Harley:“I know what you’re thinking: ‘What a shame! A pure, innocent little thing like her, led astray by bad companions!’”
Batman: “Right. Tell me another.”
—Batman: The Animated Series, “The Joker’s Favor”
The last couple decades have brought us plenty of different incarnations of Batman, but if you were the right age to be watching afterschool cartoons circa 1991, you know which one is best. Batman: The Animated Series educated the non-comic-buying kids of my generation in the lore of Batman. The fact I only follow superheroes in non-comic media was why, years later, I was surprised to find that one of the most noteworthy characters of the show actually originated there rather than in the comics: Harley Quinn, the Joker’s ditzy-demented, Brooklyn-accented, loudmouth henchwoman (and much put-upon girlfriend… maybe?).
Now that Harley has hit the silver screen in Suicide Squad (as portrayed by Australian actress and Vanity Fair fixation Margot Robbie), here’s a look at the character’s roots, her many different permutations and breakout appearances over the past 24 years, and my attempt to answer the ongoing question: Who is this clown princess who launched a thousand (deeply uncomfortable) Facebook memes?
Harleen Quinzel: “Well, I’ve always had an attraction for extreme personalities. You’ve got to admit there’s an element of glamour to these super criminals.”
—Batman: The Animated Series, “Mad Love”
Like any superhero comic character, Harley Quinn has been through reboots, re-imaginings, and whatever you call it when The Flash runs so fast that you need to buy new comics. None of them are as difficult to track down as the aforementioned cartoon series on DVD. Harley originated as an interesting minion of the Joker in the surprisingly dark episode “The Joker’s Favor,” which aired in September of 1992. Dressed in her stark red-and-black jester getup, her face covered in white clown makeup, the Joker refers to her as “Harley,” but only sharp-eyed credits viewers would have noticed that her full name is a play on “harlequin,” the traditional mute jester character.
Harley is anything but mute: She almost certainly has more lines than Batman in that same episode, and the script gives voice actor Arleen Sorkin several strong character beats. The plot follows an everyday mope named Charlie who crosses the Joker in an unfortunate moment of road rage, earning himself the dubious honor of becoming the Joker’s “hobby” and owing him some unspecified future favor. In an absurd twist, Charlie finds out that his favor is to hold the door for Harley, who is disguised as a cop, as she wheels a cake into a banquet in Commissioner Gordon’s honor. Of course the Joker is waiting inside the cake, and of course he’s paralyzed the guests with gas and rigged Gordon up with a bomb. As for Charlie, he finds himself glued to the door as the Joker walks off, cackling.
Harley has little to do with the plot of this delightful early episode in the show, but she nevertheless completely steals the show. Detective Bullock (always boorish in the Animated Series) acts like a catcalling pig to her and she billy-bats his shin. Her penchant for disguises and subterfuge—a character trademark—is on display as she infiltrates the police gala and even poses as a limo driver to smilingly menace Charlie as he returns to Gotham. And of course, there’s the rhyming poem she delivers right before the Joker’s big reveal, bursting with voice actor Arleen Sorkin’s larger-than-life delivery.
It’s worth mentioning that Sorkin was a friend of series writer Paul Dini, who has spoken about how his decision to work a woman into the Joker’s goon squad in that episode, and found himself reminded of Sorkin’s brief appearance as a clown in the daytime soap Days of Our Lives. It’s a quirky little precursor to what would become the Harley Quinn character.
Over the course of the show, the character’s relationship to the Joker and the other major series characters cemented. Ask any enthusiastic Harley cosplayer what her defining characteristics are and you’ll find that the Animated Series introduced and codified them all: She’s in an abusive and manipulative (but inescapable) relationship with “Mistah J,” she’s gal pals with villainess Poison Ivy, she’s acrobatic and a fan of absurd weaponized comedy props.
“I finally see that slime for what he is—a murderous, manipulative, irredeemable … angel!”
Though Harley headlined several episodes over the run of the series, “Mad Love” took time aside to delve into her origin story, and simultaneously stand as one of the darkest episodes of a dark show. A psychiatric intern serving at Arkham Asylum, young Harleen Quinzel finds herself taken in by the Joker’s sob story, slowly becoming obsessed with him and eventually reinventing herself as Harley Quinn to break him out of the asylum.
The episode is also probably the most painful to watch. Kicked out of the hideout by a frustrated Joker, Harley’s flashback to her origin ends back in the present, where she decides to kidnap and kill Batman so she can have the Joker all to herself. The writers of the Animated Series have said they often regard Batman as the antagonist of an episode, and here he’s perhaps at his most callous. Captured and dangling upside down over a piranha tank, he rips into Harley with dark, scornful laughter before he sarcastically explains to her how totally she’s been played and how little the Joker really cares for her. And, Batman points out, there’s no way a narcissist like the Joker would ever actually believe Harley managed to kill him without a body.
What’s so heartbreaking in Sorkin’s performance is that she so perfectly conveys how deluded Harley is. Any 10-year-old watching the show knows that if somebody other than the Joker were to kill Batman, that perspn would instantly become the Joker’s next target. We can see what’s coming next even if Harley can’t. The Joker storms in and reveals what we all knew—he doesn’t want Batman dead, he wants to be the man who killed Batman. He bashes Harley through a window into the alleyway below. The show gives us a lingering look at her lying in a bloody heap in a pile of refuse.
