Shelley Barba and Joy Perrin on The Ascendance of Harley Quinn: Essays on DC’s Enigmatic Villain

Harley Quinn first appeared in a 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series. With no previous history in Batman’s lore, Quinn could have just been another random character created for an animated series. However, she not only migrated into the comic books, she also gained a large fanbase and quickly became one of DC’s most popular female characters. As scholars of popular culture, Shelley Barba and Joy Perrin took notice of Quinn’s popularity and character evolution, and they decided to produce a manuscript examining the character. With The Ascendance of Harley Quinn: Essays on DC’s Enigmatic Villain now in print, Shelley and Joy allowed me to interview them about this project and what they learned from it.

Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were your favorite comic books and cartoons?

Joy Perrin: I didn’t read comic books as a kid.  As for cartoons, I loved Gargoyles, Darkwing Duck, Chip and Dale’s Rescue Rangers, and of course Batman: The Animated Series.

Shelley Barba: I rarely had access to comic books, but after the Batman movies of the late 80s/early 90s, I tried my hardest to find those. I didn’t have much luck. I adored Batman: The Animated Series so much I remember racing home from school on my bike so I could get there in time for the amazing opening sequence.

Yanes: When did you two become fans of Harley Quinn?

Joy: I originally liked the character, but didn’t really become a fan until I started reading comic books as an adult. I was actually trying to read more Poison Ivy, but as I went I realized Harley was the better character and fell in love.

Shelley: Her first appearance on B:TAS got me. I loved all of her silly jokes and how athletic she was.

Yanes: What was the inspiration behind creating The Ascendance of Harley Quinn?

Joy: She is such a versatile character, and surprisingly fleshed out for a villain, that I was sure there was enough to write about. Plus, I wanted to read what other people had to write, so the book was self-serving.

Shelley: I had a great (although exhausting) time on my previously edited work, In the Peanut Gallery with Mystery Science Theater 3000 (with Rob Weiner), and had finally recovered enough from it that I wanted to go again on another of my pop culture interests.

Yanes: There have been a few comic book characters that began in television. Why do you think Harley Quinn became so popular?

Joy: I think she’s become so popular because she’s both good and bad, smart and dumb, light and dark. The duality of her character leads people to identify with her more.  She’s not hated because she’s not all bad.  She’s not entirely loved because she does bad things sometimes, so we just end up enjoying the character. There’s an element of not knowing what she’s going to do next that is particularly pleasing.

Yanes: While putting together this manuscript, was there anything you learned about Harley Quinn that took either of you by surprise?

Joy: I learned about hybristophilia, which is when women fall in love with Psychopaths, and I hadn’t thought about her in those terms before. I also learned that one aspect of a character, viewed through many lenses, can yield different results.  For example, the comic book “Mad Love” is referenced a lot in the book, and it is interesting to see how different people interpret what happens in that book. The same act, viewed through a feminist lens can be different from that same act viewed through a sociological lens.  That was the most interesting to me.

Shelley: I knew it in a general sense, but until working on the book, it didn’t really hit me just how prevalent the character has become in the Batman universe including video games, comics, shows, movies, and oh so much merchandising!

Yanes: Harley Quinn is largely defined by her relationship with the Joker. How did your contributors approach the problematic nature of Harley’s bond with Mr. J?

Joy: You know, the funny thing about this was that when we were doing the index we were going to index the Joker, but then as we tried to do it we found that there were only a few pages in the text that didn’t mention him. So, he’s a big part of her story.  Viewed from another perspective, if the Joker wasn’t there, there wouldn’t have been as much to write about.  What makes her feminist or anti-feminist is her relationship with the Joker and how that is interpreted.  What makes her story interesting is that she as a character has had to grow away from him, and that’s what makes her interesting.  I don’t think anyone came out and said the relationship was good for her, but some made the argument that it wasn’t as one-sided as people tend to think.

Yanes: Harley has a huge female fan following. Why do you two think so many women identify with her?

Joy: She has such a big personality. Women are told to be quiet, and still, and not to be too loud and not to be too pushy, and then Harley comes into the scene swinging a mallet and singing. It’s refreshing to have a female character who is not afraid of what people think of her.

Shelley: Harley Quinn has amazing grit. She has battled so much, not always in the best or even legal way, but she keeps moving forward. She changes and grows without losing the essence of her character. Not many female characters are allowed that depth.

Yanes: There have been several versions of Harley Quinn. Which is your favorite?

Joy: I love the current Harley Quinn from Amanda Connor and Jimmy Palmiotti. As much as the animated Harley was fun, seeing the New 52 Harley away from the Joker, having a relationship with Poison Ivy, and doing her own thing is really fun to read.

Shelley: My current favorite is the “DC Super Hero Girls” Harley. Her look is cute and her energy is a good fit for her being younger. I love a good alternative universe, and am excited about the network series being developed for 2018.

Yanes: When people finish reading The Ascendance of Harley Quinn, what do you both hope that readers take away from it?

Joy: That things are not as clear cut as they may seem. That often, characters and their social situations are more complex because fiction reflects our society, and what we say about pretend people is a reflection of what we believe about real people. How society treats Harley says a lot about what society thinks of what is a good or a bad woman.  How people interpret the relationship between the Joker and Harley is a reflection on what they think is important in a relationship.

Shelley: That if you only know this character from one place, like “B:TAS”, Suicide Squad (movie), or the Arkham videogames, you are only getting one sliver a rather interesting character.

Yanes: Finally, what are you two working on that people can look forward to?

Joy: I’m going to be involved in a few podcasts about Harley in “Batman: The Animated Series.”  Other than that, it’s not our work but people should take a look at the book Marvel’s Black Widow from Spy to Superhero by Sherry Ginn and Superheroines and The Epic Journey by Valerie Estelle Frankel.

Shelley: I’m in the beginning stages of planning the next book. It’s still very preliminary, but it will focus on a beloved video game series.

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Nicholas Yanes has a Ph.D. in American Studies, and his dissertation examined the business history of EC Comics and MAD Magazine. In addition to being a professional writer, he frequently consults entertainment companies in regards to video games, films, and comic books.

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