25 years ago this month, Harley Quinn debuted on Batman: The Animated Series and since that debut, she has become one of the most popular characters in comic books. She’s crossed over into the “mainstream” garnering fans of all kinds, accomplishing something we rarely see from female characters, especially those who don’t fit into the hero box. 25 years is not a long time compared to someone like Superman or Spider-Man but the rise of the character in such a short time span is kind of amazing. But why did this happen? What about Harley Quinn has resonated with so many people including myself? That’s what I’ll explore here because if there’s one thing in this world I know, it’s Harley Quinn.
Harleen Quinzel a.k.a. Harley Quinn debuted on the Batman: The Animated Series episode “Joker’s Favor.” In 1994, she was popular enough to be brought into the DC Universe through the graphic novel “Mad Love” by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini. This told her origin story, yet remained in continuity with the television series but with little details changed here and there (her bleached skin was blamed on Joker in an updated origin), it has been the basis for her character. She was a psychologist at Arkham Asylum and fell in love/was manipulated by the Joker and became his sidekick. The first time I had ever seen Harley Quinn was in the episode “Mad Love” which was an adaptation of the comic book. I saw her later appearances in out of order replays on the WB after school and of all the villains on the show, there was something that really resonated with me about this character. At that age, I think I was into the idea of a woman hanging out with the biggest Batman villain and at times, taking it to Batman. I didn’t start reading comics until much later and among some of my first titles on my first ever pull list was “Gotham City Sirens,” a series I revisited last week. I liked the idea of the bad guys not actually being guys and that’s remained true but as you get older, your world views change and things become more complicated.
Harley Quinn, for much of her 25 years has been a sidekick and a victim. Her relationship with the Joker was never good and it was never something to aspire to. It never “relationship goals” and it makes me increasingly uncomfortable that this relationship is coveted the way it is. Harley Quinn is a victim of the Joker from the get go and because of this, I always viewed her as an underdog. She struggled with letting go and getting out of this for a very long time and even in her solo adventures in her first series and “Gotham City Sirens,” this relationship was always there. It was hard for her to let it go and value herself more. This is how she was written and this is what was expected from the character for many years.
As a victim, a sidekick and a supporting character, she was never meant to succeed the way that she did and become a leading woman. She became bigger than what was intended for her yet she still doesn’t get the kind of respect for it that more heroic characters get. In her solo adventures, she’s featured as a character still on the bad side of things and she makes a lot of mistakes. In her current series, she’s constantly getting into things that often times highlight and exacerbate her flaws, flaws we all have, and it makes her relatable in a way that superheroes aren’t.
There is a big difference between how we look at certain characters in the superhero genre. For example, we look for hope in characters like Wonder Woman and Superman. We don’t relate to them because they are the ones we want to save us when things get tough. We put them on pedestals because that’s who they are. They are the big, Earth saving heroes that we look up to. A character like Harley Quinn though, and this may be the biggest reason she’s become so popular, is imperfect. She’s a troublemaker who’s made mistakes and gotten into bad situations. She’s done things she’s not entirely proud of and I think this is a big part of why characters who tow the line between hero and villain are more engaging. A Wonder Woman story is good because it’s the story of a hero doing good. You aspire to this but Harley Quinn is a character I see more of myself in. She’s like me – a twenty something still figuring things out. It’s all exaggerated to a bigger degree as she’s also bashing people with a giant mallet but you get the drift.Continued below
The influence she’s had pop culture as a whole and fans (especially cosplayers) is real and something very, very unique. You can’t go to a comic book convention without running into a ton of Harley Quinns. Thanks to how many alternate versions there are of her and how much fan art exists, there are infinite combinations. It’s allowed fans, particularly women, to express themselves with a character who’s more fun than ever before and far more flexible about who she is. Harley Quinn has been through such a metamorphosis and this is what has given her longevity and will continue to make her even more popular. She’s a woman that exists in a major publication line who gets to make the mold instead of fitting into it.