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HARLEY QUINN: Karl Kesel & Matt Idelson

The Clown Princess of Crime bounces from the pages of Batman into her own ongoing series.

By Edward Gross     November 02, 2000

How do you take an animated character and handle her in a 'realistic way?' How do you take a character that's a second banana and ask her to carry her own series? How do you take a character who is insane, and handle her on a monthly basis?

These were among the questions that filled writer Karl Kesel's mind when he agreed to pen the Harley Quinn comic series for DC. 'Most comic book characters have flaws,' says Kesel. 'Iron Man, for example, is an alcoholic, but he gets better. He stops drinking We can never make Harley sane. This is a problem she has that's intrinsically part of the character. So how do we deal with that? All of that was really daunting, but also really intriguing.'

Mad Origins

Harley has been intriguing audiences since her debut on Batman: The Animated Series, where she served as the Joker's right-hand woman. Originally, she was a prison psychologist assigned to the madman, but found herself developing romantic feelings for him at about the same time she began losing her mind. Eventually she decided to be with him, serving as his sidekick, and was ultimately endowed with heightened abilities thanks to the efforts of Poison Ivy.

Although Harley made her in-continuity debut in the Batman: Harley Quinn one-shot during the year-long 'No Man's Land' crossover, Harley made her actual comic book debut in Batman Adventures: Mad Love, the graphic novel from Batman: The Animated Series creators Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. That book struck a chord with readers, and with Kesel himself.

'Taking on the character was pretty damn intimidating, because I thought Mad Love was one of the best books of the 1990s,' he explains. 'Maybe I'm reacting on a craft level, but Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, as far as I know, had never done a comic before, and they just showed such effortless mastering of the medium. It was infuriating to see people do that out of the gate like that. I was in awe. There were things they had done in it that I still don't think I could do. Just the way they used storytelling to subtly get their points across.'

Spear-heading the effort to give Harley her own book was DC editor Matt Idelson, who says he had an instinct she was compelling enough to support her own title. 'A, she's a villain that's popular,' he points out. 'And, B, she's as twisted and messed up as she obviously is. There is just something inherently fascinating about that, and there's obviously some journey she's going to be on. She's more than a one-note character, and maybe the interest in doing the book is figuring out why she's so popular.'

The appeal of Harley, believes Idelson, comes from a number of different areas. 'She's colorful,' he offers, 'she's very wacky, she can be very funny and by being very funny on the surface, she can do a lot of darker things underneath. She's someone who's very vulnerable. She's sort of laughing so she doesn't cry. She wants to belong to something or have an identity she doesn't have. She's like a lot of us, especially when you're younger, where you just want to be something that you're not. She really takes that to the extreme. She has no pretensions. She doesn't worry about what other people think, except for the Joker, which is kind of a healthy attitude, but it can be dangerous as well.'

The dangerand difficultyin doing books starring villains is that you can only take it so far, because the characters are inherently such horrible human beings. At some point, the audience eventually turns away from them and their adventures. 'I think that's why the Joker title [back in the 1970s] couldn't sustain itself,' says Idelson. 'He's insane, there's no logic to his action and there's only so far he can go. With him, once he wins, he wins. With Harley, I don't know what you would define as a victory. There's a little more room to play. You can read it, laugh and have a good time with it. Or you can go, 'Eew, there's something creepy going on over there,' and find it just as compelling on that level.'

A New Beginning

Kesel, who's spent a great deal of time penning the adventures of Superman's young counterpart in Superboy, had been looking to get involved with something decidedly different. Harley's bouncy, energetic, fun nature fit the bill quite nicely. 'I thought the twisted nature of the character would allow me to stretch different muscles,' says Kesel. 'At the same time, I thought the wackiness of the character did play to some of my strengths. My thought was, 'This is something I can do, and it's something new at the same time.' The challenge, of course, was to make her real. Dini himself kind of put us in the right direction with the one-shot. He laid down the first bricks in the road and gave us a direction to go in. I read over his notes of how to handle the character in the DC Universe. He had a few thoughts of his own, which I couldn't disagree with.'

Those thoughts, and the solution to handling Harley on an ongoing basis, is something Kesel says they'll be exploring in the series' first six issues. 'How does Harley function without the Joker?' asks Kesel. 'Well, that's what we explore. You take away the Joker, what does she do next? And where does that take her mentally? Eventually, Harley will mentally be working toward her own agenda, her own modus operandi that will allow her to find her own niche in the DC Universe. That's really what the first six issues are about.'

