A t this year's New York Comic Con, cosplayers from across the country converged in Midtown Manhattan to bring their favorite fictional characters to life. There were princesses, plumbers, aliens, and cyborgs, but there was one character in particular that dominated the con's cosplay scene: Harley Quinn.
Over the course of four days, I counted no less than 100 different Harleys, each costume a different interpretation of the character that's come to mean so much to a large number of fans.
Last year, 41% of the 150,000 of the fans that attended New York Comic Con were women and to look at this year's crowd, there was every indication that there were even more. Even more striking, though, was the sheer number of Harley cosplayers and people sporting Harley paraphernalia that flocked to the Javits Center.
Anyone who's ever been to a Con can attest that usually you can't throw a rock without hitting someone dressed up at Deadpool, Marvel's fourth wall-breaking mercenary.
This year, though, the same was true of Harley. No matter where you looked you could be sure to find at least a few gigantic hammers with the phrase "Your Face Here" painted into their business ends bobbing above the swarming crowd. Women were out in force for this con, and many of them came decked out in their Harley finest.
Ever since her very first appearance in Batman: The Animated Series, Harley Quinn has been a character in narrative motion.
Originally introduced as the Joker's romantic partner-in-crime, Harley's gone from being tied up in an psychologically (and physically) abusive relationship to becoming an independent, morally ambiguous anti-villain who answers to no one but herself.
A number of the cosplayers that I spoke with pointed to Harley's evolution as the reason that they loved the character so much—she isn't just one person to them, she's an ever-expanding idea.
Mary Benedetto, who came to the con as gothic babydoll Harley, explained that she identified with the character in large part because of the wildly contrasting parts of her personality.
"She's exists in this gray zone, you know? People are crazy, people are powerful, and they're sexy. Harley's all of that, and people can relate to it," Benedetto told me. "She can be the craziest, sick person in the world, but people still love her and look at her like a God. That's Harley."
In issue #16 of Harley Quinn, the anti-villain's new solo series, Harley holds an open call for people interested in joining her fledgling "internship program" housed in the heart of Brooklyn.
For their application process, Harley gathers up all the squad hopefuls in a basement and tells them that she's going to cut off the lights to let them fight for their spots on the team. Whomever is left standing when the lights come back on gets to be a Harley.
By the end of the issue, the Gang of Harleys includes "Harley Queens" (from Flushing), "Bolly Quinn" (the daughter of South Asian immigrants, and "Harvey Quinn" (a guy from Michigan who grew up being beat up by bullies.) The gang's diversity, Harley Quinn writer Jimmy Palmiotti said, was a conscious decision.
On Thursday, during a Harley-focused discussion panel, Palmiotti asked everyone dressed as Harley to stand up for the crowd to see. Dozens of cosplayers of all ages, shapes, sizes, genders, and ethnicities got to their feet to a room full of applause.
Palmiotti explained that as much as he loved classic Harley, it was the broad spectrum of the fanbase that he wanted to reflect in his take on the character.
Professional cosplayer Lexi told me that for her personally, Harley's own passion for throwing care to the wind inspired her to reinterpret the character's look to fit her own tastes.
Where modern Harley's look is routinely updated to be more risqué than her original body suit, Lexi, channeled something from a '50s sock hop.
"Harley's just a girl who's trying to survive and that means if she has to be crazy, she's going to be crazy." Lexi told me. "But at the same time she isn't just "insane," she's passionate."
In the same way that Lexi wanted to show off a Harley all her own, Cynthia Mendoza wanted to create a sort of deranged Harley that we might actually see in a maximum security prison for murder. She said that she wanted to channel Harley's inner darkness that many fans sometimes downplay with their more sexualized looks.
"She's damaged and full of revenge and really, she doesn't care about how she looks anymore," she told me. "Going forward, in the comics I mean, I want to see a more rebellious Harley. I love that she's thinking more independently from the Joker and I just want to see more of that from her. We all do."