Harley Quinn Smith, 17-year-old daughter of film director Kevin Smith, has gotten comments about her distinctive name ever since she can remember.
“ ‘Oh cool, you’re named after Harley Davidson,’ ” she said people often respond after she introduces herself. “ ‘Are your parents huge motorcycle enthusiasts?’ And I’ll say, ‘No, no that’s not it. But you’ll get it one day.’ ”
That day has come.
With the lead-up to Friday’s opening of DC Entertainment’s “Suicide Squad,” Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn has taken center stage on posters, billboards and TV commercials. You could barely walk three feet at San Diego’s Comic-Con International last month without bumping into a mallet-wielding, pigtail-swinging Harley Quinn cosplayer. Models mimicking her wide smile mug in Hot Topic ads selling Harley Quinn-style harlequin hot pants plus bomber jackets. And three months before the movie premiere, the trades were writing that a Harley Quinn spinoff series was in talks at Warner Bros.
The chipper comic-book character with a voice like Marisa Tomei in “My Cousin Vinny” and a love for Batman nemesis the Joker has gone mainstream.
“Now when I say my name,” Smith related, “people say, ‘Oh my God, like “Suicide Squad.”’ Now you get it.”
Even “Suicide Squad” director David Ayer didn’t get it at first. “We had no idea Harley Quinn was going to explode,” he said. “We had no idea people were going to connect.”
It was a pigtailed army of makeup-smeared cosplayers at back-to-back Comic-Cons in 2015 and 2016 that tipped off the new squad.
“We went to Comic-Con last year, and there were so many Harley Quinns,” Robbie said. “We hadn’t even finished shooting the movie by that time and there weren’t any trailers out or anything. This year was the most exciting. Everyone knew the details of the costume now and got really specific with it. I even saw guys dressed up as Harley Quinn.”
Quinn may have started off playing second banana to the legendary DC comics villain, but over the years her presence has grown.
Just last April, three of her comics, “Harley Quinn & Suicide Squad April Fools Special,” “Harley Quinn” and “Harley Quinn and Her Gang of Harleys,” outsold Superman and Wonder Woman. In 2015, DC dedicated the entire month of February to Quinn with 22 variant comic covers. The No. 1 searched Halloween costume for 2015? It was Harley Quinn, outranking “Star Wars” characters and Minnie Mouse.
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Quinn cartwheeled into Gotham looking like she tumbled out of a deck of cards. But her first appearance was not in the comics. It was in the 1992 noir cartoon series “Batman: The Animated Series.” Dreamed up by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, she was originally concocted as just another member of the Joker’s cartoony gang.
But Dini realized there was more to Quinn than the average henchwoman. Squealing trademarked lines of tenderness at her beloved “Mistah Jay” or “Puddin,” the love between the Joker and Quinn, who hid her identity behind a traditional harlequin hat and simple red-and-black leotard, was fraught with neglect, robberies, mayhem, violence and abuse. Through it all Quinn stayed oddly, and sometime spookily, cheery.
“She was a counterpoint to what was going on with Batman,” Dini explained. “She just became this great device to lighten things up when it got a little heavy.”
Quinn brought the fun, something fans have been asking from the DC movie universe since the premiere of “Batman v Superman.” But she also helped ground Gotham. Despite jumping out of cream pies and being able to arabesque effortlessly into the air, the fact that Quinn was more of a real, flawed character made her much more relatable than her bad guy counterparts. Audiences felt for her, and her popularity grew.
“She became a character who is a little bit more sympathetic than some of the other villains around her,” Dini said. “When you’ve got a character like Riddler or Penguin or even Catwoman, they’re motivated by what they are — thieves or gangsters or something like that. With Harley she really is a wayward soul who got swept into this out of her own passion and her own unwise choices. So she’s trying to figure out how she belongs in this world, and if she should even be in the world.”
Dini revealed Quinn’s complicated origin story in the 1994, Eisner-winning comic “Mad Love,” which introduced the Joker’s psychiatrist, Dr. Harleen Quinzel, Harley’s real-life persona. The story showed how Harleen fell for the laughing mad man and the troubled, often abusive and complicated relationship that would follow.
