Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Harley Quinn is the inauspiciousness of her debut. Paul Dini has admitted that she started as nothing more than another henchman for Joker in the “Joker’s Favor” episode of Batman: The Animated Series. And from that, she has evolved into, probably, the fourth most beloved character on the DC roster.
Harley Quinn is a successful character for many reasons, but her strength as a character starts with the fact that she gives us another lens with which to view the Joker. Before Harley, readers might have known about Joker’s Satan-esque ability to manipulate, Harley presents us with a tragic example of that ability. Coming from a rough, abusive childhood, Harleen Quinzel became a gifted psychologist who wants to help the criminally insane. It is her blind optimism that gives her the audacity to attempt to reform the Joker. Joker cruelly twists that optimism into blind pity, and eventually, blind infatuation. And that is the tragedy; her good nature is what turns her into Harley Quinn. This is what the Suicide Squad gets so epically wrong about the character. Instead of being manipulated, Harley just has really bad taste in men, and Joker is a wild rascal in love. This makes Harley a psychopath, just like Joker, which I’m not sure is a proper way to read the character. Crazy, yes, but evil? I just don’t see Harley that way.
In fact, it is her purity of motive and blind optimism that grow into being her best attributes. In the brilliant “Mad Love” (comic or episode of B:TAS, take your pick) she is able to recycle one of Joker’s old plans to kill Batman, and fix all of its problems, because she is not tied an ulterior motive like the Joker. None of the Joker’s plans work because his massive ego won’t allow for anything other than the total defeat of Batman AND Batman’s ideology. Joker has to prove he is right. Harley, who is not restrained by such egotism, fixes up an old plan and eventually has Batman dead to rights. In her mind, if killing Batman will make Joker better, then she will kill Batman. What she doesn’t realize is that Joker is too arrogant to let anyone else kill Batman; a fact that Batman eventually uses to secure his eventual escape, via the Joker. Batman even tells Joker that Harley got closer to taking Batman out than Joker ever has or ever will.
It is the tragic consequences of her abusive relationship with Joker that make her a character worth our attention, because we hope that she can overcome her infatuation and leave the Joker behind. In the fight between the ultra-human Batman, and the ultimate evil entity that is Joker, Harley is a consequence that we relate to as readers. But in recent years she has proven to be something of a chameleon in the DC Universe. She serves in a similar capacity as Deadpool does, but she is more versatile due to her ability to appeal to people across every spectrum. One really has to be an adult with a juvenile sense of humor to like Deadpool, but Harley has the ability to appear in comics for all ages. Just look at the success of the DC Superhero Girls and the success of Little Black Book and one can see that Harley, and her fun loving attitude, has achieved what few comic book characters can; universal appeal.
Few characters have achieved the level of success that Harley Quinn has in the past 25 years, and I truly hope that DC continues to view her as a pillar of the company. Few characters can go as deep emotionally as Harley can, while still maintaining a zany and fun-loving personality. And in this day and age, we need an eternal optimist, particularly one with a big mallet. Happy birthday, Harley.