Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor
One of the most fascinating things about Harley Quinn is her origin. Not the tragic tale of a psychological intern who makes the terrible choice to fall in love with her insane patient, the Joker. “Mad Love” is a great story, but by origin this time, I mean Harley’s real world beginnings. Harley is the most successful superhero character to debut outside of comic books.
These days, the major comic book companies are part of huge entertainment conglomerates. DC Comics has long been a part of Warner Brothers (these days known as WarnerMedia because things always sound cooler when words run into each other). And, of course, Marvel has been owned by Disney for a bit over a decade now. These corporations essentially mine the creative properties of their comic book companies to produce television, film, and video game products.
But even before the era of these gigantic corporations, the tendency was for superhero characters to debut in comic books. The characters were developed there and essentially licensed out to other media. Thus, Superman debuted in 1938’s Action #1, but within a few years, he had his own motion picture cartoons and a radio show. Spider-Man became popular in 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15, so by 1967 he got his own cartoon. You know that one because that is where the lyrics, “Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a Spider can,” came from.
Harley worked in reverse. Developed as a sidekick character for the Joker for the “Joker’s Favor” episode of Batman: The Animated Series (1992), Harley was only supposed to appear in one story. After accidentally directing some road rage at the Joker while driving in rush hour traffic, Charlie Collins is forced off the road. The Clown Prince of Crime spares the terrified man, but only after Charlie agrees to do the Joker a favor at a later date. The Joker calls in his note as part of a plan to blow up Commissioner Gordon at a banquet.
Harley first appears in costume as the Joker begins his scheming. From the outset, it is clear her role is to be the supporting audience to Joker’s narcissistic ego. Harley does have a bit of a girl power moment when, disguised as a police officer, she punishes a fresh advance from Lt. Bullock with a wrap on the leg from her baton. Mostly though, she is there to be part of the gang.
There was a creative spark there and the character began to show up more with the Joker. It became clear that Harley was the long suffering other half in their relationship. By 1993’s “Harley and Ivy”, she broke free from the Joker to join Poison Ivy on a crime spree (and relationship, but that was easier to see with adult eyes). Their success drives Joker insane with jealousy. Unfortunately, by the end, she is back with Mr. J, but this pattern will repeat many times with Harley striking out on her own.
This is the essence of Harley. There is something likable about her, a plucky spirit that we want to see rewarded. It is not hard to see how, as DC worked her into the comics, she was able to shift over into a bit of an antihero. Harley is like a friend who keeps making bad choices, but she strives against them. Fans want her to be on the side of good, just not acting too good while she does it.