This is very much my own personal opinion and is rife with spoilers so only click through if you're prepared for both! :)
I do quibble on being outright critical of Dini, beyond him simply being a writer I respect a lot. There's also a fair bit of a sense of 'Daddy knows best' – he is Harley's creator after all and has largely always done right by her and if anyone has final authority on any little aspect of her, it's him.
But I'm outright disappointed by the family revelations.
This issue left me fairly divided. It's taken me a while to really process and digest it and part of that has been a lengthy and ongoing discussion with Harley-fan extraordinaire, itllcometome. I was dreading this reveal, given how dissatisfied in general I have been with GCS thus far and while it was nowhere as awful as I'd feared, I don't think it did justice to Harley, to Dini's talent or to his title as Harley's creator. He's already given a great big ole kick in the teeth to every JokerxHarley fan out there in this series, now he seems to have decided that Harley can never be more than comic relief; obvious, shallow and, yes, a victim. Wheras I initially fiercely defended Dini's handling of Harley in GCS (others were dismissing it as too shallow and flippant) I now find myself most reluctantly conceding they may be right.
I sound harsh. Ironically, as unhappy as I am with her backstory, I'm torn precisely because a part of me wants to embrace it.
Harley's role as the perennial clown of any troupe is one I feel should be preserved. That's how I love her. And part of that is how she is this glorious, all-encompassing and even cliché parody of the human condition in all its ridiculousness, aspiration and tragedy. She's like a sitcom character come to life and appropriately distorted through madness. She twistedly reflects and we hopelessly relate. She's so over-the-top and larger-than-life – delightful and flashy – yet no less real and compelling for that.
And her family situation as presented in GCS #7 is an extension of that. It's so paint-by-numbers as to almost be glorious. It's exactly what you would expect, the most obvious exaggeration on the type of unit you'd find in a dysfunctional sitcom family that could conceivably belong to Harley – the kind of 'working class/white trash' schtick popularised in comedies like Married... with Children, My Name Is Earl, The Honeymooners and the like. Completely exaggerated but recognisable. Possible. Easy to accept.
That's my dilemma.
There's a part of me that kinda feels like that's so right for Harley and totally in keeping with her established character as a parody of very recognisable tropes that reflect reality. There's a part of me that thinks the glimpse we are given in this issue could be spun into something glorious, that there is real potential in it to make it even more of what it is, in that sense.
But my issues with it outweigh this desire to embrace it.
When I said 'paint-by-numbers', I wasn't kidding. Harley's family backstory is reduced to the simplest of scenarios: her father is a crook who is constantly in and out of jail for taking people (women) for a ride, her mother is a martyrous nag, constantly giving her family second chances and chiding Harley for being a disappointment, her brother is a deadbeat with a couple of kids by different women and the whole lot of them are perfectly trashy and more-or-less completely blasé in the face of their daughter's lifestyle.
And, in keeping with that 'whacky' screwball set-up, Harley is technically the one who has achieved the most with her life.
So what's wrong with this? It's cute and it's certainly funny. It's even a little perverse.
Does everything about Harley have to be an endless gag? The emotional edge of this set-up is so predictable it ceases to be parody and becomes merely cliché. Part of Harley's appeal is that, as parodic as she is, her story still connects. There is still that element of genuine tragedy and poignance.
It is all but absolutely eroded here.
How can Harley be so loveable a screwball if it isn't even remarkable within the context of her family? Part of what sets Harley apart is the fact that she stands-out. She's just that outrageous that she's like a sore-thumb no matter where you put her. Whilst there is a certain appeal in her 'just blending in' within a family that matches her for whackiness, it kind of takes some of her uniqueness away from her.
Not to mention even funnier storylines. As itllcometome said: “If Harley's Coming Home for Christmas had been the set up and the family had been straight edged enough to be skittish about this [there would've been more edge]. Harley trying to have a holiday and interact with the people who knew Harleen.”
