversably insane.
So, to understand what makes the original Harley Quinn origin so great you have to compare it to the new origin. In the old origin, Harley is manipulated by the Joker, yes, but everything she does is of her own free will. She becomes Harley because she wants to, whereas in the new origin, she becomes Harley because the Joker forces her to against her will (I mean, shouting NO in big red letters as someone throws you off a gantry into a vat of green goo isn't all that ambiguous is it). Both work as origins, but then you have to take into account the relationship between the two characters after the origin story to really get the mistake DC made here.
Joker and Harley have a very abusive relationship (something which the Suicide Squad film just couldn't bring its self to convey and something which the highly misjudged Harley Quinn/ Joker film will get wrong if they go ahead with the plans to make it a rom-com) but Harley just can't seem to be able to leave the man she loves. And that is what makes Harley such a classic character, her character is one that is so very rarely explored in comics and it packs such an emotional punch. The tragedy of the original Harley origin is that she chose this, it makes it so much more relatable, as everyone either knows or has heard of someone who is or has been in an abusive relationship but just can't seem to bring themselves to leave it. And that's what the new origin gets wrong. By making Harley not responsible for her becoming the Joker's sidekick, not only do you weaken her character by taking away some of her agency but you also weaken the impact of the story. Yes, it's great when you see someone who was corrupted by someone else finally break away, but isn't it greater to see someone who did it to themselves finally see the light, to see that what they are doing was only hurting themselves and to finally get out?
And it's not like the origin really needed to be spiced up or changed. Flash and Green Lantern got new origins because they were new characters, replacing old characters that had been out of print for a decade and being used to spearhead a resurgance of a genre that many thought was dead. Batman and Wonder Woman got new origins because, by that point, both characters had been around for 50 years and just needed their origins brought into the modern era. The Justice League is probably the least defensable but still the team had been around for 50 years at that point as well and had recieved multiple retconned origin stories that it did kinda need a clean up. But Harley had only been in mainstream DC continuity for just over 10 years at the point of the New 52 origin and had only been a character for 20 years. The origin was still fresh, still pertinant and the character's main arc was still in progress. A revamp was never really needed. It isn't the worst thing DC have done to a character, but it's still questionable and misguided.
Oh, and then they decided to do a contest to see who could draw the best picture of Harley about to kill herself with a toaster in a bath tub. Stay classy DC.
And with that