Batman has been in fights all his life: physically, mentally, spiritually. But who or what is his greatest foe? Shelfdust asked some of our favourite comics critics to pick Batman’s Greatest Enemy… but who do YOU agree with?
By S.E. Fleenor
When I think about Batman and what I love about him, I almost inevitably end up focusing on other members of the Bat Family or, even more interestingly, members of his Rogues’ Gallery. In fact, it’s hard to feel much about ol’ Batsy if I don’t think about him in relation to his many, many antagonists.
The Rogues’ Gallery, a term originating from the 1850s when a private detective created the first compilation of descriptions of, information about, and photos for identifying culprits, is a common way to refer to Batman villains as a whole. Probably the most recognizable member is the Joker – but there’s also Poison Ivy, Bane, Catwoman, Killer Croc, Mr. Freeze, Man-Bat, and many more. While the term is a fun and kind of silly way of referring to these fictional villains, it also gives the whole Batman universe even more of a detective-y feel.
Of course, the Rogues’ Gallery is incomplete without the princess of crime, Daddy’s little monster, one Dr. Harleen Quinzel, better known by her moniker Harley Quinn. And if we’re talking about Batman’s greatest enemy, I’m going to have to vote for the queen of clowning herself.
Harley is Batman’s greatest enemy not because she is the most malicious or destructive baddie he’s faced, but because she’s so unpredictable. Batman thrives on justice and making the bad guys pay, and yet he’s often worked with Harley against the Joker and others – only to have our favorite murder clown turn around and betray him. Some part of Batman believes in Harley, in her ability to change. He wants her to be the honorable, reliable person he is, but he also accepts her as she is, as evidenced by the many times he has given her “another” chance.
In her own right, Harley is a fascinating character. She’s queer and polyamorous. She’s a survivor of intimate partner violence. She’s loved the wrong person and found right ones. And all the while she’s a murderous b*tch who doesn’t have any qualms about doing whatever she wants. She’s chaos incarnate and that’s what makes her so lovable—and so dangerous.
There are many examples of Harley’s bat-foolery. In the Batman: The Animated Series episode “Harlequinade,” Harley tricks Batsy when he teams up with her to stop the Joker. Through the course of the videogame Batman: The Enemy Within, Harley turns on Bruce Wayne and everybody else pretty much because she herself feels betrayed. In the Injustice: Ground Zero comic, when the Joker from another universe shows up, Harley leaves Batman and the other resisters to join the new Joker – for a time. In the prime universe comics, there are numerous times Harley thwarts, betrays, annoys, and frustrates Batman – too many to cover here, in fact.
Since we can’t get through them all, why not start at the beginning? One of the best examples of Harley’s power to befriend, betray, and enervate Bats is the comic where Harley made her first appearance in DC continuity: Batman: Harley Quinn, Issue #1, written by Paul Dini, penciled by Yvel Guichet, inked by Aaron Sowd, lettered by Willie Schubert, colored and separated by Richard and Tonya Horie. It’s worth noting that Dini, along with Bruce Timm, created Harley Quinn in 1992 for Batman: The Animated Series.
The comic opens with Poison Ivy (Harley’s future lover, sometimes wife, and always BFF) finding Harley in a pile of rubble — after the Joker shot Harley off in a rocket in an attempt to kill her. She takes Harley back to her place (woo woo) where she cares for her, hears Harley’s Joker-filled sob story, and provides her with a formula to make Harley resistant to toxins. Toxins like the ones Ivy’s lips (and sweet, sweet kisses) carry. As a bonus, the formula increases her strength and agility.
While Ivy certainly seems to do this out of care for Harley, she’s also interested in getting Harley’s help with something: taking down Batman and freeing Ivy from her truce with the cowled detective. Loving her new powers, Harley decides she should make it a two for one special. She’ll destroy Batman and Mr. J at the same time.
