A semblance of spring is finally upon us. The sun is shining (over here, at least), the birds are singing and love is in the air, Valentine’s Day having just passed a while ago. With a resurgence in her popularity, DC thus rightfully decided to dedicate this February to Harley Quinn, one half of one of the most iconic couples in comic book media. I thought I’d therefore take the opportunity to discuss the character’s history and just what makes Harley Quinn so popular.
The Animated Debut
Despite being such a well-known figure in the Batman mythos, Harley Quinn has the distinction of being a fairly new addition, in particular one that came out from Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. She was inspired by one scene from Days of Our Lives with Arleen Sorkin (who would actually voice the character) dressed as a jester. Her initial appearance was supposed to only be a one-off joke, showing the Joker being ready to manipulate a person for years just to have someone ready to open a door – in itself an excellent summation of her character – but seeing her brought to life made her creators bring her back again and again. Watching Joker’s Favor again now, it’s easy to see why. When those first words, “It is to laugh, huh, Mista J?”, are uttered, something just clicks into place.
Simply put, Harley has quite a lot going for her. She has a simple yet elegant and memorable design, and the character is attractive yet never overly sexualised. Harley also manages to be multifaceted and versatile enough to be be able to outwit Batman and capture him at one point, and as innocent as can be and can be outwitted by a simple rotating door at another. In an often grim world, Harley manages to sneak in some slapstick comedy and witty jokes. One of the more memorable moments of the Batman-Superman animated crossover World’s Finest is her fight with her opposite number Mercy Graves, engaging in the background while their bosses discuss business. Episodes like Harlequinade and Harley’s Holiday make the character likable and sympathetic, a victim of outside forces rather than inherently malicious. Even Batman himself is shown to be open to wanting her to recover. It also helps appearing in the animated series first means that Harley is more fully-formed than her older compatriots, having immediately been brought to fans with a specific voice.
On a deeper level, she also represents something rather unique, a true Robin to the Joker’s Batman, and one who is actually in love with him at that. Needless to say, with the object of her affections being the Joker, Harley is also a deeply flawed character, but one one cannot help but empathise and sympathise with.
The Most Human Character
A major part of Harley’s appeal is, in fact, that she is one of the most human and tragic characters in the animated series. Harley defines herself by her love of the Joker, and yet he is never shown to be ready to love her back, despite her dedication to him. Even when she tries to move out of his orbit, she never tries to go too far. In the end, Harley is obsessed with the Joker, and he can never reciprocate her feelings because he’s obsessed with someone else. It’s something most of us can identify with and have been through ourselves. For a good chunk of the series, the relationship was shown as a quasi-comical cycle of neglect and reunion, with one side realising they don’t want the other for a short time before running back into their arms. Harley would at times comes close to escaping the Joker and/or finally killing him, and in the meantime began an equitable criminal partnership and friendship with Poison Ivy. In Harlequinade, she sings Say That We’re Sweethearts Again, which does indicate that Harley misses the Joker despite his actions, but the extent of her situation is left to the viewers’ imagination.
The comic tie-in story Mad Love – later adapted into an episode of The New Batman Adventures – changes this dynamic and exposes the darker side of their relationship. The story reveals how Harley started out as Dr Harleen Quinzel, a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum and how she becomes fixated with the Joker. In the present, Mad Love confirms that the Joker loves to “rev up [his] Harley“. More importantly, he is shown to be downright abusive towards Harley, having manipulated her since the beginning and violently attacking her when she offers him Batman on a platter because she needs to “take shots from folks who just don’t get the joke.” Just when she seems ready to move on in the present, a small gesture of affection from the Joker pulls her back in.
Falling back into unhealthy or destructive behaviour is something both realistic and a running thread in the Animated Series. Harvey Dent struggles against Two-Face, Scarface’s gang bring the Ventriloquist back to his puppet and Dick Grayson renounces his Robin persona only to become Nightwing. In Harley’s case, she never really escapes the cycle of abuse the Joker dishes out, despite the moments of lucidity she demonstrates from time to time. While her relationship with the Joker cannot be championed by any stretch of the imagination, I think the success of the character is due to her flawed nature and the fact that the audience sympathises with her and wants her to escape.
Thankfully, Dini and Timm do give her a happy ending in Batman Beyond: The Return of the Joker. In one of the film’s final scenes, she’s seen berating her granddaughters, Dee Dee, for falling in with the wrong crowd. Without the Joker around, it seems that Harley could indeed reform and start up her own proper family.
The Transition to Comics
Harley’s popularity meant that – much like Mister Freeze’s compelling back-story from the same Animated Series – she couldn’t stay out of the primary comics for long. She first appeared in 1999 during the Cataclysm event, pretty much intact from her original state. She remained part of the Batman mythos moving forward, but not much was done with her character and she eventually segued into the background.
The original run of the Harley Quinn series which began in 2001 is fun, and provides an intriguing view of her psychology. The most striking element is the shift in art to a more Timm-like vision whenever she’s about to do something terrible. This sudden break with normal reality indicates that Harley can only reconcile her darker actions with her more human side by imagining them to be herself playing out a part in a cartoon, where no one really dies or suffers. Otherwise, the series fizzled into nothing as writers were unsure what to do with the character without the Joker.
