Warning: The following contains spoilers for Harleen #1 by Stjepan Šejić, which is now available.
Harleen Quinzel has maintained a very basic origin since she was first introduced to the DC Universe: she was a psychologist at Arkham Asylum who fell in love with her patient, the villainous Joker. Following him into a life of crime, she became known as Harley Quinn. While the broad strokes remain across most incarnations of the character, the finer details are often changed and tweaked story to story.
The newest version, Stjepan Šejić's Harleen, actually takes inspiration for his Harley origin straight from the character's very first introduction, and even updates its more problematic aspects for the modern era.
Harley Quinn's origin story was first told in The Batman Adventures: Mad Love by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. The pair were also responsible for the creation of Harley in the first place for Batman: The Animated Series. First released as a one-shot comic and then adapted into an episode of the animated series, the Eisner-winning Mad Love was heralded as an instant classic and is still an engaging and tragic story. But it has one element that hasn't aged as well as the rest of the comic.
During an extended flashback, it's revealed that Harley didn't earn the grades she needed in her college psychology courses. Disappointed with the mark she was getting, Harley is shown visiting her professor in his office, and then leaving it while a dazed, disheveled and love-stricken professor looks on. It's clearly implied she hooked up with the teacher to improve her grade, a manipulation that made it possible for her to reach the professional status she was aiming for. But it's also an out-of-date stereotype that the only way a woman can get ahead is by using her sexuality, not through any legitimate ability of her own.
The Harley of Harleen also sleeps with a college professor. But the moment isn't treated as an attempt to inflate her grade in his class. In fact, it's established that Harley is actually a very gifted student. She aced every psychology class and clearly cares passionately about her future in the profession. Instead, her attraction to her college professor was genuine. When Joker threatens an unlucky Harley with a gun, it makes her life flash before her eyes, and the reader is shown her entire life.
When she was a student, Harley was never attracted to men her own age. Finding them generally immature and boorish, she instead sheepishly admitted to a friend that she preferred older men. That's why she insisted on spending time after class going over her work with her professor, even though it was all exemplary.
The pair started an affair, which was quickly discovered by another student. The discovery caused the public perception of Harley to change completely. Her peers would openly gossip about their belief that she only passed because of the affair. Even when she graduated and got a job, some of her fellow former students became coworkers at the same fellowship and continued to perpetuate the rumors. As a result, the affair is a more vital part of her character and something she's confronted about when her grant is approved by Lucius Fox.
Why That Matters
This single change actually has a major impact on the development of Harley as a character. In Mad Love, it's treated almost as a joke. Harley was a gifted gymnast who needed to do other physical things to pass a class. It's used to imply that she was never a great person, even before she became a supervillain.
However, in Harleen, the character genuinely cares about psychology and believes it could be used to save lives. Her skills and intelligence are genuine, making her far more empathetic. Her early story arc also foreshadows her future affair with the Joker. She's already someone who fell in love with someone she shouldn't have, and she knew it was a bad idea. Yet, she couldn't see the point in other men, a perspective that gives her more agency from a romantic stand-point.
It makes her eventual fate all the more tragic. Instead of piling on jokes about how Harley is willing to "break the rules" before the Joker breaks Harley, Harleen turns her college affair into a place of complicated emotions for the young woman. It informs her decisions in a way the affair in previous incarnations of her origin story never did, and sets up the emotions that will eventually and inevitably lead her to become romantically involved with the Joker.
Written and illustrated by Stjepan Šejić, Harleen #1 is on sale now.