Comic book characters are never strangers to reboots. If the Flashpoint series has taught us anything at all, it’s that. Even Batman, who has had straight runs of over 20 years, has felt the clean wipe of many reboots. But for a character created in 1992, Harley Quinn has seen so many in her short life that reboots are practically her superpower.
Harley was created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm in 1992 for Batman: The Animated Series, debuting in “The Joker’s Favor” in a costume loosely based on the voice actress Arleen Sorkin’s dream-sequence costume on Days of our Lives. Like many sidekick-turned-stars, she was originally intended as a walk-on role, but appeared for the first time in comics in The Batman Adventures #12. She received her origin tale, “Mad Love;” the one-off issue written for The Batman Adventures which won an Eisner Award for “Best Single Story.” “Mad Love” was adapted for TV, as well as a graphic novel, a literary novel, and incorporated into several collections including Batman: Mad Love and Other Stories. (I have all of these.) It was adapted in brief for the film Suicide Squad. It’s captivated millions, and it solidified a pretty constant demand for more content.
The issue with Harley’s character, and that demand for constant content, is that while Batman’s storyline easily recycles as he turns over villains to the overburdened Arkham Asylum where they escape back into Gotham and create a never-ending moebius strip of crime and vengeance, Harley (when remaining true to her character and appealing to her fanbase) is limited to one of several states of being:
- Harley can be immersed in her mad love for the Joker and viciously hate Batman for persecuting her puddin’ while turning a blind eye to the misery the Joker causes in the name of his jokes
- Harley can be being mentally, physically, and emotionally rehabilitated by Poison Ivy, who either finds Harley having crashed in her park after the Joker tried to send her to the moon for giving him feelings, or alternatively meets her during a coincidental double-heist after the Joker kicked her out
- Harley can be in Arkham—either as a patient or briefly as a doctor, but again spending time only with Joker or Ivy
- Harley’s dissociative state in which she relentlessly and remorselessly executes complex large-scale slaughters, which is typically very short-lived
- Finally, they have added a newer, more casual state for Harley: her adventures in Coney Island, which lead her to politics, and then Apokolips—but it only lasts so long before she requires a reboot. And when she does, as she has now with Harleen, (which you should read) she falls right back to being in love with the Joker.
In short, Harley is locked in a cycle, so she must reboot. Because she must reboot, she’s perfected it. Costumes, hairstyles, animal friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, weapons, the “good/evil” alignment—she can change almost everything and retain her core Platonic “Ideal” Harley Quinn. You can hate a costume, you can hate an actor, an art style, or the weird thing they did where her teeth are yellow and green for some reason, but if you love her, you can find something you love in every iteration.
As a mildly-to-middlingly self-aware comic book character, Harley herself is beyond aware of the options available to her with regard to costumes, even (or sometimes particularly) when it means referencing a previous incarnation of herself from a different reboot.
More so than any of her peers, Harley Quinn has inspired Halloween costumes and cosplayers the world round with her signature style and willingness to change it up a bit. Harley typically puts together her “origin” costume in a rush—running into a costume shop in a feverish rage, having seen her Bat-beaten puddin’ dragged back to Arkham after an escape she unwittingly enabled. The Joker, with many hooks in the water, doesn’t expect Dr. Quinzel when she bursts into his cell after incapacitating the guards and presents herself as the “new and improved Harley Quinn.” He laughs as she drives him out into the night. The original harlequin jumpsuit, in red and black adorned with diamonds, establishes the base for most Harley Quinn costumes in future. Her taste consistent, we see black, red, domino masks, diamond patterns, and asymmetry in various combinations even when she’s back to civilian life. In some incarnations, her white skin is face paint, while in others, she’s been subjected to a similar chemical concoction as the one which created the Joker. She can regularly be seen either applying skin tone paint, or her white face paint, depending on which origin she’s connected to.
