prior to her Birds of food arc, Harley has actually a storied past. Photo: photo illustration by Jed Egan. Photos courtesy DC Entertainment.
It’s been a wild couple of years because that Harley Quinn and her admirers. Once we very first published this article in February of 2015, Margot Robbie had just freshly been actors as the top DC Comics character because that the then-upcoming film Suicide Squad. When the film was released in July that 2016, it obtained near-universal panning indigenous critics, but Robbie’s power was frequently isolated together its sole bright spot: As one review placed it, “It’s Robbie who display screens the many thrilling superpower of all: turning into a movie star while having actually a gonzo blast swinging a baseball bat and also tossing turn off naughty, gum-snapping one-­liners.” Meanwhile, in comics, Harley Quinn has ongoing to be a driving force for DC’s sales, consistently starring in her own series while likewise making abundant appearances elsewhere. Now, she has her own R-rated cartoon ~ above DC’s streaming platform, DC Universe, and — maybe most necessary — is about to go back to the large screen as the lead character in the cumbersomely titled Birds of prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation that One Harley Quinn), played when again by Robbie. It appears you can’t keep a good weirdo down. (Well, a mostly good weirdo. She’s still a long way away indigenous Wonder Woman.) with the brand-new movie about to debut, we assumed it would be a great opportunity come revisit her story, so the everyone indigenous the diehards come the simply Quinn-curious deserve to familiarize themselves v the character’s fascinating origins, development, and deeper meaning.

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The comics market is in the middle of a golden age for admirable female role models. Every few months, we get much more series starring females worth looking increase to: superheroes who work-related to hit sexism in the workplace by day and also evil by night, hard-boiled detectives who fight to avert situations both public and personal, teenagers trying to construct a kinder world complimentary of prejudice. Yet there’s a fly in the ointment, and she’s put on clown makeup.

Harley Quinn is the best-selling female character in comics, and she’s casually homicidal, gleefully amoral, and also mentally unbalanced. There to be a time as soon as she to be a mental-health professional, but she shredded she Hippocratic Oath as soon as she hopped into bed v a mass-murdering, psychopathic patient and began a crime spree that would make Bonnie and Clyde wince. In the 22 years since she an initial entered our world as a one-off personality in a Batman cartoon, she’s occasionally made the civilization a better place — however it’s typically by accident and never for truth, justice, and the American Way.

No one could have predicted the Harley would last past her first appearance, much less become the title character in a collection that crack the best-seller charts every month. Her real-world course to symbol status is bizarre and also unprecedented in the superhero ecosystem. Yet here she is: Jewish, queer, morally questionable, deep imperfect, and also beloved by millions. The firm that owns her, DC Entertainment, has claimed February 2015 to it is in “Harley Quinn Month,” and now is the perfect time for us to ask whether Wonder woman is comics’ best female icon anymore. (And, if Harley’s superfans room to it is in believed, she’s even more of a feminist character 보다 the venerable Amazon.) Here, then, is the strange, covert story of Harley Quinn, the superhero world’s most successful woman — that she is and how she came to be.

Writer Paul Dini is credited together the creator the Harley, and also that’s technically true. He came up with the character while the was composing for the acclaimed Batman: The Animated series in the beforehand ‘90s. However the true beginnings of Harley Quinn lie year earlier, in the mind of the actress who voiced she on the cartoon: Arleen Sorkin.

In 1987, Sorkin to be a regular on the soap opera days of ours Lives, play the show’s comic relief: the ditzy, leggy, Noo Yawk–accented Calliope Jones. However unlike her flighty character, Sorkin to be a skilled and also experienced comedy writer. “I might never just come in and run my lines,” she told “I was forever suggesting stuff, more than likely out that boredom!” So once she checked out a screening the the faux-medieval The Princess Bride, one idea win her: Why not execute a fairy-tale dream succession on Days? The producers were right into it and also aired an illustration in i m sorry Calliope acts as a court jester, roller-skating right into a throne room and doing some hackneyed borscht belt gags because that a royal family.

