Despite only being introduced in 1992, in an episode of Batman: the Animated Series, Harley Quinn skyrocketed in popularity compared to characters much older and with more history than her. She quickly found her way into comics, and was featured on the cover of the classic Batman: Hush. She later was the main villain in the “Harley’s Revenge” expansion for Arkham City, clearly well-known and liked enough to be put into the video game’s universe. She was always, in some sense of the term, the Joker’s love interest. After falling in love with the Joker while she worked at Arkham Asylum, she broke him out and became his accomplice, side-kick and partner in crime.
Further down are spoilers for the Batman and Suicide Squad issues in the Death of the Family storyline.
The Joker seemed to have a soft spot for her and they worked together on-and-off ever since she was first introduced. The Joker sometimes playfully showed signs of affection back to her, but the legitimacy of his feelings were never clear. Whether the Joker was honest or not, it’s always been a part of Harley’s character that she was in love and obsessed with the Joker. She gave up her life as a psychiatrist and accepted the insanity that came with being a super villain, all for the Joker. It wasn’t a healthy relationship by any standard, and that was often expressed in the stories she was in.
There’s been some inconsistencies in Harley’s character since the New 52 reset the numbers on every series and changed major parts of the DC universe. In the beginning of the New 52, the Joker had his face cut off and went into hiding. Harley no longer had contact with him, and got arrested and enlisted in the Suicide Squad (written by Adam Glass). A year into the New 52, upon the Joker’s return, the basis of Harley’s character became challenged. The Joker stopped caring (or pretending to care) about Harley, and made her act as bait for Batman in the Death of the Family storyline.
Harley has come to terms that the Joker does not care about her, whether he changed his mind after his “rebirth” or is just now being honest about it may be up to interpretation. After Harley fulfills this last request of the Joker, he kidnaps her and tries to kill her. She fights back and the relationship turns violent.
After some hitting and yelling, the Joker drags Harley into a cellar, chains her up and shows her the skeletons of “other Harleys,” claiming he’s had dozens who he has killed and that she is utterly replaceable to him.
True or not, it’s clear Harley and the Joker are no longer on good terms. Harley eventually escapes, cutting open her wrists on the shackles and almost bleeds to death stumbling back to the Suicide Squad. After the violent encounter with the Joker, who Harley openly refers to as her “ex,” she goes back to doing missions with the Suicide Squad. On some of the missions, she starts hearing the voice of “Harleen Quinzel” in her head, the name she went by before her acid bath and life of crime. She talks to herself, struggling to find her identity after the Joker claimed to make her and then tossed her aside like nothing.
So it seems pretty obvious. Harley went through more character progression than she’s ever seen since she was first introduced, changing the basis of her character, no longer being the lovestruck sidelick of the Joker. At least, that’s how it was written in Batman and Suicide Squad, but, as with any popular character in comics, she guest-stars and does cross-overs into other titles with different writers.
In Birds of Prey #32 (Christy Marx), a use of the word “Jokers” segwayed the introduction of Harley Quinn on the next page saying “My Honey-Bun isn’t here.” She might intentionally be playing the character of who she used to be, or the writer is just choosing to use that version of Harley, who is clearly still the more well-known version that the fanbase fell in love with.
In January 2014, Harley Quinn got her own self-titled ongoing series, written by Amanda Conner. Still starring in Suicide Squad, her portrayal in her own series was more lighthearted (though no less violent) and comical than most DC ongoings. She played a happier, simpler version of Harley, with no mention of her mental instability. It’s common for different titles to have different “takes” or “versions” of the same characters to fit the tone of the series, so that itself isn’t a problem. Harley struggling to find her true identity and getting over the Joker, who started her on this life, wouldn’t fit the tone the series is trying to set. However, they seem to have tossed aside everything that happened in the Death of the Family storyline for this series.
The writer is either leaving the comic out of continuity or writing a dumber, forgetful Harley for the sake of the readers and the lighter tone of the comic. This leaves Harley, as a character, in a confusing place. It seems like Harley’s only major character progression since she was created is being undone by each writer she’s written by until the status quo of her character is back to “normal.”
Is this simplifying the character for the comic, or undoing her progression entirely? Will other writers continue her progression in more serious comics, or will Harley go back to being the lovestruck sidekick most fans know her as? We might get some answers when the Joker returns, but as of yet, DC hasn’t released anything about him. Until then, various comics will portray Harley in various ways, further confusing fans on the state of her character.
Character progression is pointless if the most-read versions of the character are still stuck on a “classic” version of Harley. She could be acting oblivious and forgetful, but the average reader will still read it as the unchanged Harley Quinn, undoing life-changing character development.