According to Idelson, Harley's arc will involve her hopefully learning to make it on her own, feel independent and come to terms with who she is. 'In the end, she should get to stand on her own two feet, but that's the end point you never get to,' says Idelson. 'There's a lot of stumbling along the way. She's the kind of person who attracts weird people to her without even trying, and gets involved in weird situations. She's her own worst enemy, and sometimes reality is, too. But I wouldn't necessarily call her a villain.'

That doesn't mean Harley won't still be committing crimes, such as getting food to eat, keeping her henchmen happy with big scores or stealing trinkets to decorate her apartment. But 'to her, they're not crimes,' continues Idelson. 'It's a game to her. She really is like the mindset of a kid. There's this device where she'll do something incredibly violent and horrible, like hitting someone over the head with a hammer, and she'll see it in an almost animated style with little birds flying around the head. In reality, though, the skull has been cracked open and there's blood all over the place. She doesn't really see the true consequences of what she's doing. She just doesn't get it. I think if she ever managed to get her act together, it would do her in. So I think it's safe to say that we won't see her evolve to that point.'

While evolution isn't really on the agenda, Kesel says readers will instead witness more of a 'revelation' in terms of the character and what she's all about. 'This isn't an original thought,' he admits, 'but like an onion, we want to peel away the layers so you can see deeper into her, without really changing the intrinsic nature of who she is. I think that's very appealing. We will be delving a little bit more into her psyche, her past and trying to fit together some of the more mysterious pieces of Harley Quinn that haven't been explored in the animated show.'

Playing 'Hero'

Another thing readers won't be seeing is Harley being a hero, at least in the traditional sense of the word. 'Harley crosses paths with Two-Face in the second issue and thwarts his plans,' says Kesel. 'In a way, she's acting in a heroic role, but she's not doing it for heroic reasons. She's doing it for her own reasons. As she figures out what's important to her and develops her own agenda, the question of good and evil doesn't even enter into it. She follows her heart; she does what her heart tells her to do. Depending on the situation, that will put her on the side of the angels and sometimes on the side of the Devil. And sometimes, she'll be walking in the middle between both of them.'

As such, Harley will quickly come into her own as she encounters a number of well-known DC villains and heroes, including Batman, Wonder Woman and the aforementioned Two-Face. Idelson says such encounters won't stretch credibility. 'Harley does have a certain level of power that isn't often addressed,' says Idelson. 'It's not like she can bend steel or fly, but she can hold her own. Spider-Man shouldn't be able to fight the Rhino, but he does manage to find a way to get by, and she will as well. I can't think of a better straight man for Harley Quinn than Wonder Woman.'

Eventually, original villains will become a mainstay, including a trio of mercenary bounty hunters who have been hired by someone to bring her in. 'That's a running through line,' says Idelson. 'Harley's a psychologist, too, so there's a kind of weird, almost symbiotic relationship in which she's actually trying to make their lives better even though they're after her. They're going to be a real constant in the book.'

Given this complex approach, Harley seems to offer a mixed message about what it means to be a hero. Does this mean that our notion of heroes has changed over the last several decades, from the Golden and Silver Age of comics to the modern day? 'I'd just like to think our view of heroes has expanded,' muses Kesel. 'I still remember what Frank Miller said about [Marvel Comics'] Punisher: 'I think he's a hero, I don't think he's a role model.' There's a lot of validity in that, and to a certain degree Harley Quinn fits into that, too. Harley is not necessarily a hero, but she is our protagonist. I think we have figured out what makes Harley tick, and that puts her in a very unique position in any universe.'

And as far as he's concerned, Kesel feels he's held a unique position as a comics writer, being able to bounce back and forth between traditional characters, such as Superboy, and something as off-kilter as Harley. 'One thing I discovered writing a book like Harley Quinn,' says Kesel, 'is that when these characters are not concerned about following rules, they're really just following their own desires. That creates very vital, very primal characters really quickly. There are a lot of superheroes that seem the same. That's really because they're all fighting for truth, justice and whatever universe they're in.

'Characters that aren't concerned with following the law are just about who they are, and that's so pure and so direct. It's refreshing. Let's face it, Superboy might worry about what he should do in a situation, but in the end you know he's going to do the right thing. Harley might not worry and she might not do the right thing, and I think that's one of the appeals of a character like this. You really don't know what's going to happen next.'

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