Any comic book aficionado or perennial nerd – every video-game, graphic-novel, pop-culture freak – can tell you what they think about this character and why. Most of us can tell you which version of the character we were first introduced to, and which iteration we prefer, from the after school cartoon to the decidedly more gritty and demented video game character from the award-winning “Arkham” series of Batman video games.
The more recent comic book and video game depictions of the character aren’t just grittier, but also much more sexualized, and this appears to have informed the direction of the character for the new “Suicide Squad” film. This makes sense for a film targeting a teenage and adult male audience. The character is perfectly tailored to play the seductive role while maintaining her dignity; complete insanity can be fun that way. What’s interesting and attractive about the character goes beyond sex appeal, though, which is probably one of the main reasons why so many people are interested in her. She isn’t a two-dimensional comic foil in a tight outfit. Or, I should say, she isn’t just a comic foil in a tight outfit. Her character is fully formed, she has agency and motivation, and this elevates her from many of the cinematic adaptations of female super-heroes and super-villains. There aren’t any one-liners to pigeonhole this one.
What we might also consider is that Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel isn’t a throwback to the 1950s, or any other earlier era of antiquated Americana. Many comic book stories from the early days of Marvel and DC weren’t very kind to women and their portrayal in popular media. This one is very original. Harley Quinn – a pretty ‘on-the-nose’ pun on the word ‘harlequin’ – was created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm back in 1991. Her first appearance was in an episode of “Batman: The Animated Series” in September of 1992.
The animated series was undeniably for kids, but it adopted a wonderfully dark tone and took it’s subject matter seriously. The show was illustrated in muted tones and was heavily influenced by art-deco design. The stories were also genre-defining, presenting conflicted characters, gothic atmosphere, and emotionally intelligent plots. The production team respected its audience even though most of them were children; this might explain why the series is still considered relevant today. It’s one of those timeless classics that’ll likely extend much further than it’s original run. Heck, it already has.
In the animated series, Harley Quinn isn’t given an origin story. She just appears as an obvious, humorous female sidekick to The Joker, who disregards her extreme admiration and devotion to him. With a thick Jersey accent and an almost innocent, bubbly desire to please the man of her dreams, much of the humor comes from her obliviousness. She scarcely seems to recognize how psychotic the object of her affection is. This worked well in the cartoon format, with a characterization that remained consistent, more or less, throughout the series.
The origin story didn’t appear until the 1994 graphic novel in the “Batman Adventures” series, titled “Mad Love.” We learn that the good Dr. Quinzel began as an ambitious and uniquely brilliant young psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum. Through a drawn-out attempt to psychoanalyze The Joker, she is eventually manipulated by the madman into setting him free. It’s a Stockholm-Syndrome-esque turn-of-events, and the doctor is subsequently twisted into one of The Joker’s puppets. The narrative is under-girded by Harley’s intellectual gifts and her emotional frailty, conflicting characteristics that make her a fascinating victim – she’s both dangerous and vulnerable. The story was widely praised and won the Eisner and Harvey Awards for Best Single Issue Comic of the Year.
From the look of things, this origin story will not be a part of the new “Suicide Squad” film. The origin story may be hinted at, but it won’t be a focus of the film’s narrative. Not enough is revealed by the movie trailers alone to cast judgement, but commentators and fans appear to be split regarding this new incarnation of Harley Quinn. Some say the look is perfect, others wish there would be a more true-to-comic presence. Others are concerned that she doesn’t have that thick Jersey accent that helped define her cartoon countenance (an understandable critique when we watch the trailer and hear the classic ‘joker laugh’ from actor Jared Leto, a clear homage to Mark Hamill’s voice acting in the animated series).
The only way to know if the new Harley is worth a damn, of course, is to buy the ticket, take the ride, and see if works. I, for one, am optimistic that this is going to be a fun ride.