With a third live-action appearance coming soon in THE SUICIDE SQUAD, it's a perfect time to look back at the development of the character who has taken the comic book world and geekdom in general by storm…
Harley Quinn, formally known as Dr Harleen Frances Quinzel, one of the DC Universe’s most popular characters is the fourth pillar behind Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, according to DC co-publisher and chief creative officer Jim Lee. Not bad for a character who arrived 50 years into the Batman lore and was purely intended as a light-hearted respite to the purple-suited Joker’s evil antics.
These days, you can’t go to a convention or fancy dress party without bumping into a Margot Robbie-esque Harley sporting a baseball bat and coloured pigtails (apparently 2016’s most popular costume in the UK and US thanks to Suicide Squad) and get ready for girl power group Halloween costumes as Gotham’s queen is set to return with her girl gang of rogues in Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) in February. With a new Harley Quinn animated series having debuted last November, it’s about time we took a look at the history of this insanely (sorry) popular character.
Harley was first introduced in 1992 in the TV show Batman: The Animated Series as a sidekick to the Joker, as voiced by Mark Hamill. In the episode Joker’s Favor, Harley appears in her classic red and black jester getup with diamond patches and painted white face, underscored by Gotham City’s black paper ‘dark deco’ art style. We immediately get a sense of Harley’s devotion to the Clown Prince of Crime as she acts as his cheerleader, whistling, applauding, and rallying up his henchmen to cheer him on.
Animator and comic creator Paul Dini, who co-created Harley (or was ‘partially responsible for’ her as his Twitter bio confesses) and co-produced The Animated Series with Bruce Timm, recalled to STARBURST how the initial idea to have a female sidekick for the Joker came about: “While I was writing the episode Joker’s Favor, I felt the idea of Joker terrorising a helpless victim was rather dark, so I wanted to inject some light moments in there. I had to play Joker fairly straight to make his menace pay off - he was chillingly realised by Mark Hamill, by the way - but I thought a funny henchperson might solve the problem. I decided to add a girl to Joker’s gang and make her a wisecracking gun moll type. In my head, she sounded like my friend Arleen Sorkin, who plays that kind of character extremely well, and Andrea Romano added her to our supporting cast. Wrap it all up in Bruce Timm’s impish design and the rest just fell into place.”
It was an unlikely scene from US soap opera Days of Our Lives (which Dini saw on a VHS tape while sick at home one day) in which Sorkin, before she voiced the character, appeared in a strange dream sequence wearing a jester costume that inspired much of Harley’s look. Although initially intended as a walk-on character, Harley was actually a bit of a scene-stealer as she stormed into a Gotham City police dinner, blonde hair, blue eyes, donning a borrowed police uniform and wheeling in a huge cake that’s actually filled with nerve gas at the request of the Joker, who plans to assassinate Commissioner Gordon. She’s got no time for being reduced to a stereotype either, as we learn when a cop calls her ‘sugar’ and asks if she wants to read his rights (eugh). In the quick-witted, high-pitched Brooklyn accented fashion that the character would become known for, Harley bites back “You have the right to remain silent!” and boots him in the shin.
“When I saw the way Harley played in finished animation, with Bruce’s design, my dialogue, Arleen’s voice, and the character’s playful staging and direction, I knew she’d be engaging to the first wave of fans at least,” Dini added. “As it turned out, Harley was the breakout character that went onto redefine the norm of the world around them, like Snoopy in Peanuts, or Uncle Scrooge in Donald Duck.”
As predicted, Harley quickly became a hit with fans and soon began starring in The Batman Adventures comic series, later earning a place in the primary DC Batman comic canon. In 2001, she finally got her own comic book series, simply titled Harley Quinn, but it was short-lived, running for only 38 issues. Yet Dini says he knew early on that Harley, with her more playful sense of insanity, was meant for much more.
“The moment I felt Harley really took off, and this was long before her first episode aired, was in the year before, while we were still creating the series,” Dini told us. “The directors really liked her in the early scripts, and they felt she added something fun to Batman’s grim world. Having a character who plays the role of jester in an otherwise serious drama always works and soon all the directors wanted at least one episode out of the run that featured Harley. I thought if the crew likes her, she will probably score with the audience, too.”
Though Harley did have a few brief appearances on TV, it wasn’t until two years after her debut that we got to learn of her origins in the single-issue comic Mad Love. The same story would also be later used in 1999 in an episode of The New Batman Adventures, in which Dr Harleen Quinzel, a psychiatrist at Gotham’s Arkham Asylum, gets herself assigned to treat the Joker, then an Arkham patient, who manipulates and seduces her. She is compelled by his fabricated tales of childhood woe, sees him as a tortured soul who just wants to make the world laugh, and falls madly in love with him (mad being the operative word). Eventually, she helps him escape and becomes his lover and sidekick, recreating herself as the deranged Harley Quinn we know today. The issue was such a success it ended up winning an Eisner (the Oscars of the comic book world). It’s also worth noting that during the DC ‘New 52’ revamp in 2011, Harley was given a slightly different backstory in which the Joker, on escaping from Arkham, pushes her into a chemical pool in a twisted attempt to have her prove her love, bleaching her skin white like his in the process.
