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The dark history of Harley Quinn

Fan-favorite DC Comics villainess Harley Quinn has a complicated and deeply troubling history. Sure, on the surface, she's usually just referred to as the Joker's crazy girlfriend, but the truth behind that simple statement is probably one of the more disturbing and depressing stories in comics. From her lighthearted beginnings as a throwaway cartoon character, Harley worked her way into the fanboy psyche to become one of comics' most followed ladies. With all those years of history behind her, it's easy to forget some of the details, but don't worry — that's exactly what we're here for. We've rounded up some of the more sordid details from that checkered past to offer you the dark history of Harley Quinn.

1992 - Harley Quinn's first appearance

Compared to most popular comic characters, Harley Quinn has a relatively brief, albeit dark past. She first appears as one of the Joker's goons in the 1992 Batman: The Animated Series episode "Joker's Favor," where she's enlisted to kidnap a guy who was once involved in a road rage incident with the Joker. She would continue to make regular appearances in both this series and The New Batman Adventures, where it quickly became clear that her love of the Joker was not at all reciprocated, though much of that hostile subtext was lost on younger viewers.

1994 - Harley Quinn's origins and Mad Love

Two years later, Harley Quinn's dark past was further explored in the graphic novel Mad Love, illustrated in the style of the Animated Series. Fairly adult in content, the graphic novel explains that Dr. Harleen Quinzel, an aspiring psychotherapist with an affinity for "extreme cases," seduced her way through college, barely earning her degree. After landing a job at Arkham Asylum and working one-on-one with the charismatic and dangerous Joker, Harley became completely obsessed with the Clown Prince of Crime, and eventually helped him break out, insinuating herself as his sidekick. She even managed to capture Batman and trap him over a tank of piranhas — but in a fit of jealousy, the Joker rewarded her by throwing her out a window and releasing Batman.

1999 - Harley Quinn in No Man's Land

The first in-canon DC Comics appearance of Harley Quinn's dark past comes during "No Man's Land," a story arc in which Gotham is ravaged by a terrible earthquake. Poison Ivy, commissioned by Batman to provide food for Gotham's refugees, finds Harley in a pile of rubble and rescues her. At first distrustful, Ivy administers some of her fancy plant stuff to Harley which grants her increased agility and strength, as well as immunity to some toxins, because... plants, right? Harley rushes out to find the Joker, who is immediately annoyed by her presence, uses her as a distraction against Batman, and when she's not crippled in the process, Joker traps her in a rocket and once again attempts to murder her.

2001 - Harley Quinn goes solo

At this stage of Harley Quinn's dark past, it's clear that she's an abused victim, both physically and mentally, but she just can't shake her obsession with the Joker. She scored her own solo title, simply called Harley Quinn, but even in her own book, she's compelled to rescue a catatonic Joker and attempt to rehab him in a new hideout. During these events, the Joker is seen faking illness to avoid spending quality time with Harley, assigning her the task of an elaborate amusement park murder instead. Jealous that Harley is better at his job than he is, Joker shoots her again. Or rather, he shoots Poison Ivy disguised as Quinn, who took the guise to save Quinn's life. Quinn electrocutes the Joker and, temporarily somewhat liberated at last, goes on solo adventures.

2002 - Harley Quinn gets too serious

For the rest of her solo book, Harley Quinn's dark past gets darker — in fact, she seems to lose all sense of humor. She starts taking on strange mercenary jobs and slowly begins to lose her light-hearted personality. By the finale of her series, she suffers a total breakdown after she chooses a large cash payout instead of saving the eyesight of a small child. It's a terribly dark moment for Harley Quinn, and even her character realizes it. She turns herself in to Arkham again.

2008 - Harley Quinn and mass murder

Batman #663 is a really weird issue. Rather than a fully illustrated comic, writer Grant Morrison wrote the issue to be mostly dramatic prose, with a few strange, computer-generated illustrations throughout. If you can make your way through the grandiloquent writing, you'll see that the Joker plans on murdering all of his previous henchmen, and that includes Harley Quinn. Quinn discovers this plot a bit too late, after killing ten other people for her boss. Even in the context of Harley Quinn's dark past, this is a high body count, and once again, Harley narrowly avoids being killed by her unwilling paramour. That's four serious murder attempts so far.

