How Harley Quinn Ascended From Henchwoman To Beloved Antihero


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These days, most people consider Harley Quinn one of the pillars of the DC media empire alongside Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Joker. But unlike those other heroes and villains, Harley’s existence doesn’t even predate the ’90s. Her dark and problematic relationship with the Joker may seem like a core part of comic book canon, but it may never have happened if not for a soap opera and a cartoon. And while many kids will remember growing up with the trickster, she wasn’t even part of the main DC universe until 1999.

Since her debut on the small screen and her jump to comics, Harley has become one of the best-sellers on the page, and she’s spun out into various films and TV shows, not to mention a controversial video game appearance. But it’s been a rocky road for the former sidekick, one that’s seen canceled comics and a whole lot of pain.

She Was Invented As A One-Off Henchwoman In ‘Batman: The Animated Series’

As the story goes, Batman: The Animated Series showrunners Bruce Timm and Paul Dini came to a bit of an impasse while writing 1992’s “Joker’s Favor.” When it came to a scene where the Joker was meant to pop out of a cake, they thought it might be better to have a henchman do it – or rather, a henchwoman.

Dini recalled a Days of Our Lives episode where Arleen Sorkin, a friend of his, dressed as a harlequin. Using the idea as inspiration, Harley Quinn was invented – and Sorkin was chosen to voice the character. In the episode, however, the Joker does pop out of the cake and Harley simply serves as a background character.

She Became The Joker’s Loyal, Devoted, Psychotic Sidekick

Over the next year, Harley Quinn finally got her due and began showing up alongside the Joker in more episodes of Batman. With fans showering her in love, Harley made her comic book debut in 1993’s Batman: The Animated Series #12 by Kelley Puckett and artists Mike Parobeck and Rick Burchett.

The series, set in the continuity of the show rather than the main DC universe, gave fans a deeper look at the sidekick, pairing her with heroes and villains alike and fleshing out her backstory beyond the show’s narrative.

‘Mad Love’ Introduced Her History As Joker’s Therapist And The Origins Of Their Toxic Relationship

If fans of the Batman cartoon wanted to learn more about Harley Quinn’s origin, they weren’t going to find it on the screen – at least for a while. Timm and Dini created The Batman Adventures: Mad Love in 1994 to delve into Harley’s dark backstory.

Originally Dr. Harleen Quinzel, the psychiatrist meets the Joker while working at Arkham Asylum. She quickly develops a dangerous obsession with the villain, prompting her to create the Harley Quinn persona and bust her love out of jail. From there, the Harley audiences were familiar with is born – now with a bittersweet twist.

In 1999, an animated adaptation of Mad Love aired as part of The New Batman Adventures, giving TV audiences Harley’s origin.

She Nearly Ended Batman, Prompting A Petty, Envious Joker To Throw Her Out A Window

In Mad Love, Harley tries to win the Joker’s heart by doing what he’s never been able to: Slay the Batman. She comes up with a Joker-like plan involving piranhas and nearly manages to take out the Dark Knight. But when the Joker finds out, he throws her out a window.

This would mark the first of many instances involving the Joker trying to take Harley’s life.

In ‘No Man’s Land,’ Poison Ivy Rescued Harley From An Earthquake And Imbued Her With Advanced Powers

It wasn’t until 1999 that Harley Quinn officially entered the main DC canon. As part of the “No Man’s Land” event, Paul Dini brought Harley into the fold, telling an abridged version of her Mad Love origin and using the devastation of Gotham to spring her into action as the character we all know and love. Unfortunately, the Joker tries to do away with this version of his future sidekick, but Poison Ivy steps in to save Harley – and gives her superpowers in the process.

Back in the fray, the Joker and Harley eventually join forces and ride out the rest of the event as companions – kicking off their relationship in the DC universe proper.

Her First Solo Series Depicted Her Continued Obsession With Joker – And His Viciousness Toward Her

After debuting in the main DC universe, Harley Quinn received her first solo series in 2001. Though it didn’t last long, it detailed her rise from doctor to villain more clearly, delving into her obsession with the Joker and the viciousness he displayed towards her.

There’s always been a lot of trauma packed into the colorful character of Harley, and it’s this series that really laid the groundwork for future tales. The villain’s duality was also explored, nicely setting up her slow turn towards heroism in later years.

She Perished And Went To Hell, Escaped Hell, Then Struggled To Regain Her Physical Form

During the first run of Harley Quinn, the villain finds her life over and her spirit pulled down to hell. After a short time in the underworld, she is able to escape and come back to Earth – but she lacks a body as a result.

Now a spirit, she spends her time causing even more chaos and inflicting much of it on Martian Manhunter. The story is a rather zany chapter that further illustrates how the great beyond isn’t the end in comics.

The ‘Harley Quinn’ Comic Was Poorly Received, And The Character’s Popularity Declined

Though Harley Quinn was a hit on the screen and in the comics based in the world of the animated series, things changed once she entered the main DC continuity. Her 2001 series went downhill fast, getting canceled in 2003 due to poor sales.