Dini and Sorkin to be college friends, and also one day, she provided him a VHS tape of her favourite Days moment — including her jester bit. The tape satellite idle for years. But in mid 1991, Dini to be sick as a dog and popped the tape right into his VCR. He to be a budding tv writer in ~ the time, cranking out freelance scripts because that the as-yet-unaired Batman: The animated Series. He’d to be struggling come come up v a female character to use as a one-off in an episode about Batman’s archnemesis, the Joker.

“I thought, Maybe there have to be a girl there,” that said. “And i thought, Should the girl be prefer a tough street thug? Or prefer a hench-person or something? and then suddenly the idea of who funny type of struck me.” as soon as he witnessed Sorkin in clown makeup, the pieces fell into place, and he come up with a silly small sidekick. He provided her the comic-book-y name of Harley Quinn, sketched out an idea for she look, and brought the lay out to the cartoon’s lead artist, Bruce Timm.

“He did carry out a rough style for her, i m sorry was, frankly, not an extremely good,” Timm recalled. “It had actually a monster ‘60s kind of vibe to it. The was just odd. Charming, however odd. I believed we can improve on that. So I immediately started researching classic harlequin gear and also did type of a simplified super-villain variation of that. That was always intended to be just a one-off.” Nevertheless, Timm to be — and also is — a perfectionist and also labored to provide this cameo character a distinctive look: a red-and-black full-body jumpsuit adorned v playing-card diamonds, ruffled cuffs, and also a dual-pronged jester’s cap.

i thought, Maybe there should be a girl there.

Dini invite Sorkin to document the voice for the character she’d inspired. Sorkin had actually left job of ours Lives and was video game for part work, especially if the just connected a couple of hours in a recording studio. She was committed on the microphone but didn’t placed a totality lot the work into preparation. “I picked a voice that came easily,” she said. That was, in essence, her own voice: high-nasal, sing-song-y, and also filled with Brooklyn-ish inflections.

“It is to laugh, huh, Mistah J?” Harley states to the Joker in she first-ever line of dialogue in the fateful 1992 illustration “Joker’s Favor.” ideal away in that rhetorical question, we get some the the aspects that have stood at Harley’s core ever since. Because that one, she’s complete of nicknames and also delightfully early-20th-century idioms (“It is come laugh,” in this context, basically way “Ain’t that the truth”). Most important, she’s instantly expressing a type of sycophantic devotion because that superhero fiction’s preeminent poor guy.

But she was an ext than just a plot device, even in that an initial episode. Sure, she was partially an homage come the villains’ molls native the campy ‘60s Batman TV show, however Harley wasn’t contents to it is in eye candy. “Hey, sugar, you wanna read me mine rights?” a cop asks she at one point. “You have the right to remain silent!” she barks, prior to she kicks the in the shin, hard, and mutters, “Jerk.” she even mindful of the sex stereotypes that a viewer might saddle she with: during the episode’s climax, Harley dram on Batman’s paternalism in an effort to distract him, do doe eyes and saying, “I know, you thinking, What a shame! A poor, innocent, small thing favor her, led astray by bad companions!” (She then grabs a knife and also tries come stab him.) She’s additionally straight-up delightful: one acrobatic sprite, susceptible to shouts, disguises, and reciting poems prior to her ceo tries to murder police officers.

Cartoons have actually no solitary auteur, and the mental that contributed to “Joker’s Favor” were as shocked together anyone when they observed what they’d created. “When that very first episode she showed up in came ago from overseas and we experienced her animated, through the combo of the visual and also Arleen Sorkin’s performance, y’know, that was kind of magical,” Timm said. “Paul started immediately planning she return and saying, ‘Y’know what? ns gonna bring that Harley Quinn character back.”

