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A Rare Medium

At the Edge of Redemption
Harley Quinn and Cassandra Cain

Note: this article is based on the first 15 issues of Harley Quinn, and the first 27 of Batgirl.

She possesses great gymnastic skill and an optimistic outlook in the face of impossible odds. She dresses in a bright primary color and has won the hearts of fans all over. She is clever and funny.

This is not our heroine.

She has a dark and tortured past, trained almost from birth to be a killer. She has a death wish, along with deadly skill and speed in martial arts. She dresses in black, her face covered by a mask with stitching that looks like Frankenstein as interpreted by Tim Burton.

She is not our villainess.

The Batman titles have excelled in examining good vs. evil and all the subtle shades of gray in between. Batman himself, though he will never take a human life, uses methods that often stray outside the law. A glimmer of redemption can lie even in a villain like Two-Face. Likewise, both of these characters were formed by a single, pivotal moment of tragedy. Tragedy lies in the backgrounds of villains and heroes alike in DC comics. The difference between a villain and a hero is in how each reacts to that tragedy: are they strong enough to make the correct moral choice, or do they succumb to darkness?

A compelling treatment of redemption and morality in light of a tragic past is embodied in two vivid female characters from the DC universe. Both walk a tenuous line between darkness and light, but one stays on the side of the heroes, while the other does not.

Harley Quinn started life on Batman: The Animated Series, the creation of Paul Dini. Her popularity has been such that DC Comics added her to their "canon" of Gotham characters. In her animated persona, she was the girlfriend of Gotham's most dangerous and wacky villain, the Joker. Her devotion to the Joker provided dark humor as well as a riveting enigma: why would Harley Quinn, clever, funny, and athletic, tie herself to a man who abused her?

In the DC Comics version, although she still began at the Joker's side, in writer Karl Kesel's hands Harley Quinn has since realized it's time to move on. She’s gone solo (“As God is my witness--and any other gods willing to take the bet--I’ll never be a flunky again!” --Issue #3), gets her own gang called the Quintettes, and spends more energy on match-making than on crime.

Harley is a difficult character to place. Is she heroine or villainess? Or anti-heroine? It was fine to have Harley cozy with the animated Joker, who was nasty in a funny way, voiced with charming insanity by Mark Hamill. In the comics, however, he's much darker and more clearly a psychotic murderer. The animated series only hinted at this violence. In the comics, the Joker killed the second Robin, Jason Todd; shot Barbara Gordon, the first Batgirl, ending her career and paralyzing her from the waist down; and more recently, toward the end of "No Man’s Land," he killed Sarah Essen Gordon, wife of then-Commissioner Jim Gordon. The Joker is from old-school DC Comics; he's too archetypal to change. But Harley is the new girl, so they changed her instead--separating her from the Joker, giving her a slightly lighter, more independent slant. The change to Harley’s character in the comics not only solved an editorial problem but provided fresh material for Karl Kesel to play with.

Harley Quinn #8 reveals the pivotal moment of tragedy that helped change her from a flawed and confused young woman into an amoral, criminal one. A psychology experiment goes horribly awry, causing her college boyfriend to shoot himself. Ironically, Harley calls the experiment “a carefully controlled game.” The game, however, is out of her control because she underestimates her boyfriend’s emotions and how far he would go to protect her. The boyfriend is something of a goofy practical joker, with a long, thin face and a wide grin--he (retroactively) foreshadows her later choice of lover.

Harley’s mistake was not so much about morality, but about human emotion. While Cassandra Cain’s tragic past led to her determination to make things right, Harley’s tragedy unbalances her. She comes to an extreme conclusion: “It’s all chaos! You can’t control anything! Best you can do is be the snowball that starts the avalanche!”

After the Joker tries to kill her (issue #1), Harley decides to start a new life, and issue after issue since veers wildly between a determination to change her ways, and the same old chaos. She seems in search of herself, trying on approach after another, looking for the right path. In issue #2, she teams up with Two-Face, who kidnaps a socialite. Harley saves the woman’s life, drawing the line at murder--but takes the opportunity to blackmail the socialite instead. In the ultimate twist, Harley Quinn has an epiphany and dresses up as the original Batgirl (issues #10-11). Once she’s in the costume, however, it becomes clear that this is not her turning over a new leaf, but one more way to find excitement and cause chaos as the Bat-family tries to end her impersonation.

Batgirl, sometimes known as Cassandra Cain, is the newest hero in the Bat-family, a teenage girl with extraordinary fighting abilities and a dark past. Raised from birth by David Cain to be an assassin, Cassandra chooses to save lives instead of taking them. After she saves Jim Gordon’s life during "No Man’s Land," Batman and Barbara Gordon offer her the cowl. She accepts, but even that is not enough for the new Batgirl to feel as if she has atoned for her past. In issue #2 of Gotham Knights written by Devin Grayson, we learn that Cassandra has a death wish. She believes the only way to truly redeem herself is to die nobly, saving others. Raised surrounded by death, she has to learn the value of her own life. At the same time, she has a few things to learn about the responsibilities of power. Writers Kelley Puckett and Scott Peterson explore this thoroughly in Batgirl's monthly title.

Ambiguity and mystery surround Cassandra. In issue #2 she shows great compassion as she tries to save a man whose moment of good samaritanism costs him his life. By issue #4, Batman receives a video that shows Cassandra as a child killing a man with her bare hands. He later admonishes her after she punishes a would-be shooter by bringing him to the edge of death: “You stopped that man’s heart. On instinct. I don’t want anymore surprises from you tonight.” But then she uses her skills to stop one man from shooting another, risking her own life. When Batman asks her why she did it, she says “Instinct,” and Batman approves (issue #6). There is a distinction made between her attempt to die heroically in Gotham Knights #2 and her actions in Batgirl #6. In the first case, her death would have been unnecessary, something she deliberately tried to bring about; in the second, it was a last resort to save a life, unpremeditated.

She walks the line between life and death. She exhibits personal sacrifice to save lives, yet toys with stopping a man’s heart; she begins to earn Batman’s approbation even as he grapples, emotionally and physically, to find the answer behind the damning video.

Cassandra’s remoteness from those closest to her becomes an issue when Oracle catches her coming in from patrol without her mask. Batgirl exhibits no concern when Oracle argues that by exposing herself like this, she risks not having a normal future (issue #14). Batman banishes her to her own cave so that she won’t put Oracle’s identity at risk. There Cassandra has every amenity--but it's dark, lonely, and dank. In contrast to Harley Quinn, who strives toward independence, Batgirl needs to forge closer bonds with others.

Welcome to the superhero, 21st century style.

Both Harley and Batgirl in some sense use the forces that caused their tragedies to shape their choices. Harley, who lost a loved one because human emotion refused her attempts to regulate and document it, decides that complete lack of control is the best choice. It’s a surrender. Harley Quinn chooses chaos, yet she struggles to make sense from what makes no sense, to remake herself, and in some respects control emotion after all--such as in her match-making.

Batgirl’s struggle represents resistance. Batgirl takes her ability to kill and turns it against itself. Her natural inclination is to use the skills Cain taught her, but it is those skills that make her capable of killing. At the same time, they also are what allows her to help others. She is pulled between her two instincts.

It’s a choice that every hero and villain in the DC universe--or anywhere else--makes: give in to the chaos, or use it against itself. At any moment, Harley could step into the light, and Cassandra could fall back into darkness--and this is part of what makes them so compelling.

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A Rare Medium texts are copyrighted by Eilonwy, and used with permission. Please request my permission before reprinting or republishing anything you find on this site. Any comments or requests to the author can also be directed to this address.

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