To immediately qualify the clickbait title: There is a trend in modern Batman to make Harley Quinn into an anti-hero. Generally speaking she leaves the Joker for being an abusive boyfriend and strikes out on her own, often with help from Poison Ivy and/or Catwoman, keeping the general Harley Quinn style but fighting now for the good guys. This comes up in the Suicide Squad movies (particularly the good one, although the bad one did something similar, just without Joker being abusive – and there’s signs that the Joker was originally supposed to betray Harley Quinn but it was cut from the final movie), the Injustice games, and it’s the central premise of the Harley Quinn TV show.
Particularly in the TV show, though, the focus on Harley Quinn in particular highlights problems with the premise. Harley Quinn’s whole aesthetic is derived from an obsessive tailing after the Joker – if she’s leaving her abusive relationship behind, why isn’t she ditching that aesthetic? For that matter, Harley Quinn’s only superpower is being handy with a baseball bat and her primary skill is psychiatry, although plainly she’s not very good at that. You could rewrite her backstory so that she’s successfully rehabilitated some number of supervillains (even if they’re just D-listers like Calendar Man), but then you’re on the hook for writing the Joker such that he plausibly converted a psychiatrist who’s actually good at this, rather than a true crime fan girl with an obsessive streak that made her good at school but bad at medicine.
Fact is, the good ending for Harley Quinn is that she leaves the whole clown crime aesthetic behind to become a criminal psychiatry professor at Gotham University, teaching students without any more direct interaction with the super-criminals she has such a dangerous fascination with.
But while that’s a good ending for the story of Harley Quinn, it’s not going to carry a TV show. And the fact is, sexy female Joker-flavored anti-hero taking over the underworld is a cool premise. I can see why people want to wrench Harley Quinn into that role despite the rough edges. But the perfect character for literally exactly that was created in 1976: Joker’s Daughter, also known as the Card Queen.
Joker’s Daughter is originally introduced as being literally Joker’s daughter, but she switched her alias to Catgirl and claimed to be Catwoman’s daughter, and then to Penguin’s Daughter, and then to Riddler’s Daughter, and then she turned out to be Harvey Dent’s (i.e. Twoface’s) actual biological daughter. She joins the Teen Titans under a cloud of suspicion and has to prove her commitment to team good, and it really feels like this was a character written by someone with a women-with-redemption-arcs fetish because she’s one of those characters who never actually did anything wrong but who is nevertheless regarded with suspicion merely because of her affiliations, and who is simultaneously very penitent about that (despite having no personal culpability whatosever) and yet also goes around in a fucking Joker outfit. Sending some mixed signals there, buddy.
But despite the pitfalls of the character’s original portrayal (and her New 52 portrayal, which is totally useless for the role I’m giving her in this post so we’re ignoring it), her basic premise is perfect for the “sexy Joker-themed anti-hero takes over the Gotham underworld as a vehicle for a deconstruction of the ineffective nature of Batman’s crusade on crime” concept. Toss out her changing identities – she is Joker’s Daughter and later Card Queen (and also Duela Dent, if we’re counting secret identities) and that’s it. Probably not literally the biological daughter of Joker and Harley Quinn, in fact, it makes a lot of sense with Joker’s character that he would kidnap Twoface’s real daughter as an infant and raise her as his own. Having a daughter caused the Harvey Dent persona to become more dominant in Twoface, Joker didn’t like that, so he kidnapped the kid, and then the final step of his plan was “literal dead baby joke (HAHAHA!)” and he got there and realized, okay, but what’s the punchline? How do I actually kill a baby in a way that’s funny? Actual dead baby jokes are always totally reliant on shock factor, they have no wit, no style! Depending on your tone, you can also toss in Harley Quinn pitching a bunch of ideas and Joker shooting them down because he’s already done them before and it’s stale content, or maybe turn it around and have Harley Quinn (clearly unwilling to cross this line) convincing Joker that dead baby jokes are a played out meme from 2003 and there’s no way to do it originally.
Either way, he adopts the kid, keeps it under wraps for a while so Twoface doesn’t make the connection, and then introduces his new toddler as the allegedly freshly kidnapped Joker’s Daughter. He doesn’t give her any other name, which he spins publicly as giving her a supervillain name right from the start. Unlike himself, she won’t have to eradicate her wretchedly mundane original identity from public memory and her own consciousness by inventing so many contradictory origins that she herself forgets which one is real – supervillainy is her origin! But of course, he also sets it up so that her very name marks her as his daughter, and therefore, in the eyes of an abusive narcissist like the Joker, his property.
