A year and a half ago I returned to the fandom I had once so loved after a six-year hiatus. I became a part of this fandom because of the ship, JokerxHarley. So one year ago I began the website JokerxHarley.com to give me a place to wax poetic about the ship I so adore.
This week we're celebrating twenty years of Batman on film and seeing that quirky 1989 film most certainly sowed the seeds for my love of all things Batverse.
But more signifcantly to me, tomorrow is the one year anniversary of JokerxHarley.com. If it weren't for this ship, I wouldn't be in this fandom and I freaking love this fandom.
It's an emotional time for me: I am, by nature, a mercurial and intensely emotional person so saying this does not make it particularly different to any other time, but I'm pining for my OTP to reunite, especially now they've laid the Joker down for a year the same time they're bringing Harley back into play.
I've tried, time and time again, to do justice to exactly why I love the JokerxHarley ship so much, why I've spent so much time and energy in defending it and trying to increase some understanding of it. I continuously felt like I was pulling up short, not quite capturing what really is at the heart of it for me.
Thank goodness for friends like zhinxy. Not only is she the most knowledegable Batgeek I've ever had the pleasure of knowing, I don't have to explain anything to her because she understands this ship. And it's through discussions with her that this essay came to be. She is my co-author on this essay and her contribution cannot be underestimated as she has the power to pick out in plain and eloquent language what I struggle to express.
As far as my contribution to this piece goes: I'm so proud of this essay. Finally, at last, I feel like I've got to the heart and soul of it. It's unlikely to be the last thing I'll ever have to say about these two (you can dream!), but if I had no other choice I could be happy to let this be the last thing I had to say.
I hope you all enjoy it and it adds a little something to the celebrations of the week. If you're pondering the connection - just remember – without that campy old Burton Batman, B:TAS would never have come to be in the way we know it – Harley may never have been created – and we would never have the gift of this wonderful ship!
However you believe the man who became the Joker lived, who he was and what he was looking for when he went to the Axis Chemical Plant under the guise of the Red Hood; whatever you believe precisely happened in his confrontation with the Batman that led to his plunging into a vat of chemicals, the end truth is this:
That encounter with Batman transformed him into the Joker.
The Joker identifies the Batman as his creator and Batman himself takes on that awful responsibility. And the outcome of this has been one of the most legendary, complicated, twisted and bizarre rivalries in mythological history.
Comics function as contemporary myth more purely than any other entertainment medium. In them we find our modern gods, legends, heroes and villains. In them are embodied various archetypes and ancient symbols, classic philosophies and reflections of the human psyche.
There is almost no universe in which this has so naturally and densely evolved as the Batman Mythos.
Through long years of differing creative teams, each of them bringing with them their own vision, cultivated through having read and experienced the world of Batman as the epics and adventures of their own childhood and adolescence, Batman and the Joker have evolved alongside each other to become the classic Superhero and Arch-Villain pair.
Their legendary status is due in no small part to the complexity of their relationship. They are perfect mirror opposites; in Joker is everything the Batman will not be and therefore reviles and in Batman is everything the Joker cannot be and therefore despises. As flipsides of the same card, they are entwined together for all time in a relationship that is as codependent and bizarrely affectionate as it is torturous and hate-filled.
The curious juxtaposition of their roles and guises has often been noted: whilst the Batman is a representative of hope, of pure aspiration, of nobility and triumphing over the evil within, he is a tormented, angry and conflicted soul who has adopted the mantle of a bat; a terrifying guise through which he gives people hope. The Joker meanwhile, all wicked desire and sheer nihilism, cruelty and hopelessness, has adopted the guise of a clown, perverting a symbol of joy and laughter and using it to instil terror – and in his path he takes a capricious and decadent glee.
This adds a further and poignant layer to their interactions: the Batman can never truly know peace for in his hope there is the necessary ongoing battle against all that threatens it. The Joker, meanwhile, has long discarded hope and in that he has found freedom.
But while there can be a Batman without the Joker – although his purpose as a hero is better exemplified by having the Joker to stand as his opposite – there cannot be a Joker without the Batman.
The Joker is a monster in a very classic sense: he is a created monster. The monsters of many mythologies were once human, condemned to a cruel fate by a twist of circumstance or as punishment for a misdeed.
These monsters did not pursue a means of escape from their living torment; that option was forever closed to them. Instead, they simply embodied what they had become and obeyed the natural dictates attached to it. And so too is it with the Joker.
In this way, the Joker, although human, is the truest monster within the Batman mythos. He cannot be judged by human standards because he is far beyond them.
