The Oral History of Harley Quinn

One character from 'Suicide Squad' stands out from the rest—follow her evolution from The Joker's main squeeze to one of DC's most compelling stars.

Harley Quinn Oral History Suicide Squad
Complex Original
Harley Quinn Oral History Suicide Squad

When the long-awaited first trailer for Suicide Squad was released in July 2015, two of the movie’s DC villains immediately stood out above the rest: Jared Leto’s Joker and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. Since then, rumors of Leto’s questionable method acting—terrorizing his fellow cast members with used condoms and anal beads, channeling the ghost of Heath Ledger, etc.—have cooled the heat around his performance as the Joker. But the buzz around Robbie and Harley Quinn has only grown. Comic-Con 2016 was flooded with Harley Quinn cosplayers last month, and the Harley-centric Suicide Squad trailer that dropped July 20 quickly eclipsed 2 million views. Fans are practically frothing at the mouth over the sexy, mysterious, and dangerous anti-heroine.

Harley Quinn has been the favored child of the DC villain subset since her earliest beginnings. She first appeared in 1992 in "Joker's Favor," an episode of Fox's Batman: The Animated Series, written by Paul Dini and edited by the series’ co-creator Bruce Timm. Sporting a black and red jester bodysuit, a rich red mask with twin bells, and the same chalk-white face as her psychopathic love interest, she was the perfect foil to the Joker. Vivacious, alluring, and head over heels for Gotham’s biggest bad boy, Harley Quinn was an instant hit on the series. And let’s be honest: What’s badder than being the only person in the world who can make the Joker catch feelings?

After breaking out on Batman: The Animated Series​, Harley Quinn has morphed and taken on countless identities over the last two decades. She’s appeared in a bevy of comic series, animated shows, and video games with near cult-like followings. Fans initially latched on to Harley Quinn not simply because she offered the Joker's character the dimension it lacked, but because, as Harley Quinn comic series artist Chad Hardin puts it, his love for her is the "the only redeeming thing" about his character. But Harley was too interesting of a character to be left under the Joker's (often abusive) sway, so DC made the smart decision to let her branch out and drive her own series. From there she gained a following by making being bad look really, really good. And added bonus? She's out of her mind, looney-tunes insane.

To better understand the phenomenon that is Harley Quinn, Complex reached out to the men and women who know her best: her creators. The OG co-creator Paul Dini (whose graphic novel Dark Night: A True Batman Story dropped in June), along with a handful of writers and artists—among them DC Comics’ Suicide Squad writer Adam Glass, and co-writer of the ongoing Harley Quinn series Jimmy Palmiotti—led us on a deep dive into the origins of Harley and her many iterations. From her first appearance in the early '90s right up to her big role in the most anticipated blockbuster of summer '16, here's everything you need to know about DC’s most compelling antagonist.

Harley Quinn Suicide Squad

The Origins of Harley Quinn

Harley Quinn was created in 1992 as an adjunct to the Joker, a lovable henchwoman who served as comic relief to his sadism. Her popularity with fans exploded immediately, and it wasn’t long before Harley Quinn was given her own back story in the 1994 award-winning one-shot comic book The Batman Adventures: Mad Love, which chronicled her sordid, admittedly problematic, early history with the Crown Prince of Crime.

Paul Dini: I was writing the script for the Batman animated series. When I was coming up with an idea for the Joker’s gang of hench people, I thought, I’d like to put a female character in there. I was going back and forth in my head about what kind of character she should be. “What if she’s funny? What if there is a little bit of a throwback to the henchmen from Batman in the '60s? What if she gets laughs from the henchmen sometimes when the Joker doesn't?” He would get angry at her. She could be a little sprite around him. I’d never seen the Joker really in that dynamic.

Harley Quinn [from “harlequin”], even though that technically is more of a male character in Commedia dell'arte, I thought it sounded very cute. So I started making her this snappy, fun, almost 1940s sassy character. Around that time, I had seen my friend, [actor] Arlene Sorkin, playing a jester in a fantasy sequence in Days of Our Lives where she was making jokes. I used a little bit of that: What if Harley’s got a little bit of that jester feel to her? What if she’s like the Joker’s court jester?

Margot Robbie (via Vanity Fair): She loves causing mayhem and destruction. She’s incredibly devoted to the Joker. They have a dysfunctional relationship, but she loves him anyway.