Harley Quinn’s origin story first appeared in “Mad Love” (1994) by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm.(DC Comics)
The collected comic book hits of Harley Quinn in “Batman: Harley Quinn” (2015). Cover by artist Alex Ross.(DC Comics)
“Harley Quinn” No. 20 (2015) written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner with cover art by Amanda Conner.(DC Comics)
Harley Quinn appears on the “Batlgirl” No. 39 (2015) variant cover by Cliff Chiang.(DC Comics)
“Harley Quinn” No. 21 (2015) written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner. Cover art by Amanda Conner.(DC Comics)
“Harley Quinn and Power Girl” No. 2 (2015). Written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner. Cover by Amanda Conner.(DC Comics)
“Harley Quinn” No. 29 (2016) written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner. Cover by Amanda Conner.(DC Comics)
“New Suicide Squad” No. 22 (2016). Written by Sean Ryan, cover art by Juan Ferreyra.(DC Comics)
“Harley Quinn” No. 1 (2016) from the ‘Rebirth’ series. Written by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti, cover art by Conner.(DC Comics)
“Harley Quinn and her Gang of Harleys” No. 2 (2016). Written by Frank Tieri and Jimmy Palmiotti, with cover art by Amanda Conner.(DC Comics)
“Harley Quinn” No. 3 (2014) written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner. Cover by Dave Johnson and Amanda Conner.(DC Comics)
“Harley Quinn” No. 1 (2014) from “The New 52" from co-writers Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti. Cover by artists Amanda Conner and Paul Mounts.(DC Comics)
“New Suicide Squad” No. 21 (2016). Written by Tim Seeley, cover art by Juan Ferreyra.(DC Comics)
"Batman: Arkham Knight” No. 1 (2015). Written by Peter J. Tomasi. Cover by Dan Panosian.(DC Comics)
“Harley Quinn” No. 23 (2015) written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner. Cover by Amanda Conner.(DC Comics)
“Harley Quinn” No. 22 (2015) written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner. Cover by Amanda Conner.
Real-life psychologist, and host of “The Arkham Sessions” podcast, Dr. Andrea Letamendi, explained that Harley’s impulse-control complications provide a real-life link to her fans.
“What’s appealing about Harley is she makes poor decisions. She is impulsive and she makes mistakes,” Letamendi said. “We like that about her, that’s relatable and we forgive her for that. And we want her to be resilient against the Joker’s abuse, against things that happen to her. We want her to overcome and want her to learn from her mistakes.”
In more recent “Harley Quinn” comics, however, she has a fresh new perspective. Quinn’s kicked Joker to the curb, moved out of Gotham to Coney Island, got a new job at a senior citizens center and works out her aggression with a Roller Derby team.
“We wanted to take her out of Gotham because if she had stayed in Gotham she still would have been dealing with all the Gotham characters, Batman and Joker,” “Harley Quinn” co-writer Amanda Conner said. “She would have been a supporting character in her own book. … What better place for a Clown Princess than Coney Island?”
“It’s probably the healthiest thing for a character to evolve,” added co-writer Jimmy Palmiotti. “We’ve definitely taken lot from the the cosplayers. Amanda keeps changing the costume every issue.”
At this point the fans are influencing the creators and the creators are influencing the fans. And Quinn keeps growing.
Now when I say my name, people say, ‘Oh my God, like “Suicide Squad.’ Now you get it.
Was it difficult for Ayer to persuade Robbie to don the dip-dyed pigtails of Quinn? Not at all. The allure of working on this character with Ayer paired with his plans for the character were enough.
“There was no script,” Robbie said. “No one else was attached. And I hadn’t read the comics before. So I really didn’t have any context for it, other than working with David, which I wanted to do so badly. I was ready to sign on just on the premise alone but then he described two different Harley scenes and I said, ‘Oh my God, I’m in. I’m so in.’”
The scenes that sealed the deal?
One showed Harley Quinn, alone in her prison cell, hanging upside down. It became a famous, crowd-rousing shot that brought fans to their feet when the first “Suicide Squad” footage debuted at Comic-Con in 2015.