However, in recent years she’s gone through a cinematic palette-swap for the live-action film Suicide Squad. Adopting a costume design that is a variation on the lenticular “The Joker’s Daughter” comic one-off costume worn by Duella Dent, a deranged orphan who finds the Joker’s removed, tanned face in the sewer and wears it, the Suicide Squad costume also changed Harley’s typically-blonde (but sometimes red and black, or red and blue) hair in favor of red and blue tipped pigtails. Relegating her diamonds to tattoos, and swapping her typical mallet for a bat, this is the most dramatic change to Harley’s aesthetic that ever occurred. Still, it preserved the split-down-the-middle convention her outfits usually have, and the pigtails call back to her harlequin headpiece. Finally, during one scene, her diamond pattern is echoed in a black-and-gold flapper dress. So while the first big-screen Harley Quinn portrayal did objectively change the majority of her costuming from the animated movies, series, and comic books, they still managed to maintain a recognizable “look” which has since been occasionally incorporated into her comic book appearances.
Now that Harley is a hot commodity, child-friendly versions needed to be made. Thus came the costumes that finally combine it all, creating a costume collage that screams Quinn for the children’s series DC Superhero Girls and the new Mariko Tamaki graphic novel, Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass. These young Harleens bring Harley to a new generation allowing children of all ages to trick-or-treat as the trickster queen without freezing to death. Harley’s new hair, old domino mask, new blues and old diamonds all make appearances in her childhood costume as she tries to learn to be good. Alternatively, in Breaking Glass, Harley’s hat takes on old shapes and new colors while her sweater echoes her old jumpsuit and the entire ensemble mirrors her under-cover homeless outfit in Harley Quinn Vol. 3 #17. (Saying anything else about the costumes in that book would be a major spoiler—but you should pick it up. It’s super cute and only took about two hours to read.)
Harley has been rehabilitated from the Joker’s brainwashing, successfully and unsuccessfully, in many of her reboots. However, she’s not always just an innocent doctor who has been corrupted. Sometimes after being fully lead into the light, Harley remains an agent of darkness. However, as her personal conceptions of right and wrong shift over time, she commits a wide range of good deeds and awful crimes, and whether she thinks she’s doing the right thing or not doesn’t necessarily correspond to if what she does is good or bad. She sometimes justifies massive evils as “jokes” while classifying a Batman beatdown as evil. Sometimes, she kills thousands of kids, and knows it’s wrong. But sometimes, she saves the world! Still other times, she robs corrupt businessmen for charity, steals abused animals, tracks down Nazis in hiding, and helps Ivy with saving the plants.
Some of her hero buddies include Black Canary, Zatanna, Green Arrow, Powergirl and Wonder Woman. Usually when she befriends a hero, she’s in full fangirl mode. In a team-up with Wonder Woman from Harley’s Little Black Book, when she has to take the unconscious Amazon back to her Coney Island apartment, she reveals a Helga Patacki-level shrine to Wonder Woman in her closet and “borrows” the superhero’s costume to finish the fight. However, her alliances don’t always come about as the butt of a joke. In the Injustice series, Harley stops a battle in the Arrow Cave with Black Canary when she recognizes the hero’s morning sickness. Slinking against the wall, she confides that she’s had a child—the Joker’s child—who lives with her sister and whom the Joker neither knows about nor cares. To her daughter, she is “Aunt Harley.” Still, spilling her guts to Black Canary doesn’t change her sense of humor, imagining the hero’s costume in her third trimester and mocking the Green Arrow for not coming up with “The Quiver,” as Arrow Cave makes no sense.
Of course, Harley doesn’t always have the option to be bad—as a member of Task Force X (Suicide Squad), she is regularly forced to act on behalf of Amanda Waller, and the US Government. In the DC Animated movie Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay, Harley and the others are sent to retrieve an object which essentially cosmically forgives a person’s sins and allows them into Heaven from Vandal Savage, who has been most of history’s dictators. However, she’ll literally have her head blown off if she doesn’t. Alternatively, in Batman and Harley Quinn, Nightwing blackmails her with minor parole violations to get her to save the world from Ivy and the Fluoronic Man, Jason Woodrue.
