Harley Quinn and “Definitive” Characters

Harley Quinn turns 26 this year. That’s why rebooting characters back to their “definitive” version is usually a bad idea.

As probably everyone reading Atomic Junk Shop knows, comics make lots of reboots based on restoring the definitive, best, most perfect version of a character. Which always turns out to be the writer’s personal favorite or their personal favorite as a kid. Go figure.

Joe Quesada ended Peter/Mary Jane because his definitive Spidey is a single, twenty-something guy. Dan Didio restored Barry and Hal as Flash and Green Lantern because they’re his definitive versions; he wanted to kill Dick Greyson in Infinite Crisis because if Dick’s not Robin, Didio wasn’t interested. I’ve read that Marvel thought “Peter Parker was the clone!” would work because Ben Reilly had lived through all Spider-Man’s adventures up through 1975 — that was the definitive stuff, nothing that came after was as essential.

The confidence that everyone’s going to agree X Was Definitive ignores not only differences in taste but the generational perspective. Which is why I’m bringing up Dr. Harleen Quinzel.

I love Harley. She’s an awesome character. But to me she’ll always be something of a “new” character. If I were ordered to pick a definitive Batman era for a new reboot, it would be an updated version of the 1940s (which isn’t that different from when I started reading the Bat-books in the Silver Age): Dick as Robin, Wayne Manor, Catwoman, Penguin and Joker as chief villains. Harley? She’s just too new.

From the perspective of a comics fan turning 18 this year, that would be nuts. Harley’s always been there. She’s not a new character, she’s as established as anyone from the Golden Age. It would be like DC telling me in my teens that it planned to dump the “new” Flash and Green Lantern in favor of the definitive versions, Jay Garrick and Alan Scott. Heck, Harley actually predates the contemporary 18-year-old more than the Silver Age predated me.

Definitive is subjective. If you started reading in the late 1990s, Superman was married. Peter Parker had never had any important relationships besides Mary Jane. Babs Gordon was definitively Oracle. Cass Cain was definitively Batgirl. Wally West was definitively Flash. If you were a kid reading Dr. Fate in the Golden Age, you more likely knew him as a two-fisted crimefighter in a half-helmet than the full-helmet mystic (the half-helmeted Fate was around almost twice as long).

Don’t get me wrong, taste plays a role too. I’m a Silver Age kid, but I wish Wally had stayed the Flash. That doesn’t change the point that imagining there’s a definitive definitive version is a delusion. Debating this can be fun (Barry or Wally? Dick or Damien? Hal or Kyle or John?) for fans. But when writers base decisions on their head canon of “definitive” it never ends well.

#SFWApro. Covers by Howard Sherman and Terry Dodson.

9 Comments

  1. Le Messor

    You make some good points, but I’ve gotta admit… the new version of Harley? I feel creepy just having comics with her in them. The original, not so much.
    And I’m someone who hates the idea of demonising male heterosexuality. (The “Showing a sexy woman is soooooo misogynistic!!!! How dare you?” argument.)

  2. Peter

    I think continuity can be a real double-edged sword: sometimes, it can be a barrier to entry. When it becomes the main subject of a story itself, I’d say things have gone too far. Usually, though, I personally think that continuity is one of comics’ greatest strengths. Touching on changes to characters/casts as a result of past stories allows writers to craft more three-dimensional characters and usually makes me interested in reading additional background stories rather than chasing me away from a story in progress. I often lend or give away my comics to friends who seem interested in comic-based movies and they, too, are usually tantalized by the fact that there is more backstory available for the characters featured in the comics instead of being overwhelmed by not having every single story thread complete in one volume.

    All of this is a roundabout way of agreeing that it’s much cooler for the “definitive” versions of characters to change gradually but substantially over time rather than constantly being rebooted (either to be shockingly different or suddenly “back to basics”). Continuity resets may simplify characters somewhat, but they make them feel much flatter, too. Spider-Man used to be the “hero who could be you!,” but I for one have never been magically divorced and I don’t seem to be getting less mature every 5 to 10 years whenever a new writer takes charge of my life. I find characters like Daredevil (to name an older character who’s mostly escaped reboots) or Renee Montoya (as an instance of a newer character) more fascinating now, where there are actually years’ worth of stories to explain how their distinctive personalities have slowly but consistently developed.

