[The third (and final?) part of my increasingly drawn-out ramble about the animated origins of DC’s beloved villainess/anti-heroine ‘Harley Quinn’, inspired and voiced by Arleen Sorkin. Contains Kryptonite-chip cocktails and SPOILERS!!!]
Although Harley was taking baby-steps towards independence and rehabilitation the last time we saw her on-screen, she seemed to suffer an unfortunate relapse after Batman: The Animated Series went off the air… or perhaps the story presented in the Superman: World’s Finest (1997) crossover was intended as a flashback? Either way, she was back to playing super-cute side-chick to ‘The Joker’ (Mark Hamill), as he decided to take a jaunt to Metropolis to offer his rather dubious services as an assassin to ‘Lex Luthor’ (Clancy Brown), working on the rather arrogant assumption that the recent acquisition of a sizeable Kryptonite supply would give him the edge over ‘Superman’ (Tim Daly), despite the fact that he was seemingly incapable of killing a certain not-at-all-super-man-in-a-bat-costume (Kevin Conroy)! To be honest I have very little interest in Superman and his supporting cast*, so this “movie” was kinduva snooze for me, but there were a few fun Harley highlights, such as the scene where she attacked a room full of hoodlums with a ramped-up pogo-stick (while cheerfully chanting “Boingy! Boingy! Boingy!”), or the extended brawl she had with Luthor’s own aide-de-camp ‘Mercy Graves’ (voiced by Lisa Edelstein!), which kept rolling back-and-forth across the screen, as their respective employers sat having a civil chat on the side-lines. Fun fact: It’s suggested on the DCAU wiki-page for “Joker’s Favor” (B:TAS ep #1.7) that Harley’s chauffeur disguise in that episode was used as the model for Graves’s initial appearance when she was created… making the scene here where Harley passes herself off as Graves (in order to kidnap Luthor) an in-joke/easter-egg of sorts.
After that, it was back to Gotham for The New Batman Adventures (1997-1999), which kicked off with a festive anthology episode, following various heroes and villains over the course of the Christmas holidays. The first chapter, “December 22”, finds Harley holed up in a flea-bag motel room with her bad-girl bestie ‘Poison Ivy’ (Diane Pershing), bored and bemoaning their lack of a festive fir-tree. To cheer her up, Ivy initiates a caper involving mind-controlling lip-stick and Bruce Wayne’s credit cards! Of course, they’re both sadly unaware of the billionaire-playboy’s secret identity, and quickly come a cropper once the toxin’s effects wear-off, after dragging him all over town on a seasonal spending spree! Un-fun fact: Apparently, this episode was adapted from the Batman Adventures Holiday Special (published January 1995), but sadly they skipped a line of dialogue from the comic in which Harley explicitly confirms that she’s Jewish (rather than just a recreational Yiddish-user). Boo to that! Slightly funner fact: This episode also marked the DC Animated Universe debut of future-Harley-in-waiting Tara Strong (nee Charendoff), in the role of ‘Batgirl’/’Barbara Gordon’… who then went on to get a near-fatal dose of Scarecrow Fear Toxin in ep #1.11 (aka “Over the Edge”), resulting in an episode-spanning fake-out nightmare in which the secret identities of the vigilante Bat “family” were revealed to the public, as the police hunted them down and brought them to justice. This also resulted in several villains launching a class-action lawsuit against the unmasked Bruce Wayne, and Harley was among them, but it was just a one-scene cameo, so… meh to that…
She and Batgirl had a much more significant encounter in ep #2.7 (aka “Girl’s Night Out”), when a Metropolitan super-villain named ‘LiveWire’ (voiced by Lori Petty!) wound up in Gotham, and decided/deigned to join forces with Ivy and Harley… while Batgirl got her own gal-pal/partner-in-crime-fighting, thanks to the timely arrival of ‘Supergirl’ (Nicholle Tom). Although our clown-girl was repeatedly overshadowed and belittled by her more powerful cohorts (a skilled athlete/acrobat is pretty small potatoes next to a woman who can turn herself into lightning and travel through telephone wires!), she did get some great scene-stealing slap-schtick involving a comically oversized sledgehammer, and backfiring boxing-glove gun, so it was still a pretty hilarious Harley episode, even if she was mostly consigned to tag-along status. Meanwhile, on a feminist tip, I found it kinda sad that Supergirl was so thrilled/flattered when Detective Bullock condescendingly described her and Batgirl as “rookies [who] show some potential” during a TV interview, when he’s just some ineffectual flat-foot (who’d probably have been killed off years ago if it weren’t for Batman), and she’s a world-saving super-heroine! Tch!
Harley attracted far more attention and admiration, albeit from an unwanted (and unhinged) quarter, in ep #2.10 (aka “Beware the Creeper”), when her worser-half decided to mark the seventh anniversary of his rebirth as “The Joker” by dosing nosy news reporter ‘Jack Ryder’ (Jeff Bennett) with laughing-gas, then shoving him into the very same vat of crazy chemicals that gave him his own permanent make-over. The resulting primary-coloured creature (“The Creeper”) capered and cackled its way out of the factory intent on seeking revenge against its creator, by stealing both his act and his gal! Despite the Joker’s inexplicable annoyance at his main squeeze’s attempts to seduce him, Harley shows admirable loyalty to her “puddin'”, as she defiantly fends off all of The Creeper’s overbearing attempts to woo her. This eventually leads to a pasty-face-off between the two disfigured foes… though The Joker seems far more concerned by The Creeper’s supposed plagiarism, than by his amorous intentions towards Harley, who he complacently praises as “a one man loon”. Inevitably, Batman intervenes with a rather convenient “antidote” patch that returns Ryder to his previous sane and sanguine condition… though an ominous cliff-hanger ending suggests that he might be looking to unleash his alter-ego again, sooner rather than later… uh-oh!
Finally, Harley received the unique honour of bringing the curtain down on the series, with an adaptation of her Eisner-Award-winning origin story “Mad Love” (ep #2.11), which reveals how she first fell under The Joker’s spell as an ambitious but impressionable young psychiatric intern (Dr. Harleen Quinzel), who’d eagerly volunteered for a post at the infamous Arkham Asylum, and was soon suckered in by his duplicitous plays for sympathy. Personally, I found the original comic a little disappointing, in that it depicted Harleen as a superficial bimbo on an athletic scholarship who’d sexed her way to higher grades, rather than a serious and gifted student… thus making her fall from grace a little less tragic, imho… so I was glad that the TV version omitted those slanderous scenes, and left her academic integrity intact. And, of course, it’s very gratifying to see her (almost) besting Batman all by herself, even if it was only to get her estranged boyfriend’s attention/affection back, by using (and subtly improving) one of his own discarded death-trap plans against the meddling do-gooder. Apparently her efforts were appreciated, as “Mr. J.” kindly sends her a get-well-soon gift after shoving her out of a high window in a fit of jealousy, and letting her fall to her near-death in the dark alley below. Er, what a sweetheart? Sadly, this pathetic token of “love” is enough to bring Harley back under his insidious influence, just as she was on the verge of coming to her senses and going straight (again). Dammit!
* I’m not sure how long Clark Kent and ‘Lois Lane’ (Dana Delany) had been working together at this point, but personally I would have been sick to death of all those Smallville cracks after the first week or so, if I were him!