As much as I love her, Harleen still got her start as a villain. Played for kicks for a while, she steadily became more violent as her iterations went on. In Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, it’s revealed that Harley had brainwashed and tortured Tim Drake. In fact, when Joker kills or maims male members of the Batfamily, Harley is typically involved. But she doesn’t always murder as an arm of the Joker. In a dissociative state, Harley watches as the thousands of small gaming units she gave out to Gotham’s children explode; a true massacre in her own right. Working as a nursing home psychiatrist, Harley is told by a patient that her family had abandoned her. Harley kidnaps them in a traumatizing scene only to find out that the patient had Alzheimer’s, and her family is actually very present in her life. When Harley finds out that the Joker and his face are separated, she gets arrested on purpose to steal it. Having captured Deadshot she has him “cosplay” Mr. J by wearing his face, and straddles him. That said, Harley often comes around, if not to the good side, then at least away from the Joker’s side.
Harley got her start as Joker’s hench-woman, and sort-of girlfriend. Deeply in love with him, and believing him to be a tortured and traumatized genius who saved her from a life without laughter, Harleen comes trotting back each time she’s cast away. For a long time, her puddin’ was her one and only, but many of Harley’s reboots become deprogrammed and recognize that Joker might not be the guy for her, after all.
When Ivy takes Harley back to her hideout in the toxic waste dump in Batman: The Animated Series episode “Mad Love,” she immunizes her against all plant-based toxins, and inadvertently gives her some super-strength, which the gymnast champion Harleen uses much to her advantage as the two commit heists together. But over the years, their relationship has gone from business partners to simply partners. Without jealousy, Harley and Ivy flit in and out of one another’s lives, romantically, professionally, and supportively. The two even take a cruise together, Ivy basking in the sunlight while Harley enjoys the view. Ivy, however, is more dedicated to the green than to Harleen, and allows Harley other romances, such as the Red Tool.
Red Tool is a parody of Deadpool (who is a parody of Deathstroke) and falls madly in love with the harlequin antihero, stalks her, and eventually reveals himself to be from her future. Red Tool joins Harley’s band of misfits and follows her to the end of the earth (literally—to Apokolips). He’s not her only boyfriend, though: Harley hooks up with Mason, who she breaks out of prison before destroying the Joker and biting off his lip in Harley Quinn #25. She kisses boy billionaire Bruce Wayne after robbing from the rich to donate to the poor (and wins a date with Bruce Wayne.) Later that same night, she smooches the Dark Knight himself—and tells him to get lessons from his rich friend.
Finally, Harley has an ongoing “thing” with Deadshot. Though not in the live action film Suicide Squad, Harley has regularly hooked up with Lawton in comics and animated movies. In my favorite DC Animated Movie, Assault on Arkham, Harley sleeps with Deadshot and taunts the Joker with her new beau. While later revealed to have been a manipulation, Harley has had regular flirtations with her Suicide Squad leader on missions and (once) while forcing him to wear her ex’s face.
Of course, if you’re Harley Quinn, it’s hard to stay away from your puddin’ forever if you need companionship. Luckily Harley has had lots of animal friends to keep her occupied and away from J. Most are familiar with her familiars Bud and Lou—the hyenas—or as she calls them “the babies.” But when they’re taken to the zoo while she’s in Belle Reve, Harley begins to accumulate more furry pals. Starting off with a rotting, taxidermied beaver which she thinks she can hear talking to her, Harley goes on to kidnap a sad weiner-dog being dragged along the ground. Later on, when she finds out that a city animal shelter will be shut down and the animals euthanized, she takes them all home and gives them a floor of the Coney Island Freakshow building, of which she is the landlord. Ivy fills their floor with grass and trees, and Harley’s house is always full of friends.
As a fan, I’m always on the lookout for new Harley releases, and DC never fails to provide. Uniquely, however, I am never nervous when I pick up a new book or watch a new flick. New Star Wars coming? Sure, I’m nervous as all get-out. It’s very easy to do Star Wars wrong, and ruin it. Jeff Vandermeer has a new book coming out? What if it’s bad, what would I do then? But Harley Quinn is like pizza, or sex. When she’s good, she’s great, and when she’s bad, she’s still pretty good. She never disappoints. And if you’re not sure where to start, you can just hang in there and wait for her next reboot. It’ll be super.
[Note: The new animated series, Harley Quinn, will premiere on the DC Universe November 29. Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn hits theaters February 7, 2020.]