Harley Quinn has been a fan fave ever since her 1992 debut in Batman: The Animated Series as the Joker's paramour. Wacky, wisecracking and vicious, Harley quickly became a popular addition to the comic book canon when she was added a year later.
Since then she's had many different outfits, motivations and allegiances. From villain to antihero and back to villain, Harley has a rich history and an intriguing origin story.
So, before you fall in love with Margot Robbie's turn as the Clown Princess in Suicide Squad, let's recount the highlights of Harley Quinn's career.
Inspired by Harlequin, or Arlecchino, a character from commedia dell'arte, Italian theater of the 16th century, Harley was created by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini to be the Joker's dedicated sidekick in Batman: The Animated Series (1992).
Although she loved to play the role, Harley was no fool, often revealing her shrewd analytical skills when facing off with heroes like Batman:
"I know, you're thinking, What a shame! A poor, innocent, little thing like her, led astray by bad companions!"
Emulating the gangster molls from mafia movies, Harley nevertheless had a strong, independent streak and refused to take crap from anyone, much less catcallers and hustlers.
Harley's relationship with the Joker added to her appeal. Although some saw it as a villainous romance, many recognized the cycle of domestic abuse that was a subtext deliberately written into the show. The audience rooted for Harley, delighting in her criminal antics, but hoping she could one day break free of her obsession with the Joker.
From Sidekick To Full-Fledged Villain
And after featuring in many different comics, break free is exactly what Harley did. In her own 2001 comic run, Harley Quinn finally decided to go solo, running off with her longtime gal pal Poison Ivy. Her adventures landed her in trouble and after forming her own gang, she wound up dead.
Of course, no one stays dead in comic books for long, much less the indomitable Harley Quinn. After her resurrection she turned herself in at Arkham Asylum, having realized she needed professional help.
This plot twist ended the comic series, which had been cancelled due to lack of popularity. The writers didn't quite know how to adapt Harley to the comic world. The Joker was far more vicious and terrifying in the comics, but Harley herself retained a lot of her cutesy Animated Series characteristics. But after a few years of obscurity, Harley found new life in video games.
Batman: Arkham Asylum proved to be immensely popular, thanks in large part to Harley Quinn. This was a much edgier version of the character as she was ruthless and far more psychotic than her previous incarnations. This Harley really put the mad in Mad Love. Her more psychopathic tendencies echoed in the comics, too; when she joined the pages of Suicide Squad, Harley's delight in murder shocked even her hardened gang.
From then on Harley was gifted with several solo series in the New 52 reboot, which were received with critical acclaim. One of my personal favorites is when Harley confronts the Joker in Arkham, finally getting closure (and beating the crap out of him).
But she wouldn't be Harley Quinn without her share of controversy, and with the canon reset came a change to Harley's origin story, which angered fans.
The Shifting Origins Of Harley Quinn
There are a few different versions of Harley's origin, and the first of these was Mad Love in 1994, based on The Animated Series versions of the characters. This one-shot proved so popular that Harley was introduced to the wider comic canon a few months later.
In this version of the story, Harleen Quinzel slowly falls for the Joker while interning at Arkham Asylum.
In classic masterful manipulation, the Joker turns the tables on the mild-mannered Harleen, coaxing her to confide in him. Hoping to prove her love, Harleen helps the Joker escape the asylum. She then tries to kill Batman, which the Joker doesn't appreciate, and Batman gleefully reveals to the Joker that:
"She came closer to killing me than you ever did."
The New 52 changed this origin, removing Harleen's agency completely. In this new version, the Joker kidnaps Dr. Quinzel and she only becomes Harley Quinn after being thrown into a vat of acid, mirroring the Joker's own classic origin.
This caused uproar among fans who appreciated Harley's original story, so it was later tweaked in Harley's one-off Secret Origins comic. In this retcon, Harleen Quinzel has always been intrigued by the criminally insane. The story recounts her first love Bernie Bash, who brutally murders Harleen's childhood bully after Harleen expresses a wish for revenge.
Harleen later becomes a psychiatrist and, aggravated by the taciturn nature of her Arkham patients, she decides to conduct her very own Stanford prison experiment, disguising herself as an inmate. For the first time in her history, Harleen transforms herself into Harley Quinn.
It's during her experiment that she meets the Joker, who was just her type: fiercely intelligent, viciously violent and of course, criminally insane. When a new warden takes over the asylum, Dr Quinzel is exposed and disgraced. Furious with the restrictions placed on her, Harleen rescues the Joker and becomes his sidekick after he chucks her into the acid, thus lining up with the New 52 origin.
The comic ends as she talks about her breakup with the Joker and how the whole experience was a rebirth.
"I could choose for myself who I wanted to be, so I decided ta be all of them at once — the sex kitten, seductress, innocent, aggressor, antagonist — in one spicy package!"
Since then, Harley has had an illustrious solo career and has recently become more of an antihero than a villain, teaming up with Power Girl to try to prove her worth as a hero.
Harley later formed her own crime-fighting team dubbed the Harleys, returned to her therapist day job, and was recently confirmed to be in an open romantic relationship with Poison Ivy.
It seems as though the Suicide Squad movie might draw from Harley's redemptive arc, as director David Ayer has spoken about how Harley Quinn's liberation from the Joker is a metaphor for every character's journey. So far, Robbie's interpretation of the character seems spot-on and we can't wait for this new chapter in the ongoing and exciting tale of Harley Quinn.