Of Selina Kyle and Harley Quinn: Branding and Controlling Women in Batman Video Games

The DC Comics Universe: Critical Essays, edited by Doug Brode, published by McFarland Books, 2022

In the collective Batman multiverse, nothing stays static for long. Over the eighty-years since Batman was created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane in 1939, comic book characters have changed with the times along with our understanding of their representation and significance. The Batman multiverse has also been transformed through a number of intersecting points with other media beyond comics, such as the live-action Batman movies and television shows with their animated counterparts. While significant research has been carried out in these areas already, the impact of video games tends to fall outside the remit or scope of these studies (see: Madrid, 2016; Cocca, 2016; Hanley, 2017). In the past, this may have been due to a lack of space, time, or inclination, but the Batman video games are increasingly playing a critical part in this ongoing nexus of signification that continues to feed back into the DC canon and wider culture as a whole.

With special attention to Catwoman and Harley Quinn, the focus of this chapter will be on the development of the female figures within video games based in the Batman multiverse. The women that feature in the works associated with Batman tend to operate as supporting characters, who with their increasing number of character variations (the redeemed and the irredeemable; the two-dimensional and the sophisticated), provide an amplified insight into the shifting tones and cultural/industrial strategies of the adaptations. These video game characters are not just significant in the evolving discourse of female figures in media, but they are also useful in unpacking the technological limitations and genre preferences available at the time, and the imperatives of the commercial entertainment companies with their multiple media products and marketing strategies. These aspects are all interconnected, even if they do frequently appear to all fall under the one Bat-Signal.

“Less Wench, More Hench”

DC Comics is a subsidiary company to Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc, which itself is a division of Warner Media, LLC. As another subsidiary company to Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment only began to self-publish video games in 2006; before this, they licenced their properties out to video game companies, such as Sunsoft, Konami, and Sega. With several degrees of separation from their own creators and custodians, the early Batman games are largely seen as poor spin-off adaptations of the comics, films and cartoons, offering little other than a compromised version of a story told better elsewhere (see: Nix, 2000). These licenced titles are significant though, in that they are shaped by external factors beyond any notion of releasing a quality video game as a faithful adaptation of a beloved comic book character or series.
A particularly dispiriting review of Catwoman (1999) for the Game Boy Color offers that there is “no reason for the Catwoman character over just another Batman game (except, of course, to show off Catwoman’s ample… puppies, if you will)” (Nix, 2000). Yet, Jim Balent’s era-defining seven-year run as penciller on the Catwoman comic was due to finish in February 2000, and “Nintendo claimed that 46 percent of Game Boy users were female, a major leap from 29 percent on the Nintendo Entertainment System” (Stuart, 2014). So, rushing and releasing a female-driven game that was inspired by Balent’s recognizable art, which was capable of attracting a variety of different audiences, in the December of 1999, may not have resulted in a prestige title, but it did capitalise on the moment using the resources available at the time to result in a standalone Catwoman video game; something that has only occurred once more, when the Catwoman movie was released in 2004.

Using re-edited footage from Warner Bros. Animation’s animated series The New Batman Adventures (1997-1999), Batman: Gotham City Racer (2001) for the PlayStation is another prime example of this cut-and-shut approach to adaptation. Here we see poorly presented fragments sitting incongruously between player-controlled car-chase scenes that do not even match the vehicles from the appropriated stock footage. Originally in one-shot comic, The Batman Adventures: Mad Love (1994), and successfully adapted for the series finale of the animated show, Mad Love (1999), the story as it was first conceived represents a landmark moment in the evolution of Harley Quinn as a character, something which has been entirely drained of context and significance in Batman: Gotham City Racer, a game created by French company Ubi Soft Entertainment SA who were only targeting “big U.S. brand[s]”, such as Batman, so they could be “recognized as a company that was not only European centric” (Bertz, 2011).
When it comes to comics, Batman editor Dennis O’Neil believed that prior to the mid-80’s, “Continuity was not important in those days. Now it has become very important [….] Continuity is something our audience demands” (Pearson & Uricccio, 1991, p. 23). However, as Will Brooker has shown, “those limits end when DC Comics ends and Warner Brothers, the overarching conglomeration begins” (Brooker, 2000, p. 279). Despite the number of video games that feature the Batman multiverse (40+), none of them attempt to faithfully adapt a Batman comic book narrative. The same is true of all Batman live-action movie adaptations. Essentially, various Batman universes can be both official and different from each other, provided that they adhere to the Batman brand, as permitted by Warner Bros.

