When Paul Dini and Bruce Timm created Harley Quinn for Batman: The Animated Series, I don’t imagine they were aware of the character’s staying power. She was a minor character in her first appearance – not much more than the Joker’s wisecracking sidekick. Now? Harley Quinn’s current ongoing series is a top-seller for DC, routinely out-performing A-list books like Superman and Wonder Woman. In fact, looking at the past year of charts, the only monthly DC comics that outsell Harley are Batman, Justice League, and whatever current event book is going on. Harley is also one of the few characters to have multiple titles under her name, with an upcoming team-up title called Harley’s Little Black Book debuting this month. That’s a hell of a rise from her modest debut, and with the Suicide Squad film coming next year with actress Margot Robbie playing the character, Harley has nowhere to go but up.
It wasn’t initially the Animated Series, but rather in the world of comics in which Harley was given the backstory that would redefine her character. Paul Dini and Bruce Timm collaborated on Mad Love, which was set in the universe of B:TAS. The cartoon later adapted it, almost word-for-word, into an episode, but the comic was a singular work of art unto itself. It earned an Eisner Award in 1994 and garnered critical acclaim, but beyond that, it took a character that could’ve been a one-note henchman and, instead, gave her depth that made her a true threat to Batman (arguably equal to that of the Joker, as she figures out a way to carry out one of his own plans better than he could). With Mad Love, Harley joined the ranks of the greatest villains in Gotham history, and her popularity today exceeds perhaps every one of them other than the Joker himself.
I’d wager that anyone reading an article about Harley Quinn during Batman Month on a comic book shop’s website doesn’t have to be told who Harley Quinn in, and where she came from, so I won’t get too deep into that. The bitten-by-a-radioactive-spider of it all is that she was the Joker’s therapist, fell for him, lost her shit, and boom – heeeeere’s Harley. Mad Love’s genius isn’t just the tragic backstory. I mean, what villain these days doesn’t have a tragic backstory? It kinda comes with the territory, unless you’re the Joker himself. What makes Mad Love genius is the nuance in the depiction of Harley’s broken relationship, and her heartbreaking determination to make it work, through bad times and… well, even worse times. Through arrests and gunfire. Through both of them getting the snot kicked out of them by Batman, only to have Joker turn on her when they get home. The genius of Mad Love is that it makes Harley empathetic while not shying away from the fact that she… you know, occasionally might try to kill people and dates a psychotic clown. It shows a strong and clever Harley while exploring the way her dependency on the Joker, who uses her and never returns her love, makes her feel weak. It’s that fragile balance of strength and nobility that turned Harley from a one-note villain into a leading lady.
These days, Harley Quinn has finally broken free of her Mad Love. She’s having a rip-roaring time doing her own thing in her ongoing series, which is perhaps the wackiest, funniest books DC has produced in years, which goes to show, no matter how she got her start, Harley Quinn was never destined to live in the Joker’s shadow.
PAT SHAND writes comics (Robyn Hood, Family Pets, Van Helsing, Charmed: Season Ten), novels (Charmed for HarperCollins), and pop culture journalism (Sad Girls Guide, Blastoff Comics). He can be found on social media @PatShand, where he posts about cats, Netflix, and comics far, far too often.