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In 1992, Paul Dini unwittingly created a legend. Struggling to make a scene in Batman: The Animated Series work, he created a background character as a love interest for the Joker, dubbed Harley Quinn. What he didn't expect was for Harley Quinn to become an iconic character, now seen in TV, comics, and even the Suicide Squad movie!
Today, DC Comics co-publisher Jim Lee gave us all an idea of just how important Harley Quinn has become. He's described her as the "fourth pillar" of DC's comics, after the famous 'Trinity' of #Batman, #Superman, and #WonderWoman. How did Harley Quinn become so important?
Harley Quinn's Animated Origin
The story of Harley Quinn begins in comic book legend. Her original walk-on appearance was surprisingly popular, and Paul Dini and Bruce Timm worked on a spin-off comic inspired by Harley Quinn. The result was Mad Love, a one-shot that told Harley's backstory. Critical reception was incredible; Mad Love won a prestigious Eisner Award for "Best Single Issue," and the arc was swiftly adapted into an episode of Batman: The Animated Series. Already, Harley Quinn's place in Batman history was cemented.
Harley became a mainstay in the DC Animated Universe (DCAU), appearing in The New Batman Adventures, Justice League and Static Shock. She even has an appearance in World's Finest: The Batman / Superman Movie, where she pursues a hilarious vendetta against Lex Luthor's assistant Mercy Graves.
The #DCAU portrays a strange version of Harley; she's clearly a tragic character, locked in an abusive relationship by her desperate love for the Clown Prince of Crime. As many have commented recently, the #Joker and Harley are most definitely not #RelationshipGoals. Mad Love alone makes that clear; the story climaxes with the Joker tossing Harley out of a window. Committed to Arkham, Harley decides that it's time to get back on her feet, to leave the Joker once and for all.
Then he sends her flowers, and she falls in love with him all over again.
At the same time, though, it's undeniable that Harley was envisioned to have sex appeal. As you can see above, World's Finest: The Batman / Superman Movie (released as early as 1997) launched Harley into a catfight with Mercy Graves. In case you didn't get it, at one point there's even the sound of a cat's yowl!
Harley transitions into the comics.
Although Harley made brief cameos in Elseworlds titles, she really only transitions into the comics in her own graphic novel - Batman: Harley Quinn. The comics subtly changed Harley, sticking to the general DCAU concept but increasing her violence and bloodlust - '90s comics are well-known for their darkness and violence, with Marvel and DC celebrating the collapse of the Comics Code Authority.
Over in the comics, the abusive relationship between Harley and the Joker has been played out far more vividly. In Batman #663, for example, Harley helped the Joker with a plan to kill all of his former henchmen. When she realized that the "punch line" would be her own death, she shot the Joker in the shoulder.
Life After the Joker
As the years have passed, the comic character's status quo has visibly altered. She'll always be tied to the Joker, dragged back into orbit around him by his latest insane scheme; but she's actually managed to build a life of her own. What's more, being featured in constant stories - starring in titles such as Gotham City Sirens - meant that Harley's backstory has been explored to a greater degree than in the DCAU, deepening her character. Tellingly, the 2002 series Birds of Prey already felt able to use Harley as the main villain, only hinting at her past relationship with the Joker.
The Sexualization of Harley Quinn
Remember that scene from the trailers? DC Film wanted to make sure you did. You see, there's always been a sexual side to Harley (even in Mad Love she famously asked the Joker, "Wanna rev up your Harley?"). Over time, though, that's increased; the abusive relationship between Harley and the Joker has - in visual terms, at least - been rendered as a form of bondage.
The classic Arkham Asylum game stripped Harley's costume down dramatically, a pattern followed by the "New 52" redesign. Harley has also embarked on a lesbian relationship, and it's surely no coincidence that it's with Poison Ivy - a supervillain also notable for her sexuality. The redesign of Harley has positioned her as sexually attractive, and sexually active; that's clearly been a deliberate marketing strategy on DC's part.
We can mock, but there are times when the old adage "sex sells" is true. As Harley's become increasingly mainstream, she's also been increasingly sexualized. Sometimes this raises very difficult ethical questions - not least in her relationship with the Joker. In a way, Suicide Squad was always going to get criticism for its portrayal of that particular relationship, blending the sexiness and sassiness of the modern Harley Quinn with the first portrayal of Harley and the Joker on the big screen.
The Fun Side of Comics
At the same time, Harley demonstrates what I call the "#Deadpool" factor; her insanity gives her a unique, and entertaining, insight into the world around her. Her comics - growing in number every month - are often wacky and surreal, breaking the fourth wall with impunity, and filled with slapstick humor. Given that the "New 52" launched a far darker version of DC, Harley's levity stood in marked contrast to most of DC's other titles.
At heart, Harley Quinn comics channel a strangely childlike naïveté - they portray the idea of violence without consequences. They vaguely feel like an old "Looney Tunes" cartoon, where anything can happen - any number of bullets can be fired, any number of knives can be thrown - but nobody blinks an eye. The word 'slapstick' was practically made for them, and in a time when comics are usually concerned with realist violence and dramatic narrative, they make a refreshing change.
Harley Quinn is a very strange character; we're invited to rejoice in her sexuality, and yet cringe at her abusive relationship; we watch the pain and sorrow as she circles around the Joker, and yet enjoy comics starring her that have no sense of consequence. I've compared her briefly to Deadpool, but I think - philosophically speaking - she stands on much more interesting ground. Now, with Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn the breakout character of Suicide Squad, her popularity looks set only to increase.