Because that's another problem with this set-up – that Harley was never Harleen. That she was always just Harley. That there was no difference between the two and therefore no real transition for Harley to make from sanity to insanity - nothing for her family to even process. Or her, for that matter.
In saying that, I have stressed in the past the importance of noting the dropped hints that the potential for Harley Quinn always lay within Harleen – the glimmer of supervillainy always lurked, that this is what the Joker espied and played upon. I think Harley is who Harleen was suppressing, her true self. Once again to quote itllcometome:
“I'm so much more enamored with the idea of villains being born with a certain off kilter morality that defies a healthy upbringing or even the best of circumstances. This? Harley's just the average chick from the wrong side of the tracks. “
Plus, there's no real tug at the heartstrings. Part of the tragedy of Harley's story is her genuine potential for good – her warm and loving heart, her desire, however fleeting, to be normal. To go back to a family reluctant to accept her, trying to cope with madcap, perky-on-acid daughter, genuine in her desire to reconnect with them only to be rejected has a lot more potential for development and future exploration than what we were given.
For Harley to be a disappointment to her mother is obvious; that her mother should be so flip about this fact is just boring. Must Harley be denied all avenue to further complexity in her tragedy?
It would seem so. For now we get automatic pilot pathology – a construction of her psyche about as subtle as a freight-train, glaringly obvious. I want to say it's supposed to be – that its very obviousness is the joke we're supposed to delight in. But I'm not convinced that's true. And, even if it is, SHOULD it be? Does everything about Harley have to be played to full comic hilt, every time? And, in fact, is it even so? Surely there are greater comedic possibilities to explore in her backstory than this?
Again, itlcometome puts it perfectly:
“Harley Quinn as a vessel for parody has always been fine in my book, but I never pictured parody as the motivation for her relationship. It's believeble enough sure, just boring. Is it even a parody when the cliche IS her reality? “
Because what we come to see is that basically Harley grows up to be her mother and finds in the Joker a man like her father.
That Harley has Daddy-issues has always been obvious and I would've been disappointed if Dini had not illuminated this fact. And, I must say – I was immensely relived he did not go the abusive-father (in the physical sense) route – that would've been both too easy AND not in keeping with her pathology (children who have undergone routine physical abuse as a rule do not grow up to become clingy, codependent and needy).
But reading this story was like being hit over the head with a mallet named 'motivation'. Her father is a sleazeball who constantly breaks her mother's heart, screwing the family over, making empty promises he doesn't keep, never being there for them... even the language he uses to talk to Harley is reminescent of the Joker, as is his smile. And Harley wanted to be a psychiatrist to figure out why her Daddy kept doing these things to them! And there she meets Joker, a guy who's 'just like her father' and falls for him and in doing so, falls into the same trap her mother did.
OBVIOUSLY there's something in the Daddy/girl thing Joker and Harley have going on that would relate back to her relationship with her actual father but for it to be SO DAMN BLATANT?
And Harley's ambition? Well, that's taken care of in her mother's nagging of her. I should make some other trite analogy like being shot in the face with a popgun named 'ambition'. We'll call that good? Anyhoo, not just that but she grows up to make all the same mistakes her mother did, despite demonstratiing clear awareness of both them and her father's pathological behaviour. Despite even stating she wanted to be a shrink to unwrap this behaviour of her father's! She goes and falls for the same schtick!
So Harley IS just a dumbass in the end, Dini?
And again, there's that conflict within me that is one part genuinely amused by the fact JokerxHarley are basically PopxMa times one billion – that glorious, OTT exaggeration of reality that is so inherent to both characters – but goddamn it, I wanted more for Harley too. More than just a one-trick comic foil.
AND Harley's tenacious and ambitious personality would've seen her strive to grow beyond her family, to be everything they are not. That's why she went to Arkham – she wanted to be more. She wanted to be famous. She wanted to be respected and admired. We've seen ample and repeated evidence of her ambition, her relentless drive to get what she wants, her whole-hearted pursuit of her desires.
