Harley Quinn has had legions of loyal fans for ages. For a long time, I mainly knew her as the Joker’s girlfriend on Batman: The Animated Series. I knew DC had brought her into their comics’ continuity. I knew she and the Joker had broken up (maybe? sort of?). I knew she’d shifted from villain to antihero to star in her own comic. I’d heard her referred to as “DC’s Deadpool.” But what about her brought such adoration among readers? In a 2016 interview with Vulture, DC Comics’ Publisher and CCO Jim Lee said, “I refer to her as the fourth pillar in our publishing line, behind Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.” That’s HUGE. Lee is equating Harley to DC’s Trinity, their Big Three, the foundation upon which DC is built. After reading the near 100 comics comprising Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti’s run on Harley Quinn (yes, I got excited and bought them all (no, I have no regrets)) I get it.
I wanted to examine the Harley I met in those comic books and reconsider my preconceptions in light of who I now know her to be. There is SO MUCH in the Conner/Palmiotti stories I can’t even begin to touch on all of it here but I want to look at those three ideas I had of her – Harley as a) “DC’s Deadpool”, b) the Joker’s (ex?) girlfriend, and c) a villain-turned-antihero – and hold them up against the character I met in the comics.
In all fairness, I’ve been learning a bit more about Harley Quinn over the last few years. I saw Margot Robbie bring her to life in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad in 2016. Then I saw Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and I needed to know more! I immediately picked up Pat Cadigan and Paul Dini (one of Harley’s co-creators)’s novel Harley Quinn: Mad Love, feeling a novelization of her origin story may be an easier place for a newbie to begin with such a well-developed character. It was and I became even more intrigued. Then, on a whim, I watched the animated Harley Quinn series on HBO Max and I was in love! Everything about the show – the characters, the stories, the depth, the humor, the message, the references – seemed more intelligent and more well executed than almost any comic-related show or movie I’d ever seen.
As I watched Harley Quinn, I began searching out her comics. I knew Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti had the character-defining run with Harley so I started there. Beginning with the New 52’s Harley Quinn #0, published on 20 November 2013, and running through Rebirth’s Harley Quinn #34, released on 10 January 2018, Conner and Palmiotti would write nearly 100 issues of Harley Quinn and transform her into the cultural touchstone she is today. So I started buying trade collections…and I kinda just didn’t stop XD. I bought their entire run and, once I was halfway through it they maaaaaaaaay’ve had me so in love with Harley Quinn as a character that I maaaaaaaaay’ve just bought everything that came after their run up to the present. Maybe. Who can say?
I’m not surprised I fell so in love with their vision of Harley. Everyone did! As David Betancourt wrote in his piece, “This married couple helped make Harley Quinn one of the biggest names in comics,” in The Washington Post:
[Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti] helped make “Harley Quinn” one of DC’s most popular comics over their four year run. They were so successful that when DC’s ‘”Rebirth” relaunch began in 2016, taking many of their titles in different directions, they weren’t asked to change anything in “Harley Quinn” other than the numbering of the series. In that time, Harley Quinn has gone from her early 1990s animated origins in “Batman: The Animated Series” to becoming a movie star after actress Margot Robbie debuted as the character in “Suicide Squad.”
One of the many things I learned from reading their run is how Harley wasn’t any of the things I thought she was and how she was, in fact, so much more. And, as their run was largely responsible for making Harley a character whose importance and appeal in the DC Universe is now equitable with Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman, I’m kind of wondering where those impressions I had came from. But I’ll speculate on that later. For now, I want to examine those preconceived notions.
Harley Quinn is “DC’s Deadpool.”
I see this everywhere. A CBR article from December of 2013 discussing Conner and Palmiotti’s first issues asks, “‘Harley Quinn’ #1: Introducing DC’s answer to Deadpool?” A We Got This Covered piece claimed, “Warner Bros. Planning To Turn Harley Quinn Into The DCEU’s Deadpool” before Birds of Prey came out. These are just two examples alongside numerous Reddit and Quora forums discussing it as well as hundreds of pieces all over the internet discussing their similarities as well as shipping them and dreaming about a team-up.
