Taking Up Space: A Harley Quinn Story

Just recently, I was reading a news report about a continuity conflict between the cartoon version of Harley Quinn and her comic version as it relates to her sexuality. This is less than a week after reading an announcement of a solo miniseries for Sean Murphy’s Batman: White Knight version of her. In the same week, I happened across news that Harley Quinn’s main title was due for a relaunching. Before this, I saw at least five commercials in the same hour for a Harley Quinn cartoon on television. I mention all this to ask…am I the only person getting a little burned out on Harley Quinn?

Before I go any further, let me be very clear. The “straight-washing” of Harley’s sexuality (apparently, she had a relationship with Poison Ivy that has mysteriously not been revisited on any other platform) is absolutely a topic that needs unpacking. Pride Month was a strange time to actively backpedal on the inclusion of LGBTQ characters, so I get why that would be news. My problem isn’t really with the Harley Quinn coverage. It’s with DC constantly trying to make her news like Gretchen Weiners trying to make “fetch” happen. I can appreciate the intentions to a degree. The shoehorning of Harley Quinn into the mainstream dates back to at least the launch of the New 52 attempt at streamlining the DC universe and hey, the books could use a little levity at the time. But after countless relaunches of the Suicide Squad comic, her own solo book, cartoons, two failed films specifically centering her (to the detriment of perfectly good POC heroes in the case of Birds of Prey), what’s the end game?

It would be understandable if perhaps Suicide Squad had gone over better or DC weren’t trampling over their writers’ character development with this continuity confusion. And I might understand if this were a character that needed this much exposure to sell merchandise. But it seems like a lot of effort to pour into a character when DC always gives me the impression that they’re throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. When nothing else seems like it’ll be the same in six months, why keep pumping so much Harley into the ether?

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that this isn’t a worthwhile character. But surely there are plenty of worthwhile characters of color that could use an equal amount of exposure. For example, sure, Marvel overloads its books with a lot of Spider-Man, a guaranteed cash cow, but we also (through their shared universe) get a pretty healthy amount of his BIPOC counterpart Miles Morales. And fans of Miles have gotten plenty of character development to show for it. Not to mention the positive reception to his appearance in the PS4 Spider-Man game as well as the critical acclaim from the Miles-centered Into the Spider-Verse animated feature. Meanwhile, I can’t think of a single BIPOC character in DC’s pantheon that I can say the same for to offset their Harley Quinn saturation.

And sure, I realize fandoms aren’t generated out of thin air and that Harley probably had a decent following that wanted to see more of her at some point. However, exposure helps and there’s probably a lot of readers that would invest in Bronze Tiger, for example, or Green Lantern John Stewart if there were more content geared towards them. As long as they’re throwing money at random properties, would it kill them to take a gamble on Mister Terrific (let’s pretend that the Arrowverse version never happened)? After all, mainstream comics take chances on way riskier franchises. I never thought I’d live long enough to hear people say they can’t wait for more Doom Patrol.

All in all…don’t misconstrue this as a plea to get rid of Harley Quinn. Yeah, I singled her out a little but honestly, she’s just a placeholder. Odds are I probably could have written this same article about Batman or Deadpool or Wolverine and made the same point. Out in the world, in the wake of countless Black Lives Matter protests, we’ve seen companies bending over backwards to generate the appearance of catering to Black folks, adjusting policies, omitting problematic episodes of certain television shows, and firing white actors to make space for the non-white people that should be filling some roles (a lot of things that Black people didn’t ask for, to be frank).

It’s become crystal clear that these are things that could have always been implemented years ago, but is only being done so now because it’s in a corporation’s best interest to stay profitable and avoid legal blowback. All that to say…clearly, the comics industry, the Big Two in particular, have always had the resources to put into centering BIPOC characters. Just look at how the Black Panther went from being a second (at times, third) tier character to a marquee hero with one of the biggest selling films not only in the Marvel franchise, but of all time. In a very short amount of time, Black Panther did away with the notion that black characters don’t sell in mainstream venues. But it requires the Powers That Be to meet the audience half way and give them an honest chance.

So, when you have a glut of white characters taking up space with only lukewarm results at a time when it’s evident that thoughtful representation can be mutually beneficial for audiences and companies alike, we have to look at the umpteenth Harley relaunch and ask….What are y’all doing?

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