Editor’s note: Today’s guest post is co-written by Laura Grafton and Andrew Deman. I reached out to Andrew not long after discovering his fantastic project The Claremont Run letting him know that I was open to collaborating and interested in hearing any pitches for The Middle Spaces. I was delighted when he and Laura emailed me a few weeks later offering the piece published below. I am not much of a DC Comics person and even less of a Batman person, but Harley Quinn is undoubtedly a fascinating character given her transmedial origins and iterations, and Laura and Andrew do fantastic work exploring the intersection of in-story and audience-based perceptions of her sexuality.
“And if there’s hope for Harley Quinn, then there’s hope for the mad lovers in us all.”
– Paul Dini, Foreword to “Mad Love Deluxe Edition” (2015)
Since her debut in a 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series, Harley Quinn has gone from a background character to (in the words of Jim Lee) “the fourth pillar in [DC Comics’] publishing line, behind Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman,” This prominence is apparent through multiple comics titles, an animated TV show, and even a major motion picture all starring Harley. Yet despite boasting this high profile,
Harley Quinn is the Joker’s abused girlfriend. She is a symbol of battered woman syndrome who contextualizes the Joker’s full psychological brutality. To more recent readers of Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti’s popular take on the character, however, Harley Quinn is more likely the flirtatious pansexual paramour of Poison Ivy. She is a rare explicit symbol of queer sexuality in a genre whose queerness is often encoded into a heteronormative default. Finally, to others, Harley is simply a sex object for the readers of her comics, a character who is subjected to, and welcomes, what Laura Mulvey called “the male gaze” in her landmark essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975). While each of these relationships can define Harley in individual eras, stories, or scenes, these three relationships can also frequently coalesce in order to define each other in a recursive process that builds Harley’s sexuality through a series of fluid and dynamic intersections, and thus builds Harley herself into a vital and complex character. As each relationship orients around a form of sexual desire, they can thus be characterized, for our purposes, as “lusts;” Harley’s lust for the Joker, Harley’s lust for Ivy, and the reader’s lust for Harley as noted by how she is framed by the male-gaze—all carefully cultivated, fundamental attributes of Harley’s being.
Harley Quinn vol. 3, #8 (January 2017) demonstrates this coalescence of three lusts in its story entitled “Relax, Undo It.” Written by the husband and wife team of Conner and Palmiotti, with artwork by Chad Hardin and Andrew Robinson, the title of the issue is a play on the iconic 1983 Frankie Goes to Hollywood hit “Relax.” While the title reflects the backdrop for the story (a relaxing vacation), “Undo It” is a departure from the song’s “Relax, don’t do it” lyric, referring instead to the underlying conflict of the issue: Harley’s effort to move past her previous relationship with the Joker in order to allow her to move forward in her relationship with Ivy.
The story’s plot is straightforward: Harley and Ivy take a vacation together in the Bahamas. Harley had asked Ivy to move in with her in a previous issue and Ivy is still thinking about it. In that sense, this vacation is something of a litmus test for the pair’s living together. At the same time, Harley has recently been receiving packages from the Joker and she is once again contemplating that prior relationship. Upon arrival, they learn that the resort is a nudist colony, but the pair decide to stay anyway. As the romance between the two women progresses, Harley cannot help but reflect upon her past with the Joker, though she is determined to move beyond that past and advance her relationship with Ivy. However, their efforts to get closer are hampered by the nude seniors who share the resort. Nonetheless (or perhaps because of this), Harley and Ivy’s relationship does seem to advance in terms of shared emotional intimacy, though in the end Ivy decides not to move in, leaving Harley heartbroken. As the simple plot of this issue unfolds, all are accounted for: Joker is not far from Harley’s thoughts, Ivy is the focus of her current attention, and throughout the issue Harley is rendered in various stages of undress for the reader to consume. Thus, Harley Quinn vol. 3, #8 provides a site where the complex interplay of all three vectors can be unpacked.