But that acceptance and embracing did not mean a total relinquishment of torment and suffering – and this is true of the Joker, also.
In fact, in being the only ones of their kind there is found a particularly bitter and wretched loneliness.
And thus we get Harley Quinn.
The Joker's very creation of her reveals his isolation; though how aware of this he was remains a mystery. That he reached out to another, sucked her into his world, bent and warped and twisted her mind reflects something that has become a much-revered theme of the Joker himself: the idea of driving others mad – of getting people to see “the joke”.
This desire – this compulsion – of his betrays his loneliness. He wants others to understand how he sees the world. In part he is even seeking understanding of himself, though his ego and fragility and remaining humanity in some ways keep him from that perfection of intent. He wants to know others see it as he does, for in that he will finally find companionship. He will still be a monster, but he will not be the only one.
Although the Joker's ego prides itself on his uniqueness, although he truly believes he is superior to all other creatures on the planet, yet he cannot help this ongoing attempt to align the world's perspective to his own.
Harley Quinn is the ultimate embodiment of this desire. As his mate, he created her in his own monstrous image and she was a devastating success. Yet she is not equal to him and he is painfully aware of this. Harley's ongoing battle, her dark and tragic struggle, is between her love for the Joker and her own goodness. Her need to follow him wherever he goes, no matter how depraved and vile it becomes, and her desire to live in peacefulness and normalcy.
The Joker is a twisted and tormented soul, but he does not wish to change. He wants the world to change with him. Harley, on the other hand, believes her love will change what the Joker wants if she just tries hard enough and long enough. This holds her back from plunging all the way into evil after him.
She does not want to change who he is: she loves him, wholly and unreservedly. Rather, she wants to change what he himself wants from who he is: she wants to be enough for him.
The Joker's twisted mission is embodied in his battle with Batman and the two are locked into a neverending cycle. Harley yearns for the day when he can leave that battle behind and simply be with her. This, in turn, has her edging further and further into his world with every time she returns.
The Joker attempts to create with his destruction a world the way he sees it, people who see it the way he does – in a sense, of reproducing himself. It's a monster's motive, and Harley Quinn is his most perfect and yet most imperfect attempt.
He cannot help but love her because she is His. He made her, in his own image – in many ways, she is an extension of him. He also loves her because she is the one creature in all the world who comes even close to “getting it” - to seeing things as he does. He loves her because she accepts him for what he is – despite her hopes he will someday favour her over Batman, there is no doubt her love for him is truly for what he is rather than what she wants him to be. She celebrates his crimes and madness and shamelessly encourages him, even as she holds back herself.
Yet he hates her as well. He hates her because he thought he could control what he felt for her and he couldn't. That he is truly capable of such emotion sickens and terrifies him. She drags out his remaining shreds of humanity and makes him feel them, keenly. And he hates her because, while she does this, she is not perfect. She is not truly like him – she is not as far gone, she's still so much more human – there never can be another mate for him. Never can be another like him. She is by his side forever, but he is still alone.
He hates her both for being something he cannot help but love and for not being something he can willingly love.
The relationships of the Batverse are, one and all, unhealthy. It is a world that has long been populated by characters whose morality and psyches run a spectrum of greys, leading to relationships with each other that are conflicted, painful, questionable and destructive. To a one, there is some degree of undesirability – from Gordon's utter reliance upon Batman to Alfred's unquestioning servitude, to Batman's own dark need for his Rogues Gallery to motivate his sense of purpose, to even the way he chooses his sons and then drags them into his lonely, isolated world.
Of course, this is part of the appeal of the Batverse. It is not uncommonly said that within this world one finds the most, bar none, complicated characters and relationships within the comic book medium. The very nature and purpose of the Batverse has become to reflect the dark aspects of humanity. It is a decadent and tortured comi-tragedy.
And the relationships within it, though unhealthy, are beautiful. They are complicated and painful, damaging and greedy – but they are also filled with hope and real love, genuine passion and a delicate need for each other. They are real. They resonate powerfully. In them we see ourselves, if exaggerated.
And this warped mirror of humanity is no better exemplified than by the relationship between the Joker and Harley.
It is, without a doubt, the messiest and most twisted relationship within the Batverse, even more so than Batman and Catwoman's. It is the most tragic and the most haunted. It is the most perverse, the most manipulative and the most abusive.
Yet it is also the most gleeful. In fact, it is as though this relationship is fully cognizant of just how hopeless it is and so together the two of them determine to be whole-hearted about it. It's what they have, so they'll have it all the way. And through this, they have more moments of pure and true happiness together than most of the other characters do.
