All April long, we'll be highlighting the wonderful world of comics, from interviews with creators and a look at the way the industry works to deep dives with our favorite characters, storylines and controversies. Stay tuned for more throughout the month, and let us know what you think in the comments or on Twitter @blastr!
Dateline: September of 1992. A striking red and black jester bursts from a cake on Batman: The Animated Series and a twisted star is born. Twenty-four years later, she's one of the most recognized faces in The Dark Knight's rogues gallery, a nefarious group that largely consists of characters who had a 50-year head start on our gregarious gal, Harley. What is it about this one-time henchgirl that's given her so much life beyond her humble cartoon origins with loyal fans in and out of the comics community?
Every time the character has crossed into a new medium, be it a starring role on the short-lived Bird's of Prey TV series, a memorable turn in the wildly popular Arkham games, or the mountains of merchandise spinning out of DC's Bombshells line, she's seen an exponential growth in her notoriety. With Margot Robbie bringing us Harley's Debbie Harry-inspired live-action film debut in David Ayer's Suicide Squad this summer, it's likely we'll see another leap in the sidekick-turned-antihero's pop culture presence.
Here's a list of 18 significant versions of Harley we've seen across comics, television, video games and more. Run down the rowdy roster of hellacious Harley Quinns and tell us which ones you love best.
Harley Quinn is perhaps most often recognized as the Joker's girlfriend, and the relationship is sometimes romanticized as a couple of misfits, misunderstood by all but each other. Harley's 1994 Eisner Award-winning origin in The Batman Adventures: Mad Love framed the relationship in a decidedly more one-sided fashion. The story has been described by writer Paul Dini as, "what happens when someone loves recklessly, obsessively, and for too long." But more than that, Mad Love sets Harley up as a clever and competent woman, continuously dragged down by an insecure and abusive Joker. She's smarter, funnier and more charming than the Clown Prince at every turn, and she comes far closer than him to actually killing Batman. Your heart aches for the gravely injured Harley Quinn, and her alter ego Harleen Quinzel, when she chokes out, "My fault...I didn't get the joke..."
The 2009 serial Game of the Year winner Batman: Arkham Asylum marked the penultimate performance of Arleen Sorkin, original voice actress and basis for the character of Harley. It was as much an ending as a beginning for the character, whose depiction in the game traded her classic pulp noir sensuality for a grindhouse level of self-aware exploitation that would go on to define her in future appearances. While Asylum only dressed Harley up as a nurse, the next installment, Arkham City, truly put her in the role of caretaker to the game's diseased and weakening Joker. The series' final chapter, Arkham Knight, gave Harley a big, poofy ballerina dress, similar to the character's look in the Emperor Joker comic book story, but less of a starring role than the previous games.
NEW 52 SUICIDE SQUAD
Inspired by the Arkham games, the New 52's first attempt at reimagining Harley put her in a costume ripped straight from the shelves of Hot Topic, then dyed her iconic blonde hair red and purple to complete the faux punk transformation. Reactions to Harley's new look were at first favorable, and Suicide Squad premiered as fairly popular member of the Bat-family line of books. But constant changes to the creative team made the book hard to follow, and threw characterization all over the place. Harley quickly ditched her new duds for daisy dukes and a tied off flannel, before trying to screw her way through the team, apparently hoping to find a new villain's arm to decorate in an enormous step back for the character.
GODS AND MONSTERS
Justice League: Gods and Monsters is a 2015 animated film produced by Harley Quinn co-creator Bruce Timm that proves that, not only can you tell darker stories within the DC mythology, but that, when done well, they are just as poignant as their more light-hearted source material, if not more. The first episode of the tie-in series Justice League Gods and Monsters Chronicles gives us an absolutely deranged Harley Quinn barely keeping her stitches together to complement their more isolated, monstrous Batman. In a warehouse full of taxidermied human beings, a vulgar and vicious Harley takes wild, desperate swings at Batman with a sledgehammer, then a chainsaw, before clipping herself and ultimately surrendering.
CITY OF SCARS
Before filmmaker Aaron Schoenke and his production company, Bat in the Sun, were creating the Youtube sensation Super Power Beat Down, they contributed several Batman-focused projects to the fan film community. One of their most notable works was the superbly produced, thirty-minute-long City of Scars. The film concerns the Joker, who, having escaped yet again from Arkham, kidnaps the son of a politician while Batman attempts to track them both down. Musician Madelynn Rae plays Harley Quinn in two music videos used to promote the short film, but she only makes it into one scene of the actual movie. Surprisingly good cinematography manages to make the scene memorable, so much so that it may have inspired filmmakers of official DC adaptations, including Arrow and David Ayer's upcoming Suicide Squad film, both of which feature strikingly similar shots of an incarcerated Harley.
