Harley Quinn – The Victim! The Vixen! The Evolution Of A Clown
“It is to laugh, huh Mr. J?” – those were the very first words Harley Quinn ever uttered in the DC verse! The sidekick to the Joker, the red and black jester was never to be more than a background goon! So how does one go from the background to the spotlight?
She steals the show and buries her competition!
To write or even discuss the complex nature of Harley and her rise to fame is to open a very big can of worms… and not the fun, practical joke kind either!
Harley Quinn first appeared in Batman: The Animated Series in the episode ‘Joker’s Favour’, which aired in 1992. Created by Paul Dini, the Joker’s henchman was originally intended to burst out of a cake at a function for Jim Gordon. There was a cake and a surprise but Harley was sidelined for the Joker to be the big star. Our red and black star was only a spark, but it would be enough to ignite fan interest in her character. Harley would go on to hold rank in the Joker’s squad, her unrequited love keeping her by his side through thick, thin and being thrown out of windows!
Her character and backstory are explored throughout the animated series; she was a victim, a fighter, a fool, a friend and a lover. Dr. Harleen Quinzel possessed a bright future but passed it all up after falling for the intoxicating charm of her patient and resident Gotham villain, the Joker. A life of crime is never easy but it always seemed that much more difficult for Harley who, despite her best efforts, never quite fit in with the Joker and his gang. Treated as a punching bag by the Joker both physically and emotionally, Harley is portrayed as an unwitting victim. We’re aware she’s doing bad things, but we’re also shown why she’s doing it even if we want her to stop or protect her even though we can’t. She makes her own decisions.
Screen To Page
Harley left a mark on fans and would go on to appear in future animated Batman adventures as well as an appearance in the short-lived Birds of Prey TV series. The fans wanted Harley and DC were willing! By now, we’d seen live-action Harley as well as old lady Harley (Batman Beyond), and her transition to comics was inevitable. Harley’s first big appearance was in ‘No Man’s Land’ as a special for Batman: Harley Quinn. While we got acquainted with her on-screen, it’s in the pages that we really got know our Harley. However, I can’t say I do understand because I don’t believe it’s possible to truly understand who she is and what she really feels.
In the comics, her ‘relationship’ with the Joker would only grow more violent and desperate. She would form new, tentative relationships with the likes of Catwoman and Poison Ivy. However, with every step forward, she made two steps back into the Joker’s world. In her first solo series, Harley Quinn, which ran for two years, we saw her flee Gotham, die, only to be resurrected and wind up back in Gotham. In Gotham City Sirens, she makes an attempt on the Joker’s life, but winds up on one of her most violent sprees in Arkham and betraying her friends for the Joker.
The New 52 Harley Quinn
With the DC relaunch in 2011, we were greeted with a New 52 Harley Quinn. A new look meant the jester was gone but it was still the same old Harley! The same broken young woman consumed by her ‘love’ for the Joker. Her new look a result of being thrown into a vat of acid by that lover. She would continue to kill for the sake of that relationship until her actions put her on the Suicide Squad roster.
The ‘Death of the Family’ arc reunited her with the Joke,r but not for long. Harley doesn’t like the Joker she meets and is offered a moment of brutal clarity; she means nothing to him, never has, and never will.
My Other Harley Is A Video Game Character
This Harley was a mix of the classic TAS version and the comics version; a dangerous psychopath willing to do anything for the Joker. She appears in both Batman: Arkham Aslyum and Batman: Arkham City as well as the DLC, ‘Harley’s Revenge’. Despite what you might think about the games and their depiction of Harley and co., each title shows the different stages of Harley’s evolution. Asylum offers us the delusional and dangerous Harley, City the devoted Harley before culminating in a Joker-free, independent and just as deadly Harley with her own DLC story.
Out On Her Own Causing Her Own Trouble!
Following the events of ‘Death of the Family’, Harley in her own series (2013) would strike out on her own, leaving behind ties to Batman, the Joker and Gotham. This was still our skin bleached, dyed hair Harley, but now she was doing something for herself. The series, written by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti afforded Harley the chance to redeem herself somewhat, from villain to anti-hero. This Harley has teamed up with Power Girl and even formed a crime-fighting team to keep her new home, Coney Island, safe.
That’s not to say it was smooth sailing for her! In the same year her solo series kicked off, DC announced ‘Break into comics with Harley Quinn!’. This was a competition where artists had to depict four different panels with Harley attempting suicide culminating in a naked in the bath scene. The competition caused uproar within amateur and professional circles and with fans (rightly so). Once again Harley was the centre of attention and once again it wasn’t for the right reasons!
Pages To The Silver Screen
This year Harley is under an even bigger spotlight. Her character features in the Suicide Squad movie, portrayed by Margot Robbie.
In the DC movie verse Harley will reach an even bigger audience. While the film isn’t out for general release yet, many of her adoring fans are wondering what version of Harley we’re getting! Trailers like the one above have offered us glimpses but that’s all and we’re left filling in the blanks. Many have noted the character is sexualised, especially when compared to other female characters like Enchantress, Katana and Amanda Waller. In her article ‘You Don’t Own Harley: Why It’s Important That Suicide Squad Features a Feminist Anthem’, Nadya Sarah Domingo notes that in the above trailer, it’s important to consider the words of the iconic anthem when considering Harley; ‘…what makes the shot interesting and meaningful are the words sung over the image: “I’m not just one of your many toys”.’
Victim To Vixen
As I said earlier, I don’t think it’s possible to truly understand a character like Harley Quinn. That’s what many of her critics and fans seem to have trouble with. To some, she’s the naive jester mixing infatuation up with love. To others, she’s a psycho with a screw loose and a passion for mayhem and pigtails. Others regard her as another hapless victim of the Joker.
In his essay, ‘The Over-Sexualisation Of Harley Quinn’, Joseph Carl Gordon wrote: “It seems that the objective of Harley Quinn is to please hormonal teenage comic book geeks by making her outfits skimpier and to sell a bunch of Hot Topic T-shirts. She is a consistent cosplay choice at most comic conventions. It honestly upsets me every time I hear someone say they want to be like Harley because she is badass. It upsets me even worse when they say they want a relationship just like Joker and Harley.” While Gordon‘s argument carries some weight and can’t be ignored, it does miss the mark on Harley somewhat.
To Harley, her sexuality has always been a tool. A means to achieve her end. While clearly not healthy, what is healthy about Harley? What has she ever done that’s healthy? Beyond the male gaze, she offers much more to the reader willing to give her real time.
It’s been nearly 24 years since Harley Quinn made her debut. Should we still expect her to be the victim? In the hands of multiple creators since Paul Dini brought her character to life, we’ve watched her grow and change. Each new story brings us closer to the real Harley, behind the Joker, behind the Batman and behind herself.
Harley isn’t a victim. Harley isn’t a vixen. Harleen Quinzel is a force to be reckoned with, fear and loved all in her own right.
“You thought I was just another bubble-headed blond bimbo! Well, the joke’s on you, ’cause I’m not even a real blonde” – Harley Quinn, Batman: The Animated Series
Editor-in-Chief, part-time super villain and hoarder of cats. If you can’t find me writing, I’m probably in the kitchen!