EDITOR’s NOTE: This feature was originally published in October 2016, before the first Presidential debate in the United States Presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. In light of Harley Quinn’s 25th anniversary, we’ve republished the story.
2016 has seen the unlikely, meteoric rise of characters — quite similar characters — that were considered relatively fringe years ago.
You’ve got Harley Quinn — created in the early-’90s — who’s been dubbed by Jim Lee as the “fourth pillar” of DC Comics. Meaning, DC Comics now considers Harley to be the fourth most important character in its publishing line, after Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman — thanks in no small part to Margot Robbie’s popular portrayal in “Suicide Squad,” and the recent work of comics creators including Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti.
You’ve also got Deadpool — created in the early ’90s — who has starred in plenty (an understatement) of comics over the years. And, that little film released earlier this year, starring Ryan Reynolds, that tore through box office records — to the extent that it’s making studios reconsider their approach to R-rated superhero movies.
And, you’ve got Donald Trump — a nationally prominent celebrity throughout the ’90s. The Republican nominee for President of the United States who appeared as a fringe candidate, and managed to hijack the political party and reshape what’s considered modern conservatism in American politics. He may not be “popular” in the same way as Harley and Deadpool, but his rise in the mainstream consciousness is undeniable, and he’s got his hardcore supporters.
You may think Trump shouldn’t be spoken in the same breath as Deadpool and Harley Quinn, but despite his status as a major candidate for president, he’s still widely viewed as entertainment for general consumption — and that’s how he’s being sold — just like those fan-favorite comic book characters. His subversion of what we previously considered to be politics is not much different from the satirical work of Deadpool and Harley.
Whether or not he has a true political message, Trump has transformed the Presidential race into a ratings smash and must-see-TV. And he did so making a mockery of the status quo, to great success, generating a resonant response from a base that quickly grew over the course of last year.
How did this happen though? How did we get such popular characters in our media that are seemingly the opposite of what we consider to be “heroes”? Perhaps we don’t really want heroes anymore, or at least what we considered to be heroes in the past. There’s a sense that we’ve lost faith in the conventional idea of a hero. Even director Zack Snyder, when making “Man of Steel,” suggested that the conventional portrayal of Superman is boring, with nothing for modern audiences to latch onto. Thus, we got a darker, muddled portrayal of Superman that had a mixed reaction at best. Longtime fans of the Last Son of Krypton didn’t consider Snyder’s take to work, resulting in a disappointing box office take and perpetuating the notion that Superman doesn’t sell in modern day movies.
But that’s not the problem — the real issue is that Snyder didn’t accurately translate the core, traditional appeal of Superman that makes him so great, and instead felt the need to transform him into something he’s not. Which is where Harley Quinn, Deadpool and, yes, even Donald Trump come in.
More “authentic” characters like Deadpool and Harley are seen as the way to go because they’re interpreted as more interesting to audiences. There’s a notion that in order for a hero to be engaging, they now have to have an inherent cynicism, or bring with them a mockery of the medium to establish their appeal. And while he’s considered more of a villain than hero to many people, Trump has tapped into a similar vein of thought.
But is that really the only way to go? Do our entertainment icons have to subvert the medium they represent in order to be appealing? Why can’t we have our conventional heroes and still view them as interesting? Certainly, we can — we just need the right people involved to sell the idea that the traditional approach to our heroes can work.
Just look at the success of DC Comics’ Rebirth initiative. Rather than continuing on the New 52 path of keeping its heroes young and single, DC has once more embraced the notion of legacy and age, delivering a take on Superman that has a wife and kid. This interpretation of the Man of Steel has seen great success, and it feels new, even though the character himself is older, and technically comes off as more traditional.
And in the political realm, is it not possible to have a figurehead that respects the status quo and what makes tradition so important, while recognizing room for improvement? It seems as though the political discourse has shifted to sheer criticism of the past, rather than what’s actually worked. Even with Trump’s recognition of a once “great” America, he feels the need to tear apart the status quo while pointing to a time…that can’t exactly be pinned down, for point of reference.
There’s a way to make conventional heroes feel new, while still being old. Comic books have been doing that for decades, and it’s a real testament to the longevity of the medium. It’s not about tearing apart what we expect to be normal, it’s about finding a way to honor the legacy and core appeal of a character, while making them, and the status quo, seem authentic and new.
But there’s that appeal of Deadpool, Harley Quinn and Donald Trump that will always be there. It always has been, but it’s just more apparent now and mainstream. In 2016, some folks don’t buy into the idea of reinvention. Some folks want to burn it all down…
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