This story appears during the first year of DC’s line-wide “Rebirth” event, a soft relaunch of the entire DC line that maintained continuity from the previous relaunch, “The New 52.” Conner and Palmiotti had also helmed the New 52 iteration of the “Harley Quinn” title in which Harley and Ivy had not yet defined their relationship, though it had been paratextually defined as “girlfriends without the jealousy of monogamy” in a 2015 tweet by DC Comics. In comics canon, however, Ivy and Harley were not yet a couple at the time that “Relax, Undo It” came out. In spite of the twitter claim defining Harley/Ivy as non-monogamous, “Relax, Undo It” pushes toward a monogamous coupling of the characters through a series of moments of romantic tension resulting from Harley’s indiscriminate flirtation and the setting of the issue. Repeatedly, this tension creates distance between the two women that paradoxically also provides the opportunity for them to draw closer. While being driven to the resort, for example, Harley and Ivy have an exchange about how attractive their driver is, which leads to Harley openly flirting with him by leaning into the front seat while Ivy, in response, re-directs her gaze out the window, seeming to pull away. Similarly, as Harley and Ivy lean in for a kiss during a later pool scene, they hear “get a room!” from the resort’s other guests. Rather than the expected romantic entanglement, readers are shown their shocked and startled faces, as several seniors dive into the pool with them. Another interruption. Again and again, this issue builds and then subverts romantic tension between Harley/Ivy and it is this tension that forms the central conflict of the issue.
While Joker is not physically at the resort, his presence is felt through a flashback scene recounting Harley’s first session as his therapist. This character-altering moment has been revisited repeatedly in other Harley media, and is perhaps as pivotal for Harley’s origins as the murder of Martha and Thomas Wayne is for Batman’s. In this instance, the scene is subtly retconned according to Conner and Palmiotti’s aims and ambitions for this incarnation of Harley. As Emilee Owens notes in “It is to Laugh: The History of Harley Quinn,” Conner and Palmiotti worked to distance Harley from the Joker in order to empower her as a character (23). In this sense, the romantic push and pull between Joker and Ivy is really a push and pull between Harley’s subordination and Harley’s empowerment. Whoever Harley chooses to be with defines where she is in her character’s arc toward independence and agency as well as her progression as a character in the post-Rebirth era of DC Comics. As Joy Perrin, editor of The Ascendance of Harley Quinn: Essays on DC’s Enigmatic Villain (2017) notes in an interview: “[w]hat makes her feminist or anti-feminist is her relationship with the Joker and how that is interpreted.” For Perrin, if Harley’s toxic relationship with the Joker is romanticized or rendered comically, it can make Harley into a highly problematic anti-feminist character. However, if that same relationship is portrayed as abusive then it defines Harley’s story as a survival narrative with the potential to be read (or written) as feminist.
The flashback scene draws heavily from the 1993 Eisner Award winning story “Mad Love” (published in Batman Adventures: Mad Love (February 1994)) in which Paul Dini and Bruce Timm first envisioned Harley Quinn’s origin. As with the scenes of Harley/Joker’s interactions in “Mad Love,” the flashback in “Relax Undo It” portrays a struggle for control between the two, starting as soon as Harleen first enters the room and Joker greets her rather than the other way around. As Harleen asks Joker questions he turns them back on her in order to maintain the role of interrogator, and thus the position of power in the relationship. Through this verbal power struggle, the scene riffs on a famous sight gag from “Mad Love” where after a series of appointments it’s revealed that Harleen and Joker have switched places, with him now in the analyst chair, and her on the couch. While we don’t see this same sight gag in “Relax, Undo It,” Joker does take the role of therapist when he sends Harley the original evaluation she had filled out on him that first day, but as Harley tells Ivy, “It was changed to an evaluation a’ me, and it was definitely done by Mistah J. There were intimate details in there.” Through this report, the past and present collide for Harley, as the Joker holds some measure of power over her, having erased and rewritten her work as a therapist, effectively devaluing it.
The exchange with the Joker in the flashback sequence is about more than just positional power, it quickly becomes commingled with romantic tension (an important aspect of Joker’s long-standing hold on Harley in earlier stories). Amid the verbal power struggle, we also see the Joker becoming somewhat flirtatious. When Harleen asks him about his response to rejection he asks back, “Does anyone really like rejection of any kind?” And then adds, “I would never reject you,” when she responds that she thinks no one does. He then claims a similarity between the two of them that borders on the idea of soulmates, referring to an intangible essence (“it”) that they share. “The worst part of being me is noticing it in someone else and not helping them see it clearly. I’m a patient man. I can wait ‘til you come around.” Though Harley walks away, the dramatic irony of the scene, created through the reader’s foreknowledge of just how hard Harley would fall for the Joker, lends an air of prophecy to Joker’s claim, thus giving him a further position of power over Harleen.
