Harleen Quinzel AKA Harley Quinn, is at the peak of her popularity with her live action film debut in Suicide Squad and appearing in at least two monthly series for the last couple of years. She’s quickly become dubbed “DC’s Deadpool”, as a character with a runaway popularity and soaring public profile. What makes this lady so engrossing, why is she such a great character?
One reason is her pedigree, she was invented by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm of Batman the Animated Series fame. Voiced by Arlen Sorkin, she was supposed to be a one-off gag character but fans seized on her potential. This left Dini and Timm with the task of filling her backstory out and explaining her connection to the Clown Prince of Crime.
Originally his psychiatrist, Dr.Harleen Quinzel was a new addition to Arkham Asylum who, after sharing a few therapy sessions with the Joker, becomes enamored with him and breaks him out to prove her love to him. As a “reward”, the Joker keeps her around either out of pity or an ego boost as no matter how much he abuses her she still faithfully serves him. This dynamic is central to Harley’s complexity, as her relationship to the Joker is vital to her origin but also forms the crux of any evolution she may have.
Harley was one of the breakout stars of Batman TAS, and while she wasn’t the only character to be ported into the comics (Renee Montoya also had that honor), her inclusion did carry its own challenges. The Joker of the comics is much more antisocial than the Mark Hamill version in the cartoon, his major revamp in the 1970’s by Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams involved him hunting down and killing his former henchmen. We’re supposed to believe this guy would have a girlfriend? Her portrayal and characterization in the comics isn’t a smooth alchemy but is one that with time, and Paul Dini’s work on Detective Comics and Gotham City Sirens, Harley regained some of her depth.
Harley is unique in that, unlike Bruce Wayne or the Joker, she doesn’t have a traditional “tragic” backstory. She doesn’t lose her parents, or get raped, or some other cliche nonsense. She meets probably the worst man in history and falls head over heels in love with him. Her tragic backstory, is that she falls for the ultimate bad boy. What’s amazing is that she takes to the world of capes and madness with a gusto, it’s not something she needs but WANTS. She wants to be with the Joker and causing trouble for Batman. In this way, she’s a great foil for Batman and the Joker who feel compelled to fight each other.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the Joker always responds positively to her presence. He will physically abuse her if he feels like it, but like a real world domestic violence situation, Harley won’t realize that the Joker is in the wrong and believe she “deserves” the abuse. Watching this continuously would get pretty sad and so occasionally, Harley will break away from the Joker either subconsciously having enough or needing a distraction from his absence. This is when Harley really shines, she’s allowed to be her own person without being forced into a subservient role. Maybe she plans crimes on her own, maybe she joins a roller derby team, or maybe she hangs out with Poison Ivy for some girl time. Eventually she’ll seek out or otherwise reunite with the Joker and resume her role as his punching bag. This is the tragedy of Harley’s character, in that she can’t understand how dysfunctional her relationship to the Joker is. She genuinely believes that deep down he loves her and that all the times he’s not hitting her are worth the times he does.
Accidentally or not, Dini and Timm really created an honest and interesting allegory of domestic abuse without limiting Harley just to that. She’s also a funny and skilled woman when the occasion calls for it. She has impressive gymnastic abilities and plan’s out crimes much more carefully than the Joker (either lacking his neuroses or just being able to focus more) There is also another aspect to her relationship to the Joker that is unique in that she humanizes him. Like Robin does to Batman, Harley is arguably the only person who sees the Joker up close and personal in a way not even Batman could. There’s a scene in her introductory episode Joker’s Favor (which not incidentally is one of the best of Batman TAS) where she’s seen giving the Joker a haircut.
Now that may sound like nothing, but it shows how close Harley is to Joker. Their relationship borders on the domestic as well as the personal and the line blurs between them. There’s another episode further along the series where it’s revealed that Harley is the one that manages Joker’s finances, puts gas in his getaway cars, even cleans up his hideouts. That being one of those stories where Harley leaves the Joker to teamup with Poison Ivy, the Joker’s hideout is in shambles and he can’t get anything done. Meanwhile, she and Ivy pulled off a string of successful robberies.
Now, in the comics between the ‘Bat-god’ and ‘God of Chaos’ that Batman and Joker can attain maybe none of Harley’s actions in the cartoon are possible. She’s still able to hold her own title and be a fleshed out character with an engaging personality.
One final thing I want to touch on is Harley’s actual morality. In the episode Harley’s Holiday, she is released from Arkham Asylum and deemed “cured” She is free to rejoin society and live her life on the straight and narrow. Which she actually tries to do, she wants to turn over a new leaf. However, once she tries to leave a clothing store with a dress she bought still carrying the security tag she is stopped by the guard. Jumping to conclusions, she assumes its impossible to be normal and subsequently kidnaps the nearest hostage who happens to be Bruce Wayne’s date.
Promising her that she won’t be harmed and will be released, all the while evading Batman, Harley keeps an upbeat attitude while acknowledging she didn’t handle things all that well. At the end, Batman catches her but maintains hope that after serving her new sentence out she can try again to reform.
At her core, I don’t think Harley is “evil”. She follows her heart, no matter where that takes her. She walks in a world of greys that not even Batman or the Joker could fathom. Although there is a tragic bent to the character, in that she chooses love in a pure mythical Greek sense, that doesn’t define her personality.
This is why Harley is a multidimensional character and although I’m hesitant to call her a strong, female lead, I think she’s more deserving of that label than most. She’s absolutely bonkers, but she can also care about others and have genuine friendships which makes her unique among the Gotham villains.
It’s no small wonder that she is so popular now, its more a surprise that it took this long to come to fruition.