This emphasis on multiplicity over singular, canonical fidelity explains how there can be a Poison Ivy that is made of LEGO (in the LEGO Batman series), a Poison Ivy that attempts to end the world with Brainiac’s alien invasion in Injustice 2 (2017), and a Poison Ivy that sacrifices herself to save Gotham from the Scarecrow’s fear toxin in Batman: Arkham Knight (2015). Across these depictions, there are unifying factors outside of narrative consistency and character continuity; there is an endless parade of pheromonal kisses being blown, Venus flytrap vagina dentata and tendrils that shift under her verdant florakinetic control. Poison Ivy’s “eco-terrorist” brand fits her well enough to make the character recognizable over dozens of videogame representations, even when she’s playing opposing roles or only a few pixels tall, like in her first video game appearance for Batman: The Animated Series (1993) on the Game Boy. One might make the case that it is also the limitations of branding that prohibit Poison Ivy from having her own video game, especially given that after a limited number of one-shots, such as the Batman and Robin (1997) movie tie-in Batman: Poison Ivy (1997), she only secured her first solo comic series, Poison Ivy: Cycle of Life and Death (2016), fifty-years after her debut in Batman #181 (1966).
The “brand” is something that Brooker describes as being “a smaller, more contained and more controlled network of texts” which “can overlap, intersect and borrow from each other” (Brooker, 2012, p. 153). By focusing on the brand instead of any one Batman universe, the gate-keepers ensure the potential for industrial and creative flexibility. The 1993 Annual Report for Time Warner (predecessor to Warner Media, LLC) specifically refers to the Batman movie franchise (produced and distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures) as the gold-standard for ancillary marketing excellence (Owczarski, 2009, p. 56). In accordance with this corporate agenda, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment then licensed four different versions of The Adventures of Batman & Robin videogame between 1994 and 1995 across four separate platforms (SNES, Genesis, Game Gear and Sega-CD) and covered multiple genres (side-scrolling beat-’em-up, bullet-hell, platformer and racing game) but gave them all the same title and art style: not from a comic book, but that of the concurrently running animated series.

Because of the fundamental differences in genre, the presentation of Harley Quinn in these games also drastically varies. Game Gear Harley unfeasibly flies across the top of the screen in a toy-plane, dropping small fuse-lit bombs on the protagonist, while Genesis Harley appears in a sizable motorized robot that is equally capable of flight and precision bombing runs. The Sega CD game is considered a “Lost Episode” for the animated series (Hamill, 2018), with Harley Quinn seen playfully throwing popcorn and careening in her clown-red sports car into a funhouse wall. Based on the animated show, these video game Harley Quinn’s bounce off her animated brand. Harley Quinn’s first appearance was in the television show, Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995), which for the second season, was retitled The Adventures of Batman & Robin (1994-1995), and her first comic book appearance was in February of 1994. Understanding the multimedia push behind Harley Quinn is vital in considering her appearances. Here, Harley Quinn is prolifically available and readily adaptable only because she can be concurrently associated with texts outside of the video games. The supporting evidence for this is that Harley Quinn only reappears six-years later, across a new trio of Batman video games in 2001, the same year she is given her own ongoing comic series by DC Comics.

When Harley Quinn returns in Batman: Vengeance (2001), she is not just another boss fight to be overcome or a cut-scene joke to be skipped….

The full 5,500 word version of this article is published in The DC Comics Universe: Critical Essays, edited by Doug Brode, published by McFarland Books, 2022.

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