The Long, Complicated, and Secret History of Harley Quinn

Illustration for article titled The Long, Complicated, and Secret History of Harley Quinn

If you somehow don't know who Harley Quinn is, Vulture has done a very long and detailed history on her. Even if you do know who she is, this will have new information on the best-selling female character in comics. And then there's the question of how she got so popular, so fast


From inspiration, to debut on Batman: The Animated Series, to her immigration from the show to comics, and her video game iteration: the article covers it all. Harley's inception is as wonderful as remembered:

In 1987, [Arleen] Sorkin was a regular on the soap opera Days of Our Lives, playing the show's comic relief: the ditzy, leggy, Noo Yawk–accented Calliope Jones. But unlike her flighty character, Sorkin was a skilled and experienced comedy writer. "I could never just come in and run my lines," she told Vulture. "I was forever suggesting stuff, probably out of boredom!" So when she went to a screening of the faux-medieval The Princess Bride, an idea struck her: Why not do a fairy-tale dream sequence on Days? The producers were into it and aired an episode in which Calliope acts as a court jester, roller-skating into a throne room and doing some hackneyed borscht belt gags for a royal family.

[Paul]Dini and Sorkin were college friends, and one day, she gave him a VHS tape of her favorite Days moments — including her jester bit. The tape sat idle for years. But in mid 1991, Dini was sick as a dog and popped the tape into his VCR. He was a budding television writer at the time, cranking out freelance scripts for the as-yet-unaired Batman: The Animated Series. He'd been struggling to come up with a female character to use as a one-off in an episode about Batman's archnemesis, the Joker.

"I thought, Maybe there should be a girl there," he said. "And I thought, Should the girl be like a tough street thug? Or like a hench-person or something? And then suddenly the idea of someone funny kind of struck me." When he saw Sorkin in clown makeup, the pieces fell into place, and he came up with a silly little sidekick. He gave her the comic-book-y name of Harley Quinn, sketched out an idea for her look, and brought the sketch to the cartoon's lead artist, Bruce Timm.

The most interesting part of the article is the attempt to figure out just what made Harley, who is, after all, usually a villain, clearly not quite sane, and in a very bad relationship — I've seen it used as an example of the abuse cycle very frequently — so popular. The running theme in the piece is an interesting one: It's that Harley Quinn's appeal, what makes her so loved by female fans, is that she is flawed in a way that, say, Wonder Woman isn't. From the section on her early popularity:

Fans immediately responded to this strange, passionate woman. Tara Strand was about 15 and living in the Podunk town of Victorville, California, when she first saw Harley on The Animated Series, and right away she "felt this big kinship with her."

"There weren't a lot of female characters at the time like her who were so human and unique and refreshing and weird, and not just sexy," she said. "Harley was the one person who can handle what the Joker can dish out. She's maybe a little masochistic, but the Joker needs somebody who can deal with the Joker, and Harley's it."

... "Feminism is about showing women as fully fleshed out human beings, and that's what Harley is," Strand said. "She doesn't make choices that are smart or good for a woman, but she gets to make those choices. Men are allowed to be fuck-ups in all kinds of characters, and women aren't. We have to be idealized. She gets to not be."

And from the conclusion, talking about her current comics iteration:

The [current Harley Quinn] writing team [of Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti] considers Harley a feminist character, drawing comparisons — and contrasts — between her and comics' longest-standing female icon, Wonder Woman. "Wonder Woman sort of represents perfection, whereas Harley represents everybody else," Conner said.

One of the biggest Harley fans I've encountered is an Australian named Elise Archer, who's been a fan since the early days and says her fixation on Harley has helped her through her own battles with PTSD and clinical depression. She was adamant that Harley was one of the most important feminist figures in superhero fiction — not in spite of her shortcomings, but because of them.

"I don't want to be condescended to with strong, independent female characters who don't have any flaws and are just kinda perfect and sane and never make bad relationship choices," she said. "For me, the freedom Harley's been given to be a fuck-up is much less misogynist than all these other hackneyed stories thrust on female characters again and again."

"If you want to make the argument that we've gotta teach people how to be good and healthy, do it with the fuckin' heroes," Archer said, her voice quivering with emotion. "Let the villains be the messy ones."


The view of Harley as complicated and flawed, rather than a one-note sidekick, is furthered by the fact that, even in the animated series where we first meet her, she's not always right behind the Joker. She leaves or he kicks her out and we get to see her on her own. Or with Poison Ivy, a relationship that is infinitely healthier than the one she has with the Joker, but also doesn't make her less of a villain.

In combination with her complicated nature, Harley Quinn's popularity also has something to do with the fact that she is so instantly recognizable, despite being much younger than characters that have been around for far longer than she has. And it's not just the outfit, but, because she started on TV, we all know what she "sounds" like, while there is no canonical "sound" for Wonder Woman or Catwoman or Poison Ivy.


There's no doubt she's popular, just look at the reaction to her tiny cameo in Arrow. Now, we're preparing to see Margot Robbie play her in Suicide Squad. Robbie's already fielding questions about getting the iconic parts of the character right, and no doubt the questions about just how faithful the movie is to the character will dog the film even after its release.

Read the whole story Abraham Riesman at Vulture.



Bartleby Farrell

I actually don't like the current Harley Quinn, which is odd since I normally really like Connor and Palmiotti, but she seems to written more like a female Deadpool than the original Harley. I miss the original Harley's costume. The stripper clown thing is not that creative.