Image: DC Comics. Art by Amanda Conner
Twenty-five years ago, Batman: The Animated Series aired its seventh episode, about the Joker forcing an ordinary man to help him assassinate Commissioner Gordon.
The story wasn’t memorable, but the episode always will be — because it featured the first appearance of a character that grew into an icon of DC Comics: Harley Quinn.
Although she was only intended to be in that one episode, the Joker’s dotingly obsessed sidekick-turned-love interest quickly became a staple on Batman: The Animated Series. She transitioned to the comics five years later, becoming an established part of the Bat-canon.
There, she remained faithful to her cartoon incarnation, but with a grimmer tone, making her dangerously psychotic and a bit less quirky than her animated counterpart.
That darkness allowed creators to occasionally examine the messed-up, abusive nature of her relationship with the Joker, but it mostly led to giving Harley a darker, deadlier edge as one of Batman’s foes.
As DC moved into the 2000s, the earliest steps for Harley moving out of the shadow of the Joker were underway. In 2001, Harley received her own ongoing series featuring a swathe of creative talent like Karl Kesel, Terry Dodson, A.J. Lieberman, and Mike Huddleston — a series that, for the first time, was about her first and foremost, really examining Harleen Quinzel as a character apart from her relationship from the Joker.
Although the origins of her obsession with him would be explored throughout the book — this time with the acknowledgement of the trauma it caused Harley, with the series ending with her returning to Arkham as an inmate looking to heal herself self.
The series laid the groundwork for the Harley we have in today’s comics, strengthening her relationship to Poison Ivy while also presenting her as an independent character. Harleen was still morally dubious, but was at the least willing to change herself for the better.
This was the Harley we’d meet in series like Gotham City Sirens, a figure constantly struggling with her villainy, as well as her toxic past with the Joker.
When DC rebooted its comics universe in 2011, Harley was thrust to the forefront as one of DC’s most important comic creations, but took a step back as an actual character.
The New 52 iteration of Harley was inducted into the reborn Suicide Squad, and returned again to her darker incarnation. She was driven to psychotic murderous rampages by the imprisonment and then-absence of the Joker, becoming a character who was largely defined by her relationship with the Joker … instead of herself.
It would take another betrayal (with the return of the Joker in the 2012 storyline “Death of the Family”) and another self-titled, ongoing series (beginning in the fall of 2013) to set Harley back on the path we saw before her induction into the Suicide Squad — a journey started by, and still being continued today, by Amanda Conner, Jimmy Palmiotti, and Chad Hardin.
The ongoing Harley Quinn has spent the past four years becoming one of DC’s most successful comics, and crucially continued in the vein of her first solo series, presenting a Harley who wanted more than anything to leave the Joker, Gotham City, and her darker impulses behind her, transforming her into a true antihero.
Harley was still quirky and often comically violent, but also someone who’d rather use that violence to help other people instead of simply to cause chaos.
The series also served to finally, truly cut Harley off from the Joker. Conner, Palmiotti, and Hardin’s series established her as as having moved on from her relationship with Mr. J, and living a new life with a motley supporting cast of characters in Coney Island in Brooklyn.
In a 2016 story arc, Harley got full closure, and completely severed their relationship in a brutally satisfying issue that laid out once and for all that the Harley of the modern era was her own woman, and was frankly sick of the Joker and the twisted grip he used to have on her.
Unfortunately, for all the progress as a character has made in the comics, the Harley Quinns seen in other media are too often a throwback to her early days rather than who she’s become.
Margot Robbie’s portrayal in Suicide Squad was more about celebrating Harley’s toxic relationship with the Joker and her inability to pull herself away from him than it was about her — something we’re almost certainly going to see more of with the recently announced Joker and Harley movie.
And while her recent appearance in the animated Batman and Harley Quinn movie attempted to acknowledge the character’s history of being sexually objectified, it also undermined her by presenting her as little more than eye candy.
That’s not always been the case in other media adaptations, thankfully. For obvious reasons, the kid-friendly cartoon series DC Superhero Girls doesn’t go into Harley’s connection to the Joker at all, treating her as just as important and heroic as Wonder Woman or Supergirl.
Likewise, the recent Injustice video games have portrayed Harley as having moved on from her villainous, traumatic past with the Joker to become a hero working alongside Batman.
But it’s unfortunate that, while the comics are currently presenting Harley at her best, the character can’t seem to shake her past completely, and still gets reduced to being the Joker’s besotted, abused partner in villainy.
Why can’t the cultural image of Harley Quinn move on from her being the Joker’s lover in the way the comic book version has spent years doing?
After all, the reason why we’re still talking about Harley Quinn today is her comic book evolution into a loveable, nuanced, and independent character. Harley may not have been created for the comics, but it’s been the comics more than anything that have spent the last two and a half decades reforging her into something so much more than just a sidekick: they have made her one of DC’s most interesting and layered characters of the moment.
Harley Quinn has moved on from the Joker, to become one of DC’s best characters. Everyone else should do the same.