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Lady of Lunacy: Twelve Moments that Defined Harley Quinn

Lady of Lunacy: Twelve Moments that Defined Harley Quinn

By Joshua Lapin-Bertone Thursday, September 29th, 2022

Welcome to the DC House of List-ery, a weekly feature where we list off all the ways the DC Universe continues to surprise us.

How does a psychiatrist turned henchgirl become one of the most popular characters in the DC Universe? This month marks the 30th anniversary of Harley Quinn’s debut, and it’s amazing to think about the legacy she’s had. She’s stepped out of the Joker and Batman’s shadows to star in her own comics, TV shows and movies. How did we get here? To celebrate three decades or Harley’s marvelous mayhem, let’s take a look at twelve of the moments that made her the superstar she is today.


Her First Appearance

On the 11th of September in the year 1992, fans around the world tuned in to watch Batman: The Animated Series, unaware of the history that was being made before them. The episode was called “Joker’s Favor” and it centered around the Clown Prince manipulating an average man named Charlie. When breaking the story, writer Paul Dini thought it would be fun to put a woman in the Joker’s gang, similar to the moll characters from the Adam West Batman series.

Dini got the idea to cast his friend Arleen Sorkin after seeing her in a jester outfit on the soap opera Days of our Lives. It was a perfect choice. Sorkin’s vocals gave Harley the comedically anarchic personality that helped turn the character into a superstar.

It’s remarkable how much the character has evolved since this debut appearance. In “Joker’s Favor,” Harley Quinn and the Joker show no sign of being a couple. Harley references beauty school rather than medical school. There’s also a moment where she quotes The Arsenio Hall Show (ask your parents about it).

This was initially meant to be Harley’s only appearance, but there was something magical about Sorkin’s performance. Nobody could forget the way she said “Mistah Jay” or landed a perfectly timed punchline. Harley Quinn had arrived and the DC Universe would never be the same. 


Harley Meets Ivy

A few months later, on January 18th, 1993, viewers witnessed the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Batman: The Animated Series paired Harley Quinn with Poison Ivy in an episode appropriately titled “Harley and Ivy.” The rest is history.

After being kicked out by the Joker, Harley has a chance meeting with Poison Ivy and the two femme fatales begin a Thelma and Louise-style crime spree. The chemistry between the two characters was strong from the start, with Harley as the comedic foil to Ivy’s straight woman. In fact, the dynamic was so fun that writers continued to pair the two up in future episodes, tie-in comics and more.

Harley’s friendship with Ivy fundamentally changed her character, helping her evolve as an individual, and became one of DC’s most endearing female duos.


Harley Gets an Origin

On December 13th, 1993, DC published The Batman Adventures: Mad Love, a prestige one-shot that revealed Harley’s origin for the first time. Flashbacks showed how the Joker’s now-infamous partner was once a psychiatrist named Dr. Harleen Quinzel. After landing a residency at Arkham Asylum, Dr. Quinzel began sessions with the Joker and the Clown Prince used the opportunity to emotionally manipulate her. A romance bloomed, with Harleen leaving her old life behind to become Harley Quinn—a charismatic agent of chaos who only had eyes for “her puddin’.”

The one-shot was written by Dini and Bruce Timm, two of the iconic creators behind some of the greatest Batman: The Animated Series episodes. Freed of the constraints of network television, the comic allowed for a deep exploration of what drives Harley as well as the dark side of her relationship with the Joker, and readers responded strongly. The book won an Eisner Award for Best Single Issue and was later adapted into a 1999 episode of The New Batman Adventures. If you want to understand Harley Quinn as a character, Mad Love is essential reading.


Harley’s First Action Figure

In 1997, Kenner released a Harley Quinn action figure as part of their The Adventures of Batman and Robin toyline. Why is this a big deal? Because in 2022, Harley merchandise is everywhere, with hundreds of action figures, statues, dolls, t-shirts, backpacks and pretty much every other product you can imagine available in some form or other. If you’ve ever been to a comic convention (or a Hot Topic), you’ve probably seen it.

This humble action figure is where it all began, making this five-inch beauty historically significant. Harley’s first figure came with a boxing glove rocket launcher and a flag gun. If you were among the young fans who snagged it when it was first released, take good care of it, because you own a piece of Harley Quinn history.


