DC Histories: Harley Quinn

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.

Batman: Harley Quinn (1999) Cover

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.

From Batman: Animated (1998)

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.

From The Batman Adventures #12 (1993)

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.

From The Batman Adventures: Mad Love (1994)

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.

From Batman: Harley Quinn (1999)

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.

From Harley Quinn #4 (2001)

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.

From Batman: Harley and Ivy #3 (2004)

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.

From Gotham City Sirens #7 (2010)

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.

From Batman: Arkham City #3 (2011)

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.

From Suicide Squad (Vol. 3) #4 (2012)

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.


  1. Arkham City Harley Quinn looks like a lady deadpool

  2. i love dc histories. i’m looking forward to the this suicide squad arc. looks like fun.
    as for the costume, i really dig the new look as well as the classic one. i know some people think that the new one is exploitative of women, but we see women who dress provocatively all the time. i think people who have a real problem with it have sexuality issues or even perhaps body image issues. as long as they dont depict her eating a banana or corndog in a oversexual manner, i think it’s just fine. i’m really glad they didnt go with the first one by paul dini. that was horrible

    • Or they could be normal women who are legitimately skeeved out by it.

      I mean, I don’t necessarily have a problem seeing Harley in this new outfit, but I can totally see and understand why a woman would see her and say “Blech”.

    • I don’t want to start a thing here, but I think the main reason people are upset by Harley’s new appearance as being exploitative is because of the exact reason you mention: we see it all the time! I think it would be beneficial to have more female characters depicted as strong women, beautiful in their own right and that do not need to wear a bikini to fight bad guys. Also, I really enjoy these DC histories as well, so thanks Jeff!

    • @comicbookchris
      i dont understand this term “skeeved”. does it mean “creeped”. and i wasnt just referring to women, but men as well. but nobody seems to have a problem with all the men in tights or even dr. manhatten’s penis floppn’ around. seems like a double standard to me. mind you, i dont care either way. just seems strange to me to take issue with the human form whether your male or female, especially in a fictional fantasy format. i can understand if someone doesnt want their wife, husband or children dressing provocatively, but a comic book character?
      we see people covered from head to toe all the time too, but few want to judge them as prudish. and i think there are plenty of strong women in comics: wonder woman, phoenix, scarlet witch, lady deathstrike, supergirl, batgirl, batwoman, huntress, lois lane and so on and so forth. i dont think it should matter what a person wears but there are plenty of well dressed females in comicdom.

    • There’s a reason no one has a problem with that:

      A woman dressed provocatively and and scantily = A male fantasy

      A man dressed in a tight outfit that shows off his awesome muscles and physique = ALSO a male fantasy.

    • not my fantasy, but whatever floats your boat.

  3. I really enjoy Harley Quinn, since she really was one of the characters who I was able to latch onto when I got back into comics. Seeing her on the cartoon established some sort of familiarity, which is always tremendous when looking to get into these types of comics.

  4. Harley has always been a favorite. I have the full run of her solo series from a couple years ago; pretty much the only time I ever went into collector mode to buy a complete run. I’m jumping on Suicide Squad for this short arc to see what they are doing with her.

  5. I have a real problem with new Harley look. She used to be really unique looking with a great costume. Now she looks just like another slut. Her uniqueness is really gone. I miss the old Harley, who was about zaniness, insanity, and true love for the Joker. Now she’s just insane trash.

    Sitara, I’m amazed that you’re ripping the old Dini look. To me it is an absolute classic, and a reason that Harley was one of the few new characters to really emerge from DC in the last two decade. Also, just don’t agree at all with the way you add up her looks and your conclusions about one’s comfort level with their body, etc. I think degradation and objectification of women in comics happens. But it’s hard to define. For instance, I’ve read Crumb, Bomb Queen, Sin City, etc, and not had a problem.

    Your comment on Dr. Manhatten is a good example, I think Moore had a lot of really brilliant things to say about sex and super heroes in Watchmen.

