Though the Joker’s most identifiable sidekick and partner-in-crime for years was Harley Quinn, who was manipulated and seduced by the Clown Prince of Crime to join him in terrorizing Gotham City. As Harley has emancipated herself from the Joker’s constant cruelty and corrosive influence over her life, going on to become one of the DC Universe’s biggest and most popular redemption stories, however, the Joker eventually found a new sidekick and paramour to fill the void Harley left behind. In the lead-up to the 2020 crossover event 'The Joker War,' Gotham gained a new supervillain protege to the Joker in Punchline. Created by James Tynion IV and Jorge Jimenez, Punchline quickly proved herself to be more unpredictable than Harley and an enormous danger to Gotham.
The comic book miniseries Punchline: The Gotham Game, written by Tini and Blake Howard and illustrated by Gleb Melnikov and Will Robson, has Punchline emerge from the Joker’s shadow and return to the spotlight. But instead of seeking atonement like Harley, Punchline doubles down on her murderous villainy with a bold, public plot to seize control of the city’s criminal underworld for herself. As Punchline makes her big return, Batman observes what exactly makes Punchline different from Harley as he and the Bat-Family scramble to stop her. Here’s what sets the two former partners to the Joker apart and how Harley may be the key towards stopping Punchline’s latest rampage.
The Victim and the True Believer
At the start of Punchline: The Gotham Game #2, while reviewing footage of Punchline’s broadcast to Gotham about her relationship to the Joker and continued defiance in the face of the authorities, Batman shares his observations about her to Nightwing after Dick Grayson compares Harley and Punchline’s obsessive love for the Joker. The Dark Knight reflects that Harley was the victim of calculated emotional manipulation by the Joker and, though it admittedly took her years, she eventually liberated herself from the supervillain’s mental conditioning.
In contrast, the Caped Crusader notes that Punchline is more of a personified byproduct of the Joker’s constant threat over Gotham. Batman explains that living in a community infused with the constant fear, unrelenting dread, and sheer nihilism of facing the type of murder and mayhem that the Joker consistently inflicts upon Gotham fostered an environment that made a figure like Punchline possible. Punchline is the symptom of a broken community, one that has given into the overpowering fear that permeates through a world filled by nefarious supervillains on virtually every level and takes the type of terror the Joker deals in and elevates it to the next deadly level.
The Dark Knight’s dagnosis
As the World’s Greatest Detective, Batman’s assessment of Harley and Punchline holds a lot of deductive truth behind it. The Joker took advantage of Doctor Harleen Quinzel’s emotional and psychological vulnerabilities to manipulate her into one of his greatest accomplices in a successful bid to break free from Arkham Asylum. Ever since Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke, the Joker has taken on a more devious and cunning side to his modus operandi, targeting his victims mentally as well as physically to be all part of his ongoing sick joke.
By contrast, Punchline is a figure that wasn’t corrupted by the Joker in order to get out of imprisonment but rather a lethally cheerful volunteer by all accounts. Not only buying into the Joker’s chaotic agenda, Punchline shares his penchant for manipulating others to get what she wants and inflict terror as deeply as possible. In the aftermath of 'Joker War,' Punchline successfully presented herself as a victim taken advantage of and weaponized by the Joker to carry out his devastating crime spree. To the Bat-Family’s obvious chagrin, this public ploy worked and Punchline was ultimately acquitted of wrongdoing and released from custody.
The more uncomfortable truth about Punchline’s introduction is that the Joker’s continued presence and relative freedom in Gotham serves as something of an indictment on Batman’s war on crime. That the Dark Knight and his allies have been able to definitively stop the Joker and bring the supervillain to justice resulting in creating an environment to inspire Punchline underscores their failure. 'Joker War' countered this with the introduction of Clownhunter, a vigilante who openly employed lethal force on the Joker’s goons. If Punchline represents a communal surrender to the Joker’s terror then Clownhunter personifies a frustrated community taking its own protection into its own hands in flagrant opposition to Batman’s no-kill policy.
The curious case of Harley Quinn
Punchline’s grand entrance into the Gotham criminal underworld came at a time when Harley was beginning to fully embrace the possibilities of being a hero rather than being a morally ambiguous wild card free of the Joker’s influence. In a committed relationship with Poison Ivy, Harley was making amends for all the heinous things she had done while associated with the Clown Prince of Crime, even going as far as to occasionally work with the Bat-Family. However, the advent of Punchline would not only serve as Harley’s biggest challenge to her redemption to date but reawaken inner demons that had been dormant since she left the Joker and his murderous ways behind.
If there was any lingering doubt whether Harley should be counted among the heroes or villains, it was quickly resolved during 'Joker War.' Seeing her former abuser launch an explosive attack on Gotham prompted Harley to step up, personally save Batman’s life, and face down Punchline. Harley was shocked to learn that Punchline personally sought the Joker out to become his girlfriend and protege rather than being roped into and corrupted by one of the villain’s schemes. Punchline nearly killed Harley in the ensuing skirmish to assert herself as worthy of the Joker in a way Harley never could be, only to be defeated by the Bat-Family and briefly incarcerated.
Punchline represents a new breed of supervillain coming to the DCU, an influencer with the worst possible intentions who announces her grand plans on social media and is able to curry public favor by playing celebrity victim all at once. A sort of blend between the Joker and Anarky, Punchline is ready to bend the court of public opinion to her will and now leads a new iteration of the Royal Flush Gang to make a name for herself beyond the Joker’s shadow. However, Harley is angling for an epic rematch and, as someone who has spent prolonged time by the Joker herself and with a sharp insight on criminal psychology, she may have figured her new nemesis out in time to get her revenge.
Punchline: The Gotham Game #2 is on sale now from DC Comics. The miniseries is written by Tini and Blake Howard, illustrated by Gleb Melnikov and Will Robson, colored by Luis Guerrero, and lettered by AW’s Justin Birch. The story continues in the third issue, on sale Dec. 27.
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