BERMEJO AND AZZARELLO'S JOKER
This 2008 graphic novel, simply titled Joker, came out just after the billion-dollar film The Dark Knight, though it had been in production at least two years prior, and it made a perfect jumping on point for new readers coming to comics after seeing the movie.The book's grunge rock visuals and grounded, but twisted, criminals would have been right at home in Nolan's gritty Gotham. Writer Brian Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo included a brief-but-insightful look at Harley and her role in the Joker's life. Stripping, murdering, and dressing up in a gorilla suit are all things Harley does for the Joker, but one private moment reveals the true nature of their relationship when, behind closed doors, the Joker drops to his knees and weeps in Harley's embrace. Ever the psychologist, she allows him to drop his act and feel, overwhelmingly and all at once, before returning to his performance.
BIRDS OF PREY
There's very little of the 2002 WB series Birds of Prey that holds up today. But putting the extremely dated costumes, special effects, and music aside, Mia Sara brings a chillingly playful quality to the series' main antagonist and the first-ever live action portrayal of the villain, not unlike Heath Ledger's Joker in some ways. Her performance is the show's main saving grace, with the viewer never completely able to perceive what she is thinking. Acting throughout the first and only season of the show as court appointed psychiatrist to protagonist Helena Kyle, AKA Huntress, Harley manipulates Helena into aiding her in an attempted city wide takeover in the series finale. Though she loses in the end, her character remains one of the show's few victories.
BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD
Cartoon Network's Batman: The Brave and the Bold was created as a love letter to Batman's wackier Silver Age antics, featuring classic team ups and reveling in obscure nods to the entire history of the Caped Crusader. It's a wonder and a shame that the show's entertaining and likable Harley Quinn only made it into one episode. Recasting Harley as a silent film starlet in a similarly themed branch of Joker's gang, Meghan Strange honored the previously established Harley while playing a completely fresh and surprising version of the character. Though she clearly doesn't share the Joker's lust for violence, she stands by him in the end, even after being asked for a date by the infinitely powerful fourth dimension demigod Bat-Mite.
DC COMICS BOMBSHELLS
Harley Quinn's greaser look helped sell DC's concept for a series of pin up statues called DC Comics Bombshells. When the designs were adapted into a comic series, Harley was given a new origin as a WWII-era sanitarium doctor driven mad during the holiday season by some vague Lovecraftian horror. In a nod to the many holiday color variants that have been made for the Bombshell statues, Harley dons an elf-inspired red and green costume and somehow manages to steal a fighter plane and take flight, tossing presents down over London like an utterly insane Santa Claus.
HOLY MUSICAL B@MAN!
Though Harley Quinn never appears by name in Starkid's parody musical, the very Harley-like villain Candy appears alongside the show's main baddie, Sweet Tooth, a treat-themed villain who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Joker arriving just after the clown's apparent death in the opening of the show. Armed with a Tootsie Roll mallet and positively coated in glitter, Jaime Lyn Beatty's performance cannot be left out purely due to how fun she is to watch. Unmistakably inspired by Harley, if not Harley, herself, assuming a new alter ego, Candy manages the ballet of Harley's movement coupled with the voice of a psychotic Bettie Boop, all while owning the stage in knee high Chuck Taylors. The show is also notable for its early example of the cotton candy pink and blue color scheme, beating the comics and upcoming film by four years.
Injustice: Gods Among Us is a brutal fighting game released in 2013 by Mortal Kombat developer NetherRealm Studios. The comic of the same name was launched in the lead-up to the game's release, though it's unlikely anyone expected much from a book based on a game with no real story written by then no-name Tom Taylor. But Taylor quickly unleashed one of the best books in DC's entire lineup, spending weeks at the number one spot for Amazon's best-selling digital books, and at one point claiming the entire top ten with multiple issues of the series. The story begins just prior to the Joker's graphic murder at the hands of Superman, giving Harley lots of room to grow throughout the series, which is still running three years later. Joining former Justice Leaguers in their rebellion against Superman's regime, Harley is given some of her all-time best dialogue in her conversations with Green Arrow and Black Canary. Thanks to the presence of super strength nanites in her blood, this is possibly also the most powerful Harley we've ever seen, able to rip the bounty hunting biker Lobo's head off with her bare hands.
