Welcome to the Comic Character spotlight! In this column, I’ll highlight the origin of different comic book characters each week and trace their development throughout the years as they continue to make appearances in different forms of media today. This week we’ll be discussing the character, Harley Quinn.
When you hear the name “Harley Quinn,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Is it the Joker? If so, that’s understandable as she was initially created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm for the purpose of fulfilling the role of comic relief henchwoman for the supervillain in 1992’s TV show “Batman: The Animated Series.” Although her appearance in the episode “Joker’s Favor” on “Batman: The Animated Series” was meant to be a temporary, walk-on role, the producers of the show were astonished by the rough cut of the episode and ultimately decided to alter her role to a recurring character in the series. Months later, she reappeared in the series in the episode “The Laughing Fish” which marked the debut of her infamously flawed relationship with the Joker.
After garnering significant traction from fans of “Batman: The Animated Series,” Harley appeared in a plethora of other installments in the DC animated universe such as the TV show “Static Shock” (2000). Additionally, 1993 saw the introduction of Harley Quinn to the realm of DC comics as she appeared in the twelfth issue of “The Batman Adventures.”
Despite already being an integral part of the DC Universe, Harley’s origin story was only revealed in the 1994 one-shot “The Batman Adventures: Mad Love” by Dini and Timm. In this one-shot comic – a standalone issue of a comic series – Harley Quinn is revealed to be the former psychiatrist “Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel” who becomes enamored with the Joker in the midst of her internship at Gotham City’s Arkham Asylum. After gaining sympathy for the Joker and his abusive past, Harley aids him in escaping and later becomes his sidekick to win his affection.
The story also details the Joker’s lack of respect for Harley as she attempts to capture and kill Batman in order to impress the supervillain, only to be severely injured by the Joker as he accuses her of trying to steal the opportunity of killing Batman from him. Although Harley initially declares herself as done with the Joker, finding “get well soon” flowers sent by the clown reignites her love for him once again.
Despite being tied to the Joker in the past, increasingly Harley appeared in comics as a leading role rather than an accomplice. In 2009’s “Gotham City Sirens,” villains such as Harley Quinn, Catwoman and Poison Ivy are brought together in an alliance. More about Harley’s origin is also revealed in this series such as being Brooklyn-born, her dysfunctional family and her father’s occupation as a swindler which led her to pursue psychiatry.
In the “New 52” reboot, a relaunch by DC Comics monthly comic books, Harley Quinn was introduced as a member of the supervillain alliance – Task Force X – in the Suicide Squad Series. This further reinstated the establishing of Harley Quinn’s identity without The Joker.
Although modern adaptations of DC comics such as the 2016 movie “Suicide Squad” perpetuate Harley Quinn’s dependence on the Joker, recent films and series have worked to emancipate Harley from the role of his henchwoman that she was initially created for in 1992. The 2020 movie “Birds of Prey” chronicles Harley’s separation from the Joker as she allies with the Huntress, Black Canary and Renee Montoya to fight a crime boss. “The Suicide Squad” (2021) continues this distance from The Joker and showcases Harley as a proud member of Task force X.
Similarly, the 2019 HBO Max animated television series “Harley Quinn” illustrates Harley freeing herself from association with the Joker and striving to become the number one villain in Gotham City with the aid of Poison Ivy, Doctor Psycho, King Shark and Clayface. The series also further explores the romantic relationship between Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy in a not-so-typical, best friends to lovers tale.
Harley Quinn has evolved remarkably since her introduction as The Joker’s henchwoman in “Batman: The Animated series.” As a fan of her character, seeing her evolution from being seen as an accessory to The Joker to being her own, established villain has been a thrilling ride. Even seeing her involved in other relationships, such as her charming bond with Poison Ivy has been as great development for her character as she is exposed to healthier relationships that act in opposition to her previous abusive relationship with The Joker.
As more is revealed about her origin and different interpretations of her initial story circle the realm of DC, it’s going to be fascinating to see where her character will go in future installments within the DC universe.