Harley Heads to Mainstream Continuity

By 1999, it was clear that Harley added something truly unique to Gotham City. The only problem was that something was missing from mainstream continuity. That changed when the still highly-read Batman: Harley Quinn #1 was published as part of the Bat-Family’s yearlong “No Man’s Land” storyline, establishing Harleen’s place in the DCU. Dini, Harley’s co-creator, once again wrote the script, giving her an origin that was pretty similar to the one she had in the animated series. In the process, the comic also set up her friendship with Poison Ivy and her toxic relationship with the Joker. Harley Quinn was finally canon and Gotham City was a better place for it. (Well, for anyone who wasn’t one of her victims.)
 

The Arkham Games

In 2009, Rocksteady Games released Batman: Arkham Asylum, a groundbreaking action-adventure console game that adopted a particularly gritty approach to the Dark Knight’s world. In a nod to Batman: The Animated Series and its now fully-grown fans, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprised their roles as Batman and Joker, so it was only natural that Arleen Sorkin would also return to voice Harley Quinn.

The Maid of Mischief was given an entirely new look for the video game, losing her jester outfit in favor of a red-and-blue bodice and thigh-high boots. Batman: Arkham Asylum and eventual franchise it birthed would prove to be so popular that Harley’s comics and merchandise began to take their cues from this new design, all while introducing our favorite Gotham troublemaker to a wider audience than ever before. Most exciting of all, Harley’s proven to be one of the most enduring elements of the franchise, with her most recent Arkham Universe adventure, Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League, due on consoles next year.


Harley Quinn Gets Taken to Task

When the DC Universe was reinvented for the New 52 relaunch, Harley Quinn was given a dramatically different new look, a new origin and an all-new team. 2011’s The Suicide Squad #1 placed Harley on Task Force X and she’s been trying to ditch the deadly team ever since. Since this initial outing, Harley Quinn has become an iconic part of the Suicide Squad, appearing in multiple runs of the comic and both Suicide Squad films (more on that later).

As a part of the relaunch, Harley’s origin was also reworked. Most of the elements from Mad Love were preserved, but now, in a reference to his origin, the Joker also pushed Harleen into a vat of chemicals to complete her transformation. Along with altering her mentally, the acid also bleached Harleen’s skin, creating her familiar white pallor, which prior to now was created by makeup. The New 52 also retired Harley’s jester outfit for good, giving her an ensemble similar to the one she wore in the Arkham video game series.

These changes proved to be controversial, but the New 52 did introduce another change that just about all fans have rallied behind—it permanently separated Harley from the Joker. In 2012’s Suicide Squad #15, she even went as far as biting off a piece of his tongue, proclaiming that she didn’t belong to him. Harley and the Joker had broken up many times before, but it usually wasn’t long before Harley came back, repeating the cycle of toxicity and abuse. Now, her emancipation from the Joker has become an accepted—and expected—part of her story.


Injustice For All

In 2013, NetherRealm Studios released the video game Injustice: Gods Among Us. The fighting game from the minds behind the Mortal Kombat series would go on to spawn a franchise that included a sequel game, a popular comic series and a 2021 animated film.

Injustice tells the story of a superhero civil war that ignites between Batman and Superman after the Man of Steel murders the Joker. Yet, between the shocking betrayals and dramatic deaths of beloved characters, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Injustice puts Harley Quinn front and center in a way no other DC event ever really has before. The first game has her join Batman’s army, fighting alongside the Dark Knight and his allies. The sequel follows Harley as Batman’s most trusted companion and ends with her becoming a part of the Justice League. The tie-in comic Injustice: Ground Zero is told from Harley’s perspective, giving readers a firsthand look at how she came to terms with the Joker’s death, her PTSD stemming from his past abuse of her and her gradual journey to heroism. And then there’s the now-iconic exchange between Harley and Green Arrow.

The story may be called Injustice, but it brought nothing BUT justice to Harley fans hoping to see her take on a less villainous role.


Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner

Also in 2013, the creative husband and wife team of Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner began a four-year run on Harley Quinn that would go on to redefine the character even further, introducing new elements to Harley’s world that would have life outside the comic page.

Palmiotti and Conner co-wrote the stories during their time on the book, with Conner also illustrating the dynamic covers.

Conner and Palmiotti’s Harley Quinn saw their protagonist leave Gotham behind for a new life on Coney Island, where she joined a roller derby team and became a landlady to a group of eccentric tenants. Harley’s outfit was once again redesigned, this time to incorporate elements from her original jester outfit blended with the bustier and hotpants introduced in the Arkham games. The series was a top-seller for DC, which continued when it was relaunched in 2016 as a part of DC’s Rebirth event. In fact, Conner and Palmiotti’s mark on the character was so distinct and defining, that it can be argued that they’re the most consequential creators Harley has had since Paul Dini and Bruce Timm.


