Paul Dini reflects on 25 years of Harley Quinn
Twenty-five years ago today, Batman: The Animated Series debuted on Fox. As one of the most acclaimed Batman franchises of the last few decades, the show gave new life to the Dark Knight and his foes like the Joker — but perhaps even more importantly, the series introduced some new characters to the Batman canon. The most famous of these was Harley Quinn, the Joker's loyal partner in crime. Created by Paul Dini, voiced by Arleen Sorkin, and animated by Bruce Timm, Harley became one of the series' most recognizable elements — not just for her red-and-black harlequin outfit, but also for her bubbly personality and strange attachment to the Joker.
In the quarter-century since, Harley has evolved as a character and expanded into many genres, from video games to blockbuster films. In 2015, Vulture's Abraham Riesman noted that Harley had become "the best-selling female character in comics," and that was before Margot Robbie took her to the big screen in last year's Suicide Squad. Harley may be a crazed clown in love with a maniac, but there's something about her that people connect with, even as she's grown over the years.
EW caught up with Dini to reflect on how Harley first came to be, and how she's changed since. Check out that interview below, along with some exclusive posters featuring Harley crashing the covers of famous Batman comics (namely, Batman: The Killing Joke and Detective Comics No. 38, the first appearance of Robin). You can also read EW's ranking of the 25 best BTAS episodes here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Today is the 25th anniversary of Batman: The Animated Series, where Harley Quinn made her debut. What do you remember about how the idea for her first came about?
PAUL DINI: I was writing a script about the Joker menacing a regular person who had strayed into his path, and I needed to give him a gang of henchmen to work with him. The idea occurred to me, let's put in a female henchperson, because that seemed like a fun variation on the regular big thug guys. I liked the idea of someone kind of fun and funny that he could have a back-and-forth with. I was thinking of the female henchwomen they had in the '60s Adam West series. Often the Joker or Penguin would have a moll, so I thought, let's go back and give a nod to that.
There's a sort of eternal, indefinable 20th century quality to BTAS. We never really pegged the decade but it's anytime in the 20th century, so I often harkened back to things from the '40s or '50s. I thought what would be fun would be a Judy Holliday type, somebody snappy and a "girl gone wrong" type of character. So then I was shooting around names and I just came up with the name Harley Quinn. I pitched it to Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett, and Bruce was like, "That sounds like fun." So I wrote the script and Bruce did the design of her in the classic jester outfit, and everything just clicked. We really liked how the episode came out. Not only was the main story a lot of fun, but Harley was a character who really seemed to pop, so the next time we did a Joker story and he needed a big gang of henchpeople, there was Harley. I think the audience just began to expect her. They liked her, they thought she was funny. Arleen Sorkin's voice certainly gave a great deal of life and dazzle to the character.
Harley has become this really beloved character over the years. What do you remember about the initial fan response to her?
Initially it was split. There was some "Oh, I hope she's not around too much." When you do an animated series and add characters who are not from the canon, you really have to win over the hardcore fans. Then there were some who thought she was cute and funny and wouldn't mind seeing her come back. But once we worked on her character a little bit, once we deepened and gave her that twisted attraction to the Joker, people were more interested. We showed she wasn't just going to be a cartoon sidekick; she had some emotional investment in the Joker, and that's what made her interesting.
How would you describe her relationship with the Joker?
Originally she was just a henchperson. And then once we started featuring her, Bruce Timm and I decided we should come up with some sort of origin for her. We thought it would be really fun and twisted if she was not who she appeared to be. We came up with the idea of people who are attracted to criminals, especially those who might write to a criminal in jail saying, "I understand you, I sympathize with what you're going through," and they just sort of pin all their hopes and dreams on somebody who they think is misunderstood but who is in fact rather dangerous. The fact that Harley might have gone from this intelligent, cool therapist to this crazed clown woman was both very interesting and very tragic to us. We thought that had the makings of a great Batman villain — like Batman himself, his villains start off human but then some tragedy happens and warps them into what they are today.
So Harley in her earlier incarnation really felt like she was the one for the Joker, that she could catch him and cure him and bring him back to humanity. But actually, in the process, she lost hers. Before she knew it she had fallen head-over-heels in love with him. I think initially he was looking to play her and get what he could out of her, and then realized he had opened Pandora's box and this woman in her madness could match him at just about anything he does. I think he finds that, in some ways, very sexy and attractive. But he's not really set up to love in the way a regular person is. I think there are sparks and intensity and weird passion of a sort to their relationship, but I would not call it a loving relationship in the traditional sense.
Another of Harley's important relationships that evolves over the course of the series, and which fans have really responded to, is her friendship with Poison Ivy. How did that develop?
They met at a low point in Harley's relationship with Joker. It was a time when she needed a friend, and in comes this dominant female personality who doesn't suffer any abuse from anybody, much less a bullying man. She found something kind of innocent and sweet in Harley. Ivy needs a friend too occasionally; her world can't just be plants. They care bout each other a lot, they fight a lot, but they also like to hang out together and just get a pizza or watch a movie. It's interesting to me that they could be criminals and bank robbers but also have this friendship.
In the years since you created Harley, what's it been like to watch her grow and evolve as a character?
It's been gratifying for me. It's also changed my view on her over the years, because when she appeared in BTAS I was the only one who ever wrote her. I felt a great sense of propriety toward the character early on, and when she grew in popularity I didn't always like it. Like she's kind of mine, and now she's growing in a different direction. But I realized people liked the character, and I started to move beyond Batman too. She was lying unused for a few years, she was basically benched until the New 52 [relaunch]. She came roaring back as part of Suicide Squad and her own book.
Also around that time I'd been writing her in video games, which I think was a big boost to her popularity. I put her into the Arkham games, and from that she just became this incredible presence. The video games gave her this great second life. That's when the big changes in her appearance came about, when we put her in the naughty nurse's outfit and then the leather pants and "street" look. It showed she was more than just the cartoon jester, and people reacted to that in a big way too. That's just over the last 10 years. It's great to see the character have that adaptability. Mickey Mouse did not stay the little squeaky guy in Steamboat Willie, he went on to have many different versions. Harley seems to have this innate appeal that people love, and as time progresses Harley will change too, but there will always be something twisted and sweet about her personality.
What was Arleen Sorkin's role in shaping the character?
Arleen and I had been friends. She is a very funny talent, kind of a live wire. She can do that snappy blonde Judy Holliday persona very easily, and that was part of her performance style when I came up with the character. With Harley, thinking about that character, I was like, "Gosh, she sounds like Arleen." Around that time [Sorkin] had appeared as a wacky jester on Days of Our Lives in a costume series. She was wearing this Pied Piper outfit, and I was like, "Well, there she is. She should run around with the Joker dressed like that." So all these ideas came together when I was writing that first episode. It's a happy coincidence that it all worked out. Arleen's voice, my script, Bruce's drawing, and the direction of the episode — a lot of things came together.