Near as I can tell, the comparison is made because a) Harley breaks the Fourth Wall, b) she can be a bit of an anarchic/chaotic character, c) she’s violent and kills opponents, and d) she’s a villain-turned-antihero.
Breaking the Fourth Wall isn’t Deadpool’s thing. Yes, he’s certainly known for it but it’s hardly unique to him. To name just a few comic characters who broke the Fourth Wall before Deadpool, we see Superman ALL THROUGH the Silver Age (roughly 1956-1970), Bat-Mite (beginning in 1957), Cerberus the Aardvark (beginning in 1977), the Joker himself (beginning in 1978), and She-Hulk (beginning in 1989) as well as the Fantastic Four (beginning in 1961) and the Watcher at the beginning of every single issue of What If…? (beginning in 1977). Yeah, Harley Quinn breaks the Fourth Wall SOMETIMES (it’s not even a regular thing in the comics!) but that certainly doesn’t make her “DC’s Deadpool.” It means she occasionally breaks the Fourth Wall.
While Deadpool constantly seeks inclusion among the heroes he admires and does try to change his ways, he is anarchy and chaos personified. For me, one of the most moving pieces of Conner and Palmiotti’s run is how, over those near-100 issues, Harley grows and changes through her growth. She remains wild and free but the chaos flowing behind her motorcycle ride to Coney Island at the beginning of New 52’s Harley Quinn #1 looks very different from what she leaves in her wake at the end of Rebirth Harley Quinn #34. Having left her relationship with the Joker, Harley is a person healing from trauma (more on that below) and redefining who she is in the wake of that. As such, she is becoming less Joker-like and more herself. Yes, Harley has an impulse control problem but she notes it and openly tries to work on it. It’s nothing like the willful, wild, and reckless abandon Deadpool delivers.
Chaos isn’t synonymous with constantly bubbling over with excitement for life. Whatever Harley does, she goes all in. And she couldn’t be more excited to do so! Everything is fun! She exudes a boundless joy and isn’t afraid to try anything. Want to become a landlord and manage a building with no experience? YES! Want to adopt a zillion animals who don’t have a home? YES! Want to take a spur-of-the-moment road trip to literally anywhere? YES! Want to cut off several feet of hair on a whim for a mohawk to go undercover in a punk band despite no real music background? YES! Overflowing with joy at all life can offer may seem like chaos when we often live as slaves to routines and fear dramatic change (from spontaneous landlord-ship to spontaneous head shaving) but it isn’t chaos.
As to the violence, there’s a significant difference here, too. The blood, guts, deaths, and dismemberments are faaaaaaaar more frequent in Deadpool than in Harley Quinn and it’s regularly played for laughs. When Harley kills, at least through the Conner/Palmiotti run, it’s after giving her would-be foes a chance to surrender and/or leave and/or change their ways. When she encounters a mob of zombified people in New 52 Harley Quinn #3 she says, “All right! You have a choice. You can all turn around and walk out of here, or we can do this the hard way. Ah, who am I kidding? No one’s walking out of here alive. Come and get me, boys.” This is par for the course with Harley. She regularly tries to solve problems with dialogue first, too, as we see when the entity Zorcrumb emerges from his underground prison and plans to take over the world in Rebirth Harley Quinn #15.
Violence is never an immediate response for Harley Quinn as it is for Deadpool. Outside of a critique grounded in a commitment to nonviolence always and in all ways, it’s hard to criticize Harley’s use of violence. She resorts to it only in situations where it’s warranted.