Flash forward about ten to fifteen years. Joker’s Daughter is now prime Robin age. Harley Quinn leaves the Joker – she gets captured by the Suicide Squad, or the Joker finally kills her in a fit of pique, or she finally wakes up to what she’s doing with her life and leaves to go into hiding. I favor the last one because it lets us have reformed Professor Quinzel in the present day (which we still haven’t quite reached), but the details of Harley Quinn’s departure aren’t important, only that the role of Joker’s right hand is vacated so that Joker’s Daughter can be in the same starting position that Harley Quinn is in versions of the story that try to use her as the protagonist. Joker’s Daughter, who’d been an occasional accessory to mom and dad’s crime sprees already, takes over the counter-Robin sidekick role once Quinn leaves. Unlike Harley Quinn, an obsessive fangirl who never really measured up to the real titans of Gotham, Joker’s Daughter is a real equal to Robin: Learning the tricks of her mentor and steadily growing into a worthy replacement.
Flash forward a few years after that. Joker’s Daughter has a falling out with the Joker. She keeps the overall aesthetic but changes her name to Card Queen (another one of her many aliases in the existing comics, and one with no obvious connection to any other super-criminal), and our story begins. By now, Harley Quinn can have found some way to get amnesty (maybe something to do with the Suicide Squad?) and become Professor Quinzel. Card Queen can learn that she was actually Harley Dent’s daughter all along and can adopt the name he’d given her – Duela Dent – in defiance of her adoptive father’s desire to have no identity separate from his own, even if there’s not really any changing the fact that she was Card Queen first and the secret identity Duela Dent is something she adopted later.
Joker kidnapped Duela Dent at some point after Harley Quinn was already his sidekick and Twoface was an established part of Batman’s rogue’s gallery, so he was probably in his 30s then and he and most of his enemies are probably in their 50s now, which means Card Queen is interacting with a Gotham that has plenty of room for other up-and-coming superpeople, both an examination of how the Batfamily and various other prominent villains are trying to build a legacy (Mr. Freeze and Catwoman likely wouldn’t bother, but Twoface, Penguin, Poison Ivy, and Riddler definitely would, and Scarecrow, Red Hood, and Bane could go either way – plus, Ra’z al-Ghul and Solomon Grundy are straight-up immortal in the first place, and Poison Ivy might be, too) and how the status quo is being disrupted by entirely original characters. I’m not going to bother coming up with any for a hypothetical project written as a blog post on a lark, but Batman Beyond easily proves that you can, in principal, add a fresh new rogues gallery to a successor character rather than going full Generation Xerox with it.
Since our hero is a criminal, we probably want to spotlight the Court of Owls, the secret society of evil rich people in Gotham, as major villains, with similar prominence to the Joker, or even greater – I could see a structure where Joker is an early villain and after Card Queen defeats him and takes over his criminal empire, she has to contend with trying to succeed in fixing Gotham where Batman and Bruce Wayne failed. The Court of Owls up rarely in Batman stories, but make for a great reason as to why none of Bruce Wayne’s efforts to fix the society with philanthropy ever go anywhere.
So many things that were working against the premise for Harley Quinn are now working in Card Queen’s favor. Dressing sexy as an act of rebellion and defiance is weird and dumb excuse-making for an abused girlfriend going independent, especially one fleeing from a guy with Joker’s sense of style and panache. Like, come on, you’re really going to try and convince me that the Joker was unyieldingly opposed to a sexy and attention-getting costume for his girlfriend/sidekick? This is exactly the kind of guy who’d want to show off how pretty his arm candy is, to try and make other men envious of the trophy he has and they don’t. But in a father/daughter relationship it’s easy to imagine him saying “oh, no, no daughter of mine will be seen in a purple trenchcoat over a miniskirt and string bikini top! Go change into your neck-to-ankle clown suit!”
Harley Quinn trying to beat the Joker at his own game comes across as being unable to get past her obsession and return to the person she was before she met him, but for the Card Queen, there is no person she was before she met him, only the person she becomes after leaving him behind, and it makes much more sense for that person to be an apple that doesn’t fall far from the tree – even if she disagrees hard with several important details of her father’s behavior and career, it makes sense that she might still retain his general sense of aesthetics, his affinity for bombs and booby traps, and his appreciation for comic wit. The story of the Card Queen succeeding where her father couldn’t and in spite of her father’s direct opposition also has a mythical titanomachy quality in it which speaks to a way in which children are shaped by their parents’ expectations, whereas the course of narrative when you’re leaving behind an abusive relationship is generally for the abused partner to reject their former partner’s expectations entirely or else to succumb to them and end up relapsing into the abuse. You can buck those narrative conventions, but it’s risky to do so unless you have something in particular to say, and Harley Quinn doesn’t, just a premise they’re trying to justify. But the Card Queen justifies that premise while fitting one of the oldest character/plot archetypes like a glove.
