Welcome back to another DC History. We’re well into the New 52 at this point, but there’s still much that can be gained by examining how we got here. Only by looking back at what came before can we understand where we’re going.
This week, we’re looking at Harley Quinn, the Joker’s sometime gal pal and Poison Ivy’s best friend.
Unlike the majority of the other DC Histories, Harley’s story doesn’t begin on the comic book page. She first appeared in a completely different medium. Paul Dini created her in a 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series titled ‘Joker’s Favor.’ In it, she was presented without fanfare as just another henchman of the Joker, albeit one with a distinctive look and voice.
Harley was designed by the series’ co-creator Bruce Timm after Paul Dini’s regrettable first stab at it. In the book Batman: Animated, Dini admits that his Harley was a bit of a misfire.
Harley quickly became a fan favorite among viewers of the series. She’d occasionally show up in Joker-specific episodes on the series but it wasn’t until the 1993 ‘Harley and Ivy’ episode that Harley finally got some individual attention. In this episode, Joker kicked Harley out of his hideout. Without a solid support system in place to help her land on her feet, Harley fell in with another villain. This time, it was Poison Ivy who Harley glommed on to. The two had a nice run as partners until Harley once again went back to being with the Joker. From then on, whenever Harley spent much time away from her dear ‘Mr. J,’ she was usually spending time with Ivy.
A year after Harley’s debut on television, she finally appeared on the comic book page. This appearance was in The Batman Adventures, the first modern animated DCU tie-in series. For some reason she was given a red domino mask, which would never show up again.
Even with all the fan attention and several appearances in both television and print, Harley’s past was never mentioned. She was simply a henchman with a clown fetish. It wasn’t until Paul Dini and Bruce Timm created a one-off special that Harley was given a back story.
In The Batman Adventures: Mad Love, Harleen Quinzel was shown to be a psychiatrist who worked in Arkham Asylum. While she was there, Harleen became very interested in the Joker’s various psychoses. Vowing that she would crack the Joker and write a great paper about how he worked, the pair spent hours and hours in one-on-one sessions. During these intense interactions, it was instead the Joker who cracked Harleen. The Joker loomed large in her mind and when he next escaped the asylum, she worried for his safety. When Batman captured Joker and brought him back in, Harleen’s love for the villain was exposed.
Realizing that she would do anything for the Joker, Harleen bought an outfit for herself at a local joke store, slightly changed her name to Harley Quinn, and broke the Joker out of Arkham. Sadly, Harley never recovered her psychiatric license.
Through all of this, Harley only appeared in comics that weren’t set in the standard DCU. She was an animated universe character only. In 1999, this changed.
During the middle of the No Man’s Land storyline running through the Batman line of books at the time, a one-shot issue titled Batman: Harley Quinn was published. In this one-shot, Harley was introduced to the DCU for the first time. Her DCU origin was nearly identical to her animated beginnings. Again she was a psychiatrist who loved the Joker. However, there was one major change to her character that was put in place when she met Poison Ivy.
During No Man’s Land, an earthquake had just hit Gotham City. The quake destroyed many of the city’s buildings including the seats of government and order, resulting in Gotham succumbing to various gangs throughout its city. Many of Batman’s villains claimed plots of land for themselves. Poison Ivy chose Robinson Park. When Harley wandered into Ivy’s designated area and got pricked up a poisonous plant, Ivy gave her an antidote that saved her life. This antidote saved Harley’s life along with giving her the gift of enhanced athletic and tumbling skills.
This helped explain how a woman with a psychiatric background is able to occasionally go toe-to-toe with superheroes.
Shortly after the No Man’s Land story ended and Gotham was restored to its normal state, Harley struck out on her own. Joker had kicked her out of his hideout (again) and Harley seemed to really take it to heart this time. She actually got her own solo series, which was a lot of fun. During this series, she also got her own set of henchmen, finally stepping out of the shadow of both Joker and Poison Ivy.
Now that Harley was in two different continuities with almost identical origins, it could be sort of tricky to decide which world each of her various stories appeared in. For example, trying to decide where Judd Winick’s penned Harley and Ivy: Love on the Lam fits in to everything can be a bit of a chore. Of course, when Bruce Timm is doing the art duties on a book, such as he did on the 2004 Batman: Harley and Ivy miniseries, it certainly makes that question a no-brainer. That was definitely an animated DCU book. Other appearances are a bit of a guessing game.
Harley’s past would be shown again in the pages of Gotham City Sirens. Between adventures featuring an old henchman of the Joker’s and Catwoman coming to terms with her long lost sister, Harley visited her family around Christmas time. Her mother and brother lived in Brooklyn while her father was in prison for his own crimes. Hints of Harley’s religious upbringing were placed in these scenes. If her family wasn’t Jewish, they at least respect Judaism enough to keep a menorah on their mantel in the same room as a Christmas tree.
At the end of Sirens, Harley split up from her friends Poison Ivy and Catwoman. Harley walking off by herself is the last thing we saw of her in the old continuity.
Over in a third continuity, Harley had a distinctive look separate from both the television show and the comics. In the video games Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City, Harley had a decidedly less kid-friendly look. She kept this look when a series of comics based on the video games was released.
The Harley Quinn found in the New 52 appears to be a blend of the original Harley and the character found in the new video game series. It’s in the New 52 that Harley is a member of the Suicide Squad, a group to which she’s never previously been tied. There she sports yet another look and a slightly more aggressive attitude.
It seems that Harley is going to be a major player in the next story arc in Suicide Squad. She recently severed ties with the Squad after learning that the Joker was seemingly killed over in the pages of Detective Comics. Unfortunately, she didn’t tell anyone she was leaving and set off a prison riot to cover her escape. Now the Squad is after her and chances are that her trail will lead to Gotham. DC has been heavily hinting that this story culminates with Harley getting a new origin story. Here’s hoping fans enjoy this new Harley as much as they enjoyed the previous one.
Jeff Reid generally prefers his Harley Quinn fully clothed, though he is enjoying this new version of the Suicide Squad more than he thought he would. Get more insights like this one on Twitter.