Harley Quinn Suicide Squad TimelineChad Hardin: This is one of the things I loved about Harley Quinn from the go: She was the only redeeming quality that the Joker had. For whatever reason, she chose that she was going to love this guy. It’s so weird, her ability to love something unconditionally, even though it was so dysfunctional and toxic. And here’s the credit that Paul and Bruce both deserve: They made it playful, and they made it endearing.

Paul Dini: The first major turning point in her character and development is in the Mad Love story. That is where she went from hench-person to the woman with the tragically twisted past. We discover she was the Joker’s therapist and he did this to her. He got into her head and worked her, and she willingly became what he wanted her to be. Her frustration is in trying to keep that relationship alive and having to [compete with] a character like Batman, who she looks at purely as an obstacle. All she wants is to get rid of him so that she can have the Joker’s full attention. Her eyes are open a bit but towards the end, but denial creeps back in.

Aaron Sowd: Paul made her a bit more realistic for the comic book as opposed to the animated series, but that’s what people and the best characters do: they evolve and grow.

Paul Dini: When we came up with the origin story for her, we put it out there that maybe she was not so good a person to begin with. Maybe in some ways she was manipulative, she took advantage of people, she cut corners. She was looking to profit off of these super criminals by writing a tell-all book. She was becoming a very surface-y pop psychologist and writing a tell-all book about the criminals of Gotham. When we took that attitude with her, it made it okay for her to fall under the Joker’s sway like that.

Terry Dodson: The relationship [between Harley and the Joker] in the seminal Dini/Timm Mad Love was always my touchstone. [In the Harley Quinn series], we were able to portray a scene where Harley the psychiatrist interviews the Joker. It was really close to nailing the same feel as Mad Love, giving that extra “edge” to the story that wasn’t typical in most superhero comic books.

Margot Robbie (via The Independent): Their relationship is nuts. She's co-dependent with the Joker, and when you see that, you start seeing it as a mental illness.

Adam Glass: Sex appeal is definitely part of Harley’s game, but that was the thing that as the writer I would get frustrated about, because it’s like, you’re judging this character before you’ve even had the chance to read it. Right out of the gate, I tried to sort of make her more independent. 

Hynden Walch: I always thought she was an amazingly fun character, and it was always a question of, “Why isn't Harley everywhere?” The love of her now makes total sense to me. She is girl power all the way, for sure. It’s not having to bow to any kind of rules and letting that crazy part of you out. And the more you let it out, the more everyone will love you—even if you are a little psychotic and evil.

David Ayer (via Wall Street Journal): She’s so unpredictable it makes her entertaining to watch or read. She had a great sense of humor. Interestingly enough, on the fan forums a lot of people seemed to really like that she’s so devoted to Joker despite how he treats her.

Tara Strong: I think everyone can relate to feeling crazy in a relationship. Harley acts out on her crazy, lets her crazy go even crazier. She would do anything for the love of this psycho—and she becomes psycho. I think people are attracted to that getting in over yourself, and the loyalty that she shows. She’s easily one of the best female villains that ever existed.

Adam Glass: Harley eventually had to stand on her own, whether that be because the Joker was incarcerated, disappeared, whatever the circumstances were. The idea was that eventually this smart woman who was a psychologist, Harleen Quinzel, who sort of raised herself up from a pretty bad background, would come around and find the strength to be her own person. What would that look like? That, for me, was the driving force behind making her her own character.

Harley Quinn & The Joker in Mad Love Comic

Moving Away From the Joker

After suffering though unrequited love with one of pop culture’s greatest villains, Harley Quinn had her hooks in comic fans. By 2000, it was time for the character to detach from the Joker, find a new, definitely unexpected love interest in Poison Ivy, and make a name for herself in comics like Harley Quinn and animated series like Gotham Girls.

Paul Dini: As with somebody who was in an abusive relationship, even though they get a good look at who the person is, there is often a lingering desire to stick it out or change the person. I think [distancing herself from the Joker] was really the first time we really knew who Harley was. Right around the same time is when she met Poison Ivy and realized she didn’t have to be an adjunct to the Joker. She could stand up for herself, she could have other friends and other relationships. That was a big turning point.

Chad Hardin: Jimmy and [comic book artist Amanda Conner], their whole goal from the onset was to sort of end her role as a sidekick and bring her out into the forefront. From day one they were like, “Okay, she’s going to get away from the Joker. We’re bringing her out of Gotham. She’s going to get away from some of her bad influences and she’s starting to come to her own senses, become her own person and be independent.”

Adam Glass: Let’s just say Poison Ivy was the gateway drug for Harley. 