Consider Harley’s ultimate showdown with Buchario Carrasco in Rebirth Harley Quinn #18-19. I use this example as it’s the bloodiest, most violent battle I’ve seen thus far in a Harley Quinn comic yet proves this point. In the story, NYC Police Chief Harry Spoonsdale has asked Harley to investigate a growing number of missing homeless people. What Harley finds is horrifying. Carrasco and his crew have been hired by the mayor’s office to discretely “handle” the “homeless problem” in New York. To that end, they’ve been offering the homeless women and men of New York food and lodging…only to drug and eat them, torturing their victims as they prepare them for consumption.
When Harley learns what has happened to the people Carrasco has taken off the streets and that he is refusing to leave New York, she cuts through him and his men without mercy or hesitation.
Harley brutally kills these men who are preying on the most vulnerable people in our communities. She does so in the name of justice for those who could not protect themselves, those who are all too often neglected by those living in comfort. Harley doesn’t ignore the homeless. She knows their struggle. She knows those who live around her by name and she knows their stories. And she will kill to defend them and to avenge those murdered. While Deadpool often delivers blood and guts for laughs, Harley does so only to stop that which is monstrous. The levity which often surrounds Harley isn’t sacrificed (at least not always) but there’s no question the rationale for her violence is serious.
Lastly, while Deadpool is often a powerful allegory for those left on the outside, seeking the inclusion denied them, Harley is a far more layered, nuanced, and dynamic character in every way. Harley Quinn feels like the whole varied, broken, beautiful tapestry of human emotion and experience flows through her.
Harley Quinn is the Joker’s girlfriend.
Yes, she was. But that was a loooooong time ago. One of the many powerful dimensions added to Harley Quinn’s character since her inception on Batman: The Animated Series is to frame her as a survivor of abuse. Her relationship with the Joker was physically abusive, emotionally abusive, and we can infer sexually abusive, too, even if that’s not explored as directly in the comics.
When the Conner/Palmiotti run begins, Harley has left the Joker and is leaving Gotham for a new life in New York. She’s inherited a building in Coney Island from a mysterious benefactor – housing a Freakshow, burlesque act, and Madame Macabre’s House of Wax and Murder. As landlord, she finds a vibrant community of “misfits” living there whom she immediately welcomes into her heart as well as fully offering hers to them. It’s true the Joker is never completely out of her mind and there are complicated, confusing feelings that still move through her in regard to the Joker. But this is all part of the very real struggle of leaving an abusive relationship and trying to heal. 
This was an intentional, central part of Conner and Palmiotti’s vision of Harley Quinn:
One of the things Palmiotti and Conner enjoyed most was establishing the character as a solo act and taking her outside the reach of the shadow of classic DC Comics villain the Joker, who appeared in the series but never took it over.
“Whenever she did have a run-in with the Joker or at least referenced him, it was in a way where we wanted to empower her, so we gave her all the power in those scenes,” Palmiotti said. “We just felt like we needed to do that to move the character forward. We tried to show that she’s her own person, she doesn’t really need him.”
We see this clearly when, in New 52 Harley Quinn #26, Harley runs into the Joker as she’s rescuing a friend-and-budding-love-interest wrongfully put in Arkham. She is ready to face the Joker in a way she never has before and it is perfectly clear she sure as hell doesn’t need him anymore. Here is just a piece of their exchange:
I can’t remember ever cheering more as I read a comic book. Reading that dialogue, seeing their fight, witnessing Harley’s clear emotional, spiritual, and physical victory made my heart swell with so much happiness for her. Talk about being a superhero. Anyone can punch Thanos or Darkseid in the face. But surviving abuse like that? Moving through your trauma? Owning, healing, and triumphing over it? Fighting Doomsday’s nothing compared to that.
As is often the case with comic books, Harley’s origin has shifted over the years. Originally, Harley’s white face comes care of makeup, put on to match her beloved “Mistah J.” With the current version, the Joker pushes Harley into a vat of the same type of acid that permanently bleached his skin, leaving hers bleached as well. Personally, I prefer the latter. I think it works more powerfully with her as survivor of abuse. When we experience trauma, there is a piece of us that will remain forever changed/touched by what happened (symbolized by her bleached skin). Yet we needn’t remain forever broken. We can heal. We can grow (symbolized in her actions, her relationships, and who she’s become in this series and beyond).
