Harley Quinn is, today, one of the most popular comic book characters on the planet. Whether it’s in print, on the small screen or in movies like this week’s Birds of Prey, she is one of the most prominent female characters in the world of DC Comics. Sometimes a villain, sometimes an anti-hero and always entertaining, she has come a long way since she first appeared in what was supposed to be a very minor role.
The character has undergone many major shifts and changes since she first debuted and is now a far more independent figure than she was when she was more explicitly attached to the Joker in her early appearances.
But the road to Birds of Prey has been long and winding, over the course of almost 30 years. So let’s dive in and take a brief whistle-stop tour through how one of DC’s most popular characters rose from minor roots to become a true leading lady.
1992 — Batman: The Animated Series
Harley Quinn was first introduced in Joker’s Favour — the 22nd episode of Fox cartoon Batman: The Animated Series. It was decided that it would be too ridiculous for the Mark Hamill voiced Joker to be depicted bursting out of a cake to take police officers hostage, so a female accomplice was created for him. A play on the subservient “Harlequin” character from Italian theatre, Harley Quinn was born.
Co-creators Paul Dini and Bruce Timm were inspired by a dream sequence from the US soap Days of Our Lives, in which actress Arleen Sorkin was depicted in a jester outfit. Dini and Sorkin were long-time friends and she was soon brought in to voice the character — a job she would continue to do in various animations and video games until as recently as 2011’s role-playing game DC Universe Online.
1993 — The Batman Adventures: Mad Love
The character of Harley Quinn was fleshed out in Dini and Timm’s 1993 one-shot comic book The Batman Adventures: Mad Love. The award-winning story featured Quinn looking back on how she first met the Joker while working as psychologist Dr Harleen Quinzel at Arkham Asylum. Joker told Dr. Quinzel he was abused as child by an alcoholic father and, while helping him to unpick his trauma, Quinzel fell for him.
She tried to prove her love by killing Batman, but this angered Joker, who pushed her out of a window. Injured in hospital, she vowed never to be with him again, until receiving a bouquet of flowers and a “get well soon” card.
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Mad Love won the Best Single Story award at the Eisners — the comic book equivalent of the Oscars — and was subsequently adapted as an episode of the animated series The New Batman Adventures in 1999. A slightly tweaked version of this origin story has been in place ever since.
2001-03 — Harley Quinn and Birds of Prey
Quinn became the star of her own, eponymous comic book series in 2001 and it subsequently ran for 38 issues until 2003. The stories featured her going solo — goodbye, Mr J! — for the first time and forming a girl gang, culminating in her turning herself in to Arkham Asylum in order to get help.
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Meanwhile, 2002 saw the live-action debut of Harley Quinn in the TV series Birds of Prey. Quinn was the main antagonist of the series, conducting therapy sessions as Dr. Harleen Quinzel with Helena Kyle — secretly the vigilante Huntress. It’s only in the finale that each learns the other’s secret identity. Mia Sara — best known as Sloane in Ferris Bueller's Day Off — played Quinn in this series.
2009-11 — Gotham City Sirens
In the 2007 Countdown arc, Quinn was shown to be a reformed woman, living in a women’s shelter run by the Amazons and eschewing her trademark jester outfit and clown make-up. Just a few years later, however, she was back on more morally dubious ground in Gotham City Sirens. The series, written by Dini, saw Quinn teamed up with fellow female villains Catwoman and Poison Ivy.
Nominally, the trio were working together, but they all had agendas of their own throughout the comic book run. All three ultimately went their separate ways as the series ended. Suicide Squad director David Ayer was attached to a potential film version of Gotham City Sirens for a number of years, but eventually left the project, which seemingly morphed into a Joker vs. Harley Quinn story and then disappeared entirely.
2011 — The New 52
DC Comics rebooted its continuity in 2011 with The New 52, following the conclusion of the seismic Flashpoint storyline. A stand-alone Harley Quinn comic run was launched as part of this initiative in 2013. Since the New 52 relaunch, Quinn has become more of an antihero than a straight villain and is increasingly disconnected from Batman and The Joker, particularly after she was released from the Suicide Squad. She was also in a romantic relationship with Poison Ivy and part of a roller derby team, which makes its way into the latest Birds of Prey film.
During this period, DC was criticised for a contest in which it invited readers to draw images of Quinn in a variety of scenarios depicting suicide, including one that showed her naked. The Daily Dot referred to Quinn during this controversy as “arguably one of the most sexualised” female characters in DC history.
2016 — Suicide Squad
Suicide Squad saw Quinn make her debut in live-action on the big screen, with Aussie actress Margot Robbie embodying the character. She was depicted as an unpredictable and anarchic member of the unlikely team of heroes in David Ayer’s ungainly, higgledy-piggledy film. Critics savaged the movie, which nonetheless did a solid job at the box office, earning $747m (£579m) globally. It even won an Oscar (for makeup and hairstyling).
While the film got a critical pasting, many lauded Robbie as the only star to emerge from the project unscathed, having imbued Quinn with energy and bite. Sequels and spin-offs were quickly announced, with Birds of Prey the one to eventually make it to the big screen.
2017 — Batman and Harley Quinn and Gotham
This year saw a pair of appearances for Quinn in media away from comic books. Animated movie Batman and Harley Quinn was released into cinemas, with The Big Bang Theory actress Melissa Rauch voicing her alongside long-time Batman voice Kevin Conroy. The story saw a more heroic take on Harley Quinn, depicting her fighting alongside the Caped Crusader.
Meanwhile, Fox’s Batman-adjacent crime series Gotham introduced the character of Ecco in its fourth season — a clear riff on Harley Quinn, complete with red and white outfit. She was depicted as the unhinged henchwoman of Joker analogue Jeremiah Valeska, and returned for the show’s fifth and final season.
2019 — Harley Quinn
DC launched its own streaming service, DC Universe, in 2018 and it didn’t take long before Harley Quinn took up a starring role. Harley Quinn began airing on the service in November 2019, with Kaley Cuoco becoming the second star of The Big Bang Theory to lend her voice to Quinn. Much like Birds of Prey, the series depicts Quinn in the wake of her break-up from the Joker, voiced by Disney veteran Alan Tudyk.
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The show has received strong reviews, scoring an 89% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Variety wrote that the adult-orientated show — much like the R-rated Birds of Prey — boasts “acidic scripts and shocking bursts of gore”, meaning this is definitely not a Quinn story for kids. It is due to air in the UK on E4 in the near future, as DC Universe is not available on these shores.
2020-future — Birds of Prey and The Suicide Squad
This all brings us to the present day, with Birds of Prey now in UK and US cinemas. The movie is a riotous take on Quinn’s break-up with the Joker, which features Robbie guzzling cereal and watching Looney Tunes in her apartment until she realises that, with her former beau’s protection now gone, the entire Gotham underworld is after her. This springs her into the hunt for a missing diamond, bringing together the disparate group of women who ultimately make up the title.
Birds of Prey is already attracting rave reviews and looks set to spawn a whole new corner for the DC Extended Universe. Robbie, meanwhile, will return to the role of Harley Quinn in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad — a soft reboot of Ayer’s movie which, with any luck, will be better received. Its plot is currently shrouded in secrecy.
With Harley Quinn’s star now truly in the ascendancy, it seems likely that her story is far from over.