While a lot of factors go into the cancellation of a comic book series, Batman historian Chris Sims thinks it comes down to the difference between the cartoon and comics. Though Batman: The Animated Series could be dark, the Joker of the comics is far more cruel and had a massive body count and a history of despicable deeds. For Harley to love that version of the villain may have been a bridge too far for fans. Regardless, Harley wasn’t gone for good, but she did take a bit of a hiatus outside of her more cartoonish adventures.

In ‘Batman’ #663, Harley’s Homicidal Inclinations Reached Their Peak, And Joker Tried To Off Her Again

In 2007’s Batman #663, the Joker plans a grand scheme involving him offing a bunch of his old cronies with the help of Harley. She maneuvers things so Batman arrives at Arkham Asylum, where the Joker is held, but learns the Joker’s real plan.

As it turns out, the Joker once again wants to slay Harley. While the issue depicts Harley at her most vicious, it also features yet another instance of Batman trying to save Harley’s soul – something he’s never been able to manage with the Joker. In the end, Harley shoots Joker in the shoulder and establishes a clear rift between the two.

She Reformed Herself, Worked At An Amazonian Women’s Shelter, Gained Superpowers, And Rescued Olympian Gods

After her solo series failed to impress, Harley spent a few years only existing in the Batman: The Animated Series comic universe. But in 2007, Dini reintroduced her to the main continuity as a reformed Harleen. She begins working in an Amazonian women’s shelter , helping others through their own emotional challenges.

From there, she had a number of more fantastical adventures involving saving gods and teaming up with superheroes, all of which slowly pushed her towards the antihero status she would soon occupy for good.

The Video Game ‘Arkham Asylum’ Controversially Changed Harley’s Look And Reignited Her Popularity

In 2009, another branch of the DC universe emerged and gained massive popularity – but fans had one big issue. Harley Quinn was included in the game, providing one of the few women in the narrative. The version seen in the game, however, wasn’t the clown-themed villain fans knew and loved. Instead, a scantily clad, pigtailed Harley was introduced. And though Dini actually wrote the game and defended the change, Timm and many fans were upset with the new take – not to mention the lines alluding to ill treatment from the Joker.

Unfortunately, this new version of Harley didn’t go anywhere after the outcry. It inspired both her future comic book and live-action looks, cementing it as the de facto Harley Quinn for many.

In ‘Gotham City Sirens,’ She Was A Reformed Crimefighter Alongside Catwoman And Poison Ivy

Over the years, Harley Quinn, Catwoman, and Poison Ivy have all moved into antihero status. Given all three women have backstories that involve them helping people (or plants), it isn’t a stretch that they’d occasionally be heroes, and when the trio comes together to stop a more malicious villain, the makeshift team becomes the Gotham City Sirens.

Dini’s 2009 book – aptly titled Gotham City Sirens – gave readers a taste of the future Harley and set up the long-in-development film of the same name.

The Relaunched New 52 Version Of Harley Was More Sadistic But Didn’t Last Long

The Sirens eventually go their separate ways, just in time for DC to once again reset their continuity. The New 52 saw changes across the comics, including a new origin and costume for Harley. She also regained her sadistic side, putting her squarely back in the villain category. But it used the look created for the Arkham games, adding to the fan ire.

Like much of the New 52, the changes were poorly received and things eventually returned to normal – after yet another reboot.

A New, Healthier Harley Arrived – A Playful, Meta, Introspective Antihero With A ‘Poisonous’ Girlfriend

As the New 52 began to crumble, 2013 saw the launch of a new Harley Quinn series. Written by partners Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti, the series brought a lot of fun and whimsy back to the character. Though plenty of fights and villainy are still featured in the book, it also brings some cartoon-like gags and plots to life. The series helped revive the character and likely had a big impact on Harley’s live-action debut.

In the series, we see Harley’s return to antihero status – with lots of zany adventures and roller derby matches along the way. But it also finally gave fans something that’s long been hinted at: a relationship between Harley and Ivy.

Almost since the character’s debut, the cartoons and comics have been teasing that Harley and Ivy are more than just friends. Though DC and the various writers have always been shy about confirming the duo’s queer status, 2015’s Harley Quinn #3 made it pretty explicit. Since then, the two have been on and off, but it seems quite obvious that their relationship and attraction is canon. Whether or not we’ll ever see it on the big screen is another story.

She Was Forced Into Joining The Suicide Squad And Hooked Up With Deadshot

When it comes to Task Force X, membership isn’t voluntary. In 2011’s Suicide Squad series, Harley Quinn is implanted with a device that forces her to comply with Amanda Waller and run missions – unless she wants her head to go boom.

The series saw the New 52 version of Harley return to her devious ways, but also brought back more of the playfulness fans loved. After all, Task Force X is all about turning villains into antiheroes. And while Harley has always been in love with the Joker, that didn’t stop her from hooking up with Deadshot during her time on the team. This kicks off a relationship between the two villains, but ultimately, Harley breaks things off.

By Math Erao


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