Harley uses a self-rigged Bat Signal made of what appears to be a pair of the Joker’s gloves (or Mickey Mouse’s) to get Batman’s attention. She offers him a bargain. She’ll help him infiltrate the Joker’s hideout so they can stop him before he starts distributing medicine rigged to explode and all she’ll get in exchange is to not be murdered by the Joker. After threatening to arrest her a couple times, Batman tells Harley he doesn’t trust her and gives her a tracking device so he can find her when he wants to. It’s an interesting moment because it’s rare to see Batman compromise—particularly to work with someone he considers to be villainous. Who else can convince ol’ Batsy that they want to team up and do good without doing a single thing to prove they’ve changed? Batman never even registers that he’s being manipulated and even how Harley responds to him is another aspect of her manipulation.
“Y’know, Bats, I didn’t sleep my way through med school without learnin’ a few things, and I suspect you’ve got some serious issues with intimacy,” she says.
There are a couple of ways to read this moment. The most immediate is that Dini uses this line to undermine Harley’s qualifications, a trend that appears throughout Harley’s appearances in comics and beyond, though lessens in more recent stories such as the numerous Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti runs. What I’d like to offer, though, is a second read on this moment. The way I see it Harley minimizes her own expertise in an effort to get Batman to lower his defenses. She’s not that smart. She’s not that scary. She just kind of has a medical degree. Don’t get me wrong: I prefer the confident Harley who psychoanalyzes those around her with panache, but I’m willing to accept that a brand-spanking-new-to-this-continuity Harley might not have achieved that same confidence yet.
What’s even funnier is that despite his protestations, Batman is hot on Harley’s heels when she reaches Joker’s hideout. She lets him think he’s in control — lets him think that they’re playing by his rules – but in reality, Harley’s every word was a manipulation to get him to this point, to arrive at this exact location exactly when she wants him there. Self-satisfied, Harley considers returning to psychiatry since she’s so good at pushing buttons. (How could you not love this wild woman?!)
From there, things go about as you’d expect… at first. Batman beats up a bunch of henchmen and makes his way toward the Joker, but Harley gets there first. She then proceeds to use her agility, strength, and resistance to Joker’s knock out gas to antagonize, embarrass, and completely kick the ever-loving sh*t out of him. Just as she’s ready to give him “a wee bit more whuppin’,” Batman stops her, angry that she’s deviated from his well-laid plan. Bats tosses her to the ground, resulting an all-too-familiar image of Harley moaning in pain. He doesn’t brutally lay into her, though. He could more aptly be described as tossing her aside, another moment of underestimating the harlequin of hate. But why does he do that? Has Batman seen her brutalized and wounded too often? Does he see some of his own pain and trauma in Harley? We’re left to wonder.
Batman chases the Joker into the sewers where he nearly loses his grip while throttling the terrified buffoon. But Harley isn’t the same henchwoman she once was and returns with a giant hammer to slam Batman to the ground, a powerful reversal of the panel above. She catches him off-guard, proving she can play him like a fiddle — or more appropriately, like a game of whack-a-mole. Having disarmed the cowled crusader, Harley returns to what she loves: Beating the Joker to smithereens. She gets him on the ropes, having unsettled him with her unpredictability.
Of course, and I have many theories about why this happens for another day, the end of the comic sees Harley happily return to the Joker’s side, revealing there were never any medical supplies in the first place. It was just one of Harley’s clever ruses. She leaves a note for Batman that details why she left and Bats is left befuddled. He never has figured out Harley Quinn.
And, that’s about where most of his encounters with Harley end. She gets away, or maybe he incarcerates her at Arkham Asylum for a time, or she leaves with the Joker (yawn), but no matter the result, he never quite knows what to think of his greatest (fr)enemy. Is she a villain in her own right? Is she the Joker’s lackey? Is she capable of being a hero? Can he ever trust her?
I hope he never gets a final answer to any of these questions and that Harley frustrates, embarrasses, and annoys him for the rest of time.
Batman: Harley Quinn #1
Writer: Paul Dini
Artist: Yvel Guichet
Inker: Aaron Sowd
Colourists: Tanya & Richard Horie
Letterer: Willie Schubert
S.E. has written for SyFyFanGrrlz, Buzzfeed and so many other places, and is an editor for Bella Books. Along with Sara they’re co-host of the Bitches on Comics podcast, and you can follow them on Twitter here!
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