    You saying there is a double standard about men and women strikes me as willfully naive. Of course there is. And there damn well should be. Anyone who looks at history or the world today can’t help but notice that gender matters. A lot.

    • theres a black and white sketch of harley’s costume in the article above that didnt make the cut. i love the one from the classic cartoon as i stated.
      and looking at history, there have been many autrocities:
      racism, the holocaust, women’s lack of rights, homosexuality being labeled by doctors as a mental disease and a million other examples. yet i dont think the color of someone’s skin should MATTERS. i dont think someone’s religion should MATTER. i dont think what someone wears should MATTER. thats not naive thinking, it’s progressive.
      degadation and objectification of women does happen. not only in comics, cuz your judgement that harley looks like a slut and a piece of trash is a prime example of that. judging someone is a slippery slope.

    • Let’s be fair: outfit aside, the new Harley Quinn is INCREDIBLY trashy. It’s more or less her new gimmick, whether it’s intentional or not…it’s not like she’s being unfairly judged here solely on her outfit. Read Suicide Squad #3 for the best example of this I’ve seen.

    • not solely, just partially.
      we can redirect this discussion to talk about the content of her character if you like. that would be much more fair to harley and women everywhere

    • The content of her current character is that she’s insane murderer (possibly the most sociopathic on the team), who is attracted to Deadshot because he’s just as abusive as The Joker and who jokes about her vag being a clown car while she’s being fucked by him. It is fair to call Harley damaged trash…that’s the whole point to her current character. In fact, that’s the whole point to that series. And you know what? That’s fine. Not every female character has to be a positive representation of the gender to be an interesting character (See: Faster Pussycat Kill Kill). But let’s call a spade a spade…current Harley is the embodiment of trash. It’s ridiculous to play the sexism card on someone saying that.

    • I forgot to throw the phrase “hamfisted” into that last reply.

    • we’ve been talking about her costume/outfit. thats what started this debate and thats been my focus. to call her trash because of her character is not sexist. i never said it was, so i agree THAT would be ridiculous. saying that she “just LOOKS like another slut” is sexist. you can call it a spade, heart, club or a diamond. doesnt change anything. you may not like what i’m saying, just dont confuse what i’m saying.
      and as far as her character goes, she isnt a good person. she is a mass murdering fuckhead. nobody could ever paint that into a pretty picture. no matter how cute her outfit may have been in the past

    • Just wanted to be sure I was “much more fair to Harley and women everywhere.” Can’t get much fairer.

    • putting words in my mouth is fair to harley and women everywhere? now thats ridiculous. it’s obvious that you are more concerned with winning an argument than enjoying a debate. good day to you, sir

    • but fez….

  6. I don’t know about others, but I found Harley’s old costume much sexier. Stylish instead of trashy, and much more unique. The images of the new Harley I’ve seen just remind me of the trashy biker chick.

    Now that I have the obligatory costume discussion out of the way. I have to say I love Harley Quinn. But I haven’t gotten much chance to read the comics with her in it. I read some of her solo series and a tiny bit of GCS. What stories are the best depictions of Harley? Does she have a definitive story?

    • Perhaps the most definitive Harley story is Mad Love. In the article, I linked to a trade that has it in it. I’ve honestly only read the first few issues of Harley’s solo series via trade, but it’s also good.

  7. Loving DC histories as well, great work Jeff. As for Harley, I prefer the orginal look compared to the others.

  8. To me, Arleen Sorkin is Harley Quinn. Not just because she’s voiced the character for so long, but like the rest of the BTAS actors they ARE who they voiced. I can’t read a Batman comic involving Harley without hearing Sorkin’s. So when they said Tara Strong was taking over for Sorkin in Arkham City it really upset me. I mean Strong did a great job but it just….didn’t feel the same. Hopefully we see Sorkin doing Harley again in the near future.