2008 - Harley Quinn in Countdown

Here, Harley Quinn finds herself on Themyscira, the island of the Amazons, in a rehab and training program under the eye of Athena. Secretly, Athena is being impersonated by the evil Granny Goodness, one of Darkseid's many henchpeople. Harley and some other trainees discover the duplicity, follow Granny to Apokolips, and Harley very temporarily gains superpowers before returning to Earth again. Solving intergalactic space crimes really isn't a Harley thing to do anyhow.

2009 - Harley Quinn's home invasion

The series Gotham City Sirens opens up with Poison Ivy, Catwoman, and Harley Quinn sharing an apartment in Gotham — except it's the Riddler's apartment, and he's stuck catatonic on a couch because of Ivy's poisons. Yet again, the Joker attempts to kill Harley, with her two new best friends getting caught up in the explosion. The trio set out to find the Joker to kill him once and for all, but when they find him, it's revealed that it's actually Gaggy Gagsworth, Joker's original sidekick, jealous of Harley's "relationship" with the Joker. Even when the Joker isn't the Joker, he's trying to kill Harley.

2011 - Harley Quinn and Joker's infanticide

By the conclusion of Sirens, we learn that the Joker once poisoned and killed the infant son of an Arkham guard, just for fun. Harley uses this knowledge to break into Arkham in order to, yet again, finally murder the Joker for his cruelties, as egged on by her girl power group. Once inside, surprise surprise, she is once again charmed into letting him live, and all three girls become enemies in a massive brawl throughout Arkham. Harley Quinn's dark past is shadowed by an obsession that destroys her constructive relationships and replaces them with one where she's regularly beaten.

2011 - Harley Quinn and the New 52

In 2011, Harley Quinn's dark past got a little bit brighter when DC launched the line-wide New 52 initiative, rewriting every character's story from top to bottom. In this new incarnation, Harley Quinn joins a roller derby team, talks to a taxidermied beaver, her suggested romantic relationship with Poison Ivy becomes a lot more explicit, and she takes a side job as a stripper. Of course, she's still in love with the Joker, but his presence isn't quite as pronounced as before.

2014 - Harley Quinn and Suicide Squad

This chapter of Harley Quinn's dark past finds her being tapped to become part of Amanda Waller's new Suicide Squad, alongside a bunch of other reforming criminals. She's not there entirely of her own free will, however, because New 52 logic states that she has to have a bomb planted in her head to force compliance. Later in the series, Harley gets all hopped up on Bane's steroid-like venom, bulks up like the Hulk, and is kept in a cage — for her own safety.

2016 - Over it

Eventually, even Harley Quinn has her limits where the Joker is concerned. In 2016, she's seen in a romantic relationship with a man who isn't her longtime tormentor, for possibly the first time in her comic career. She's escaped the Clown's thrall, which is confirmed when she gives him a kiss — and bites his lower lip completely off. It took a long time, but evidently, DC's writers realized that 25 years of relationship abuse isn't really a fantastic plot device.

2019 - Harley Quinn and Harleen

One of the great things about comics is that when the right writer comes along, there's really no limit to the unexplored corners of a character's history that can be burrowed into — and Harley Quinn's dark past is absolutely no exception. In 2019, DC returned to Harley's roots with the miniseries Harleen, penned by writer/artist Stjepan Šejić. As Šejić told IGN, his take on the story is meant to fit alongside the narrative readers already know, while adding new twists no one could expect.

"My goal is to make a sort of a life story of Harley Quinn," said Šejić. "A story of Harleen Quinzel going from a well-meaning psychiatrist to a villain to someone seeking a chance at redemption. In a way I want to tell a sort of a Greek tragedy in 3 acts, but for now let's focus on act 1. Its theme being: the road to hell is paved with good intentions."