Review: The Ascendance of Harley Quinn edited by Shelley E. Barba

ascedance of harley.pngThe Premise: Since her first appearance in 1991, Harley Quinn—eccentric female sidekick to the Joker—has captured the attention of readers like few new characters have in eight decades of Batman comics. Her bubbly yet malicious persona has earned her a loyal and growing fan base as she has crossed over into television, theatre, video games and film.

In this collection of new essays, contributors explore her various iterations, focusing on her origin and contexts, the implications of her abusive relationship with the Joker, her relationships with other characters, her representations across media, and the philosophic basis of her character.

Thoughts: I’ve become quite the fan of Harley Quinn over the past couple of years, mainly through reading her own comics and the Suicide Squad series; obviously, I’ve seen the character in the Suicide Squad movie too, but as that was a particularly turgid piece of cinema, I prefer not to think about it. My interest in the character made me really interested to read this collection of essays; I gain a weird amount of enjoyment from reading proper academic analysis of lowbrow culture, so The Ascendance of Harley Quinn was an excellent read for me.

A range of different topics are covered, from the history of the character, the representation of the abusive relationship with the Joker, Harley’s relationships with other characters and the broader consideration of what the character actually represents, philosophically. There’s plenty of fascinating content, largely linked to the dichotomies at the heart of Harley Quinn: victim or villain? (Both, actually.) Good or evil? (Again, both.) There’s plenty of discussion of the disparity in how her backstory is presented in the original comics and the New 52 iteration, with one giving Harley more agency in her transition from Dr Harleen Quinzel to the Joker’s sidekick. The analysis devoted to this is interesting and expansive, while Harley’s bond with Poison Ivy is also given plenty of discussion.

There are a couple of minor faults with the book. Inevitably, it’s quite repetitive, with particular episodes of the Batman: The Animated Series and certain issues of the comics covered repeatedly. I enjoyed all the essays except one, which seemed a particularly mean-spirited attempt to mansplain the apparently inevitable future dwindling in Harley’s popularity; frankly, I don’t think that’s true and, additionally, it seems really out of place in what is otherwise a celebration of the character.

In Conclusion: for fans of Harley Quinn, this is essential reading. The book provided me with loads of information I didn’t already know, as well as provoking plenty of food for thought about a character for whom I’ve developed a lot of affection.

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