We see the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s “Resilient Responses to Trauma” modelled in Conner and Palmiotti’s Harley Quinn. The SAMSHA explain, “Many people find healthy ways to cope with, respond to, and heal from trauma. Often, people automatically reevaluate their values and redefine what is important after trauma.” The examples of resilient responses they offer are all seen in Harley’s life.
1) Increased bonding with family and community – Harley’s relationships are the heart of this entire run. She is constantly surrounded by her loved ones; from Poison Ivy to her parents to the animals she adopts to the new family she finds in her building including Big Tony, Queenie, Madam and Mason Macabre, Eggy, Goat Boy, and Red Tool. The people of Coney Island themselves simultaneously see Harley as one of their own and their protector/hero. She also joins a skate club to work off some of her aggression and finds yet another family among her teammates.
2) Redefined or increased sense of purpose and meaning – Harley embraces the people of Coney Island with her whole being and gives her all to living with, loving, and protecting them.
3) Increased commitment to personal mission – Harley forms her “Gang of Harleys” (including Coach, Bolly Quinn, Carli Quinn, Hanuquinn, Harlem Harley, Harley Queens, and Harvey Quinn) because there are more people who need help than she can care for on her own. In her day job, she works as the therapist at a senior center to help another group of people – the elderly – who are often forgotten by society.
4) Revised Priorities – there’s the obvious, she’s left behind her criminal ways and has focused on helping others, but we also see this in more intrapersonal ways, too. In an effort to help as many people as she can, Harley takes on too much and is always struggling with balance and boundaries. But she sees this and constantly works (even if she stumbles) to figure out ways to honor herself and practice self-care while also caring for all those she loves.
5) Increased charitable giving and volunteerism – Harley works to bring more green spaces to New York. When she learns over fifty unadopted animals will be euthanized, she breaks into the King Hill Pet Adoption Center, frees them, takes them home, and devotes a whole floor of her building to an ever-growing collection of animals needing a home. When someone requires the help of her Gang of Harleys but can’t afford the fee, Harley is always willing to accept whatever they may wish to give her in return. She even runs for mayor to oust a corrupt regime.
This alone should be enough to dispel the antihero thing. Harley Quinn does more good – and a wider variety of good! – than most superheroes. But let’s look at the antihero piece in a bit more depth.
Harley Quinn is an antihero.
To begin with an academic definition, M.H. Abrams, in A Glossary of Literary Terms, defines an antihero as:
a person who, instead of manifesting largess, dignity, power, and heroism in the face of fate, is petty, ignominious, ineffectual, or passive. Extreme instances are the characters who people the world stripped of certainties, values, or even meaning, in Samuel Beckett’s dramas – the tramps Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, or the blind and paralyzed old man, Hamm, who is the protagonist in Endgame. In some recent works, tragic effect involve elements that traditionally belonged to the genre of farce; see literature of the absurd and black comedy.
Harley’s manifesting “largess, dignity, power, and heroism in the face of fate” should be clear at this point. But, to underscore it all the same, during Conner and Palmiotti’s run we see Harley track down missing persons the police can’t find, cut through layers and layers of corporate shells to find the main company taking advantage of seniors with phone scams and stops them, treat everyone she meets – be the someone living on the street, a member of the Freak Show, or the hot dog vendor on the boardwalk – with dignity and respect, regularly normalize therapy in her conversations, and she doesn’t just protect those who are without homes from a hoard of cannibals but she understands and educates others about the real causes of homelessness.
