Back Issues: The Fantabulous Rise of One Harley Quinn

Harley Quinn returns to the big screen with James Gunn's The Suicide Squad, alongside a team comprised of some of the world's most dangerous villains sent on a dangerous mission to the island of Corto Maltese to destroy a Nazi-era laboratory. As the third outing for the character played by Margot Robbie, fans are excited to see what's next for the brash and colorful character after her appearances in 2016's Suicide Squad and 2020's Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) especially with this new film not really connecting to either previous movie in any established way. But even without any direct connection to her previous live-action outings, there's a lot that The Suicide Squad can draw from in terms of Harley's history. She may not be the oldest comic book character on the team, but she's certainly made quite an impact since her debut and is considered by many as being the fourth pillar of DC Comics after Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman.

As many fans know, Harley Quinn did not make her initial debut in comics. Instead, she first appeared on Batman: The Animated Series created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, debuting in 1992 in the episode "Joker's Favor". The character was inspired by Arleen Sorkin's Days of Our Lives character Calliope Jones who, a few years earlier, had appeared on an episode of the daytime drama in a dream sequence dressed as a court jester, roller-skating into a throne room. Sorkin ended up voicing the character, whose name is a play on the term "harlequin."

harley quinn jokers favor
(Photo: Warner Bros.)

Harley was initially intended to appear in just one episode as a female henchman for the Joker, but the character impressed producers of the series who wanted to bring her back for more. She eventually made a second appearance in the episode "The Laughing Fish" where she became the Joker's love interest and gained fan popularity. In time, Harley began to star in her own episodes as a more fully realized character with her own friendships and adventures.

As Harley's popularity grew on Batman: The Animated Series, she made the leap from screen to page. Her first appearance in comics was in 1993's The Batman Adventures #12. However, as that series was set in the animated universe, it wasn't considered to be canon. She also appeared in an Elseworlds story, Batman: Thrillkiller in 1997. But her first canonical comics appearance is the one-shot graphic novel Batman: Harley Quinn #1 in 1999.

Once Harley's origin was established as her being more than just a part of the Joker's story, even with various additions and updates it's remained mostly consistent. The one-shot, The Batman Adventures: Mad Love written by Dini and Timm and published in 1994 establishes the basics. Harley was born Harleen Quinzel and was a promising young psychiatrist who falls in love with the Joker during her internship at Arkham Asylum. She is transformed into Harley Quinn by the Joker, becoming his accomplice and love interest. The story also establishes the abusive nature of Harley and Joker's relationship, though her canonical introduction darkens that story significantly.

In Harley's first ongoing series, by Karl Kesel and Terry Dodson, she ends up breaking free of the Joker and sets out to establish herself as a villain in her own right. In Dini's 2009's Gotham City Sirens series, Harley resurfaced as part of a gang of female villains along with Catwoman and Poison Ivy. The series also establishes some additional details to Harley's backstory, giving her Brooklyn as a hometown, a dysfunctional family, and introduces the reason she first went into psychiatry as a career.

harley quinn rebirth
(Photo: DC Entertainment)

It isn't until The New 52 that Harley crosses paths with the Suicide Squad. In the 2011 Suicide Squad series Adam Glass reintroduces Harley as a member of Task Force X and makes a few changes to the character. Not only does Glass update Harley's villain origin a bit - Glass controversially changed Harley's origin to one that saw the Joker take Harleen against her will and push her into the vat of chemicals that turned her into Harley, a change that removes her agency as a character - and give her a more violent and psychotic personality, but he also changes her appearance. This is the point in her history where she changes from her jester costume to the now-iconic shorts and corset look.

However, it's Harley's second ongoing series that kicked off in 2014 from Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner is perhaps the most expansive exploration of her character and is indeed the one most fans recognize as the gold standard for the character. The series sees Harley leave Gotham to start out on her own in Brooklyn where she soon has a supporting cast of "sideshow freaks". Palmiotti and Conner's work establishes Harley, not as a villain, but an antihero with a genuine heart who has left her abusive relationship with the Joker and is searching to find her place as well as accept herself for who she is. Palmiotti and Conner also establish a romantic relationship between Poison Ivy and Harley. It's this general version of Harley that is the current version of the character and indeed the most popular. In current comics, as part of Infinite Frontier, Harley has returned to Gotham to once again reinvent herself... and, of course, shenanigans ensue.

While there's no way of knowing exactly how The Suicide Squad will incorporate Harley and her very colorful history, given how popular the character is fans are certainly excited to see what's next for her. And, if the pages of comics are any indication, we're likely to see some more wild shenanigans from Harley as she and Task Force X seek to save the world or die trying.

The Suicide Squad debuts in theaters and on HBO Max beginning Thursday, August 5th.

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