Put that established pathology in line with the premise that she simply grows up to be just like her mother is pretty much Dini saying she was doomed to failure from the beginning – predestination. No matter what she did, she was born to be a victim.
It's a cop-out, I think. Sure, it's the easy and obvious path – but it's far from the most interesting or compelling or complex. Again, as itllcometome said:
“The Joker reminds her of her dad! And she became her mother! At the very least he could have switched the damn genders."
Or what about a Harleen hurt by her family and emotionally repressed and a perceptive Joker spying that and playing on it – in a twisted version of the 'teaching her to love again' schtick?
It's almost as though Dini wanted to undermine the grandeur of his own creation, accidental though it may have been.
For the whole lot reduces the grand tale of Harley's path to madness – the enormity of what she gave up for love is undermined by her family's easy acceptance of her chosen lifestyle. What exactly were the stakes for Harley in becoming a supervillain? She was accustomed to growing up surrounded by crime with a mother who constantly welcomed everyone back. What transformation did Harley go through exactly then? This story would have you believe there was never any difference between the identity of her former life and who she is now. So where the hell has the pathos gone – that pathos inherent to the story of an ambitious and, if morally questionable at least sincere and passionate, young doctor who wanted to make something of herself only to become more than she could ever dream possible – to completely upend a life she then wishes she could reclaim????
If her life was so trashy and immersed in crime and disappointment to begin with, why the hell does she even want it back so much? What's the connection there for her?
It's true that in Harley's dreams and yearnings we see an idealised (if warped) life that certainly isn't reflective of her actual family unit – nonetheless the question remains why then did she simply end up repeating it, especially when we were initially given her desire to become "more" as her primary ambition?
Finally, the power in the very story of Harley Quinn itself is eroded. Everything about Mad Love that made it so exceptional and a further example of the ongoing theme of the Joker as a character – his capacity to drive others mad – is undermined. The power of Harley's mad, terrible love is cheapened and the impact of the story is lost. Joker didn't drive Harley mad. She just grew up to be like her mother!
… really, Dini?
And I'm not feeling caustic or sarcastic in writing that. I'm feeling miserable and disappointed.
Since I've quoted her so much already, here's another from itllcometome (she's just so good at phrasing things in a succinct way whereas I'll always take a few hundred words!):
“As realistic as Harley having tainted roots would be it doesn't jive with any of The Joker's chaos effect. What a let down...It really blunts the edge of Harl's breakdown and madness...”
And again, as she said above: “I never pictured parody as the motivation for her relationship.”
Her love for the Joker has always been the most serious thing about her, as has the lengths she has gone to for that love.
Is everything about this unique and imagination-capturing character simply to be trivialised for the sake of a sitcom parody? And not even a particularly innovative one?
It feels like Dini has slept-walked his way through this. As though Harley has ceased to mean anything to him. This from the guy who couldn't let her die in ROTJ, even though it was an alternate universe tale. It's like he's gotten bored with her. Bored with all of her potential.
Or maybe the fans have been wrong all along. Maybe he's never taken her as seriously as us. Maybe we have really read more into her than ever was intended to exist, spun things out of control, imagined her as greater and more complex than she ever has been. Maybe there was never any nuance there and she was always just meant to be a straight-out parody, 2D comic relief with nothing beneath the surface.
I'm sure there are many devout Harley fans who would disagree with me entirely and that's fine – as I said, there really is a part of me that wants to embrace this story. And there are parts of it I do love, as a simple and straightforward little Christmas tale – and I really strongly support her provision of money to her family, I think that's entirely in keeping with her and I liked reading it.
But on the whole, this was a bitter disappointment.
And I think what upsets me most is that I really wanted to be behind this series 100% and I began that way – I defended it when others quibbled, I maintained faith in Dini's love for Harley, I bit my tongue when my doubts first began to nag at me – and now I just feel so let-down.
Oh well. I guess it's only comics! :)