Her person and her world are filled with values and meaning. So nothing in Harley Quinn’s life fits the academic definition of an antihero. However, comic books often ignore the academic definition and just drop the “antihero” label on any character who leaves a trail of blood in their wake (the Punisher, Venom, Wolverine (‘90s and on), Deadpool, etc.) to allow readers to champion them without feeling as morally compromised. This isn’t Harley either.
As I outlined above, neither violence nor killing is ever her first choice. And as we saw with Carrasco and his crew of cannibals, when Harley does kill it’s those who are acting monstrously. Lastly, it’s important to note, if killing people is the line that swings someone from a hero/superhero to antihero, than none of DC’s “Big Three” are heroes.
Batman has willingly (and not as a last resort) broken a murderer’s neck, hung a man, buried a super-soldier assassin alive, crushed a drug smuggler/gangster under a pile of cars, ran a man down with the Batmobile, burned criminals alive, and fatally shot Darkseid. Superman has burned a(n endangered!) sentient Kryptonian dragon alive, dropped Imperiax and Brainiac at the beginning of the universe to be consumed in the Big Bang, ripped Mr. Mxyzptlk apart by catching him between the Phantom Zone and this dimension, slowly poisoned Zod and Quex-U and Zaora with green Kryptonite while he watched them die begging for their lives, beat Doomsday to death with his bare hands, smashed apart the Cyborg Superman who’d taken his place, and grinned watching an arms dealer choke to death on poison gas. Lastly, we have Wonder Woman. Diana has snapped the neck of Poseidon’s son Triton, used the power of life within her lasso to kill Decay, decapitated Deimos with her tiara, used an axe to behead Medusa, beat the White Magician to death, impaled Ares with a spear, and – perhaps most famously – snapped Maxwell Lord’s neck to free Superman from his control. None of these are exhaustive lists.
This isn’t to say killing is a justifiable way of solving our problems nor am I saying I’ve no qualms with heroes killing. I’ve written often of the danger of the Myth of Redemptive Violence and I stand by that. This is just to say that killing in and of itself isn’t enough in the comic world to make a character an antihero instead of a hero. When we remove the fact that Harley Quinn has killed some foes as grounds for her being considered an antihero, there isn’t anything at all to make her any less of a hero than Wonder Woman, Superman, or Batman.
Harley Quinn is a survivor of abuse who is modelling resilient responses to cope with, respond to, and heal from her trauma. All are welcome in her home. Her family is constantly expanding and everyone fits in with her. She recognizes and honors the life and dignity of everyone. She spends time with as well as champions those left on the margins by society. Harley models open communication in all her relationships. She honestly and courageously turns inward, honoring and celebrating herself where she should while also owning, addressing, and seeking to grow in the places she needs growth. Even Batman – Batman, Mr. “I Have a Plan to Kill My Best Friends if they Go Bad,” himself – acknowledges the good she’s doing and lets her work continue. And Harley does this all while bubbling over with happiness, contagious energy and exuding the most beautifully pure, frenetic joy in all life offers.
If Harley Quinn isn’t a hero than I don’t know what a hero is.
Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti’s run was as entertaining as it was illuminating. I learned everything I thought I knew about Harley Quinn was wrong and I discovered one of the most important characters the superhero genre has ever produced. It is so exciting to have this new character and her entire world to explore! I have NO IDEA how I lived my life without Harley Quinn in it. I was missing out on so much for so long!
But the question remains – what shaped my fallacious preconceptions? I didn’t conjure them out of thin air. I’ve read them online, heard them in comic shop discourse, seen them on YouTube, etc. and so on. I’ve no way of knowing for sure but I wonder if they are a result of our cultural tendency to read female characters through the lens of male characters? People equate her with Deadpool because she can’t just be Harley Quinn. We equate her with the Joker because he defines her. She has to be an antihero because Deadpool is and/or the Joker is a villain. I’m not saying this is conscious in any way nor that this is the definitive answer. I don’t know. But I wonder if it plays a roll at all.