Importantly, the three-page Joker flashback is presented as an interruption to the narrative progress of Ivy and Harley’s romantic relationship. The flashback scene occurs as Ivy (completely naked) and Harley (wrapped in a towel) are sitting by the pool all alone at sunset drinking wine. Harley’s telling of her Joker story puts a literal distance between her and Ivy that reflects a metaphorical distance created by the interruption. At the beginning of the three-page flashback sequence, Ivy leans in as though poised to kiss her, but before the flashback the pair are at arms-length distance. Ivy’s face bears a look of surprise and concern bordering on horror as we turn the page and enter Harley’s flashback to her first-ever meeting with Joker. This jarring tonal transformation reflects the constant push and pull between the potential for a healthy relationship with Ivy and the unhealthy lingering infatuation with Joker. Earlier issues in the series establish that the Joker has been (it seems) sending her romantic tokens of their past together, thus challenging her to consider a reconciliation. According to Joe Cruz and Lars Stoltzfus-Brown, however, such an action would move against decades of character progression. They argue in “Harley Quinn: Villain, Vixen, Victim” that “[u]ltimately, [Harley’s] character will continue to be problematic as long as she is an object for fans and the Joker to abuse” (208). Thus, if Harley can be triggered and brought back into the arms of the Joker, mentally if not physically, she’ll never truly be able to move forward in her relationship with Ivy.
While memories of the Joker have the potential to interrupt Harley’s physical advance upon Ivy in the pool scene, sharing that memory with Ivy is a way of deepening the romantic bond between the two women. This disclosure of intimate details of her relationship with the Joker contributes to the relationship’s advancement. As she finishes describing the items Joker’s sent to her, Harley tells Ivy “I don’t wanna talk about those intimate details anymore. I wanna make new ones. Better ones.” As Harley says this, she and Ivy close again. Harley has let down her towel (and metaphorically her guard) and both women are now in the pool, rather than sitting on the edge, thus forming an effective spatial metaphor for immersion in the blossoming relationship, where the previous image of them tentatively sitting on the side of pool suggests hesitation or apprehension – perfectly appropriate for the broader theme of testing out their relationship. Ironically, the Joker’s intrusion seems to have helped to bring the pair closer together emotionally through the intimacy achieved via mutual disclosure.
The flashback is not the only way that Joker’s presence manifests at the resort. There are several instances in the story where Harley’s behavior toward Ivy reflects aspects of her previous relationship with Joker. At first, when Harley and Ivy discover their getaway is taking place at a nudist resort, Harley feigns disgust but then quickly flashes a smile all too reminiscent of the Joker’s, adding a playful “I’m up for it if you are!” Meanwhile Ivy’s reaction is closer to pure horror, both at the nudity and at Harley’s nonchalance. Harley seems to find amusement in Ivy’s discomfort, in a way that is quite similar to the Joker’s initial pokes at Harley during the flashback scene, which were intended to provoke discomfort for the sake of his enjoyment. These subtle ticks are another way Harley’s past with the Joker resurfaces, giving merit to his line about seeing himself in her, and interfering with Harley’s relationship with Ivy.
Not only is Harley the aggressor here, but there are other moments where she treats Ivy with the same lack of regard that Joker showed Harley. Later in this issue, Harley evinces a lack of support or consideration for Ivy’s concerns and interests. When Ivy comments on the natural beauty of the sunset and laments humankind’s lack of appreciation for it, adding that pollution and overpopulation are destroying such natural beauty, Harley just smiles and says, “I read post-apocalypse sunsets will be spectaculafyin.” Harley’s response here is dismissive to a cause that is fundamental to Ivy’s self-definition and devalues it in ways that echo how the Joker dismissed Harley’s life’s work by erasing and superseding her psychological evaluation of him. Ivy later gives this dismissive attitude as one of the reasons for their inability to be together. Clearly, the Joker-like characteristics exhibited by Harley in her relationship with Ivy are a significant obstacle to that relationship.
