Harley Quinn is many things. She’s an icon, a psychiatrist, a roller derby athlete…and dare we say, a hero. The Lady of Lunacy has come a long way ever since she first appeared thirty years ago this month on Batman: The Animated Series. I wonder, did anyone who watched “Joker’s Favor” when it aired for the first time suspect that the Clown Prince’s henchgirl would go on to star in her own live-action movie, an animated comedy and dozens of Hot Topic clothing lines? You’ve come a long way Harley, but how do we describe your current role in Gotham’s hierarchy of heroes?
Harley Quinn’s ever-popular ongoing title is written by Stephanie Phillips, who took the reins on the heels of “The Joker War” in 2021. From its very first issue, the series has focused on Harley trying to make a new start for herself as a hero. Not a villain. Certainly not a villain’s girlfriend. Not even an antihero. Harley Quinn’s trying to be a true hero.
This shouldn’t come as a shock, as Harley hasn’t been the Joker’s sidekick in mainstream continuity for years. While she fought evil as a member of Task Force X, and occasionally in some of her past series, it always seemed tangential to what was actually motivating her. In the Phillips series, things are different. Harley is ready to become a full-fledged crimefighter.
Harley Quinn is clearly quite different from the other members of the Bat-Family. She doesn’t wear a mask or cape, she’s not an orphan, and she was once romantically involved with the Joker. I don’t think she’ll ever be a regular in the Batcave, but does that mean she has less value than the other heroes? Don’t forget, Barbara Gordon and Kate Kane didn’t become Batcave regulars at first either. So, what’s Harley’s role in Gotham’s hero hierarchy? Oracle is the information hub, Cassandra is the fighter, Dick is the heart, and Kate is the tactician.
Harley’s most recent storyline, “Task Force XX,” recently wrapped up in Harley Quinn 2022 Annual #1. In it, Luke Fox recruits Harley and a group of misfits to stop a dangerous entity known as Element-X. It isn’t long before things get out of hand, and that’s mostly because Luke didn’t share pertinent information with the group.
Let’s be honest, all of you thought it was going to be Harley’s fault, didn’t you? I think that’s a mistake everyone makes with Harley. They confuse her manic energy and crazy non-sequiturs with incompetence.
Interestingly, “Task Force XX” opens with Harley assessing the role she usually plays in a team setting. During her opening narration, Harley compares superhero teams with school group projects and talks about the dynamic those groups usually have. She mentions the student that doesn’t do any work, but gets all the credit, the slacker who doesn’t take anything seriously, and the incompetent screwup who only makes things worse. Then, of course, there’s the role Harley sees herself in: “The one who does all the work at the last minute after realizing that no one else was gonna actually create any of the (EXPLETIVES) PowerPoint slides.”
That’s the role Harley sees herself in, but is it accurate? Throughout “Task Force XX” we see Harley in the group dynamic, and at first, she seems to fall into the other categories. When missiles target the team’s rocket, Harley seems more concerned about food than she does their fate. When Dreadbolt sacrifices himself to stop the missiles, Harley continues joking, much to the horror and frustration of her teammates. She seems more like the class clown than the leader her narration claimed to be.
But as the story goes on, you see Harley Quinn slowly take charge. When the team finds itself stranded on the Justice League’s old moon base, it’s Harley who figures out how to use the teleporter while everyone else is arguing. When Luke Fox has an emotional breakdown, Harley is the one who helps him regain his confidence. It’s Harley who clears a path for Killer Frost during the final battle, which allows the snow queen to land the killing blow against Element-X. And of course, Harley makes sure the team goes out for yogurt afterwards, because dessert is good for team morale.
What have we learned from this experience? Harley Quinn might act like the class clown, but she gets the job done. Don’t mistake her lunacy with stupidity. After all, Harleen is a licensed psychiatrist. She survived being the Joker’s girlfriend for years and has gone toe to toe with heroes like Batman. Does that sound like an incompetent idiot to you?
So, what’s Harley’s role among the heroes of Gotham? You might think I’m crazy, but hear me out—Harley is the team mom. When everything is falling apart, it’s the mom who makes sure things get done. When someone feels unworthy, it’s their mom who reminds them how special they are, much like Harley did with Luke. But people also underestimate their mothers. They roll their eyes at things their mothers say and become embarrassed by their antics in public, just like Task Force XX did with Harley.
Let’s face it, most of the heroes of Gotham are orphans anyway, so they could use a good mom. And with all of her intelligence, humor, determination and breadth of experience, they could do a lot worse than Harley…as unconventional as she may be. So, let’s hear it for Harley and the growth she’s shown over the past several years. A little maturity never hurt anybody, especially not a former villain.
Just as long as it’s only a little. After all, Harley does have a thirty-year reputation to uphold.
Joshua Lapin-Bertone writes about TV, movies and comics for DCComics.com, is a regular contributor to the Couch Club and writes our monthly Batman column, "Gotham Gazette." Follow him on Twitter at @TBUJosh.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Joshua Lapin-Bertone and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.