Dini didn’t just bring her back. End the following seven years, Dini, Timm, and Sorkin developed Harley into one the the most memorable Batman personalities of all time. The was no tiny trick, given that the Batman mythos was already much more than 50 year old and also had featured the exact same general actors of archetypes because that decades. It was made every the an ext remarkable through the fact that she didn’t even exist in the tendency Batman comics of the time — the was every happening top top a kids’ TV show and also its spinoff products. And also even though youngsters were the target audience, Harley’s story lines to be provocative in means no various other Batman tales had been.


Fans immediately responded to this strange, passionate woman. Tara Strand was around 15 and also living in the Podunk town of Victorville, California, when she an initial saw Harley top top The animated Series, and also right far she “felt this large kinship with her.”

“There weren’t a the majority of female personalities at the time favor her that were therefore human and unique and refreshing and also weird, and also not simply sexy,” she said. “Harley to be the one human who can handle what the Joker can dish out. She’s maybe a tiny masochistic, however the Joker requirements somebody who can address the Joker, and Harley’s it.”

Strand, like many other viewers approximately the world, came to be Harley Quinn obsessives. She sought out fellow enthusiasts top top the nascent World vast Web and also made friend as far away as Germany and Australia. (It’s tough to acquire a number demonstrating the breadth that ‘90s Harley fandom, but Sorkin, Dini, and Timm every recalled torrents of fan letters.) and for the most part, Strand’s Quinn-thusiast friends were women. Together, castle compiled virtual indexes around Harley and composed long essays about what renders her tick. Structure a woman-dominated superhero fandom in the mid ‘90s to be a amazing thing, and also Harley had inspired castle to carry out it.

“Feminism is about showing ladies as totally fleshed out human being beings, and also that’s what Harley is,” Strand said. “She doesn’t make choices that space smart or good for a woman, however she it s okay to do those choices. Men are enabled to be fuck-ups in all kinds that characters, and women aren’t. We have to be idealized. She gets to not be.”

DC had a fight on its hand unlike any it’d watched in a lengthy time. Harley was the breakout star the Batman: The animated Series, and the present was a massive success, giving means to spinoff and tie-in shows that would last until 2006. Harley was a character invented in a non-comics residential or commercial property with little fanfare and also very couple of top-down editorial edicts. But now she to be generating a tidal tide of fan solution demanding an ext of her. Toys were made, much more episodes penned, and also soon she was referred to as up come the big leagues, whereby she had a meteoric rise — complied with by a depressing autumn into irrelevance.

The game changer was a concise tale called “Mad Love.” through 1994, Harley heat had recorded on, and also DC’s comics arm asked Dini and also Timm to produce a single-issue comics story the would reveal Harley’s origin story. We’d already gotten clues that Harley had actually once been Joker’s psychiatrist, however in “Mad Love” we fully saw her at an early stage days as mild-mannered Harleen Quinzel, gymnast and also aspiring mental-health professional. Looking to compose a pop-psychology book about the Joker, she drops for him and also decides (of her very own volition) to end up being his sidekick.


What went wrong? Comics essayist and Batman historian Chris Sims offers a theory. “When you move her into mainstream continuity in 1999, it immediately changes things, due to the fact that she’s in love v the Joker we have actually in the comics, no the one in the cartoon,” that told me. “And comics Joker has killed a million people. He’s a sadistic, torturing murderer. You can’t sympathize v her when that’s the Joker she likes.” on the various other hand, if you relocate her away from the Joker, you eliminate her specifying relationship. It would be prefer writing years’ worth of Joker story that didn’t involve Batman: empty and confusing.

Then, the end of nowhere, Harley’s salvation come from far outside the pages that monthly comics. It to be a blended blessing, as that salvation also collection an incredibly controversial brand-new template because that Harley Quinn, one that would pit fan against publisher as it rocketed the personality to her best heights of fame to date.