And indeed, despite their implied and expressed desires, the trip ends in a rejection; Ivy declines to move in with Harley. Nevertheless, Ivy expresses that their relationship changed for the better, and that the time they have together is precious to her. “It’s shown me that the ‘me’ time I’m hoping for should be sooner rather than later in my life. Being with you this past week has shown me how wonderful things could be. I only hope you’ll still be available when I come around.” The issue ends as the distance between them finally wins out. Harley takes a cab back home alone, grieving the outcome of the trip. Arriving outside her apartment, she is mobbed by her gang, uttering “Aw, I missed ya, too!,” partly to her gang, who swarm her in an affectionate group hug, but also partly to the audience, as the perspective positions the reader in this scene amid the crowd of eager huggers. The next panel zooms in on Harley’s face to show a single tear forming before the final panel depicts what Harley is looking at – Ivy’s departing plane. In this moment, the metaphorical distance between them becomes painfully literal, but the gravity and severity with which their separation impacts Harley speaks to a deepening bond between the two women.
Thus far, our discussion of Harley’s character arc has been defined by the push and pull between Joker and Ivy, but even as Harley and Ivy struggle to define their relationship in the aftermath of the Joker’s influence, a third variable dramatically impacts the progression of the story and the characterization of Harley/Ivy’s relationship within this same issue. Cruz and Stoltzfus-Brown note that “[the two characters] live in a highly patriarchal society and were created by a patriarchal industry, so Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn are always already constrained by the structures that brought them to life” (208). The suggestion here is that Harley/Ivy are subjected to the male gaze, and that this undermines their relationship. Cruz and Stoltzfus-Brown’s theory conforms to what media scholars Julie Scanlon and Ruth Lewis, in their article “Whose Sexuality is It Anyway?,” refer to as “the social and cultural context in which a version of lesbian sexuality is appropriated by masculinist institutionalized heterosexuality,” which they describe as the “knotty problem of sexual objectification and ‘the male gaze’” (1013). Simply put, cultural portrayals of woman/woman sexual relationships tend to objectify the female participants in submission to the demands of said male gaze. Harley/Ivy are constrained by said gaze, which, for our purposes, represents the third lust of Harley Quinn at play within this issue.
This over-sexualization is deeply woven into Harley’s past. Cruz and Stoltzfus-Brown contend that “Harley Quinn was ultimately created as a sexy side character designed to satisfy a voyeuristic male gaze” (207). The extent to which she still serves that purpose is arguable, but the callbacks to Harley Quinn’s history, and especially her history with the Joker, cannot help but bring this original role back to the surface. That role is directly referenced in “Relax, Undo It” first with a dream sequence in the opening prologue that depicts Harley in her original costume, and then again in the flashback to her first meeting with the Joker.
Yet, Conner and Palmiotti subvert the male gaze connotations surrounding Harley by interrupting (multiple times) the sexual trajectory of Harley/Ivy’s physical relationship. Shortly after the pool scene with the flashback, Harley and Ivy are again interrupted pre-kiss by a herd of bare-naked seniors cannonballing into the pool after yelling “Get a room!” at them. The anti-erotic element of the naked seniors (something the issue establishes as a running gag throughout) breaks the erotic trajectory of the scene and redirects the sexual tension toward a less literal incarnation. The onomatopoeia of “sploooshh” as the seniors hit the water is notable here as a term that is used in popular culture as an expression of female sexual arousal. What seemed like an inevitable sex scene is replaced with a pool volleyball match, one that makes ample spectacle of Harley and Ivy’s naked bodies as they undertake various athletic feats. Essentially, Conner and Palmiotti have interrupted a literal love scene (one that would conform to and perform for the male gaze), replacing it instead with a metaphorical love scene. The characters do get naked and physical in the pool, just not in the way the readers might have expected. While this turnaround doesn’t subvert the male gaze entirely due to the exhibition of Harley and Ivy’s naked bodies, it does subvert the expectations implicit within said gaze after the mechanics of the story have teased out the possibility of Harley and Ivy advancing their relationship to a sexual level on-panel.
