In an attempt to capitalize on youth culture and the burgeoning, previously unknown market of teenagers who had made new comics like Fantastic Four and Spider-Man into overnight successes, DC introduced a hip, culture-savvy team of its own in the Teen Titans. Kind of. The Teen Titans were created by Bob Haney and Bruno Premiani in 1964, and proved popular enough to warrant their own series by 1966.
In the '60s, pop culture saw some significant ebbs and flows; while carefree surf rock from the Beach Boys and heart-wrenching teen ballads like those performed by Lesley Gore ushered in the decade, acid-drenched psychedelia, rock ’n’ roll, and soul music would later take over, leaving marketing directors scrambling between the trends of blind patriotism to student protests to the civil rights movement to the Rolling Stones at Altamont. In comics, that influx of different ideas was equally strong and equally difficult to predict. While early Titans issues had featured references to bands like the Beatles, the Beatles themselves soon changed to fit the times, while the Titans were stuck using antiquated catchphrases and language written by people who were definitely not teenagers. It shouldn’t be surprising that the Titans started to look pretty dated almost immediately, and the series was canceled in 1973.
In 1976, the series continued somewhat randomly after a long break, but only lasted for about nine issues before it was canceled again in 1978. However, it was during this brief resurgence that readers were introduced to a new Teen Titans. This edition was important for giving DC its first black female superhero in Bumblebee (although there is a valid argument for Nubia, Bumblebee was the first to appear on a team in a more traditional capacity). Then, a few issues into the run, the writers brought in Duela Dent.
Duela had already made an appearance in Batman Family #6 as a foe for Dick Grayson's Robin. Immediately, Duela is a fascinating character on the page, as she claims to be the Joker’s Daughter with no proof, while Robin attempts to retrieve a lost manuscript that he believes she has stolen. She eventually outsmarts him and gets away after easily deducing his secret identity. Her next appearance occurs within the aforementioned Teen Titans reboot, during which time she actually joins the Titans and her true identity is revealed to be the daughter of Two-Face, rather than the Joker. While a member of the team, she changes her name to Harlequin, although it doesn't stick for long.
After the Titans series was canceled, Duela showed up randomly in the many Batman titles of the time, calling herself the Card Queen and working to infiltrate a criminal organization called MAZE. The story doesn’t seem to fully resolve, and the next time we see her is at the wedding of Donna Troy, where she drops some very puzzling hints to Dick Grayson that leave readers even further in the dark than we were to begin with when it comes to deciphering her true identity.
Truly, the whole premise behind Duela Dent is flawless. A young woman with no discernible past who shows up and claims to be the daughter of any number of different villains depending on what her mood happens to be that day is the best type of concept only really found superhero comics. She is completely unpredictable, has a fantastic costume, makes less than zero sense, and shows up just to hang out because she, like the Titans, is an absolute weirdo who has a really hard time relating to people in regular society. That being said, she is believable in exactly the way she needs to be, which is why she fits in perfectly with DC’s improbable cast of characters.
However, Duela has not always been written by those who love her as her fans do. Over the years, her origins have become even more muddled. Not only did the New Teen Titans not fully utilize her and fail to revisit her later on, save at Donna Troy’s wedding, but she was wiped out of existence with Crisis on Infinite Earths. She reappears years later, delusional and suffering from mental illness, and comes close to becoming a full-time member of the Team Titans shortly prior to that book's cancellation. She is repeatedly seen in mental institutions, and it's implied that she's just escaped one when she is seen out in the world. She showed up in Titans East for a time but is eventually revealed to be a remnant of Earth-2, like the Huntress or Power Girl, stranded in a reality that was not her own. In this new explanation of her origin, she was the daughter of Earth-2’s heroic Joker, the Jokester, and her mother was Evelyn Dent, otherwise known as Three-Face.
In the New 52, Ann Nocetti, who had enjoyed now-legendary runs on comics like Daredevil and had served as an editor and writer on the X-Books for Marvel in the ‘80s, reimagined Duela as a troubled young woman who found the Joker’s face after the events of Death of the Family and started wearing it around. This is neither the best showcase of Nocetti nor Duela, as the Joker’s Daughter shown in her one-shot is deeply unbalanced in a way that is fairly difficult to read and a reflection of a need to drive everything far past grim and gritty that was emblematic of DC comics of the time. The story choice to push elements to their extreme led to a lot of comics coming across as immediate parodies of themselves, but at least that’s the worst things ever got for our friend Duela.
Just kidding! In the DC Bombshells universe, Duela is a Nazi. While DC Bombshells is a solid comic overall, it feels like an opportunity was missed here. Even in an intrinsically feminist universe with a mostly female creative team at the helm, poor Duela still didn’t stand a chance. In the end, she is defeated by the magic-users she’s been keeping at bay: Zatanna and Raven. This choice was strange, because Duela’s purely chaotic nature would seem very much in opposition to Nazi ideology and strictness of code, and it really would have been a lot more interesting to see her in her previously established identity as a wild card, bouncing between sides without a clear motive why.
Teen Titans Go! might have been the kindest to Duela in a recent episode where she didn’t make an appearance, but a character very much inspired by her did. Kitten, the daughter of the Killer Moth, terrorizes the Titans and switches identities between villains as she does so.
It turns out that Joker’s Daughter really doesn't have too much to do with the Joker at all, but she does resemble him in that she has a truly bizarre backstory that will never completely add up no matter how many times it’s changed and retold. She’s a fun, genuinely bonkers concept with a dark undertone that really seems to have gotten away from writers more than once. While each incarnation of Duela Dent attempts to take a deeper dive into her origins, the mystery of a young woman who desires an identity so strongly that she adopts the personas of others is much more interesting than any backstory could ever be.