Cosplayers Bo Dyrby, left, and Susanne Nielsen of Copenhagen take a lunch break at Comic-Con International 2015 in San Diego.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Socorro Pena, as Harley Quinn, and Carlos Lopez, as the Joker, take a break outside of Stan Lee’s Comikaze Expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Nov. 1, 2014.(Jenna Schoenefeld / Los Angeles Times)
Batman characters Harley Quinn and Killer Croc have a slight altercation during Comic-Con International 2016 on July 23 in San Diego.(Bill Wechter / AFP/Getty Images)
Captain Jack Sparrow from “Pirates of the Caribbean” poses with, from left, Batman characters Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy and Catwoman at Comic-Con International 2016 on July 23 in San Diego.(Bill Wecgter / AFP/ Getty Images)
Briana Roecks and Adam Earnhart (as Batgirl and Robin) cosplay with Kristin Sanchez as Harley Quinn at Comic-Con International in San Diego on July 18, 2013.(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
Harley Quinn gets a little fancy with an elaborate mask during Comic-Con International 2016 on July 22 in San Diego.(Bill Wechter / AFP/ Getty Images)
Amber Day plays the part of Harley Quinn from “Suicide Squad” during Comic-Con International 2016 on July 23 in San Diego.(Bill Wechter / AFP/ Getty Images)
Hayley Blumberg as Harley Quinn passes by a “Star Wars” cosplay gathering outside the San Diego Convention Center during Comic-Con International 2016 on July 21.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Sara Milne from Escondido is Harley Quinn at Comic-Con International 2014 in San Diego on July 24.(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
Alex Naldron is Harley Quinn on the floor of Comic-Con International 2015 in San Diego on July 11.(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
Jennifer Adams is Harley Quinn and baby Anna is the Joker at Comic-Con International 2015 in San Diego.(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
Alex Guzman cosplays as Harley Quinn at Comic-Con International 2014 in San Diego on July 24.(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
Blaise Holtz dresses as Harley Quinn at Comic-Con International 2016 in San Diego on July 20.(David Maung/ European Pressphoto Agency)
Vincent Brach as the Joker, Courtney Hagans as Harley Quinn, Ashley Waner as Poison Ivy and Melanie Watson as Catwoman pose for a portrait outside the San Diego Convention Center during Comic–Con International 2012 on July 12.(Patrick T. Fallon / Los Angeles Times)
Nicole Carter of Buena Park as Harley Quinn and Jrzil Ayhasweg of Long Beach as Captain America at WonderCon in Los Angeles on March 25, 2016.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
A convention attendee puts her spin on the character Harley Quinn during Comic-Con Interational 2016 in San Diego on July 23.(Bill Wechter / AFP/Getty Images)
The “Suicide Squad” version of Harley Quinn comes to life at Anime Friends, an anime, gaming and comic event in Buenos Aires on July 24, 2016.(Agustin Marcarian / Associated Press)
Casy Hayes as Alistair Mad Eye Moody from Harry Potter, Arieanne Bewarder as Harley Quinn, Saemlinh Inmany as a Jakk’s Toy Batman and Stephanie Inmany as Harley Quinn at Comic-Con International 2016 in San Diego on July 21.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Jessica Kang as Poison Ivy, Jennifer Kang as Catwoman and Joshlyn Jacquez and Harley Quinn at the Comic-Con International 2015 in San Diego on July 9.(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
From left: Characters Harley Quinn from Batman, Scarlet Witch from the Avengers, Quicksilver from the X-Men and Princess Merida from the movie “Brave” pose during Comic-Con International 2016 in San Diego on July 23.(Bill Wechter / AFP/Getty Images)
Ayer, Robbie said, “described that scene and her unraveling from the ceiling sort of like a bat sleeping upside down. It was so cool.”
The second scene never made the film. It would have shown a domestic squabble between Quinn and her Mistah Jay.
“Joker is banging on the door of the bathroom,” Robbie said, “and she’s like, ‘One minute, honey, I’m putting my makeup on…’ and then getting a tattoo gun and tattooing her own face.”
Perhaps, if negative reviews don’t put off “Suicide Squad” newcomers, the scene might turn up in that spinoff people have been talking about, a Harley Quinn tentpole film of her very own.