It's abusive and twisted and sick – but there's no pretence about that. They each take it as it is and live that and somehow find a more consistent bliss than anyone else seems able to.
This underscores their madness, adds to the tragedy, and demonstrates the humour and weirdness of it all in such a way that it's even unfair to the other unhealthy and damaged characters whose stories do not shine so fiercely or with as much capacity to capture the imagination of – and evoke strong reaction in - the audience.
Because this relationship should evoke strong emotion. That's the whole point. Like any complex story, this romance should provoke a variety of response.
This is what the great Bat-villains are for. To paint our obsessions and show the dark side of humanity in glorious, tragic relief. They do not exist to be redeemed, to triumph over their obsessions or dark inclinations. Like the gods and goddesses of old, who embodied archetypes, they are simply what they are. Not without complexity, not without conflict, but in the grand mythology of the Batverse, they have their roles to play and they have those roles for a reason.
Showing the Joker and Harley relationship as the warped and depraved thing it is in all its cruel love echoes the greatest and most memorable love stories of mythology – like Hades and Persephone, Isis and Osiris, Shiva and Parvati, their story is epic, beautiful, awful, gut-wrenching, compelling and somehow inspiring and even desirable. It's a story full of ugliness and pain but also enormous passion, hope and sacrifice – sacrifice made for the sake of love.
Love is the most haunting and uplifting emotion we experience. Love brings out the best in us, but also the worst and sometimes all at once. Love is the emotion we all chase because experiencing it is beyond compare and even when love brings us pain most of us would rather endure that than live without it. It is the best and worst of all addictions. It is in love that we can accomplish something splendid – or all fall down.
And this is truly what we see in Harley – the best and worst of love.
Love incurs a sort of hopeless hopefulness that is impossible to reason out. The heart wants what it wants, as the saying goes, and this is rarely with regard to rationale or health. It's an old chestnut, but no less true for that.
But no one is expected to think this is a good thing. It's not supposed to be a good thing in Harley's case.
Harley is a person who gave up everything for love, who devoted herself to love with the fervour of a spiritual conversion. And in that love is a passionate hope. That somehow, she can change the worst of it. Somehow, with her love, it can get better. They can be truly united. He can give himself fully to her. Somehow, she'll prove herself. Then he'll move past Batman and it will be just the two of them. Part of the tragedy and wonderfulness of this relationship is the very real, yet obscure, possibility that they really could find complete, monstrous devotion to each other. Harley's love permits her to hope for this actualisation.
Then we're shown how that love warps her life. Shown that glimmer of sympathy and humanity that continues to rear its head and cause her conflict. Shown her torn between her life of crime and her desire to settle down. She's a tragedy. She's black comedy. She's glorious. She's warped. She both is and isn't delusional, is and isn't wrong about the feelings Joker has for her. She's a villain. That's the point.
Showing Harley's black obsession functions as a terrible warning. Showing a character swallowed up in a tragic, abusive situation alongside showing her humanity is a better, more powerful and pointed message than if she simply ups and moves on. Harley, alongside the Joker, is now the stuff of myth and mythology is not a movie-of-the-week special. The cautionary and tragic stories of mythology are intended to repeat themselves over for it is in this way their messages are communicated. Orpheus will always turn back to catch sight of Eurydice.
But the tragedy of Harley's story is a great deal more than the abuse she is subjected to. Part of the horrific effect of Harley's love for the Joker – and his love for her, which is a greedy, grasping and selfish thing – is the choice she makes to pursue villainy for that love and sacrifices a lot of what good and potential she has for its sake. It was Harley's choice to give up her old life, to cross the line and don the costume and transform herself from Dr Harleen Quinzel to Harley Quinn. Where she could've remained as an ally and accomplice to the Joker from the “other side”, continuing to enjoy the privilege, security and freedom of her outwardly-respectable life, she instead tore into insanity, gleefully followed after her creator and so gave up everything she had ever known and was. In truth, she was reborn.
Just as the Joker was.
And just as the Joker is, she's happy and delighted and ecstatic, she's gleeful and rapturous... at the same time as being tragic and broken, twisted and impossibly scarred.
In the Joker's transformation to the monster he is, he lost everything of his former life, including all recollection of it. Perhaps it is because he has no attachment to his past that he is able to so fully inhabit his own beastliness – with nothing to tie him to the world of humanity, there is nothing for him to lose – nothing at stake. He is able to be who he is without remorse.
