What's the Big Deal with Harley Quinn, Anyway?
Everything you need to know about the twisted anti-heroine before the ‘Suicide Squad’ premiere.
Prior to the debut of the Suicide Squad trailer at Comic-Con 2015 last year, non-comic book fans have mostly likely never heard of the villainous troupe of anti-heros. Following a blitz of introductions to new characters, audiences may have noticed that a particular pink and blue-haired character took up quite a bit of screentime. Although undoubtedly beautiful, the character’s laugh is maniacal and behaviour is unsettling in a way that reads more than a little crazy. The majority of viewers may be intrigued with the newcomer but for DC fans everywhere, this little teaser probably thrust comic aficionados in a damn-near state of hysteria – for with the premiere of Suicide Squad comes the Hollywood introduction to Harley Quinn.
Unlike most DC characters, Harley Quinn didn’t make her debut on comic pages – her first appearance was actually in a 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series, voiced by soap opera star Arleen Sorkin. Harleen Frances Quinzel’s first comic appearance was in issue #12 of The Batman Adventures in 1993. After her wildly popular arrival, the 1994 graphic novel Mad Love traced the origins of the character and has since become the unofficial canon of her history, although various alternate versions have surfaced throughout the DC universe. She has since emerged in various Batman story arcs, including the 2008 cult-classic Joker graphic novel by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo, as well as various animated series and video games.
Although her appearance has changed various times throughout her history, she is almost always known for a jester-like semblance that complements that of the Joker. Her flirty, bubbly and humorous behaviour creates a facade for a deadly lethality – in addition to being highly intelligent, she also possesses superhuman agility and enhanced strength. Fitting to her comical ethos, her weapons of choice are often absurdly oversized such as a whopping mallet, gag pistol and as seen in Suicide Squad, a graffitied baseball bat. It should also be noted that Harley’s character in the comic books is remarkably more violent than the version seen in the animated series – similar to how the Joker’s sadistic behaviour is amplified in the comic realm. Nevertheless, Harley’s quirky and comical nature remains intact no matter what media she appears in, making her one of the most beloved DC characters to date.
According to Mad Love, Quinzel is an interning psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum when she begins working with the Joker. During this time, she falls hopelessly in love with the psychopath during their sessions together. A pattern of the Joker’s manipulative behaviour is established during these early encounters, to which Quinzel is forever a hopeless victim. Following intimate confessions from the patient, she soon becomes convinced that Batman is the source of all of the Joker’s troubles and anger. Upon discovering that she has fallen in love with the villain, Quinzel aids the Joker in escaping the asylum in efforts to win his affections. Quinzel’s definitive transformation into Harley Quinn (a play on “harlequin”) is complete when she is driven insane by the sight of a Batman-injured Joker – she then quits her job, dons a jester costume and dedicates herself entirely to the Clown Prince.
Immersed in an all-consuming obsession with the Joker, Harley Quinn soon becomes fixated on the idea that the only way for her to make the Joker fall in love with her is to kill Batman. When she meets the caped vigilante face-to-face, however, he tells her that the Joker has been using her from the start and that he is incapable of loving her back. Heartbroken and unsure of who she should trust, she calls the Joker to inform him that she has successfully murdered Batman (at the advice of the still-alive Dark Knight, who urges her that this will reveal the villain’s true nature). When the Joker arrives at the scene, he is enraged that she would try to kill Batman on her own. In a fit of fury, he pushes her out of a window and leaves her for dead. Harley survives the fall though, and is admitted into Arkham Asylum where she swears that she wants nothing more to do with the Joker and will renounce him forever. Moments later, however, she discovers flowers sent to her from her diabolical sweetheart with a “get well soon” note attached. She then falls in love with him again.
In a far less-popular reboot version of her origins found in the New 52 multiverse, Quinzel’s transformation into Harley Quinn is further placed into the hands of the Joker. Replicating his own chemical alteration, he throws Harley into a vat of acid that explains her bleached skin and two-tone hair color. Vastly different from Mad Love‘s storyline, in which Harley voluntarily chooses to become a villain, this interpretation removes her sense of agency and hands over her fate to that of the Joker. Unfortunately, this seems to be the route that the forthcoming Suicide Squad movie plans to take, as we can see a brief scene in the trailer where Jared Leto’s demonic character dives into a colossal vat of acid and “rescues” an unconscious Harley Quinn.