    1. As a kid the constant references in Silver Age comics to past stories were part of what made them fascinating. I also get an odd but similar kick when I’m flipping through reprint TPBs and there’s a crossover. The Essential Ghost Rider has a DD crossover that includes a subplot where Foggy gets shot, and I have absolutely no idea what it was about or how it was resolved. As you say, it’s tantalizing, though I’m not enough of a DD fan to actually buy that issue.
      But as I pick up random TPBs at Durham Library, I begin to appreciate the whole “barrier to entry” thing. Peter David did an X-Factor reboot and there’s a page of conversation all about clearing up some past continuity question and I honestly couldn’t give a crap (not the biggest problem the series had, though).

  3. Rantel

    I think you really hit the nail on the head regarding generational differences. I’m a 24-year-old lifelong comics fan, and everything you mention in the penultimate paragraph is more or less my “definitive” versions. It’s interesting to note that some of those elements have actually begun creeping back into continuity as younger writers have started entering the industry. It makes me curious as to what the future holds. What happens when the kids of today start growing up and becoming comic writers? Are we going to have an endless back-and-forth cycle of every generation reverting things from one “definitive” version to another? Will I be writing articles like this when I’m one of the “old guard” comic fans? Who can say, but I’m quite interested to find out.

    1. I’ve often wondered the same thing. They’ve undone a lot of John Byrne’s post-Crisis Superman, so I won’t be surprised at all if someone tries restoring that as their childhood fave.
      And for years Batman writers kept swinging back and forth between the city penthouse he moved into at the dawn of the Bronze Age and stately Wayne Manor. I’m guessing everyone disagreed on which was best.

  4. jccalhoun

    The mainstream comic industry is cyclical. I am sure that in 10 years when a younger generation is in charge at DC or Marvel that we will see the return of Wally West, Kyle Rayner, and even possibly electric Superman and married Spider-Man.

  5. I haven’t followed Harley Quinn much since the Batman animated series, but from what I’ve gleaned along the way, the character has grown and evolved in mostly good ways, especially in overcoming her toxic self-destructive relationship with the Joker. For me the problem isn’t the character, it’s the costume. The trashy prostitute look of the video games became the default, and that brought a lot of other clumsy and hackneyed tropes with it. She used to carry a cartoonish big hammer, based on the gag ones used in circus clown acts, which at some point became a real sledgehammer. Whether it’s sexuality or violence, for me the issue is whether it’s gratuitous, and I feel like the writers and artists are on different pages a lot of the time. The writers are exploring and deepening the character and eliminating (or at least addressing) a lot of misogynistic cliches, while the writers are making her look more like a collection of those same cliches. From a design standpoint, the original harlequin costume is vastly superior to any of the “Zombie Trailer Park Barbie” outfits they keep stuffing her into.

  6. Andrew Collins

    Completely agree. I often find my definitive versions match up with how I was introduced to the character. I’m 40 and started reading comics as a serious fan in the late 80’s. My Spidey is married to MJ, my Flash is Wally, etc.

    One caveat being the marrying of heroes who were single when I started reading their adventures. I am completely okay with married Supes/Lois and Bats/Cats. Some of that probably has to do with the fact that I’m married now and se a certain reflection in that maturation of the characters. Plus, unlike apparently every writer in comics, I don’t see marriage as the end-all of good potential storytelling.

    And in the cases of Superman and Batman, married or unmarried, the public so links the two men to Lois and Selena, respectively, at this point, they might as well be married because I can’t imagine too many people wanting to see them with anyone else. The attempts at romantic tension with someone else would ring hollow.

    And as to Harley, I have no problem with her being “sexed” up, but the Suicide Girl Harley is not “my” character either. I grew up with her on the cartoon and that Bruce Timm designed version of the character is what I always think of when I think of Harley. That said, I am totally in favor of the Harley/Ivy pairing. It seems like a nice progression for both characters and honestly, no relationship with the Joker is going to last, or be anything less than one-sided and abusive…

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