Harley and Ivy’s First Kiss

Since the day they met—back in 1993, for those following along—Harleen Quinzel and Pamela Isley have been inseparable. By 2016, they’d appeared in countless comics together, headlined their own limited series and had been members of the Gotham City Sirens alongside Catwoman. It had always been clear that they were the best of friends, but there remained speculation that there might be something more there. 1997’s Batgirl Adventures hinted at the notion, but for years, the idea of Harley and Ivy as a couple was something that only existed in fanfiction or on message boards. Something hinted at, but never officially confirmed. That all changed with Bombshells.

Based on a bestselling line of DC collectible statues, DC Comics: Bombshells was an alt-universe series that reimagined DC’s greatest female characters as WWII-era heroes and villains. In DC Comics: Bombshells #42, Harley and Ivy share a romantic walk through the streets of Berlin. The moon is shining, the snow is falling and the two begin flirting. After some playful banter, Ivy invites Harley in for a kiss and the couple embrace in a beautiful splash page. This wasn’t fanart, this was Harley and Ivy kissing in an official DC publication. This forever changed their relationship, with a kiss following in mainstream continuity (2017’s Harley Quinn #25) and their love story becoming a cornerstone of the 2019 animated series.


Enter Margot Robbie

In many ways, Margot Robbie can be considered the casting that launched a thousand cosplays. In 2016, Task Force X came to the big screen for the first time in the David Ayer-directed Suicide Squad…and of course, Harley Quinn was on the roster.

Robbie’s portrayal as Harley was a gamechanger for the character. From head to toe, the gifted actress embodied Harley in every single frame in her big screen debut, and the fans took notice. Step into any comic convention and you’re likely to see several Robbie-inspired Harleys…maybe even an army of them.

Robbie’s take on Harley was so popular that she was later given her own movie in 2020, Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), and once again joined the ranks of Task Force X for James Gunn’s 2021 film, The Suicide Squad, giving viewers more laughs, action and gratuitous violence.


Her Own &%#@ing TV Show

In 2019, Harley Quinn came full circle by returning to animation, but this time, she was the star.

Harley Quinn (which just finished its third season on HBO Max) stars Kaley Cuoco as a Maid of Mischief who’s on a hilarious, often explosive journey of self-discovery. The show’s adult humor takes no prisoners, but it’s more than a comedy. Harley’s journey is an emotional one as she leaves the Joker and comes to terms with the abuse she suffered at his hands and eventually falls for her best friend Poison Ivy. There’s also a septuagenarian cyborg (who first appeared in the Conner/Palmiotti comic) with a sea monster for a sister, a Joker redemption subplot, a still-can’t-believe-we-saw-that Court of Owls orgy and about a billion jokes made at poor Bane’s expense. In short, it’s everything we love about Harley—pure, joyful, unadulterated chaos. And it’s not stopping any time soon. The series is getting a fourth season AND an animated spinoff centering around Kite Man, one of the show’s standout characters.

Not bad for a character who was originally only supposed to appear in a single episode!
 

Lots of people hope to become successful before they turn thirty, and Harley Quinn can rest easy knowing she’s accomplished that. In the three decades since her debut, Harley’s grown as a character, stepping out from the shadow of the Joker and blazing a remarkably independent path that continues to surprise us. Plus, and this is remarkable for a thirty-year-old character, it really does seem like her journey’s just beginning. Will she become one of Gotham’s greatest heroes? Will she revert back to her own brand of villainy? Will her relationship with Poison Ivy become one of DC’s most enduring pairings? Will we get more movies? More video games? A live-action TV show, perhaps? (She’s already getting her own audio series.)

We can’t say what may lie ahead, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned from Harley, it’s that she never fails to surprise us in the most wonderful ways.


Harley Quinn 30th Anniversary Special by Paul Dini, Amanda Conner, Jimmy Palmiotti, Chad Hardin, Stjepan Sejic, Stephanie Phillips, Riley Rossmo and more is now available in print and as a digital comic book.

Joshua Lapin-Bertone writes about TV, movies and comics for DCComics.com, is a regular contributor to the Couch Club and writes our monthly Batman column, "Gotham Gazette." Follow him on Twitter at @TBUJosh.

NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Joshua Lapin-Bertone and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.