As is evident in her origins, Harley Quinn’s story is at its core a tragic story of abuse. Appalling episodes of both physical and emotional trauma are followed with moments of tenderness, which throw Harley into a blind stupor of love once again. Although heartbreakingly bleak, this aspect is essential to Harley’s character. Sure, she proves her strength time and time again, validating herself as a fearsome opponent to all who dare cross her path, but she is never truly able to break free from the iron-clad hold of the Joker. Criticism of the character has been plentiful for this exact reason: a perpetuation of the cycle of abuse and a never-ending series of relapses from the victim. Of course, the repercussions of this characterization are beyond the scope of this history but this element in her story is immensely important – her struggle is viscerally real and vital to what drives her every action.
Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy
Known to be the sole consort of the Joker, as well as his unwavering (for the most part) accomplice, Harley Quinn is the only character in the history of DC to remain intimate with the Joker for an extended period of time. She is commonly known to be steadfast in her loyalty to “Mista J,” as she likes to call him, but there have been instances in their history where she has actually turned against and attempted to assassinate him. The most notable of these betrayals are related to her close relationship with Poison Ivy. Aside from her affiliation with the Joker, her connection to Ivy (formerly Pamela Lillian Isley) is perhaps one of the most pivotal to Harley’s character. In the Modern Age: New Earth multiverse, the two villainesses maintain a strong bond and Ivy is the one who Harley goes to whenever she and the Joker are on a break. Injecting a serum into Harley, Ivy provides her with immunity to her deadly toxins and further enhances her strength and speed.
Upon hearing of the Joker’s ceaseless abuse towards Harley, Ivy vows to help her friend murder the Joker in Batman: Harley and Ivy. In fact, Harley was so infuriated with Mr. J that she even teams up with Batman in an effort to bring him down. Harley is prepared to kill the Joker once she corners him but as soon as he apologizes, she forgives him and they make up with a kiss. Ivy is disgusted when she hears of this and abandons Harley, although she eventually excuses her.
Although the relationship between Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy initially starts as a platonic one of camaraderie and friendship, DC Comics confirmed back in 2015 that the two indeed were also in a sexual relationship. Harley Quinn series writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner confirmed via Twitter that “Yes, they are Girlfriends without the jealousy of monogamy. We love that they are the best friends ever. Ivy is Harleys rock. When Harley falls in love, she falls in love hard and loyally no matter who they are.” Prior to this, the two had been known to be flirtatious and affectionate, but this confirmation from the official DC Comics Twitter account was a momentous development for queer characters within the comic book universe.
Also known as Task Force X, an early lineup of the Suicide Squad first debuted in issue #25 in The Brave and the Bold in 1959. With the premiere of Suicide Squad fast approaching, it is also interesting to note that Harley Quinn has a romantic history with Deadshot (to be portrayed by Will Smith). Attracted to his abusive leadership qualities, Harley and Deadshot share a brief and tumultuous relationship. Due to her allegiance to the Joker, however, Harley betrays the Suicide Squad for her Puddin’ (another pet name she has for her beau) and as a result, Deadshot shoots her in the stomach. Although the shot is not fatal, Harley develops multi-personality disorder as a result of her near-death experience.
As one of DC Universe’s most vibrant and complex characters, it is exciting to see Harley Quinn finally being portrayed on the silver screen. The new interpretation of the beloved villainess is, admittedly, vastly different from any other depiction we’ve seen thus far. With her form-fitting cropped tee, booty shorts and face tattoos, the modernized costume was widely criticized when it was first revealed. Fans have, however, seem to have warmed up to Margot Robbie’s rendition of the iconic character since. With a history as fiery and dynamic as hers (she once formed a girl squad with Poison Ivy and Catwoman, for goodness sake!), the future of Harley Quinn in the cinematic universe looks bright.