Harley Quinn: History of A Complicated Character

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BY February 7, 2020

Despite rocketing into the mainstream with the film Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn still isn’t a household name. Sure, dedicated comic book fans may know her. But she has nowhere near the recognition of, ahem, some other DC characters. However, with the upcoming release of Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) next month, she’s about to get a lot more attention. With that in mind, here is the history of Harley Quinn.

Her Story Begins on Television

Inspiration can strike from anywhere, but Harley Quinn’s origin is unusual. Not the creation of her, exactly, but what inspired her look. Our story begins way back in 1991–so long ago!–when Batman: The Animated Series had yet to air on television. Paul Dini, one of the show’s creators, was writing the 22nd episode, “Joker’s Favor,” when he needed a new character. He wanted to write a scene at a police dinner where someone jumps out of a cake and takes the officers hostage. You know, crime. Even though it was supposed to be part of a Joker scheme, Dini initially didn’t want the Joker to be the one doing the jumping. So he came up with a female sidekick for the Joker. (And the Joker ended up being the one in the cake.)

Dini’s college friend, Arleen Sorkin, is an actress who was on the soap opera Days of our Lives at the time. She’d given Dini a VHS tape of her favorite Days bits, including a fairy tale fantasy scene where she’d appeared as a jester. Dini, who’d been debating what the sidekick should be like–a street tough, an all-purpose goon, funny?–finally decided when he watched Sorkin’s tape. And the sidekick, inspired by Sorkin’s zany energy, was born as Harley Quinn. Sorkin would go on to voice the character for the series and many subsequent animated shows.

Harley Quinn: Early History in Print

Harley Quinn history The Batman Adventures: Mad Love, image via DC Comics

Although she made her debut in 1992, the in-canon history of Harley Quinn wasn’t released until 1994. Dini and one of his co-creators, Bruce Timm, wrote the graphic novel The Batman Adventures: Mad Love, a one-shot about Harley.

In the book, her story begins after she’s kicked out of the house by the Joker. Left alone, Harley reminisces on how she got to that point. We find out that she used to be a respectable, law-abiding doctor named Harleen Quinzel. While interning at Arkham Asylum, she met the Joker. Her sympathy for his tale of woe turned to deeper feelings and she helped him escape from Arkham, in the hope that he would return her love. She even donned a jester costume and renamed herself Harley Quinn, so she could become his sidekick.

Harley Quinn history image via DC Comics

However, if you’ve seen literally any depiction of the Joker, then you can predict how he responded. And thus began the cycle of the abusive Joker and Harley relationship, where he is awful to her and she keeps coming back.

While Sorkin was responsible for the more lovable aspects of Harley’s personality, like her goofiness, another friend was responsible for the darker side. Timm wrote in an epilogue for Mad Love that Harley’s tempestuous dealings with the Joker was inspired in part by a woman he and Dini knew, who had been in a “stormy but nonviolent relationship.” Quinzel is also depicted as having come from a fractured family, which is why she went into psychology.

Her Own Series and Gotham City Sirens

Despite being a relatively new character, Harley quickly became a popular one. After seeing her success on Batman: The Animated Series, DC added her to the Batman canon. She had appearances in Batman-focused comic stories like the Elsewhere Thrillkiller one-shots and in the No Man’s Land story.

Starting in 2001, though, she got her own story. The Harley Quinn comic, which ran through 2003, saw her get into mostly solo hijinks, although some involved her friend (and occasional paramour) Poison Ivy. The Harley Quinn of the comics, unlike her usual animated persona, is far more violent. She is, however, able to show flashes of compassion. This perhaps foreshadows the end of her eponymous series, in which she commits herself to Arkham.

Throughout the rest of the aughts, Quinn made appearances in other stories. One of her most notable appearances was as part of the Secret Six in the Birds of Prey series. In the book series, the Secret Six act as antagonists to the Birds, by the way. (It seems that Harley and the Birds are a lot friendlier in the upcoming movie.)

However, Harley wasn’t a protagonist in another series until Gotham City Sirens. This series sees her team up with Poison Ivy and Catwoman to wreak havoc all over Gotham. It’s also noteworthy for the look it gives us at Harley’s family life. Put simply, they’re a mess.

And the Sirens aren’t much healthier. Although they start out as allies, things quickly deteriorate. By the end of the series, Harley has already betrayed her friends in favor of the Joker, but is then forgiven (by Catwoman, at least).

