Image from DC Database
Dr. Harleen Quinzel is a woman of many faces. Depending on the author(s) behind her, she can be merely the Joker’s lovesick fangirl or a brilliant villain/anti-hero with invaluable in-depth knowledge of the human psyche. Because of the former, she can be dismissed as a misguided idiot suffering from battered person syndrome (or even described as a character that promotes domestic abuse), but I am here to tell you that because of the latter, she can be so much more than that.
Originally created by writer Paul Dini and artist Bruce Timm as a one-off Joker henchwoman for the Batman: the Animated Series episode “Joker’s Favor,” she ended up being well-liked enough (by audiences or creators… or both) that Dini and Timm expanded her role by making her a recurring character on the show, as well as giving her a back story in the stand alone graphic novel Mad Love (which was later adapted into an episode of the animated series in its fourth season).
Image from Batman: The Animated Series Wiki
In her initial incarnation throughout the run of Batman: the Animated Series, Harley is portrayed as crazy (as she is in all her appearances in the DCU) but somewhat misguided by her affection for the Joker–not necessarily malicious on her own. That’s not to say Harley would be completely on the side of angels without the Joker’s influence, of course; Harley definitely had some criminal inclinations of her own. Though she is most often associated with the Joker, her character in Batman:TAS was paired up with Poison Ivy (as partners-in-crime) just as often as she was the Joker’s number two.
The original Animated Series Harley Quinn was also not above betraying the Joker when she felt he had crossed the line. This is most obviously seen in the episodes “Harley and Ivy,” where she initially strikes out on her own and teams up with Ivy (to great effect), and “Harliquinade,” where she sabotaged and almost succeeded in killing the Joker in order to stop him from blowing up the city and killing her beloved pet hyenas and all “their” friends at Arkham. Like many other iterations of her character, Harley is also shown as having significant intelligence (as evidenced in “Mad Love,” both graphic novel and animated adaptation, where she came closer to killing Batman than the Joker ever had), though vulnerable to emotional manipulation.
Image from DC Database
Another great portrayal of Harley came in her self-titled comic series written by Karl Kesel (and later A.J. Lieberman) that ran from 2000 to 2004. In this series Harley unapologetically focuses on her own solo criminal career, while occasionally hanging with her BFF Poison Ivy. Kesel creates a new duplicitous side to Harley not often seen in other versions of the character. At the end of the series’ first volume, Preludes and Knock Knock Jokes, and continuing into the first part of the second volume, Day and Night, Harley forms her own gang (“The Quinntets”) and leads them around the city on random criminal errands. However, completely unbeknownst to henchmen (and the private investigators following them), she’s secretly leading the P.I. trio on a goose chase and setting up an elaborate match-making scheme for two of them.
Granted, she’s still no role model (it’s criminal enterprise and general deception that she’s succeeding at, after all), but my take away from this comic (more so during Kesel’s run of the comic than Lieberman’s) was Harley’s sheer cunning and brilliance that she subtly hides beneath her goofy clown persona. And ultimately that’s where Harley’s true potential lies as a character. While she will occasionally use her feminine wiles to get what she wants, she’s not some femme fatale one-trick pony. She’s crazy, but brilliant; strong, but vulnerable. With so many facets to her personality, Harley is possibly one of the most well-rounded villainesses to come out of the superhero genre in a while. Her only downfall is being written by anyone who doesn’t understand her depth and potential.