GOTHAM CITY SIRENS
Gotham City Sirens ran from 2009 until DC wiped the slate clean with the New 52 and it provided one of the richest, most thorough explorations of Harley, along with the series' other leads, Catwoman and Poison Ivy. Harley's arc mainly dealt with trying to build new relationships, while her friends worried she might relapse back into the Joker's arms, which she ultimately did in the series' final story, causing a massive rift throughout the group. Regardless of her setbacks, though, Harley had people in her life who cared for her in a whole support network of semi-reformed Gotham super criminals, including the Riddler, a private investigator at the time, and former Wonderland Gang member The Carpenter.
Countdown to Final Crisis remains one of the biggest stories DC Comics has ever told. Encompassing characters from all over the DC Universe, it radically changed the status quo on a weekly basis leading up to another universe-shattering crisis. Harley, joined by Catwoman's long-time best friend, Holly Robinson, weaved through the event in one of her most hard-to-believe adventures. After joining and then abandoning a radical sect of Amazonians, Harley is granted super powers by Thalia, the Greek muse of comedy, similar to how Billy Batson was given his powers by the wizard Shazam. Her powers seem to have faded since, but who knows what would happen were Harley to utter the magical invocation, "Thalia!"
A seemingly anything-goes approach made the cyberpunk cartoon Batman Beyond, set in the future of Batman The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures, one of the most imaginative visions of Gotham ever created. The series gave us Mr. Freeze as a head in a jar, a mind controlled former Robin as a resurrected Joker, and Harley Quinn at the latest point in her life we've seen yet. Grandmother to the show's recurring twin antagonist duo Dee Dee, themselves a rave girl mashup of Harley's design and a Raggedy Ann doll, she bails them out of jail before chastising them, "You rotten little scamps! I struggled to make a good home for you, and this is the thanks I get? Break a grandmother's heart, I hope they throw the book at you!"
NEW 52 SOLO SERIES
Writers Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti reintroduced Harley to the New 52 line in 2013 with her own ongoing series. Almost immediately ,the character went from controversial mess to flagship franchise, with three spin-offs and counting. Conner's redesign brought practicality to Harley's look, giving her protective padding to go along with her new position on a roller derby team. It almost seems obvious now but, at the time, it was an enormously positive change. Harley's attitude was fine-tuned, making her more of an antihero than the straight up, child murdering villain she was shown as in Suicide Squad. In addition to playing up the romantic nature of her long time partnership with Poison Ivy, the book also cemented her growth into a self sufficient role model to the readers who relate to Harley's troubled past by having her beat the Joker senseless.
DC's digital first series Batman '66 provided an ongoing continuation of the infamous '60s television series, giving us high stakes adventures the show could never have afforded and delightfully campy introductions for classic Batman villains the show never utilized, like Clayface and Killer Croc. Introduced early on in the series, Dr. Quinn is shown to be very successful in rehabilitating the inmates of Arkham Asylum, save for one: The Joker, of course. When the problem patient attempts to blast the citizens of Gotham with an insanity ray based on his own brain, Dr. Quinn sacrifices her brilliant mind, taking the brunt of the blast and becoming the irreversibly insane Harley Quinn.
ASSAULT ON ARKHAM
This animated prequel to Arkham Asylum is mostly successful at setting up the Suicide Squad, though Hynden Walch's Harley lacks the subtlety of Arleen Sorkin's performance, offering a much more ditzy and oversexualized Quinn, sacrificing any actual wit for randomness. The film does provide a very physically capable Harley, with by far the coolest costume she dons in any part of the Arkham franchise. A compromise that falls somewhere between her classic jumpsuit and the New 52 look, it's a tougher, more tactical take on the red and black that looks great while in madcap, acrobatic motion.
DC SUPER HERO GIRLS
Voice acting veteran Tara Strong voices Harley in this web series based on the toy line, created to give more options to young girls interested in comics. DC Super Hero Girls places several characters from the DC pantheon in Super Hero High School, but mainly focuses on new student Wonder Woman and her circle of friends. Harley is introduced as Wonder Woman's roommate on the show, and she's clearly been tweaked to better fit the environment. Her violent outbursts have been traded for good natured horseplay, she's been granted full on super powers in the form inhuman gymnastic abilities, and she has an array of prank-themed gadgets like glitter bombs and whoopee cushions. This is probably the most heroic version of Harley to date, a lovable goofball who helps to save the day in the end.