Ultimately, where those ridiculous notions came from isn’t a fraction as interesting as Harley Quinn herself. In meeting Harley Quinn as she is in the pages of Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti’s run, I’ve found one of the most brilliant, beautiful, courageous, compassionate, inspiring, and important characters I’ve ever known. And I can’t get enough of her! Hello new life goals – I want to be strong like Harley Quinn when I grow up!
 Abraham Riesman, “The Harley Quinn Boom Is Just Getting Started,” Vulture, Published August 10, 2016. Accessed April 17, 2021. https://www.vulture.com/2016/08/harley-quinn-boom-suicide-squad.html
 David Betancourt, “This married couple helped make Harley Quinn one of the biggest names in comics,” The Washington Post, Published October 11, 2017. Accessed April 17, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/comic-riffs/wp/2017/10/11/this-married-couple-helped-make-harley-quinn-one-of-the-biggest-names-in-comics/
 J. Caleb Mozzocco, “‘Harley Quinn’ #1: Introducing DC’s answer to Deadpool?,” CBR.com, Published December 19, 2013. Accessed May 29, 2021. https://www.cbr.com/harley-quinn-1-introducing-dcs-answer-to-deadpool/
 Mike Lee, “Warner Bros. Planning To Turn Harley Quinn Into DCEU’s Deadpool,” We Got This Covered, Published two years ago. Accessed May 29, 2021. https://wegotthiscovered.com/movies/harley-quinn-set-dceus-deadpool-break-fourth-wall/
 Nigel Mitchell, “16 Comic Book Characters Who Broke the Fourth Wall,” CBR.com, Published February 24, 2017. Accessed May 29, 2021. https://www.cbr.com/16-comic-book-characters-who-broke-the-fourth-wall/
 Lavell, “10 Times Marvel Characters Broke the Fourth Wall,” CBR.com, Published December 22, 2020. Accessed May 29, 2021. https://www.cbr.com/marvel-characters-breaking-the-fourth-wall/
 Edward Godino, “Every Marvel Character Who Knows They’re in a Comic,” Screenrant, Published November 20, 2020. Accessed May 29, 2021. https://screenrant.com/deadpool-gwenpool-marvel-fourth-wall-comic/
 National Domestic Violence Hotline, “Why Do I Love My Abuser?,” National Domestic Violence Hotline. Accessed May 29, 2021. https://www.thehotline.org/resources/why-do-i-love-my-abuser/
 Reina Gattuso, “Dealing With Complicated Feelings Around Abusers,” Talk Space, Published October 30, 2018. Accessed May 29, 2021. https://www.talkspace.com/blog/dealing-with-complicated-feelings-around-abusers/
 Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2014. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.) Chapter 3, Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/
 M.H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms: Sixth Edition (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1993), 214.
 Luke Pen, “Every Comic Book Where Batman Kills (In Chronological Order), CBR.com, Published October 12, 2020. Accessed April 14, 2021. https://www.cbr.com/every-comic-book-batman-kills-in-order/
 Mark Zambrano, “15 Times Superman Killed His Enemies: Right up there with his flowing red cape, Superman is exemplified by his code never to kill. Only he does kill. Probably a lot more than you realize,” Screen Rant, Published July 8, 2016. Accessed April 14, 2021. https://screenrant.com/times-superman-killed-his-enemies-villains/
 Pete Imbesi, “Manslaughter of Steel: 15 Times Superman Killed Someone: Whether it was mind control, an alternate reality, or when his back was up against the wall, here are 15 times that Superman took a life,” CBR.com, Published January 26, 2017. Accessed April 14, 2021. https://www.cbr.com/times-superman-killed-someone/
 Liana Minassain, “15 People Wonder Woman Has Killed: Renowned DC superhero she might be, Wonder Woman hasn’t always practiced restraint when it comes to killing. She’s murdered plenty, in fact,” Screen Rant. Published May 12, 2017. Accessed April 14, 2021. https://screenrant.com/people-wonder-woman-killed-dc-characters/