Welcome to Adventure(s) Time's eighty-second installment, a look at animated heroes of the past. This week, we're looking back on Harley Quinn's first spotlight story, the tale of her aiding Batman in apprehending the Joker. Then, an issue of the tie-in book with the opposite premise--Harley attempting to revive the Joker's criminal urges!
Debuting on May 23, 1994, "Harlequinade" is written by Harley's co-creator Paul Dini, and directed by Kevin Altieri. The title card is an iconic Harley image, rendered by Eric Radomski. It's something that only appears onscreen a few seconds; one of dozens titles Radomski had to conceive for the show. But even in this brief moment, the striking image of Harley indicates she's more than a bit player now. The design, her personality, are striking. Visually, she's too intriguing to stay in the background.
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The episode opens with the underworld auction of an atomic bomb. This is, frankly, nuts and the Joker hasn't even appeared yet. Within minutes, Joker's obtained the weapon, naturally. Mayor Hill refuses Commissioner Gordon's demand to evacuate Gotham. (Guess why?) Desperate, Batman and Robin travel to Arkham to recruit Harley's aid in stopping the Joker.
From there, Harley leads the heroes throughout Gotham, casually revealing little bits like the Joker's secret surveillance of the city's most powerful figures, like the Mayor. And, somehow, Batman and Robin always land in trouble whenever she leads the way. The finale confirms she always intended to betray them.
And Joker and Harley would've had a lovely reunion, if only Robin didn't remind her that his bomb's timer wouldn't have left Joker enough time to buzz Arkham and rescue Harley. Batman twists the knife deeper, pointing out the couple's pet hyenas would also die in the atomic blast.
Harley reverses her double-cross, freeing Batman and Robin. And while the heroes deal with the bomb, Harley faces a truly insane Joker. He's piloting his vintage aircraft directly towards the bomb, fully suicidal. (It's amazing how the zany, old Hollywood feel of the episode distracts from the more disturbing elements.) Harley causes the Joker to shoot his own fuselage, resulting in a much smaller explosion than he was expecting.
Another surprisingly dramatic moment closes the episode. As a dazed Joker escapes the wreckage, he's confronted by a machine gun-toting Harley. She's now prepared to kill the Joker, although he boasts she doesn't have the guts to shoot. Apparently, she does. Too bad for Harley (and all of Gotham), this is only a prank gun, complete with a "RAT TAT TAT" flag.
Harley's terrified of the Joker's response. But, his mood swings yet again. Joker embraces Harley amongst the flaming wreckage. (No symbolism here.) "Baby, you're the greatest!" he exclaims before both are returned to custody.
And while this is, in one sense, "illusion of change," it's hard to deny "Harlequinade" as a significant episode. For one, it's packed with memorable moments. Harley's performance of "Say That We're Sweethearts Again." Her removable hand gimmick. The Joker's snazzy "World War I flying ace" outfit. Harley's inability to name her close friends at Arkham. ("Lizard Man" and "Hat Guy.")
In terms of advancing Harley's character, however, "Harlequinade" is vital. Not only do we have the second hint of her past, when Batman reveals her previous role as a clinical psychiatrist, but an actual insight into her motives. Batman asks a question that wouldn't have seemed relevant, had she stayed a faceless henchgirl. "What's the attraction, Quinn? This sick infatuation with the Joker?"
Her answer is that, in her previous life, she was always listening to other people’s problems. When the Joker listened to her, she relished the attention. "He made everything fun," she tells Batman. He retorts, "You think it's funny when he hurts people?" She deflects with, "It's just a joke."
Really, that's the perfect line to let Harley off the hook. Goodness, she wouldn't actually want to hurt anyone would she? It's all for a laugh. Maybe the Joker takes things too far, but she understands deep down, he's still the wounded kid who spilled his guts to her. And how could she resist the freedom and excitement he's offered? (Harley has a telling line when donning her costume once again: "I feel like a human being again!")
Not that "Harlequinade" is a deep character story. It's mostly madcap antics, set pieces, and cute jokes. A smile covers Harley's tragedy.
More quirky humor follows in "My Boyfriend's Back", the third issue of 2003's revamped Batman Adventures series. Story and art come from the established team of Ty Templeton and Rick Burchett, with another amazing Bruce Timm cover. One of his best covers, actually.