Harley, on the other hand, remembers very well what it was like to be a part of normal society and while a large part of her disdains the mundanity of it, another part of her also yearns for it. It is reasonable to imagine that it is Harley's remaining connection to her former self that continues to preserve her humanity.
Yet the very fact the Joker conjures for himself false memories of a former life indicates a certain bitterness over what he has lost. Not the life itself, but any sense of connection to it. And in Harley's inception, he creates for himself a link to humanity, and this in turn creates a vulnerability.
As his creation, the monster's bride, it simply fits that Harley should reflect so much of the Joker even as she softens and blurs the image.
It is easy to understand why some people want her to have a permanent second chance: her story resonates and touches us, she's all too easy to relate to, to identify with – and ultimately, she's very loveable.
But the truth is, provoking that desire within us – the desire to see her shake off her obsession and pursue a life free of it – means nothing more but that she is achieving a part of her purpose as a character.
It's perfectly right and true to feel this way about her – it is not, however, a good reason for her to change.
She's a villain. More than that, she's a Bat-Villain. Their obsessions make their tragic tales and as the Pantheon of the Batverse, they enact the same patterns over and over again, their stories being expanded on, adjusted, elaborated and altered over the years with each new generation to tell the tales – but always retaining their essential, crucial elements.
The Joker is an essential element of Harley and for more than just the fact that without him, she would not exist. The relationship between them both underscores and parallels the complexity and messiness of the other Batverse relationships, which is only right for their roles as clowns, whose job throughout history has been to reflect, parody, distort and exaggerate society.
How then, can this be a problem? Or something that needs to be changed? When it has become, through the same series of incident and accident that saw Selina become legendary as Batman's truest love Catwoman, one of the most fantastic and perfect additions to the mythos in its seventy year history? Something that so truly and perfectly embodies what the Bat-mythos is all about: the darkness within our own hearts and the ensuing struggle with it.
Because there is also tragedy for the Joker in this relationship. He is not a calculating, manipulating, deliberately cruel abuser at all times and the idea that he is, is tied to long out-dated and tired tropes that have unfortunately become attached to him. So much of his abuse is about his insanity; his incapacity to communicate in a human way, the fact that he is impulse-driven and, underscoring all this, deeply resentful and resistent of his love for her. He lashes out at her, at the one person who loves him not in spite of who he is but simply for who he is because on some level he can't cope with that and what it means. Yet nor can he give it up because it also gives him something he needs. He certainly can't permit it to change him – to redeem him – because he is too monstrous for that. It's too late for him. So despite it, he remains alone.
Perhaps the ultimate example of both the beauty and tragedy of the relationship occurs during the flashback scene in Return of the Joker, in which they reveal the torture and transformation they have inflicted upon Robin.
In this scene, the Joker's affection towards Harley is both wonderful and horrific. More than at any other time, we see them there, wholly united. The way he gazes adoringly at her. The way he reaches out over the prone Dark Knight – his own great obsession – and grabs her hand.
The way he keeps saying “we” to Batman. “We” being he and Harley. There is no more “I”. He is no longer alone.
Because Harley has taken the final step. She's passed the point of no return. With him she has committed so evil an act that the process of her creation is finally complete. She is finally twisted and wicked enough that he can truly have somone and fully embrace that. Finally, she really gets it. Finally, he has someone with which he can share the joke.
It is the only time we can believe he believes he could go on in some way without Batman. Which is precisely what he intends to do, as he truly readies himself to finish it once and for all, knowing he has his distorted little family to carry on with afterwards.
Further to this, there is no hint or tinge of remorse, regret or hesitation in Harley. She is gleeful and delighted. She's made the final sacrifice and has what she most yearned for, all that time through all the pain and longing and confusion and struggle. Finally, she's managed to force him into fully accepting her. It's clear to see that, to her, this outcome is worth the humanity she has lost as she beams and giggles and plays her part, eager, amused, and ecstatic to be truly by his side, in union with him. In the end she got what she wanted – but at no small cost. That she is nonetheless delirious about it only makes it the more heartbreaking.
It's grotesque and awful and horribly tragic. No more so than moments later when they both die, denied finally the opportunity to live this horrendously won bliss out with each other.
Yet, what ending could be more fitting for the monster and his bride? Ultimately, in all its black humour, perverse subtext and slapstick parody, for all its warped beauty and strange delight, it's a tragic and broken story. At the end, they belong dead.
And as Harley herself says in Trial, none of this could ever have happened without the Batman. He made a monster and it got lonely. Now that's a story.