I asked for guest posts making the case for the finalists for the Favorite DC Couples matches and reader Natalie Reed sent me this on Harley and Ivy. Her thoughts follow:
Before I begin, I suppose I should admit a slight bias: I’m not entirely of the opinion that Harley and Ivy’s clandestine tryst was precisely “non-canon”. More like “quasi-canon”. Or “deutero-canon”. Or “scholarly confirmed apocrypha”. And if you go by the whole Word Of Authorial God theory, it was straight-up, well, canon (at least for a given value of Paul Dini’s godhood; and regarding Harley’s infamous statement that her immunity to Ivy’s toxicity was granted so they could “play” together).
Basically, unlike the vast majority of non-canon ships, whereby fans go out seeking sexy (or not-so-sexy) subtext between two characters who seem to pair well together, what was going on between Harley and Ivy was, as often as not, just plain old text. The writers planting those seeds (no pun intended) weren’t simply toying (no pun intended) with us, they were quite deliberately implying a relationship there, and moreover implying a relationship that had a pretty meaningful impact on the story. And on at least one occasion I can think of (Ivy’s confrontation with Harley in Arkham during the finale of Gotham City Sirens), those seeds bore fruit, and became a meaningful, climactic element to the narrative.
But it’s not my biases towards relationships that actually manifest in the story that makes me enjoy Harley and Ivy so much, nor my general bewilderment at the entire phenomenon of non-canonical slash-pairings (especially those that seem woven out of nothing but “Look! These two hot characters happened to be in the same panel this one time! With their faces like, TOTALLY close together! Which is, like, hotness squared!”). What makes me think Harley and Ivy are an awesome DC couple is how much they add to the story, and their respective characterizations.
One of my all-time desert-island why-do-I-have-Batman-stories-with-me-on-a-desert-island Batman Stories is absolutely “Mad Love”. Beyond the fact that it is, altogether, a pitch-perfect single-shot Batman adventure, complete with Clever Batman Plans and Elaborate Themed Death Traps and Commissioner Gordon Resignedly Grumbling, the story is terrific in how much, and how beautifully, it elevated Harley beyond simply being a fun sidekick for the Joker to being possessed of a poignant (and fiercely tragic) story all her own. That story, as it happened, was a story of domestic violence and abuse. It was more than just “Here! This relatively-minor female character has a fully-fleshed out story and characterization of her own!”, an all too rare occurrence in cape comics as is, it was also a story that specifically pertained to the experiences, suffering, and trials of women.
We see in “Mad Love” that Harley, as it turns out, was an accomplished, intelligent, career-driven woman, who fell for the wrong guy. A very, very, VERY wrong guy. And in that story, we also see the Joker as intensely charismatic and manipulative (something necessary, in my opinion, for his entire characterization to make sense at all, but is often neglected in how he’s written), allowing it to not fall short at “Oh, Harley was an idiot to fall for him”, but letting us understand why she did, and see whole new depth to the Joker in the process. As is painfully close to the truth of abuse, the Charismatic Abuser made her feel like he NEEDED her (when he was using her), like she had HURT him (when he wanted a justification to hurt her), and like the entirety of her self-worth depended on serving him. Ultimately, he conditions her through this abuse SO thoroughly that when he pushes her out a multi-story window, her response is only a defeated utterance of “My fault… it was my fault. I didn’t get the joke.”
And just as tragically, when we see Harley beginning to reassert her sense of self-worth and independence, it takes only the tiniest gesture of superficial affection from Mistah Jay, like a flower and a note, for her to tumble right back into her belief that he genuinely loves and needs her.
(this is where you imagine me shaking a gigantic, imaginary finger at everyone who, early in this tourney, expressed belief in Joker/Harley as a cute couple. For shame!)
Ivy, by contrast, is a quintessentially non-abusive partner, whose involvement in Harley’s life is initially born out of compassion, and a desire to see her realize her potential. She wants nothing more than for Harley to become the best Harley she can be, and is thereby the exact opposite of the Joker in her attitude towards her. Ivy’s love of Harley is genuine, the kind of love based on wanting not just what YOU think is best for them, but wanting them to be able to discover and achieve for themselves what THEY want for themselves.
And through that compassion, Ivy also grows, away from her increasingly alienated plant-like nature, and towards involvement and concern for human beings. It’s a healthy, consensual, mutually beneficial relationship, based on selfless (and self-respecting) investment in someone else, that allows both women (deeply flawed as they are) to through one another become better people, despite their histories. That kind of relationship is intensely rare, intensely beautiful, and if you’ve ever been an abuse survivor, or known one, you understand just how much they can mean.
In the canonical title and story most centered on Ivy and Harvey, Gotham City Sirens, their relationship forms when Joker crosses a bit of a line and decides he no longer needs Harley, blasting her off to her death in a rocket which ends up landing in Ivy’s domain of Robinson Park. Ivy patches her up, and the two become close… Ivy and Harley’s relationship is specifically centered on Ivy experiencing compassion for a human being (rather than a plant) and trying to help her, and on Harley’s struggle to come to terms with the fact that her relationship with the Joker was abusive and false (in contrast to the relationships she could build with others). While the relationship between Harley and Ivy had lots of ups and downs and snags and snigs (they ARE regular inmates at Arkham, after all), it was, at its very heart, redemptive in nature.
Harley and Joker, on its own, is a story of abuse. And Poison Ivy, on her own, tells a story of extremist idealism and detachment from common human experiences and needs, seeing people increasingly as simple means to your Utopian ends. But both stories, with Harley and Ivy as a subtextual thread running beneath the surface, become so much more: a story of abuse survival and recovery, a story of overcoming alienation and detachment to discover empathy and compassion, and a larger story of relearning what it means to feel genuine love, friendship and compassion. The kind you don’t get from potted ferns and sociopathic clowns.
As a final thought, it might be worth noting, although it’s gotten a little dated by now, how much of a feminist spirit could be found in the original “Harley and Ivy” episode of Batman The Animated Series (if you’re one of those poor, damned souls NOT from my generation who DIDN’T grow up on this as your first introduction to the DC universe, you have my condolences. If you haven’t yet made a point to watch it, though, you have my smiling, thinly-veined contempt). This was where the first little hints of Joker-as-abuser and Ivy-as-compassionate-feminist-friend were dropped, but it was also on its own a great story about women finding a place for themselves in Gotham outside of service to men and their causes. The only way it could have been better is if the hero had been Babs.
One of my favourite moments in all of Gotham history is, without a doubt, Poison Ivy’s final triumphant cry in that episode that no man would bring her and Harley in… only to be arrested by Renee Montoya moments later.
Harley and Ivy aren’t just the most substantiated of DC’s “non-canon” couples, but also the most poignant, and most feminist. Vote Harley / Ivy!