In 1992, what was expected to be a one-off character with a head-to-toe jester costume and an over-the-top Brooklyn accent showed up in an episode of an after-school cartoon series. Last summer, A-list actor Margot Robbie appeared in a cast photo rocking hot pants, smeared makeup and thigh tattoos, and was immediately a trending topic around the globe.
Somewhere in between, Harley Quinn became one of the most popular characters in geek culture.
Robbie's Harley may be the most anticipated, and debated, part of director David Ayers' DC antihero film Suicide Squad, opening Friday. With her pink and blue-dipped pigtails, mischievous lines and menacing baseball bat, she stands out in the trailers, even alongside Jared Leto's maniacal Joker.
Warner Bros. Animation
If you hadn't followed her evolution through the DC Comics universe, you probably wouldn't connect the dots between that Harley and the one writer Paul Dini created with artist Bruce Timm for Batman: The Animated Series more than two decades ago.
Dini gets praise for his writing on the acclaimed show that added depth to old, stale characters like Mr. Freeze, but Harley is his best-known contribution to the Batman canon. She also has the rare distinction of being on TV first, then making the leap to becoming a regular part of the DC comic books universe.
Early Harley was a Joker sidekick, cutting "Mistah J's" hair, boosting her "puddin's" ego like a personal cheerleader, using her charms to sneak him into a Gotham police meeting where he popped out of a cake and gassed everyone. It was her print debut in the Eisner and Harvey Awards-winning story Mad Love, though, that gave her something essential to any comic character destined for greatness — a fantastic origin story.
The Dini-written story introduced Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a former college gymnast-turned-psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum. That's where the imprisoned and criminally insane Joker used a tale of childhood abuse to seduce the young doctor into busting him out and becoming his girlfriend/henchwoman.
The character's popularity snowballed. A 1999 limited-run comic book, Batman: Harley Quinn, was the first with her name in the title. It paired her with supervillain Poison Ivy after the Joker fired Harley — both from his criminal enterprise, and literally into the sky in a rocket that crash landed in a city park.
Her first regular series, Harley Quinn, followed in 2000, along with appearances in more cartoons and some video games, all of which kept Harley's trademark jester costume intact. That changed in 2009, when she got a total redesign for the game Batman: Arkham Asylum. Suddenly there was cleavage, midriff, fishnet stockings and a corset. Her look was a cross between a nurse and a school girl.
More and more Harley cosplayers appeared at conventions. Filmmaker Kevin Smith named his daughter Harley Quinn Smith. Fans got Harley tattoos.
At some point, she gained an immunity to toxins and enhanced strength via an injection from Poison Ivy. She shared an apartment with Ivy and Catwoman in the Gotham City Sirens books.
With the revived Suicide Squad comic book series in 2011, her hair was dyed crazy colors. Daisy Dukes became her signature look. Working backwards, this is where you start to see shades of the movie Harley.
A flashback showed the Joker dropping her into a vat of chemicals, unleashing her insanity and bleaching her skin. When the Joker was rumored dead, she came up with a plan to retrieve his skinned face, then placed it on Deadshot (played by Will Smith in the movie) in a Silence of the Lambs moment. That all came after she'd been recruited by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis in the movie) for use in her Suicide Squad, an expendable group of super criminals put to use on government missions.
While the Suicide Squad film is an adaptation from the books of the same name, Tampa Bay-based writer Jimmy Palmiotti, who has been writing Harley Quinn since 2013 with his wife, artist Amanda Conner, thinks their Harley has influenced the movie version, too.
They only wanted to take on the Harley books if they could break new ground and get her far away from the Joker and that abusive relationship, so they moved Harley to New York's Coney Island, where she'd inherited a tenement building and joined a roller derby team.
She also rescues a dog from an abusive owner and beheads a would-be assassin in the span of a few pages — proof, as Conner describes it, that their Harley is "a little crazy, a little psycho, but with a heart of gold."
"She is dangerous, but can be really sweet," Palmiotti said. "We like to bring a certain joy to her as well, even when she is doing things that may not be viewed as always the right thing."
Because their version of Harley wears something different in almost every issue, Palmiotti thinks it may have influenced the designers on the film not to worry so much about sticking to any certain look.
As for the character's popularity, Barna Donovan, a professor of communication and media culture at St. Peter's University who has written about fandom, said it often comes down to relatability.
"The theory among fan scholarship is that when fans see a character they can connect with on the level of values, a mirror of some part of themselves, or something they wish they could be, that's where a connection and fandom builds," Donovan said. "Harley Quinn is part of a bigger trend of the public's fascination with antiheroes over the last decade. It started with the Sopranos and later Breaking Bad."
Emily Taffel, 36, is a devoted fan from Deerfield Beach who has performed in Harley Quinn-themed shows for the troupe Cupcake Burlesque.
"She really is a human character. She has no superpowers, just her Harley hammer and maybe some exploding cupcakes, but overall she's just this woman who was a brilliant psychiatrist who fell in love with a bad guy," Taffel said. "I think for me, though, the number one thing I like is that it's all girl power. It has always been Harley and Poison Ivy, or in other comics she's teamed with Power Girl or Starfire or other women."
Much has been made of Harley's flirtatious relationship with Poison Ivy on the page. Earlier this year, DC cited Palmiotti when it confirmed the characters are in a non-monogamous romantic relationship.
University of South Florida student Saria Alderson, 18, who has been cosplaying and collecting Harley stuff for several years now, is cautiously optimistic about the movie.
"Harley's costumes have always been a little risque, I don't mind that, but if she just becomes eye candy in the movie, that won't be the best," she said. "A lot of times she's played up as just the psycho Joker's girlfriend, but the Joker lacks empathy. He's gone over the edge, whereas Harley still has her humanity. I hope they can show that."
Others remain focused on traits dating back to Harley's first appearance 23 years ago. When Robbie spoke in the first Suicide Squad trailer, fans were furious that her New York accent was gone.
"Similar to the way I felt back when I heard Heath Ledger would be the Joker and went, 'nooo,' only to be blown away by his performance, that's what I'm hoping for with Margot Robbie," Taffel said. "But come on. You couldn't find someone who could do the voice?"