Given she birth exterior of comics, the oddly fitting that Harley’s renewal came in an additional medium, too: video clip games. In 2009, Rocksteady Studios released an action-adventure beat-’em-up referred to as Batman: Arkham Asylum, and although it was insanely gritty and violent, the creators took their primary impetus from Batman: The animated Series. Dini created it; Kevin Conroy and also Mark Hamill returned to voice Batman and also the Joker; and most consequentially, Harley Quinn to be a huge character, voiced by Sorkin. Indeed, she’s the only significant female character clearly shows for many of the game.

And the visibility is wherein the good Harley Quinn controversies that the past couple of years began. Gone to be the above red-and-black jumpsuit, changed by thigh-high boots, a red-and-purple corset the barely covers she breasts, and also — provided that the entirety game took place inside one asylum — some scraps the white doctor’s robes, stained through blood. Her face was tho painted, yet her jester’s lid was replaced by two massive, blonde pigtails. It was, to placed it mildly, a an extremely different visual method to the character.

“There was a substantial outcry because that a many of people who really choose Harley Quinn,” recalled famous pseudonymous comics journalist “Sue” of the site DC females Kicking Ass. “It was plainly a small bit of pandering. Does it fit Harley? i don’t know. The Harley Quinn personality has constantly totally operation out the fucks come give, so would certainly she psychic wearing that? ns don’t know.”

the was clearly a small bit the pandering. Does that fit Harley? i don’t know. The Harley Quinn character has always totally operation out that fucks come give.

Dini and also Timm are split on your feelings about Arkham’s Harley. Dini, as the game’s writer, was really much in donate of the brand-new direction, informing gaming site the Reticule, “I had actually a large amount of input into the means the personalities were depicted, I wanted to do them darker … I want to do it clear that Harley Quinn was the end of her mind.” Timm, top top the various other hand, appears far much more agnostic: “There need to be something come it, because that is, right now, the most famous version that her, i guess,” the told me. “I don’t very own the character, so every little thing DC wants to execute with it is fine with me.”

Throughout the game, Harley assists the Joker in his plot to ruin Batman within the confines of Arkham. She frequently issues standard Dini-esque lines to Batman on she lover’s behalf. Other than her look, the biggest readjust we watch is how much more grim Joker’s verbal abuse of she is. It’s particularly chilling come hear him supply this heat of dialogue to Batman: “You had actually to damn it everything: beating up Bane, feeding Scarecrow to Croc, slapping approximately Harley — mine hobby, by the way.”

Arkham Asylum was a gargantuan hit. Video games are a massively much more influential medium than comics these days (for context: Arkham Asylum sold 2.5 million systems within just a few weeks that its debut; the biggest-selling Batman comic the that exact same month just sold 106,835 copies). Due to the fact that Harley hadn’t to be in any type of Batman attribute films, Arkham Asylum was the solitary most influential depiction that the character because her Animated collection heyday.

A sequel called Arkham City struggle shelves in 2011, and although Harley had her original red-and-black shade palette back, the costume to be still more dominatrix 보다 clown. She also, because that the an initial time, was no much longer voiced by Sorkin, that was changed by Tara Strong, a longtime DC voice actor who had worked alongside Sorkin for years if doing other voices top top DC’s cartoons. (Neither Rocksteady no one Sorkin offered much detail to me about the decision, just saying the firm wanted come shake points up and also move in a slightly different direction.)

But the gamings were just the prelude come an also bigger outcry from fans and also critics. The genuine bone that contention come out the the comics. In 2011, DC kicked off a company-wide relaunch of their comics, rebooting their whole universe and also giving many personalities a complete makeover. Harley to be one such character. She came to be one of the stars of self-destruction Squad, a collection about super-criminals rental by the government to go on high-risk black-ops missions. Prior to the first issue also came out, it led to a furor amongst longtime fans. The cover prominently featured Harley, hips cocked, hair dyed, and wearing an even more revealing corset than the one she’d worn in Arkham Asylum.