Gotham City Sirens ran from 2009 to 2011, although Harley’s relationship with Poison Ivy was far from over.

Harley Quinn History in The New 52

Harley Quinn history image via DC Comics

In September 2011, DC revamped its entire lineup in a launch called The New 52. As one of its most popular characters, Harley was part of the relaunch. Although everyone’s story slates were wiped clean, some characters got new appearances as well. This included Harley.

Gone was the full-body jester outfit and her normal visage. The new Harley has a harlequin-themed crop top and hot pants. In addition to two-tone hair (worn in pigtails), she also has a haunting white complexion, due to “Mistah J,” as she calls him, kicking her into an acid vat. You know, romance.

In The New 52, Harley and the Joker’s relationship is just as volatile as it ever was. But as usual, she rarely seems able to focus her hurt on him and instead, she hurts others. This leads to her capture by Black Canary and her involuntary admission into the Suicide Squad. Harley then appeared in issues of Suicide Squad, as well as continuing to appear in Batman-related comics.

It’s worth noting, incidentally, that the Suicide Squad Harley was controversial among long-time fans. It wasn’t so much her character that raised objections, though, but her even newer, even more abbreviated costume.

In any case, like the film it would later inspire, the Suicide Squad series was not a hit. DC canceled it after 30 issues. But Harley could not be kept down.

Harley Quinn: On Her Own Again

In 2013, DC launched a new Harley Quinn series, penned by husband-and-wife team Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Connor. The series got off to a rough start. Unfortunately, DC held a contest for aspiring comic artists in which they were told to submit, among other panels, a drawing of a naked Harley getting ready to commit suicide. And they announced the contest a week before National Suicide Prevention Week.

DC was forced to apologize, by way of a note from the authors, who explained that the panel was supposed to be a kind of tongue-in-cheek imaginary scene. DC itself also issued an apology.

After that, it was smooth sailing for the series. Palmiotti and Connor had her move to Coney Island, without the Joker, where she still gets into trouble. This time, though, it’s a lot less homicidal.

Palmiotti and Connor ceased working on the series after Harley Quinn #34, but it continued with other authors. During this run, Harley also appeared in stand-alone special issues, that were unrelated to the series, as well as spin-offs like Harley Quinn and Power Girl. Although she was included as part of 2016’s DC Rebirth, their most recent reboot, her story was not radically changed. Proving her popularity, her Rebirth issue shipped more copies than any other title.

At press time, she’s the subject of a number of different series, including the new Harleen. (This information is subject to change at any time, so for the latest Harley books, check her official character page. Or check your local comic store.)

Harley’s on TV

Along with her original appearance on Batman: The Animated Series, Harley Quinn has shown up on a number of other animated shows, both on TV and on the web. These include Superman: The Animated Series, Teen Titans Go!, and DC Super Hero Girls. Beginning in 2011, with the game Arkham: Asylum, Harley was voiced by Tara Strong, instead of Arleen Sorkin. However, Kaley Cuoco also began voicing the character in a current animated series for DC’s streamer, DC Universe.

On live TV, Harley has appeared as a regular character throughout live-action DC history on only one television series, 2002’s short-lived series Birds of Prey on The WB. Played by Mia Sara, this Harley Quinn is a psychologist by day and a budding villain by night. In addition, a version of Harley (played by Cassidy Alexa, voiced by Tara Strong, and billed as “Deranged Squad Female”) made a cameo in Arrow‘s season 2 episode “Suicide Squad.” On Gotham, the character Ecco (Francesca Root-Dodson) was a composite of Harley, Echo, and Alicia Hunt.

And She Made It in the Movies

As with TV, Harley’s film appearances have been largely animated. The most well-known is probably her turn in the The Lego Batman Movie (voiced by Jenny Slate), but she’s popped up in almost 20 animated films total. An animated version of her also cameos in the live-action film Ready Player One, by the way.

Margot Robbie, though, is, of course, the only actress in the character’s (short) feature film history to portray Harley Quinn in a live-action film. Besides her role in Suicide Squad, Robbie will be reprising the role in the Suicide Squad sequel, coming in 2021, and next month’s Birds of Prey film.

Harley Quinn remains one of DC’s most popular characters. But is she one of your favorites? Let us know in the comments below or come tell us on social media, puddin’.

featured image via DC Comics

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Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf.

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