Paul Dini: When Bruce and I did the Harley and Ivy miniseries, it was certainly implied that [Ivy and Harley] had a relationship with each other—they shared hugs and kisses. I didn’t want that to overpower what the story was, but the relationship between them is so natural.

Jimmy Palmiotti: I think [Harley Quinn co-writer Amanda Conner] said they were girlfriends without the jealousy of monogamy. 

Adam Glass: Exploring [the relationship between Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy] in the mid-1990s, it was really brave of the writers. I do think it’s a beautiful relationship. They’re two characters who really can relate in a lot of ways. Both damaged yet strong females—like, I think when you talk about Harley, all her damage is a power to her that’s undeniable. There’s a draw.

“she doesn't even have superpowers. She's just a psychopath who runs around gleefully killing people.”
—Margot Robbie

Paul Dini: The more I worked with [Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy], the more I could see [a romantic relationship] happening. Unfortunately, at the time, in an animated kids cartoon, you really couldn’t get into the complexity of that or honor what a relationship like that could really be. We just showed them together as friends and on fairly intimate terms when they were out of the costume, but nothing was implicit because if we couldn’t do that relationship properly then we didn’t want to do it at all. 

Jimmy Palmiotti: Harley's independence from the Joker was a natural thing to do if we were to keep moving the character forward and build a supporting cast and life for her. Like in real life, the more support you surround yourself with, the more friends and family that truly believe in you and help you, the better life decisions you will make. With Harley and Ivy, they constantly have each others’ backs. Harley has a big heart, and when she falls in love, she falls in love hard, no matter who they are. She wears all her emotions on her sleeve, good and bad. It’s why we love the character so much.

Chad Hardin: I think that’s one of the reasons why—besides just the craziness and the wackiness and the humor—so many people read the comic. It’s a breath of fresh air from a lot of what DC does.

Adam Glass: When I had her sleep with Deadpool—not Deadpool, excuse me. That’s a Freudian slip: I wish she slept with Deadpool. When she slept with Deadshot [in Suicide Squad #3] and she had this thing with him, people really were really upset because it wasn’t the Joker. But once again: independent woman making choices in her life. She has every right to explore all that, but also, it makes it more interesting.

The Many Faces of Harley Quinn

After her solo breakout, DC began spreading Harley Quinn into other franchises, each with their own tweaked storylines, including 2004's animated series The Batman, 2011's Suicide Squad, and even video games like Lego Batman the Videogame and Batman: Arkham Asylym. She became a multi-faceted, three-dimensional character to which every artist and writer added his or her own touch. But no matter the deviations from Paul Dini’s earliest depiction of the character, certain traits are consistent: she owns her sexuality, and she’s psychotic and murderous while also having moments of maternal tenderness and fierce loyalty.

Terry Dodson: In 1998, I was drawing Generation X at Marvel Comics, a teen X-Men, and I was influenced by Bruce Timm and the rest of the designers of the Batman animated show, like Shane Glines and Glen Murakami. Bruce and Paul Dini had done some Batman animated stories at the time for DC Comics featuring Harley that I loved, and I had done numerous sketches of her for fun in the Bruce Timm style. So, I was really wanting to do something with Harley at DC. Out of the blue, Karl Kesel asked if I’d be interested in doing a Harley Quinn monthly book. Crazy—the most serendipitous thing to happen to me in my career. 

Karl Kesel: I think Harley is certainly coming to her own this millennium. As far as I’m concerned, she’s the first breakout comic book character since Wolverine. She just seems to have a life of her own that we haven’t seen in characters in a very long time.

Jimmy Palmiotti: When Amanda and I were asked if we had any interest in writing a Harley Quinn series a few years back, we said we we were only interested in the character if we could write her our way—which was to take the character away from her old setting and create a strong woman more in charge of her life, as crazy as it may be. The first issue of the series we showed Harley leaving Gotham to start a new life, and by the time we got to issue 24 two years later, we had Harley confront the Joker as a stronger and more independent person. And these issues were some of the most popular of the series. The Joker was in way over his head, and their confrontation was a lesson for him that he cannot control everyone and everything—and his old girlfriend is very over him.

Scroll through the story below to see Harley Quinn in comics through the years:


Aaron Sowd: I was a fan of the character and the animated series, so when [DC editor] Jordan Gorfinkel called me to ask if I would like to ink the book, I jumped at the chance. The goal of Batman: Harley Quinn #1 was to introduce Harley into regular DC Comics continuity, which I think we did pretty seamlessly.