The relationship is one of the most famous in comic book history but hardly a love story to reminisce over with the grandkids. While Harley would do just about anything for the Joker and calls him by pet names like “Mistah J” and “Puddin’”, he is abusive, manipulative and cruel towards her. “I found the Joker’s psyche disturbing, his dementia alarming - and his charm irresistible! What can I tell ya? The guy just did it for me,” Harley recounts in Suicide Squad. Some people just really like bad guys, we guess. When Harley tries to kill Batman, the Joker kicks her out of a window, and all is fixed with flowers and a get well note signed ‘J’. Even turning her into a constellation isn’t as romantic as it sounds; in Emperor Joker, fuelled with limitless powers, he kills Harley and makes a cosmic mural of her face. At one point, when the Joker realises he actually has real feelings for Harley and is becoming distracted from his ambitions (his obsession with Batman), he tries to send her off to space in a rocket - commitment issues much? Despite the extremity of these scenarios, it’s often the more subtle and painfully life-like examples of abusive behaviour, most likely lost on the TV show’s young audience, like Joker dismissing Harley’s romantic advances (“Don’t ya wanna rev up your Harley?”) that encapsulate the harrowingly realistic dynamic between the two. That said, the Joker can, at times, be protective of Harley - look too long at her in the wrong way, and he might just skin you alive, as a Gotham strip club owner learned in the 2008 Joker graphic novel.
Conversely, it was one of those merciless acts that eventually led Harley to Poison Ivy when the rocket designed to send her to oblivion crashed down into Robinson Park. Ivy takes Harley under her wing, injecting her with a plant-based toxic antidote that increases her strength and abilities, and they team up to defeat the Joker and Batman together. In Gotham City Sirens, the two join forces with Catwoman, though it isn’t long before Harley’s back under the Joker’s spell when an attempt to kill him ends up with her releasing him from Arkham - again. Outside of the Joker, Ivy is one of Harley’s most significant allies, backing her up in several attempts to take down the Joker, and became a love interest in later series.
Over the years, we’ve seen Harley pair up with several characters across several storylines, including Power Girl and Deadshot, even partnering up with Batman to take down the Joker before having a change of heart. In 2011, during a stint in Belle Reve Prison, she was eventually enlisted by Amanda Waller into the Suicide Squad, to carry out high-risk missions.
Harley’s gone through a few style evolutions in her time. There was the New 52, in which her look was a little edgier but featured a similar colour palette with half black, half red costume and hairstyle. Away from comics, Harley underwent a complete overhaul in Rocksteady Studios’ Batman: Arkham Asylum video game, in which her look is a nurse costume crossed with black and purple thigh-high boots and barely-there corset. This transformation was severe but arrived at a time when Harley’s popularity had begun to fade and so it catapulted her to a much wider audience. Over time, she continued to be given a more revealing style, most evident in her Suicide Squad debut, before going back to a more palatable aesthetic in the 2013 solo series, with a revamp by creators Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti, in which you’re more likely to see Harley channelling her aggression into things like roller derby. There is then, of course, Robbie’s now-iconic Suicide Squad appearance featuring a bomber jacket, fishnets, tattoos, and red and blue hot pants.
Aside from costume, Harley’s also got some badass weapons in her arsenal, the first being her intelligence. She has a PhD in psychology from Gotham University, a field she is said to have pursued to understand her dysfunctional family. She’s also an expert gymnast, a talent that earned her a scholarship at said university and comes in pretty handy during combat. In her box of tricks, there’s her weapon of choice the oversized mallet, which was first used in The New Batman Adventures, the pop gun with a giant barrel, boxing glove gun, baseball bat… there are many, mainly gag-themed weapons - oh, and not forgetting her pet hyenas. Fun fact: apparently when filming wrapped up on the Suicide Squad movie, Warner Brothers and DC Comics gifted Harley Quinn Smith, daughter of Kevin Smith, with the very bat that was used by Robbie on set.
Harley meets her fate in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, a sequel to The New Batman Adventures, during a fight with Batgirl, which ends with them both hanging off the edge of a mineshaft. As Batgirl tries to help, Harley’s sleeve tears and she seemingly falls to her death. That ending felt a little too grim for the beloved character so, in the episode’s conclusion, we fast forward years later and meet two young girls named the Dee Dee twins who are revealed to be Harley’s granddaughters - miraculously, she had survived the fall. The scene shows Harley bailing the twins out of City Jail, so it’s not quite the perfect fairy tale ending, but certainly a more fitting one for the Queen of Gotham.
But Harley very much lives on. In her current self-titled comic, she’s tearing up Coney Island in the DC Universe Rebirth world, and its creators Conner and Palmietto are set to return this month with a four-issue sequel, Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey. On screen, it’s hard to believe David Ayer’s Suicide Squad movie was the first portrayal of Harley in a live-action film, with Robbie making an effortless job of stealing the spotlight from Jared Leto’s divisive gangster Joker, though the part did very nearly go to either Madonna or Courtney Love back in 1998 in the cancelled Batman & Robin sequel, Batman Unchained. There was, however, a brief TV series based on the Birds of Prey comics and a recent character in Fox’s Gotham TV show named Ecco who carried many Harley-like traits. Now, she’s Joker-free in the upcoming Birds of Prey movie, trading him in for a girl gang of superheroes: Black Canary, Huntress, Cassandra Cain, and Renee Montoya. In the meantime, she’s also striking out on her own via DC’s streaming service, voiced by Kaley Cuoco, for a new adult-oriented animated series that Cuoco says is “completely out of control”.
As Harley herself puts it best: “Bring it, bitch!”
THE SUICIDE SQUAD is scheduled for release August, 2021
[This article was originally published in STARBURST issue 469, February 2020.]