Dini also returned to write Harley in Gotham City Sirens, in which she’s grouped with Ivy and Catwoman. It proved to be a good fit for the character, as her difficult home life is explored in more detail and in large part thanks to the chemistry shared with her co-stars. The series continued until the Flashpoint ushered in The New 52 in 2011, ending with the Sirens disbanding and going their desperate ways.
The Arkham Effect
The interest in the character was invigorated with the release of Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum video game in 2009 and Arkham City in 2011. The Arkham games themselves feel like an extension of the animated series in most respects, only fused with the grimmer aspects of the prime comic iteration. Dini wrote the story, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill returned to voice Batman and the Joker, respectively. Harley – initially voiced again by Sorkin and then by Tara Strong for the second and subsequent games – has an important role in both games. Rather than the traditional red and black suit, however, she dresses up in a sexy nurse’s outfit, with high-high boots and a corset just about covering her chest. Otherwise, the Harley Quinn in the game is, for all intents and purposes, the same Harley Dini and Timm brought out in Joker’s Favor.
Harley is admittedly rather more sexualised and written with a bit less depth than the series, but the context of the games allows this. She flaunts her first outfit in Arkham Asylum as just something for the occasion, and by the time of Arkham City her mental health is taking a turn for the worse as the Joker slowly dies before her eyes. In may respects, her changed outlook and dress serve the needs of the story and do add up as a possible future Harley in a slightly different world than that she originated from.
Personally, I currently look forward to see what the last game of Rocksteady’s trilogy, Arkham Knight, holds for Harley, but I can understand those who await it with more trepidation. For better or worse, however, the truth is that the success of the Arkham games provided a template for Harley’s future appearances.
The New 52
A new version of Harley enters the New 52 in the pages of Suicide Squad and is, in my opinion, definitely not a step in the right direction. Her taking a dip in chemicals and gaining permanently bleached hair and skin is unnecessary, but ultimately passable. In an effort to copy her success in the Arkham games, her outfit, however, is unnecessarily sexualised and her behaviour isn’t too far behind. I can understand trying to cash in on the medium that renewed interest in the character, but feelings about the changes in the comics vacillate from brilliance to horror. On one hand, the executive decision to move Harley closer to the Arkham version ignores the specific context of the games and the integral part the appeal of their close relationship to the animated series plays in their success. As violent as Harley is there, you can always see most of the original version shining through with a certain reverence. On the other hand, I could accept Halrey’s new reinvention of herself as one to suit the needs of a Joker who would just cut his of face off just to send a message to Batman. The character’s New 52 Villains Month issue, however, is simply atrocious, and represents the culmination of the mishandling of her character (amongst many others in the DC pantheon, it has to be said). It involves Harley targeting random people and murdering children by planting explosives in video games throughout Gotham, a despicable act that simply can’t be reconciled with the core of the character fans have come to know and love over the years. There could be no sympathy for this Harley, and thus no reason to want her to succeed and seek redemption.
There is, at least, a glimmer of hope in this mess. Harley’s new ongoing series – by Power Girl scribes Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner – tries to salvage as much as it can from the wreckage left in the aftermath of those explosions and do something fun with the character. Apart from seemingly ignoring the Villains’ Month issue, Conner and Palmiotti, in fact, seem to channel the old Harley Quinn as much as her new iteration allows. Conner sums up how the approach to her character works: “When I do her dialogue, I definitely hear Arlene Sorkin’s voice, but it’s just a little bit deeper.” Moreover, while not a part of the New 52 continuity, the Injustice: Gods Among Us comic tie-in series continues to provide a Harley right where Sirens left off, while putting her in an interesting position of having moved on from the Joker and doing good. She also gets some of the best comedic banter with Green Arrow, and shows off her intelligence by figuring out his true identity as Oliver Queen. Not only is she on point there, but I would argue that this version of Harley is actually the most rounded and well-developed character in the series.
Harley Quinn has come a long way since she first appeared back in Joker’s Favor in 1991. In her representation of the everyday downtrodden who want to want to rise up but can’t, she offers an antagonist audiences can’t help but feel for and empathise with at some level. She could, however, ultimately be the the victim of her own success, as writers and artists have recently led her astray in an effort to capitalise on her rejuvenated popularity with the Arkham games. Thankfully, in a testament to the enduring success of Dini and Timm’s original character, her current guardians Conner and Palmiotti want to bring her back to her roots. Looking back upon just what makes Harley such a compelling character, I can’t help but wish them the best of luck in their worthwhile endeavour. Putting up with Mista J is hard enough without Harley having an identity crisis once in a while as well.
- Ask Chris #173: The Trouble With Harley Quinn (comicsalliance.com)
- The Long, Complicated and Secret History of Harley Quinn (io9.com)
- The Hidden Story of Harley Quinn and How She Became the Superhero World’s Most Successful Woman (vulture.com)
- Harley Quinn’s Wackiest Capers: The Moments that Defined DC’s Clown Princess (comicbookresources.com)
- Why Harley Quinn is Batman’s Most Tragic Character (io9.com)
- What’s Red and Black and Seen All Over? Exploring the Popularity of Harley Quinn (comicbookresources.com)
- 5.2 Reasons You’d be Crazy Not to Love Harley Quinn (dccomics.com)
- The Last Laugh: Mapping Harley Quinn’s Rise As A Pop Culture Icon (comicbook.com)
- Sequential Sartorial: Worst to Best Harley Quinn Outfits (DC Comics) (womenwriteaboutcomics.com)