Since her inception on Batman: The Animated Series has brought Harley Quinn from TV, to comics, and beyond over the years, there have been many different takes on just who she’s really meant to be—not just aesthetically or tonally, but as her own person. The latest issue of her stylish new digital series nails those many Harleys in a very fun way.
The first two chapters of Black + White + Red—the digital-first anthology collection of Harley tales from a plethora of comics creatives, united by the distinctly muted titular color palette—focused on Harley’s relationship with two more of Gotham’s most infamous female figures: Poison Ivy and Catwoman. But the third, written by Saladin Ahmed and featuring art from Javier Rodriguez, puts the lens tightly on Harley herself, all the women she been since her inception, and who she is today.
The premise of “Get Yer Story Straight” is simple enough: a group of goons has been tasked with sneaking into Harley’s place and swiping an experimental canister of the Joker’s laughing gas, which they do so after a brief tussle with Harley. After incapacitating her and regrouping at the bar of their boss, the trio recount attempt to recount their successful exploit.
The problem is, as the title suggests, is that each one of the goons has a different story. As our unreliable narrators—a trope itself common in Harley’s own storytelling—recount their own version of events, we’re treated to a series of flashbacks. While they all tell a similar story, plotwise (the goons get in the base, Harley surprises them and a fight breaks out, the narrator of the flashback knocks her out, and the goons flee with the gas), visually and tonally they’re all very different.
What makes each story stand out is how they are each defined by a “style” of Harley’s past. The first depicts Harley as she was seen in her classic Batman: The Animated Series debut, clad in her all-over harlequin costume, fighting with comedic traps like extending boxing gloves or fake guns, her lair littered with playing card motifs and oversized clown contraptions. Her fight with the goons is bloodless, littered with “pows!” and “fwoks!” The second, meanwhile presents a much darker, grounded Harley. In an outfit that feels like an homage to her cinematic Suicide Squad aesthetic, this time Harley’s lair is a beat-up, dirty garage, and the fight itself—Harley trading her mallet for a nail-studded bat—is much more brutal and visceral, as Harley herself gets directly and bloodily involved.
The third is an altogether different take, presenting Harley in a costume more akin to her appearance when DC relaunched the New 52 and she headlined the Suicide Squad comic. Instead of drawing on the violence of the first two tales, the shift in tone is much more abstract and cerebral, as Harley herself is presented as a gigantic, psychedelic figure, and her lair a morphing, Alice in Wonderland-ian fantasy that speaks more to the idea of Harley’s traumas and manias presenting a fantastical, lighthearted world in her head.
If “Get Yer Story Straight” ended there, it would be an interesting enough play on all the ways both Gotham and we have viewed Harley over the years, a fittingly clever tribute to her history. But once the goons are done unreliably narrating to their boss’ dismay, the actual Harley shows up to get her gas back, and it’s none of the three Harleys they recalled.
But as this “new” version of Harley—the contemporary self—admonishes the mooks for robbing her, we are reminded that Harley is not a character that we can strictly compartmentalize into different “versions.” Harley Quinn is Harley Quinn, a totality of many selves. She has grown and changed and evolved, from doting sidekick, to traumatic villain, to solo anti-hero. She never stopped being the playful harlequin, or the brutal nightmare. Those are still aspects of her, ones we see as she liberates the gas from the goons for real this time, a fighting style that is violent, but not brutally so, playful, but not full-on-clown. But they, on their own, do not define her.
As Harley walks out of the bar, gas safely back in tow, she makes one thing clear: this is who Harley Quinn is now, a woman not to be messed with by villain or hero alike. A woman willing enough to keep dangerous tech from her ex around as a reminder of her past, but also because it’s safer locked away in her possession than it is harming innocents on the street. A woman who was, at one time or another, the depictions her adversaries recalled. Those recollections aren’t her now. They were her, still are part of her. But they alone do not define her.
Harley Quinn is Harley Quinn, and who exactly that is is for Harley alone to have the last word on.
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