Adam Glass: I was a huge [OG Suicide Squad comics writer] John Ostrander fan. I said, “That’s the book that interests me the most, but if we’re going to reboot this [for DC's 2011 revamp and relaunch The New 52] and it’s set in a whole new world, I want to put Harley Quinn on the team.” And they said, “Harley Quinn? Harley Quinn’s not part of the Suicide Squad.” And I said, “You guys have been telling me to set this in a real world. In a real world, there is no way in hell a law enforcement agency would allow an institution [to hold both an institutionalized former employee and a deeply problematic patient with whom she had a relationship] to stay in that facility—they would separate them.” So for me, her going [somewhere else], to Belle Reve Penitentiary, was like a no-brainer.

I would argue she was the big sell of the Suicide Squad—clearly in the movie also. And it really allowed her to come out. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people in the beginning got caught up because of the design of her costume. They weren’t seeing that this is their Harley—but this is their Harley growing up.

Federico Dallocchio: Harley's new looks, temper, and soul are so great that after reading two lines of the editorial guidelines, I could draw her with my eyes closed. She's the perfect evolution of a character.

Aaron Sowd: I think the 2009 Batman: Arkham Asylum video game made her even more popular and took her in yet another direction.

Harley Quinn Storms 'Suicide Squad'

In David Ayer’s live-action film Suicide Squad, fans will see yet another revamp on Harley Quinn’s racy ensemble and her psycho-sexual relationship with the Joker, played in the film by Jared Leto. According to several of the creators, her newest costume design—hot pants, pigtails, and a torn baby tee brandished with the phrase "Daddy's lil monster"—is peak Harley Quinn, though it has nonetheless managed to enrage critics who feel she's being hyper-sexualized (spoiler alert: Harley has been sexy from the jump).

David Ayer (via Yahoo): Harley’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this project. She’s so complex, she’s all about dichotomies, so many opposing qualities in the same person, just like all of us. It’s rare to have such a strong female character who’s so active in the story, so driven and so powerful—yet has these weaknesses and Achilles heels, just like anybody.

Jimmy Palmiotti:[Myself and Amanda Conner] love that they took a cue from our series and created a brand new look for her, and from what we have seen, the attitude of the character is dead on. Just from the trailer we get a sense of a multi-personality—a twisted, sexy and funny character—and we couldn't be happier.

Paul Dini: In the little I saw of Margot’s playfulness, it works really well within that context. If they had done her exactly as she appeared in “Joker’s Favor,” you know, I don’t think it would have worked. I think the character has undergone an evolution. Where they are going in Suicide Squad, with Harley’s role there, is a very good one that suits that movie and apparently where they are going with the DC cinematic universe. In that context, I am very happy with it. That version of Harley and that version of the Joker compliment each other.

Margot Robbie (via Collider): I’ve never seen scenes like [Harley and the Joker's in Suicide Squad] before, personally. It’s next level. People better brace themselves. 

Margot Robbie and Jared Leto as Harley Quinn and The Joker

Terry Dodson: From a visual standpoint, I like a lot of what they are trying to do with the movie version of Harley Quinn, and I can see the new DC comic version of Harley is already adapting some of the best elements. I do feel the movie portrays Harley in a slightly more “sexualized” version than the Bruce Timm Harley that I know, as well as how I portrayed her.

Aaron Sowd: From the trailers I’ve seen, Margot Robbie looks really good. It seems like she gets the character. I hope the tone of the film is fun and chaotic without taking itself too seriously. Deadpool did that really well—I hope Suicide Squad has a similar tone.

Tara Strong: All my fans are like, “We’re so pissed off. Why aren’t you playing her?” And I’m like, “Everybody chill out.” Margot is stunning and a wonderful actress. I approve.

Federico Dallocchio: I believe Margot is the greatest Harley Quinn. She got the essence in that spoiled-child line, "We are bad guys, that's what we do.”

Adam Glass: My daughter, who is going to be sixteen in two months, went to Comic-Con. And she comes into my room [beforehand] dressed as Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn—the short-shorts and the shirt and the hammer. Obviously very risqué. She said, “What?” And I said, “There’s an old southern thing, ‘The chickens will come home to roost.' When I was writing this character I didn’t imagine that one day my daughter would be dressed up like this.” And so, you’ve got to practice what you preach. I said, “You look great.” Harley’s obviously inspiring these young ladies to go out there and show this side of themselves.

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