An ex-con? You know (Harley’s Holiday)

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It’s October 15, 1994. Boyz II Men are at number one with “I’ll Make Love to You”; Sheryl Crow’s cover of “All I Wanna Do” is second, with Luther Vandross, Baby Face, and Immature rounding out the top five. At the box office, Pulp Fiction opens at number one.

In the news today, Haitian President Aristide returns to the country after three years of exile in the U.S., and Iraq withdraws troops from the Kuwaiti border in  yet another round of the long dance of threat and counter-threat that will continue until the second Gulf War, still nearly a decade away.

And in Batman: The Animated Series, Harley gets a vacation–an episode of her own with no Joker in it! Oh, and she’s been released from Arkham, there’s that too. Funny how once the Harlequinade begins, and the world changes under her spell, Harley is suddenly no longer considered quite so mad, isn’t it? Even Poison Ivy, in a sense, returns to the world–not completely, since it still won’t allow her to speak, but she is visible in the background in the Arkham scenes, watching approvingly as Harley plunges the world into chaos.

As she inevitably does. Harley passes through the streets and shops of Gotham like–well, it’s hard to come up with a metaphor more appropriate than a bubble gum-chewing, pigtailed, scantily clad roller-skater being pulled down the sidewalk by a pair of slavering hyenas on leashes. She passes through the streets and shops of Gotham like Harley, which is to say equally and simultaneously deliberately fetishistic, bizarre, and ridiculous. She ignores and upends all rules of social behavior, seemingly blissfully unaware that, for instance, hyenas are not permitted in upscale clothing boutiques. But again, she managed to survive living in the world long enough to get through medical school and secure a job at Arkham; she knows what the rules are.

Why, then, does she pretend not to? The answer’s in the title of the episode: she’s on holiday. She’s been on both sides of the glass walls of Arkham; she knows that criminals come in and out all the time. She doubtless knows about the Riddler’s and Two-Face’s brief releases before her, and knows they were out hardly any time at all before they returned. Sooner or later (sooner, as it turns out) she’ll have a bad day.

To get out of Arkham, Harley had to pretend to be what those who had power over her–the doctors and wardens–wanted her to be. Now she’s free to indulge, to be Harley; as long as she doesn’t break any actual laws no one can stop her. And it’s her job as the Harlequin, the Trickster, to push the boundaries of socially accepted behavior, to put people in positions they never would have thought to find themselves in–especially the powerful, or those who cater to the powerful.

It’s no accident that the store she enters with her hyenas is the kind of place Veronica Vreeland would take Bruce Wayne to spiff up his wardrobe. It’s frankly astounding Harley could afford anything there–but that’s where this ties into, and caps off, the trilogy of villain reformation episodes we’ve been working our way through. However she manages to buy that dress, she does so legitimately, and so panics when the alarm goes off.

It’s hard to blame her. She must know that on every level, she is expected to fail. The audience expects her to fail and become a criminal again both because of the last two episodes, and because we know that’s how she’s most interesting. The “justice system” expects her to fail because, as we’ve discussed, it exists not to rehabilitate or protect, but rather to ritualize the brutal vengeance of society upon those who violate its norms–and as we already said, violating norms is what the Harlequin does, what it is.

The world around Harley doesn’t understand her panic, and Harley doesn’t understand that the man in the uniform is trying to help. Why would she? She’s been in the system, she has years of experience telling her that people in uniform exist solely to violently enforce arbitrary rules, rules that she has now accidentally violated. She takes a hostage, flees, and one bad day ensues.

That perhaps is the best part of this episode, its climactic thumbing of the nose to The Killing Joke. Harley had a bad day, and the result was… that she stayed the same person she’s always been, Harley Quinn, the Harlequin. Her bad day caused her to end up right back where she started, where she belongs, under the knowing and watchful eye of Poison Ivy.

There’s few better proofs that Paul Dini, at the very least, gets it.

Current status of the Patreon:

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Retroactive Continuity 11: Tomboy vol. 1: Divine Intervention

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I know, this is a day late. I have no excuse.

A commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks as always for backing the Patreon!

The problem is that there are two different things people mean when they say “justice,” and no necessary connection between the two. Real justice is when everyone gets at least what they need, if not more, and life is otherwise as fair as we know how to make it.

That’s not what the characters in Tomboy mean when they use the word.

Tomboy is an aggressively uncomfortable comic, at least in these first four issues. An adorable cartoon pixie and the ghost of her dead best friend Nick (boyfriend, possibly? Addison insists otherwise, but she’s shown having sex with him in a flashback) urge a teen girl to become a serial killer, which she does, starting with the two crooked cops who killed her friend. Her gruff and curmudgeonly grandfather, a retired and highly respected cop himself, helps her cover up the murders and trains her to commit more, revealing that he himself was a vigilante killer once. Addison is shown cuddling with the hallucinatory ghost of Nick, and the apparent main villain of the comic goes directly from cutting a man’s head off with gardening shears to hugging and bantering with her (oblivious) teen son.