This context is particularly important for the Harley/Ivy relationship, which, according to Shannon Austin, author of “Batman’s Female Foes: The Gender War in Gotham City,” represents a direct threat to patriarchal power. Austin writes, “It is precisely through their acts of resistance to societal and gender expectations that they are penalized and more thoroughly portrayed as villainous than are most of the male villains who commit similar crime” (294). By subverting the explicit sexuality of the scene, “’Relax, Undo It” effectively disrupts and reconfigures Harley and Ivy’s hypersexualized performance for the male gaze. The disrupted performance leads to a romantic moment for the duo. After the robust game of volleyball with the seniors, Harley takes a rest on a lounge chair. Reclining by the poolside, Harley stares lovingly at Ivy and sighs. Harley then falls asleep and she is eventually carried to the beach by Ivy who lays her down on some towels, then rests beside her. Half-asleep, Harley asks “izzis a dream?” and when Ivy confirms that it is, Harley responds “Good. Don’ wake me up. I don’ wannit ta end.” While they don’t have sex, they do sleep together, reflecting a shared bond of trust between them.
Subverting the male gaze shifts the reader’s role from voyeur to confidant. This shift is solidified in the final panels where the reader is positioned among Harley’s welcoming gang as she returns home. If the trip has opened a new chapter in Harley’s self-discovery, that process of discovery includes investigating who she is to the reader who is privy to more information than Ivy about how the Joker came to be on Harley’s mind, and likewise to more information than the rest of Harley’s gang in terms of who Harley is truly missing. This gives the reader a greater degree of intimacy with Harley than is present with any of her in-panel relationships, thus potentially completing the transition that Harley has made in the issue from an object of sexual fantasy to that of friend and confidant. Through this narrative turn, Conner and Palmiotti elegantly weave their way through the three lusts of Harley Quinn, presenting both the Joker and the potential male gaze of the reader as obstacles to Harley and Ivy’s blossoming relationship. Harley and Ivy’s moment of contentment, however brief, leaves hope for the future of their relationship and by subverting the male gaze, hope for a new relationship with the reader.
All-combined, “Relax, Undo it” brings together many facets of Harley Quinn’s sexuality depicted over the decades, a sexuality that is as much a part of Quinn’s character as any mallet or pigtail or hyena but that is exceedingly complicated, contributing greatly to the subsequent complexity of Harley’s character. The three lusts that define Harley play off of each other in order to bring life to an enduring comics icon. This same alchemy is quite prominent in contemporary Harley-focused stories, such as Heroes in Crisis (2018) as well as in a pair of recent Harley Quinn origin stories in the form of Mariko Tamaki and Steve Pugh’s Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass and Stjepan Sejic’s Harleen. Each of these stories use the same interplay of lusts to define, in small or large measure, who Harley is as person and a symbol. When taken to a further extreme, the coalescing sexual complexity of Harley’s three lusts presents a devastatingly effective analog for the nature of sexuality in general: multifaceted, paradoxical, healthy, unhealthy, shameful and beautiful, and to that (and thus to Harley) we can all relate. If there’s hope for her, as Paul Dini suggests in the epigraph to this essay, then maybe there’s hope for us all. Harley and Ivy’s relationship becoming a space where both Harley and the audience can explore what healing after abuse looks like, and how to overcome one’s past to move forward, together, might yet offer a happier and healthier future for all.
Laura Grafton is an independent scholar and freelance writer who studied comics at the University of Waterloo. Laura has written as a guest blogger for The Birthing Space parenting blog, and maintains creative writing, parenting and popular culture critique blogs on WordPress. When Laura isn’t writing she works in the charitable sector supporting fundraising for both local and international causes.
Andrew Deman is a faculty lecturer at St. Jerome’s University. His research is published in Femspec, Critical Survey of Graphic Novels, American Visual Memoir After the 1970s, English Studies Forum, TRANSverse, Canadian Graphic (winner of the 2017 Gabrielle Roy prize), and in his recent book The Margins of Comics. Andrew also served as a featured expert for the ten part comics documentary series INK: Alter Egos Exposed, and is the Past President of the Canadian Society for the Study of Comics (CSSC). Presently, Andrew is the project lead for The Claremont Run, which you can follow on twitter @claremontrun. Andrew is also the co-host of the comics literature podcast Three Panel Contrast.