“It’s that standard idea of ‘show us as much skin as possible because it’ll bring in those teenage boys,’” stated Laura Hornack, a Harley Quinn superfan indigenous Germany. She launched an online project attacking the visual change and even went so far as to organize a protest in ~ 2011’s mountain Diego Comic-Con. Turnout no great, but she wasn’t alone in she skepticism about the character’s direction.


In self-destruction Squad, Harley was a rather different pet from her classic depiction. She to be still in love v the Joker, yet thought he’d been killed, so we mostly saw she palling around with her fellow Squad members — also hooking up through stoic assassin Deadshot. She was much more of a psychopath 보다 usual, grinning together she executed bloody murders and also giggling in instances where also her hardened teammates to be terrified. The book was, because that the many part, critically panned and also canceled after 30 issues. She stayed massively renowned in the continuing installments the the Arkham video-game series (she even got her very own spinoff game, Harley Quinn’s Revenge, in 2012), yet her comics persona remained in crisis.

In 2013, DC wisely make the efforts to turn a new leaf through Harley. The firm announced it’d it is in launching a new solo Harley Quinn collection and rental acclaimed husband-and-wife duo Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti to write it. The series got turn off to a rocky start since of a poorly worded contest and also subsequent bout of bad press because that the an initial issue. But to DC’s relief, future concerns have drawn no together ire. In fact, the collection has taken a cute and experimental new direction because that the character, unlike any she’s ever had. Conner and also Palmiotti have had Harley strike the end on her very own after a rejection native the Joker, and also she’s moved to a place well known for real estate over-the-top eccentrics: Coney Island (New York City does, indeed, exist in the DC universe, back it’s not as major a city as Metropolis or Gotham).

There, she channels her aggression into roller-derby competitions, gets a day project as a therapist, and assembles a diverse actors of weirdos and outcasts about her. She still pretty bonkers, yet she no look or act like a fetish fantasy anymore. She’s coming right into her own, and the writers shot to channel what made her good into slightly much more healthy outlets.

The formula is working, at least financially: Harley Quinn is consistently among DC’s top-selling comics. The character’s popular is additionally soaring in various other mediums, many notably through her upcoming big-screen debut in 2016’s self-destruction Squad movie, where she’ll be played by Margot Robbie. She’s still a major figure in the Batman world’s most lucrative products, the Arkham video clip games, and DC Entertainment’s very popular unjust video-game series. Despite she may have evolved substantially because that fateful cameo in “Joker’s Favor,” Harley has never been an ext successful, and her star reflects no signs of falling.

And return there space longtime diehards favor Strand and also Hornack who have abandoned DC’s current iterations that Harley, castle should recognize they have ideological allies in her present comics stewards, Palmiotti and Conner. The composing team considers Harley a feminist character, illustration comparisons — and contrasts — in between her and comics’ longest-standing mrs icon, Wonder Woman. “Wonder Woman type of represents perfection, whereas Harley to represent everybody else,” Conner said.

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One the the best Harley fans i have encountered is an Australian named Elise Archer, who’s been a fan since the beforehand days and also says her fixation top top Harley has helped her with her own battles v PTSD and clinical depression. She was adamant that Harley was among the most crucial feminist numbers in superhero fiction — not regardless of her shortcomings, but due to the fact that of them.

“I don’t desire to be condescended to with strong, elevation female personalities who nothing have any flaws and also are simply kinda perfect and sane and also never make poor relationship choices,” she said. “For me, the liberty Harley’s been offered to be a fuck-up is much less misogynist 보다 all these various other hackneyed story thrust top top female personalities again and again.”

“If you want to make the debate that we’ve gotta teach civilization how to be great and healthy, carry out it through the fuckin’ heroes,” Archer said, her voice quivering with emotion. “Let the villains it is in the messy ones.”