Harley Quinn is a fictional character who has appeared in a wide vareity of media worldwide. She made her debut on December 8, 1981 as part of a series of sex dolls manufactured by Play With Her for the Birean market, but her unique appearance and personality soon led to the doll becoming popular worldwide. In 1983, Play With Her created a children's doll subsidiary named after Quinn specifically to manufacture a children's doll version of the character , which was soon spun off into a comic. A TV series based in Gotham called Gotham City Sirens (based on a fictionalized version of the group and Gotham's prostitution industry as a whole) debuted on January 6, 1993 where Harley was made into the main character, with the character getting a darker and edgier side. It was this version of the character that would later be catapulted into superstardom, as it was the basis for Australian actress Margot Robbie's portrayal of Quinn in the worldwide box office hit, Suicide Squad, which opened on August 5, 2016.
BeginningsEditIn 1974, Birean Emperor Marcus MacDowell instituted a policy forbidding Birean families from having more than one child, which was vigorously enforced from the outset. Because of Birea's Nathanite culture, son preference was already entrenched, causing a demographic problem in Birea where there were more males (especially those of "mating age") than females. The one-child policy only exacerbated the problem, so that by 1980 the first rumblings of Birea's current demographic crisis came to the surface.
That year, Alex O'Dell, an Irish-Birean, created the sex doll company Play With Her as a response to the growing crisis. Though sex dolls were already widely available in Birea, O'Dell's dolls took off where others hadn't because they were made with materials that gave them a realistic feel, along with pre-recorded messages (the source of which is unknown) trigged by well placed buttons that added to the realism. Initially, the dolls were rudimentary characters- offerings were a librarian, a teacher, a waitress and a flight attendant- with more risque (but still "everygirl") options the schoolgirl and the beach goer coming later in the year.
In 1981, O'Dell got more ambitious, deciding to add characters that were more exotic and extraordinary. Some of those characters were characters that fit more traditional "male" roles (though maintaining their feminine look), such as the firefighter and the mechanic, but others were designed to fit certain ethnicities, like the Irish and the Japanese, as well as certain subcultures, like the hipster and the rocker.
Harley's character was the one that fit the BDSM subculture, with the premise that she was "a naughty 18-year-old who was caught trying to sneek out to see her punk rock boyfriend and now needs to be punished." She was nicknamed "Daddy's Little Monster", and certain features were added to her set (like a whip, ropes and weighted clamps) to complement the experience.
Rise to global prominenceEdit
Expectedly, Harley was a massive hit in Birea, as her defiant character played to cultural expectations of male dominance over females, with her makeup and hair colouring adding to her distinctiveness. She eventually outsold the rest of O'Dell's models by a combined 9 to 1 margin throughout 1982, slipping only marginally to 8 to 1 from 1983 to 1987. O'Dell, who opened a factory in 1980 to build the dolls, needed to open two more by 1984 to facilitate the demand for Harley.
Murder of Didi MarshallEdit
On March 30, 1982, 22-year-old Didi Marshall was found dead in her apartment in Gotham. The investigation soon zeroed in on English actor Marvin Callahan, who had just become a worldwide star for his portrayal of the eponymous character in the Green Arrow film franchise. The franchise began in 1974 and became Hollywood's first "big budget blockbuster film", producing three more similarly successful films in 1976, 1979 and 1981, with each movie in the franchise topping $4 billion worldwide. In 1982, Callahan had begun filming the fifth film, which was expected to be out by Christmas with prognostications believing it could top $5 billion.
However, the stresses of creating the Green Arrow films got to Callahan, resulting in him engaging in numerous extramarital affairs because he was away from his wife, bikini model Marci Meadows. One of those affairs was with Marshall, which Callahan was forced to admit to when The London Times produced erotic photos that Callahan- 20 years Marshall's senior- took with Marshall. In several of those photos, Callahan and Marshall were seen with a Quinn doll, with the clothed version found at Marshall's apartment.
Callahan denied committing the murder and was eventually exonerated- in a weird twist, it was Meadows found to have actually done the deed- but the damage to his reputation (especially in England, a culture high on family values) was done. The fifth Green Arrow movie, The Siege of Starling City, opened below expectations (despite still grossing $1 billion worldwide) and was a critical failure (a view that has continued to hold decades later), effectively ending Callahan's career as a leading man.
Birth of the dollEdit
The Callahan scandal brought attention to the Quinn doll worldwide, a fact that was not lost on O'Dell. On April 15, 1983, O'Dell created Harley Quinn Inc. as a subsidiary of Play With Her to manufacture a series of children's dolls based on the Quinn character. Initially, O'Dell was going to give this doll a different name but the interest the Callahan scandal generated changed his mind. The doll debuted on October 2, 1983, just in time for the Christmas retail season.
The doll was a major success, not just with children but adults as well. Quinn's distinctive look helped propel her to the top selling doll worldwide in 1983 and 1984, with analysts believing she "revitalized the doll industry" by making the former leader, Barbie, look "staid and plain". Crucially, critical consensus was that Quinn "made it cool for adults to have dolls", spurring a revival in the adult conventional doll industry. By 1986, Quinn was by far the world's top selling doll- both conventionally and still as a sex doll- with O'Dell opening manufacturing plants all over the world to meet demand.
The Harley Quinn comic: Mainstream successEdit
Main article: Harley Quinn (comic)
One of those doll buyers was Ellen Vincenza a native of Mediolanum. Vicenza had just graduated from the University of Milan with a visual arts degree but was finding inspiration to be difficult. In 1987, she came across the Quinn doll and bought one for herself and, reading up on the doll's history, Vicenza finally had her inspiration.
