When I was debating what article to write next I thought that I would do a piece on the most popular person in comics right now one Harleen Frances Quinzel. Created for Batman’s animated TV series, she was supposed to be just a minor character; a one-off almost. When the series started in 1992 creators Paul Dini and Bruce Timm were struggling to come up with a female character to use in an episode with the Joker – they thought that they should make her a tough girl but after having a revelation about clowns they decided to dress her in a red and black full body suit, ruffled cuffs and a jester’s hat. Arleen Sorkin, a Days of Our Lives soap star, was the inspiration behind the clown costume. She and Dini were longtime friends and when he seen a screen casting of her in a clown suit he thought for sure that he had his next idea. Giving her credit for his discovery he had her cast as Harley’s voice in both the Batman animated series and first video game. The Harley Quinn we know from those series is of a nasally Brooklyn accent. Quite differently drawn and seen nowadays, how did an afterthought become the best-selling character in comics?
Born in Brooklyn of Jewish decent she has become the biggest female comic icon a title once held by Wonder Woman. Considered to be more a feminist than Wonder Woman, she outsells all comic book counterparts and is the biggest thing in comics at the moment. Her shortcomings make her so popular I believe. Instead of having to live up to a Wonder Woman standard females see Harley’s flaws, imperfections, and shortcomings as more real life. She’s feminine but not objectified. She’s always in charge of the entire room. Her on again off again relationship with the Joker and how bad they seem together paints a more realistic picture to many woman. Being Jewish, bi-sexual (relationship with Poison Ivy) and deeply imperfect make her much easier to relate to. Feminism is about showing women as fully fleshed out human being. She doesn’t make choices that are smart or good for woman but she gets to make the choice. Woman aren’t allowed to be screw-ups and she gets to be exactly that.
Homicidal, horribly amoral, and mentally unbalanced Harley’s first comic book appearance was in The Batman Adventures #12, September 1993. She is the Joker’s frequent accomplice and lover, whom she met while working as a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum. Ambitiously volunteering to analyze the Joker she pleaded with the doctors at Arkham for months before she could treat him. After manipulating her and gaining her sympathy he seduced her causing her to fall madly in love with him. After helping him escape, she was suspected by authorities, who then revoked her license to practice and placed her in her own cell. During an Earthquake in Gotham she escaped and took on the mantle of Harley Quinn. Her relationship with the Joker is abusive and manipulative but also loving and genuine affection. She’s the only person ever to become intimate with the Joker and in turn he displays rare moments of care even if he tries to kill her often. She loves causing mayhem and destruction. As dysfunctional as their relationship is she loves the Joker. Their relationship follows the plot of he treats her like dirt, she leaves him and somehow through their love for one another they get back together. Harley knows of her mistreatment but always comes back. Joker always realizes in the end the part of life he is missing is her and makes amends for what happened.
Before going down the path she went Harley was a mild-mannered woman, a gymnast and aspiring mental health professional. Looking to write a book she befriended the Joker and fell for him deciding on he own volition to become his sidekick. In the story “Mad Love” (a Batman Adventures One Shot) it tells this story beautifully. This graphic novel won Eisner and Harvey awards for best comic of 1994. We had gotten hints about her past before but until this was released we couldn’t say for sure what her background was. Written by Paul Dini as well this was the game-changer for Quinn.
Given her popularity in comics, in 2009 Rocksteady Studios released Batman: Arkham Asylum a huge hit among gamers. Harley Quinn was the only major female character in the game and that visibility is where the controversies of her past came back. Gone was her iconic black and red suit, replaced by thigh-high boots, a red and purple corset that barely covered her breasts and some scraps of doctor’s robes. Her face was still painted but her jester cap was replaced by two blond pigtails. This change in costume signaled a huge shift in popularity, going from cultish favourite to Global superstar strangely enough. Since she hadn’t been in any Batman feature films the game was the most influential depiction of the character to this day. In the sequel Arkham City she returned to her original black and red but much more dominatrix than clown. Always voiced by Arleen Sorkin in any animation this game is the first time another voice was heard* and paved the way for future movie success.
[Editor’s note: Tara Strong, the long-term voice of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl, has now taken over as Harley.]
In 2011 when DC kicked off a company wide relaunch Harley’s makeover was complete. She became one of the Suicide Squad members (same as it’s movies namesake). She went from clown sidekick to main show sexpot but with all the similar craziness still evident. She rivals Superman, Batman and any DC character in popularity. A few years later in her own series is where DC took her to another level character wise.
DC wisely made her a headline comic book and touched on several hot topics like, being in a relationship with a woman, domestic violence, and drug abuse. Poison Ivy was the woman she met when she first strayed from the Joker. Their relationship is detailed greatly in this series and showed that she could stand up for herself and have other friends outside the Joker. Poison Ivy was her gateway drug so to speak, they were girlfriends without the jealousy of monogamy. In the 1990’s this wasn’t as prevalent as it is today. Exploring that relationship was brave of DC and showed Quinn’s versatility. Harley has a big heart and even though she’s a maniac she does love like any human. She wears all emotions on her sleeve, it’s why we love her so much, we can relate!! Independent woman are hard to find in any comic book/movie, a woman who does it so easily and with such popularity is almost impossible to find. She’s so unpredictable it makes her entertaining. Let’s be honest, who’s badder than the person who can make the Joker blush??
Harley Quinn is the only redeeming quality the Joker has. She chooses to love him unconditionally no matter what he does. To make these difficult topics into a creative character DC deserves huge credit. The comic books made her more realistic than the animated series with Margo Robbie smashing it on the big screen. A girl of Jewish heritage from Brooklyn probably wouldn’t make for the most popular villain but giving her sex appeal and turning her into a total bad ass with no powers might be DC’s biggest accomplishment yet!! Harley Quinn’s ability to effect just about everyone in some way was a stroke of genius by DC!!