The comic industry’s leading female character is not a hero, nor does she guide her readership towards path of the angels. In fact, she’s just as soon clobber them with a barb-wired rubber chicken than preach about truth or justice.
That lady-killer giddily toppling pop culture’s traditional icons is none other than Harley Quinn, DC’s leading anti-hero whose popularity is increasing faster than a speeding bullet. In fact, Ms. Quinn’s sales even topple the Man of Steel’s. Since DC Comics published Harley Quinn #1 in December 2013, the series has been a Top 10 bestseller for a majority of its 14-issue existence, complete with the grandstanding package of her variant cover theme and a “Harley Quinn Month” dedicated in her name.
But like a Jack-in-the-box, Quinn’s popularity comes as an explosion after waiting under the surface, slowly building towards her big arrival with each turning development. While her home medium, comics, played their part in bringing Harley to the mainstream, Pace University Media Studies Professor Morris credits it more a great convergence of multimedia attention.
At the center of the multimedia crossover, of course, are video gamers’ X-Boxes and Playstations. It was 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum that rechristened the character from a harlequin of hyginx into a source of real terror. Trading in her iconic Jester outfit for a far more menacing (and revealing) ensemble, Arkham Asylum and its subsequent sequels introduced Harley to mainstream gamers as a sleek and sexy femme fatale.
“That was probably the really big thing that got her noticed by and large, at least amongst hardcore gamers,” Morris says. “She had really prevalent roles in those games.”
But Morris thinks Harley owes her newfound fame to another video game franchise, Lollypop Chainsaw. A comedy hack ’n slasher released in 2012, the game starred a pig-tail totting blonde with a twisted sense of humor and a ravenous appetite for violence. Almost like…Harley Quinn. But the real lynchpin was Lollypop Chainsaw’s voice actress, Tara Strong, who became Quinn’s new de-facto voice actress with 2011’s Batman: Arkham City. As an ambassador to all corners of geek culture, Strong isn’t afraid to import Harley’s presence to gamers, and—yes—even Brony enthusiasts.
“Strong has a huge fanbase out there that’s rabid, especially amongst the Brony guys,” Morris says. “She goes to all of these conventions, one of which I attended. There, she was talking about Harley Quinn as much as she was talking about her other work.”
With Harley’s popularity booming, DC Comics knew they had an opportunity to import that same success to their publishing lineup. In 2013, DC launched Harley Quinn #0 by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner. Consciously or not, the writing duo took several cues from the Arkham franchise by further establishing Harley as an independent figure. Within the first issue, Harley Quinn stripped the character of her defining trait as the Joker’s girlfriend. Without that anchor, Harley quickly found her own legs as an independent character.
“Harley’s self directed, she’s no longer the Joker’s comic relief like she used to be,” Morris says. “She’s a protagonist, and obviously psychotic, but not laughingly psychotic like she is in the animated series.”
And the angle worked. Harley Quinn #0 was released in November 2013, it was the second -best selling comic of the month, surpassing heavy hitters like The X-Men, Spider-Man, and Superman. In fact, the one comic to beat Harley Quinn was The Dark Knight’s, with Batman #25 claiming the top spot.
When he and Connor pitched their Harley Quinn series, Palmiotti recalled telling DC that their Harley needed needed to exist beyond the shadows of Batman , The Joker, and Gotham City. It was up to Harley to decide her own fate, and in doing so, reshape her identity to comics readers. With a new home, appropriately placed on Coney Island, and a new supporting cast, Palmiotti and Connor can let Harley live beyond her established tethers. She’s still the lovable psychopath, but she’s no longer a reactionary character to Batman and The Joker’s larger war.
“I think a lot of us have "exes" in our past that sometimes haunt us, and have also helped shape the person that we have become, but they don't define us,” Connor explains. “It’s another way in which Harley is relatable. She's a very interesting character as she stands on her own.”
As DC’s newest amoral protagonist, Harley picked the right time to enter the spotlight. American audiences never been more enamored with anti-heroes, as the Walter Whites and Frank Underwoods of popular culture keep replacing the last generation’s straight-laced heroes.
“She isn’t just the single dimensional good guy. She’s a very complex character, and if you look through her whole history, she’s evolved even more to be more complex,” says Robert Thompson, a professor in popular culture and media studies at Syracuse University. “You can love Harley Quinn as a character, and not necessarily admire everything she stands for, which is true of a lot of our current characters.”
And in that reliability, Harley has become an outlet for pop culture consumers. Established characters like Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel may be icons, but their near-flawlessness makes them incompatible with the general public. Say someone cut you in line at the grocery store. While Wonder Woman would lecture you to do the right thing and let it slide, Harley would tell you to lob a stick of dynamite in their shopping cart and run for cover. As Connor put it, Harley is a character who can live out our darker impulses. We connect with her flawed, but ultimately, human moral compass.
“Harley has bite to her, and that’s what we want,” Morris explained. “You get to be sort of a bad guy.”
But it’s not as if this new and improved Harley Quinn appeared over night. DC has tried putting her on a pedestal before, launching a solo series in 2000. But series barely made it to 38 issues before DC pulled the plug. Fans from Batman: The Animated Series loved her, but every other Wednesday Warrior remained unconvinced. While Harley’s semi-independence (She still lived in Gotham and routinely crossed paths with the Bat-family) complexity may have been there, Palmiotti argues that the audience wasn’t. Another key to the current volume’s success, he thinks, is the new female readership comics have attracted.
“The audience is changing, and more women are buying comics,” he says. “I think the sales show this change in the buying public.”
As Harley has risen to fame, so too has a demand for female-led books. Between DC and Marvel, there’s more than a dozen different comic series starring a female lead. While it’s still a minuscule fraction of the 200-plus comics the Big Two put out, it’s a far greater number than just two years ago, which saw less than eight female led titles in February 2013. Along with an anti-hero audience, Harley has also grown into an increasingly-female one. She’s not just a rough-housing icon; she’s a progressive one too.
“Let’s face it, they’ve been developing her for a long time,” Thompson says. “She is a strong enough, a complex enough, and an interesting enough character to be able to maintain the central role in franchise, as opposed to a partnering or supporting role.”
And a central role she’ll soon command, as Academy Award nominated actress Margot Robbie will soon bring her to the big screen in next year’s Suicide Squad film. It will be a defining moment for the character, cementing her role as cultural icon as The Joker, or The Dark Knight himself. And whatever her depiction in the film may be, Thompson thinks it will more than likely coalesce as a canonical one.
“When that movie comes out, it’s going to peoples’ first big dosage of Harley,” he says. “That total mainstreaming tends to solidify the mythology, whether it wants to or not.”
But even if Suicide Squad doesn’t agree with some people’s view of the character, that shouldn’t pose much of a problem for Harley. As a malleable icon who doesn’t mind taking a sledge hammer to the chains of her past, Harley, and her following, will only respond to what’s best for her. We’ll just have to hope it involves more spiked rubber chickens.
“Harley is able to reach a lot of different audiences and still stay true to her core ideas,” Palmiotti says. “A lot of characters can’t do that. It speaks to the wild and fun side of people.”