She spent the next five months drafting and re-writing the story, before spending the rest of the year- and into 1988- drawing what would eventually become Harley Quinn #1. Vicenza then searched for a publisher, which she didn't find too hard (signing with DC Comics in 1989), but production of the comic was held up by legal wrangling by O'Dell, who initially objected to the content of the comic as well as the simple fact that the comic was written by a woman. Despite claims of religious discrimination, O'Dell was hopeless in the public relations battle, culminating in him accepting Vicenza and her vision, allowing the comic to finally debut on September 12, 1990.
In the first comic, Quinn was depicted as the sex slave who manages to escape her master and turn the tables on him by killing him. It was a story reminiscent of the Calahan scandal, as Quinn's master- named Calvin Moynahan- was using her to cheat on his wife, though many other elements were fictionalized (for example, Moynahan was a truck driver, not an actor).
Right from the beginning the comic series was a critical and commercial success. In future stories, Quinn was depicted as a vigilante who rescues other slaves, male and female (alluding to the actions of the Soldiers of the Lord), and solves crimes local law enforcement ignores. Vicenza's Quinn brought an edge to the character but she was still sympathetic, with many reviewers calling her an "anti-hero".
From print to screen: Worldwide successEdit
Because of the success of the comic, there was interest in bringing Harley to the screen. As part of their legal settlement, Vicenza would be recognized as the rights holder for any entertainment adaptations of Quinn, though O'Dell would still receive royalties.
Several proposals were made to Vicenza in 1991 and 1992 to adapt Quinn to the screen, with few Vicenza liked. Vicenza explained in a 1993 interview with the Roman Free Press that the reason for this was that many would-be adapters wanted to give Harley a male sidekick who would serve as her love interest, with many of these sidekicks acting as Harley's muscle. "It does such a disservice to the character," said Vicenza, "since she's such a strong, independent character. She never wanted anyone else to do her dirty work, and she never should need someone to do that." Vicenza further said that Harley is too developed a character that "her own struggles should be compelling alone", without needing a "foil" to play off of.
Gotham City Sirens Edit
Main article: Gotham City Sirens (TV series)
Eventually Vicenza found a project she was willing to license Harley to and that was the Electronic Arts project that would later evolve into Gotham City Sirens. Vicenza said that, although this Harley was more ruthless and sadistic than her version, she was drawn to Sirens because it explored the same themes that her comic originally explored- namely, the struggle to escape slave-like conditions. The series cast Mia Sara- best known for playing Ferris' girlfriend, Sloane, in 1986's Ferris Buehler's Day Off- and followed Harley and her Sirens as they fought to clean up the sex industry and make one that would be dignified and treated the workers well, as opposed to an industry that preys on the vulnerable and treats the workers like slaves. Unlike the real Sirens, the TV series version were unlicensed, as the government of Australia was depicted as being mere servants of the slave traders.
Throughout its run, it earned praise for its balanced view of the prostitution industry, as well as bringing to light wider issues of human trafficking, rampant in Australia due to Birean influences. Many reviewers remarked at how well the show did to humanize the sex workers and explored the problems of the sex industry without insisting that the concept of the industry itself was to blame. "Just like with alcohol and recreational drugs," said Vicenza in 1993, "we can fix the problems without dismantling the industry. Sex work itself isn't evil, but many who operate in it are. It's time we focus on rooting out the bad operators and prop up the good ones."
The series debuted on January 6, 1993 to rave reviews and immense viewership, which it maintained throughout its run. In 2007, it produced a spin-off, Criminal Minds, about a fictional version of the FBII's Behavioural Analysis Unit (though Minds would only be tangentially tied to Sirens, as only the recurring character of Carl Foreman, played by Shemar Moore, changed shows). The show finally came to an end on December 22, 2010 after 18 seasons.
Suicide Squad and beyond Edit
Late in the series' run there were multiple talks to bring Harley to the big screen. Many cast members expressed interest in adapting the role for the big screen, but the process was stuck in "development hell" for years and no workable project ever got off the ground. What eventually killed it was Sara's reluctance to working on the project, expressing a desire to move on with her acting career.
In 2013, talks began surfacing to include Harley into a film adaptation of the popular DC Comics group the Suicide Squad. Although Harley had never been part of previous iterations of the group, DC (the film's producers) were itching to include her because no other members of the Squad were close to Harley in terms of their drawing power. In 2014, Australian actress Margot Robbie was signed on to play Harley, with the expectation that she would star in multiple films.
When Suicide Squad did come out, it performed well at the box office (pulling in $2 billion worldwide) but it was a critical disappointment. DC went with the decision to "prop up" the team from the comics with other villains it had created, essentially making a movie that was about an "all-star criminal group". Harley was also not as prominent as anticipated, being essentially a supporting character while other characters did the heavy lifting. It was reported that Robbie herself wasn't happy with the role, only agreeing to the portrayal when DC promised they would "green light" Robbie's Birds of Prey project if Robbie would appear in Suicide Squad. Vicenza is also on record as being dissatisfied with Squad, calling it "a fluff piece that turns Harley into a robot".
Vicenza, though, is excited for the future of Harley Quinn, as she is on record as saying she is "greatly pleased" with Birds of Prey and Robbie's work in particular. "When Gotham City Sirens came out," said Vicenza to the RFP in 2018, "I thought I had seen all I could see from Harley. Watching Margot and working with her, though, made me realize there are more depths to explore with Harley, plus Margot has revitalized the character and made it fresh again for a new generation. I'm excited for where Harley could go from here, as it really feels like the sky is the limit."
No other films have been confirmed for Harley, but two Birds of Prey sequels are expected along with rumours that an adaptation of Sirens may eventually make the big screen, all within the next decade.