If you want a story where someone in a black=and-red card suit themed belly shirt jumps out of a truck with an AK-47 and six similarly armed goons in clown masks to rob a bank except she’s the protagonist and not the villain, then Card Queen is very straightforwardly the way to go. Although you’ll probably want to put “Joker’s Daughter” on the posters or covers or whatever, because no one’s heard of Card Queen (or Joker’s Daughter, but they’ve heard of Joker). Depending on your format and at what point in the timeline you’re starting, you could start calling it Joker’s Daughter and then switch to Card Queen partway through the run.
2 thoughts on “Card Queen Is Better At Being Harley Quinn Than Harley Quinn”
> Fact is, the good ending for Harley Quinn is that she leaves the whole clown crime aesthetic behind to become a criminal psychiatry professor at Gotham University, teaching students without any more direct interaction with the super-criminals she has such a dangerous fascination with.
Is that a good ending? Harley Quinn is abusive herself. Like the whole premise of her character is that she decided to strike an affair with the Joker while he was her unwilling patient. And yeah, he’s The Joker, but this is still an abuse of power by a medical professional.
Definitely what I meant is that this is the good ending for Harley Quinn as an individual – the happiest ending she, specifically, could plausibly have, given how she’s usually depicted.
There’s an argument to be made that she doesn’t particularly deserve to get a good ending, and that the only reason any kind of redemption arc for Harley Quinn is popular is because pretty women always get redemption arcs. Her fall to darkness is caused by an unhealthy obsession, and the fact that she was not only hired by Arkham Asylum but that her growing relationship with the Joker went completely unaddressed is a damning indictment of that institution (which is not at all out of keeping with how it’s generally depicted). She’s not like Mr. Freeze, where an initially noble goal led him down a dark road, so the redemption arc itself has never been all that compelling. I think it’s notable that we basically never see Harley Quinn meaningfully redeeming herself, even though she’s popular as a protagonist. If we turn the Clown Queen of Crime schtick over to Card Queen, does anyone care what happens to Harleen Quinzel?
I stuck with the redemption arc anyway, for two reasons. Well, three reasons, the first being that this is just a blog post and that was my first impulse, but two reasons that are actually any good: First, it puts Harleen Quinzel in a position where Card Queen can have interesting and dramatic confrontations with her. Harley Quinn in Arkham Asylum pining after a Joker who’s gotten bored with her and is never coming back might make for a single compelling scene, but I think there’s more drama to be had with a sane and stable Professor Quinzel who can be more meaningfully confronted with the fact that she was complicit in the Card Queen’s fucked up upbringing. Professor Quinzel can be a significant character in the super villain family drama with Card Queen, Joker, and Twoface/Harvey Dent.
The only way to involve Harley Quinn in that dynamic is if she’s still Joker’s side kick or, at most, if she’s bouncing in and out of his orbit as a result of their unstable and unhealthy relationship, which means the sidekick role isn’t vacant for Joker’s Daughter to be fulfilling before the inciting incident. Possibly you could do something with Joker getting bored of Harley Quinn and leaving her in Arkham to replace her with Joker’s Daughter, but then going back to her once Joker’s Daughter flips to Card Queen. But ultimately, I just don’t think that’s as interesting as Professor Quinzel having washed her hands of it completely, leaving Card Queen to deal with Joker by herself.
Second, and this is less important but I think still valid, Professor Quinzel serves as a criticism of Harley-Quinn-as-protagonist and I think that’s artistically valuable. It shines a light on the flaws with protagonist Harley Quinn by presenting a more plausible alternative, and in a Card Queen story, she’s also paired with a character who takes the fun premise of protagonist Harley Quinn and makes it work much better.
As a third thing that I’m not totally sure on, given the nature of Batman’s rogues gallery and no-killing rule, I think there’s a strong argument to be made that he would be better off as a vehicle for a story about villains getting better and being rehabilitiated. A lot of them are based on mental illness, not rank greed or violence, and the only one who seems impervious to treatment is Joker, his arch-nemesis. The need for Batman to be an ongoing story prevents this from actually happening, but I think it’s an interesting concept and so I spend a lot of time thinking about what might become of reformed villains. The vast majority of them don’t particularly deserve to be reformed, but that’s part of what makes this version of Batman and his no-killing rule stubbornly heroic, while at the same time the Joker draws attention to the limitations of this rule, and so to a lesser extent does Penguin, who isn’t sick at all, just a power-mongering gangster (although you could lean more on the Batman Returns version if you don’t want Penguin to stand out from the rogues gallery like that).
I don’t know how well that take on the Batman rogues gallery serves a Card Queen story, though. You probably don’t want Card Queen mowing down the entire Gotham underground (unless you’re doing a double-bill with Red Hood, which is a different concept but also one that might have legs), but it would make a lot of sense if she just kills Scarecrow or someone and that’s the end of him.