The case of Harley Quinn and her incredible level of popularity is one worthy of close examination. A relatively new addition to Batman‘s rogues gallery, viewers were introduced to Dr. Harleen Quinzel’s costumed identity in the 1992 “Batman: The Animated Series” episode “Joker’s Favor,” not 70 years ago like the Dark Knight’s other iconic nemeses Catwoman, Riddler or the Joker. She quickly became a fan-favorite, and eventually proved popular enough to step out of the animated series and into the DC Comics universe in 1999. But while she’s a regular character in comic books (the current “Harley Quinn” series is a top-seller at DC) and video games (next seen in “Batman: Arkham Knight,” scheduled for release this June), Harley hasn’t been featured in a major Batman film. Well, not yet, anyway — she’ll be a headliner in director David Ayer‘s upcoming “Suicide Squad” ensemble in 2016. And yet, despite her late start and lack of exposure on the big screen, Harley Quinn’s become an iconic character people often recognize even if they don’t read comic books.
Take a seat at any comic convention, and watch the cosplayers. I haven’t recorded any hard data, but anecdotally, I’ve watched Harley Quinn cosplayers surpass Slave Leia cosplayers in the last three years to become the most frequently seen costume. The red and black jester suit Harley wore in “Batman: The Animated Series” is the top choice, but I see Harley’s looks from “Batman: Arkham City” and “Batman: Arkham Asylum” as well, indicating that the numerous video game titles she appears in undoubtedly contribute to her popularity because it exposes more people to the character.
If you jump to the world of clothing and toys, forget about it — Harley Rules. It’s far easier to find Harley Quinn merchandise than it is to find representation for Black Widow or, to keep it in Gotham, Catwoman — and both of those characters have starred in multiple live-action films! You can choose from a plethora of Harley Quinn statues, t-shirts, dresses and accessories. For a character who only recently landed her own solo series, the amount of product on the market is surprising. Hot Topic’s website — which just launched a special ‘Harleen’ store — shows the following item counts as of this writing — Harley Quinn: 64 items, Poison Ivy: 8 items, Black Widow: 6 items, and the Joker: 23 items. And while she’s well known as Mistah J’s girlfriend, the vast majority of those Harley Quinn products feature her solo, without the Joker by her side. Harley Quinn also trounces Poison Ivy at SuperHero Stuff and ThinkGeek.
So, why so popular? Setting her personality aside for the moment, let’s look at the character’s design. Regardless of the cut of the costume, Harley Quinn typically wears red, black and white. Much of the Harley merchandise on the market features only red and black, because that’s all you need as identifiers. The blocks and diamonds on her classic look are simple but striking, the shapes and colors adaptable and visually appealing on numerous items, from purses to watches.
From a cosplayer’s perspective, the classic Harley Quinn suit provides complete coverage. When she was introduced, Harley wasn’t really presented as a sex symbol. Her costume has become skimpier over time, but if you want to cover yourself from head to toe, Harley’s original outfit is a great choice.
She makes an impact visually. My sister doesn’t read comic books and has only seen a couple of comic book films within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I texted her a picture of Harley Quinn as she was seen in “Batman: The Animated Series” and simply asked, “Do you know who this is?” She replied that she thought it was “Harlequin,” but she had no idea how she knew the name or what the character was from. I don’t own any Harley Quinn statues and have never talked about the character with her, so I feel confident she doesn’t recognize Harley because of my influence. However, she did work at Target for a few years. I’m guessing she came across Harley Quinn socks, toys or glasses at some point, and the name and design simply stuck in her mind.
Beyond her physical appearance, Harley is an interesting, multidimensional character. Dr. Quinzel is intelligent — she had to be, in order to be placed inside the walls of Arkham Asylum. She’s often acted dumb after her mental break, but fans know: Harley Quinn is smart. Another intriguing aspect about her is her motivation. Harley acts from a place of love. Her feelings for someone as twisted as the Joker may not make sense, but she’s fully committed to her puddin’ and willing to do anything for him. For most of her history, she hasn’t been on the same level of evil as the Joker, but she is undeniably dangerous. More so in some ways because she’s operating from a place of righteousness. Harley’s obsession with the Joker has the dual effect of being off-putting because it’s hard to watch him mistreat her, and relatable because many of us have experienced unrequited love.
Harley is also special in that she’s grown past her origins to the point where she is now able to stand on her own, apart from the Joker. Dr. Quinzel became Harley Quinn because of the Joker, but their relationship isn’t the only appealing thing about her. She’s just as entertaining with her frequent partner in crime, Poison Ivy. She’s capable of handling herself in a fight, she’s tough and she’s funny. Her antics and spunk make her a joy to read, even if you disapprove of whatever mayhem she’s causing.
Each ingredient combines with the rest to form a recipe for a breakout character, and as a result, Harley has managed to take her giant mallet and bust down the door to become eminently recognizable in not only comic book circles, but in the greater realm of modern pop culture.
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