While it draws visual elements from magical girls and story beats from superheroes, Comixology’s classification is right: this is a horror comic.

At the core–nearly literally, as the flashback depicting it begins just past the midpoint of the volume–of this story is Justicar, the masked vigilante Addison’s grandfather became out of frustration that being a cop was more complicated than being an off-record soldier, that he couldn’t indiscriminately slaughter anyone he felt deserved it and that people he was certain were guilty sometimes got away with it.

His words are telling, when he describes his motivation to become Justicar: “The rules of law limited my actions and punishments were never as harsh as they needed to be.” So he murdered the local mob’s lawyer, and then began picking off its members. Telling, too, is the one rule he insists Addison follow in her own killings: “No crime goes unpunished. No criminal walks away.  No matter who they are or what they’ve done, the sentence is death.”

But he and Addison are killers, and they walk away again and again. Just as we’ve observed with Batman, there is an inherent hypocrisy to fighting crime by committing crimes. But Addison has her excuse, laid out in a scene where she argues with her pixie advisor (likely a hallucination, though there are a couple of hints that some kind of evil entity may have haunted her grandfather as Justicar and is now, as the pixie and the ghost of Nick, haunting Addison). In a scene after she murdered the cops and before her grandfather starts training her:

Addison: [distraught] I shouldn’t have done that.. I shouldn’t have done that..
Princess Cheery Cherry: Why not? No one else was going to do it.
Addison: It’s wrong!
Cherry: It’s only wrong if you’re a bad person.
Addison: But… what if I am a bad person?
Cherry: You can’t be bad unless other people think you’re bad, and everyone thinks you’re good, right?
Addison: I guess. But if I’m not bad… then what am I?
Nick: You’re a hero, Addison. My hero.

(Note that Princess Cheery Cherry and Nick both speak with the same distinctive speech balloons, white text on black backgrounds.)

This is a particular, perniciously popular understanding of morality, one endemic to fantastic and speculative fiction. We see it in Harry Potter, in Star Wars, in Batman, and countless other places: good and evil are teams. If you’re on the good team, anything you do to people on the evil team is justified. When the bad guys murder, torture, and destroy, it’s because they’re evil, and hence their fault. When the good guys murder, torture, and destroy the bad guys, it’s because the bad guys are evil, and hence the bad guys’ fault again. Addison is narratively positioned as good, following the beats of the hero’s origin story–“everyone thinks [she’s] good”–and therefore any action she takes against the comic’s villains is heroic, even when the exact same action done to a bystander is evil.

Which ties directly into the misunderstanding of justice that is the monster lurking within this horror comic. Possibly literally, if the visions Addison’s grandfather had in the war, Princess Cheery Cherry, and ghost Nick are not hallucinations but manifestations of some kind of demonic entity. On the other hand, Addison is shown taking the drug Ambidrex when she kills, and the fact that it causes hallucinations and violent behavior is precisely what her targets are trying to cover up, so our monster may be purely metaphoric. It doesn’t matter.

The point is that it’s an easy mistake to make, because all justice comes from rage and frequently requires violence to achieve. The challenge is directing the rage and violence properly, because true justice has nothing to do with punishment. Far too many people use the word “justice” when they mean “retribution”; instead of trying to ensure fairness and that everyone gets what they need, they try to do (usually in less extreme ways, but not always) what Justicar did and Addison now does: ensure that everyone is punished at least as badly as they deserve. That this does nothing but compound suffering with suffering doesn’t matter; after all, they’re pursuing “justice” and therefore “good guys.” Making the “bad guys” suffer is the whole point. This is the basis of our entire criminal “justice” system, from the courts to the prisons to the police. It’s a brutal system designed to create suffering based on a childish understanding of right and wrong.

The problem is that the idea of the hero is based on exactly the same concept. When Addison horribly tortures, mutilates, and murders the participants in the Ambidrex coverup, she really is being a hero, which is to say someone who hurts the “bad guys.”

Real justice means raging not at the alleged criminal who doesn’t get punished, but at the fact that some people don’t have enough to eat. It means employing violence not indiscriminately against everyone we’ve decided deserves it, but precisely, as needed to destroy the social structures that create injustice. It is revolution, not vigilantism. Healers and activists, not heroes.

Unfortunately, every healer we’ve seen in Tomboy is either a serial killer themselves or a corrupt pawn of Big Pharma. The horror is the likelihood that this is true in real life.


Current status of the Patreon:

  • Latest Near-Apocalypse article ($2+/mo patrons can view): Imaginary Story 4: Batman Adventures vol. 1 #16-28
  • Latest video ($5+/mo patrons can view): Vlog Review: Vlog Review: Steven Universe S3E24-25
  • Latest Milestone: Monthly bonus vlog–I will post one extra vlog (in addition to the weekly ones) to both the blog/YouTube and the Patreon each month!
  • Next Milestone: $110/mo: Let’s Play The Stanley Parable Episode 2. ($8 away.) One-off goal. I will finally make the long-awaited sequel to this video!