“My fault,” she says. “I didn’t get the joke.”
As ever, though, their breakup is just a hiatus, as the end of the episode makes hauntingly clear.
Other essential Harley-centric viewing from The Animated Series: “Harlequinade,” “Harley & Ivy,” “Harley’s Holiday” and “Joker’s Millions.”
And elsewhere in the DC animated universe:
Don’t miss the Justice League two-parter “Wild Card,” which pits the league against the Joker, Harley, and one of the umpteen Royal Flush Gangs in Las Vegas. The superb Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker movie brings the Joker back some 50 years after the events of the original Animated Series, and also features a geriatric Harley angrily scolding her twin criminal grandchildren as she bails them out of the police station.
If you want to get technical, Harley has been appearing in Batman comics almost since she was created, with appearances in issues that adapted the Animated Series. Her first canon appearance in mainline DC comics occurred in 1999 in Batman: Harley Quinn, which tweaked her origin only slightly. Since then, she’s been a fixture, appearing prominently in several story arcs and headlining her own monthly title, Harley Quinn, for four years starting in 2000.
DC’s seemingly constant reboots and rearrangements have seen her become a regular member of the Suicide Squad (and adopt a somewhat less thematic red-and-blue color scheme, trading her jester hat for pigtails that I guess are supposed to evoke it and not at all fetishize her, right?).
Harley was an important enough fixture in people’s expectations of Batman that Jeph Loeb made sure to work her into his yearlong, whirlwind showcase of Batman’s rogues’ gallery, “Hush,” where her theatrical personality is put on display perfectly as she crashes an opera with billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne in attendance.
As the Joker has become a darker and more extreme character, Harley has often functioned as a barometer for just how over-the-edge he’s going. In the New 52 Batman arc “Death of the Family,” Harley’s brief appearance is used chiefly to show us how terrified she is of this new, own-rotting-face-stapled-to-his-skull Joker.
Obligatory girls-only title:
Gotham City Sirens,in which Harley, Poison Ivy, and Catwoman share a living space and generally get into mischief in Gotham City.
Harley Quinn’s character has benefited from debuting and remaining relevant just as voice acting became ubiquitous in video games. Gamecube/PlayStation 2/XBox owners will remember Batman: Vengeance, released in 2001, which reunited the original voice cast, including Sorkin, Mark Hamill as the Joker and all-time best Batman Kevin Conroy. Styled explicitly after the Animated Series, the game opens with Batman rescuing a blue-eyed woman who sure has an awfully thick Brooklyn accent. Could she be Harley in disguise?! (Spoiler alert for a 15-year-old game that stands at 57 percent on Metacritic: She is Harley in disguise.)
Of course, the most memorable video game appearances for Harley come in the mind-bogglingly gorgeous and detailed Batman: Arkham Asylum and its sequels, though in this series, she is significantly changed from her appearances in the cartoons and most of her comics.
Modeled more after the red-and-blue Suicide Squad look, Harley Quinn trades her leotard for an impractical tutu and way too much exposed cleavage. Sorkin came back to voice her in the first game and then stepped aside for voice-acting champ Tara Strong, who largely has sought to remain faithful to Sorkin’s original performance and mostly has succeeded. The sharp-eyed have pointed out that the games eerily imply Harley may have been pregnant with Joker’s child (or deluded into thinking she was) prior to a miscarriage. I give you the darkest Harley Quinn storyline.
A Little Live-Action TV
Greenlit in the wake of the baffling success of Smallville, the WB’s Birds of Prey was a short-lived, female-led action show set in Gotham and positing that the character Huntress is actually the daughter of Batman and Catwoman. To put it as kindly as possible, its action scenes and acting make Hercules: The Legendary Journeys seem like prestige television. Harley Quinn was a villain on the show, played by, of all people, Mia Sara (the girlfriend from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Her performance doesn’t really have any of the hallmarks of the character, trading in Harley’s ditzy cleverness for mugging deviousness.
(And, in keeping with its status as “best Batman show that we can’t legally call Batman,” the CW’s Arrow featured an unnamed appearance by Harley’s voice (a cameo by Sorkin) calling out from a cell inside the secret cell block inside Amanda Waller’s base.)
The Legacy of “The Joker’s girlfriend”
There is one last point that fans of the character need to grapple with whenever we talk about Harley, and if you’re wondering about it, just take a breath and go for a Google dive into the wealth of Joker and Harley memes out there. Whoever is designing them disagrees with the assessment I once (with a genuine smile) told a very dear ex: That she and I were proof that every relationship can only handle one crazy person.
Harley is a well-drawn, outsize character who is instantly recognizable whenever she strides onto the screen in any new incarnation—and, again, who is justifiably beloved by cosplayers. She’s also just problematic as all get-out. In nearly all incarnations of the character, she revolves almost entirely around the Joker. A lot of those memes gleefully seem to insist that we should all be willing to put up with a partner who sprays machine gun fire in our general direction, or throws us out a window. The point Dini seemed to be trying to make was that we shouldn’t.
For all that, though, Harley Quinn, and all the grade-A material Paul Dini has written for the character over the years, has provided female Bat-fans with an anything-goes surrogate and only deepened our understanding of how completely and irredeemably evil the Joker is. Harley may be one of the youngest characters in Batman’s Rogues’ Gallery, but she didn’t waste any time in making a big impression.