The past 6 months have become something of a renaissance for women in comics. Female creators are a wide-spread topic, with many writers and artists becoming widely celebrated. Female characters have become more complex and developed in general, with new characters, like Kamala and Miiyahbin, drawing the attention of national news outlets. Best of all, there are more female-led books in the market than there have been, maybe, ever (especially when you include ‘indie’ titles like Rat Queens and Lumberjanes).
Even so, Harley Quinn is a bit of an anomaly in the world of comics. For five issues, it’s been in the top 15 of monthly best-selling comics, and it’s debut issue, Harley Quinn #0, took the number 2 slot, beaten only by Batman. Female-led titles rarely break the top 10, and often struggle to even make it into the top 20, with DC’s New 52 reboot of Wonder Woman being the only female-led title to rank consistently high–which is to say, in the top 75.
So why is it, when someone widely regarded as The First Superheroine can’t even break the top 10; a character only a little over two decades old can find such great success in such a niche, male dominated market?
Harley Quinn was first introduced in 1992, in Batman: the Animated Series. The character, best known as the Joker’s spurned (and somewhat psychotic) lover, found huge success on the television show and was quickly brought into the Batman comics. From there, Harley appeared primarily in Batman-based comics, but also found her way into other titles, including Countdown and Birds of Prey. Prior to this most recent run, Harley had a Mad Love miniseries, based on the BtAS episode of the same name, her own solo title from 2001 to 2003, and the pre-N52 team book Gotham City Sirens.
Her latest solo series is penned by Jimmy Palmiotti and his (much beloved by fans) artist-turned-writer wife, Amanda Conner. The series moves Harley Quinn away from the pages of Suicide Squad and sets itself up as a sexy black comedy series, comprised mainly of one-off issues with an overarching plot that ties them together. Though the title’s primary artist is Chad Hardin–whose realistic art is sometimes at odds with the cartoon-y violence of the story–the #0 issue made real news by featuring more than 13 artists drawing a page each, including fan favorites like Adam Hughes, Bruce Timm, and, yes, Amanda Conner. The #0 issue also drew a lot of controversy for an art contest that involved drawing Harley Quinn attempting to commit suicide in a number of ways (one of which was naked in a bathtub) which was released just a few weeks before National Suicide Prevention Week.
Despite the outcry (or, perhaps, because of it) issue #0 sold out in a single day nation-wide and DC will even be releasing a “Producer’s Cut” version of the single issue in July, something that has never been done in the New 52.
The solo series could perhaps be best described as “titillating,” featuring nudity, violent murders,spectacular crimes, and a vaguely implied sapphic something going on between Harley and Poison Ivy.
The title has garnered fairly positive responses, but the sales figures far outweigh the response to the series. Harley Quinn is obviously a sellable character. She’s had numerous action figures since her debut–something that’s quite a rarity for female characters–and she has been featured in over half a dozen video games, made numerous TV and cartoon cameos, and is one of the most cosplayed comic book characters. At first glance, she seems to be simply an obsessive, sexy clown girl, but her success and popularity stems from a much more complex concept:
Harley Quinn is a nerd.
Harley represents the insatiable fan. She represents the deep, neurotic, passionate love that fans have. Her relationship with the Joker is purposefully abusive–she is the unrequited fan. She follows the Joker and what he does, she desires him, she desires to be like him.
Harley represents concepts that so many nerds can relate to: fanaticism. Passion. Love.
Nerds are people who are characterized by a deep, unyielding love for something off the beaten path, something that is “not normal.” They follow sometimes so meticulously, despite the fact that the characters they love so fervently don’t exist, or that the actors who play them will never acknowledge their singular existence. Nerds will do things that seem crazy just to feel closer to their fandom. Nerds will waste their time, their money, and their lives, sometimes even giving up successful careers and families, to become closer to the thing they love most.
Harley Quinn is just that.
Harley Quinn is a brilliant character because she taps into the zeitgeist of what it means to be both a fan and a geek. Subtly connecting with a cultural ethos, Harley has come to represent something great than just comics, or just cartoons, or just video games. She is a cultural icon that, frankly, rivals Batman and the Joker.
While Harley Quinn may be a hit-or-miss title, the character is one that resonates so deeply, as is made clear by the stellar sales of the series, people will keep buying the title just so they can see their favorite character continue to exist. This is a great moment for women in comics, to have a female-led comic that can compete with best sellers like Batman and Superior Spider-man but, ultimately, one has to wonder, at what cost is Harley Quinn’s success?