Oh, this one’s going to be fun!
I gave fair warning that this is a list of favorite couples, not good couples. These two are what I was talking about.
I doubt there’s anyone out there reading this who isn’t familiar with The Joker, Batman’s archnemesis and quite possibly my favorite villain of all time. I could easily type away this whole post and several more just analyzing him, and in future months, I’ll probably do just that, but for now I’ll try to stick to his ongoing and horrifying love story.
For those who only know the Heath Ledger Joker, Harley Quinn is the comic/TV/videogame Joker’s sidekick, on-and-off girlfriend, and former therapist (seduced as part of one of his many, many escapes from Arkham Asylum). She’s one of the biggest additions to the DC universe drawn from the 90s Saturday morning cartoons, and she’s the only person other than Batman himself who can get under Joker’s skin. Together, they make a dangerous supervillian team, but not nearly as dangerous as the crossfire when they’re apart.
Harley’s about as different as can be from all the other women on this list. Her strongest defining traits are childishness and codependence, yet she still manages to be one of my favorite characters. I’ll freely admit that it’s partly because I relate to her for all the worst reasons. My badboy phase was pretty epic, occurring, as it did, in conjunction with my first love. And of course, even then, I went for the guy who could make me laugh.
I get Mad Love, both the storyline and the general sentiment, the obsession that can’t be shaken no matter how obviously destructive it becomes. But there are lots of sick, abusive couples in fiction, and often the more abusive they are, they more unpleasant I find them to read about or watch. So what makes Joker and Harley’s twisted train wreck of a love story so irresistibly special?
For one thing, the combination of complexity and caricature possible in modern comic book universes really works for them. Their relationship is deeply explored, never two-dimensional, and only occasionally played for laughs, but the colorful extremes of their supervillain lifestyle prevent them from straying into crushingly serious Lifetime Channel or after-school-special territory. Harley is more than just a victim. The good, intelligent, ambitious psychologist she was before she met Joker still exists. She often uses two voices when her old self surfaces (sometimes indicated by different colored speech bubbles in the comics), the thick Brooklyn accent she’s reverted to as Harley Quinn, and the carefully studied diction she once used as Dr. Harleen Quinzel. As Dr. Quinzel, she fully understands how wrong her life has gone, and when Harley Quinn inevitably takes over, she’s giving in not just to Joker but to everything he represents to her, an escape from responsibility.
The Harley Quinn side alone isn’t all games and puppy love either. The pure id she runs on allows for plenty of tantrums. She’s tried to kill Joker during more than one lovers’ quarrel, and when she’s separated from him involuntarily, her determination to get back to him is notorious enough that, in one of the vignettes in the Joker’s Asylum anthologies, the Gotham police pull out all the stops to catch Joker just because they decide it will be easier and less dangerous than trying to keep Harley in Arkham without him on Valentine’s Day.
As pitiable as most of Harley’s life is, she still represents a fantasy as much as any comic book character does. Everyone fantasizes from time to time what it would be like to give up the daily struggle to do what’s good for them, and the glamorous and powerful (if violent and debasing) costumed life that Joker offers Harley is a lot more than reality provides as an alternative.
Of course, there’s no denying that a large part of the magic of Joker and Harley comes out of the pure, terrifying magnetism of Joker himself. He’s far less sane than Harley and almost as capricious and unpredictable when it comes to her as he is about everything else, enjoying her attention in one panel, indifferent in the next, charming when he feels like it, but always on the verge of rage or sadistic mania. He doesn’t love her back, exactly, but the relationship isn’t one-sided either. Love requires compassion, something The Joker has never been capable of in any interpretation, but he is capable of attachment, possessiveness, and obsession. Even Batman admits on multiple occasions that Harley knows Joker better than anyone, in spite of her blind devotion, and that even if she was just a mark to him when she first broke him out of Arkham, at some point along the way, whether Joker likes it or not, he let her in for real. It’s the only reason (other than her popularity as a character), that she’s still alive after having been within easy reach through his full spectrum of moods so many times. Half the fun of watching them together, just like watching Joker with Batman, is seeing something break Joker’s total confidence and unconcern, just a little.
There’s also something perversely beautiful about the eternal nature of superhero comics as it applies to Joker and Harley. Yes, they break up all the time, they both have weird, long-winded separate plotlines, but in the basic form of their existence, how any fan of both of them will imagine them, they are, as Joker would say in his more charming moods, two of a kind. Their relationship is like Zeus and Hera’s perpetual cosmic marital disaster, with just a little more of the good times sprinkled in. He can throw her out a third story window, and just as she’s lying in a hospital bed swearing to leave him for good, of course the rose arrives with the little note tied around it,
“Feel better soon, -J.”
And that’s that. There’s no escaping it. They have a passion much too volatile and unstable to exist without either fizzling or killing one or both of them, but through the magic of a serialized floating cannon, they live this way forever.
Bad romance honorable mentions:
Michael Westen and Fiona Glenanne of Burn Notice. Yes, in recent seasons, as Michael’s come to accept how important Fiona is to him, they’ve actually become a pretty good couple, but earlier in the series, I’d describe them as Joker and Harley if Harley had a spine and Joker had a soul. They can’t be happy together because she’s always sharing him with another obsession (the CIA instead of Batman in Michael’s case), and they can’t be happy apart because no other relationships they form can ever take precedence over their connection.
Professor Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle of Pygmalion and My Fair Lady. The original Pygmalion myth always baffled me. Guy hates women, decides to make a statue to be better than all women, Aphrodite thinks that’s cute for some reason and brings the statue to life, and they live happily ever after. Um… what? Professor Higgins and Eliza are what I always felt that myth should have been. Pompous, callous, misogynist creates his ideal woman, who then takes what he gave her and leaves him for a better man. Only once she’s gone does he realize what he never thought possible, that he’s going to miss her, but it isn’t enough.
Agree? Disagree? Comments are always welcome! Or keep up with my fictional musings by joining me on Facebook, on Twitter, or by signing up for email updates in the panel on the right!