HARLEY QUINN: Writer Paul Dini Discusses Her Creation and Journey Through the Years
From BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES to Margot Robbie's portrayal and the HBO Max animated show, the character of HARLEY QUINN has been on an incredible journey, recounted by her creator, writer Paul Dini.
These days you may think of the Joker's ex, Harley Quinn, as played by Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey, or maybe even the HBO Max animated series with Kaley Cuoco voicing her, but Harley's true beginning stretches back to the 1990s and Batman: The Animated Series. As he explains it, writer Paul Dini was looking to bring something different to the table when it came to the character of the Joker.
"I wanted to broaden the Joker's gang a little bit," Dini explains. "I was just a freelance writer and I came up with this idea for a grim Joker story where he tortures an ordinary man, just to show that his cruelty and his cutting and warped sense of humor applies to more people than just Batman. If you can tie all that into Batman, that's fine. That doubles the joke for him. But in that story we started off on such a scary note with this traffic accident where this guy speaks up for the first time in his life and he realizes he's speaking up to the Joker. It's like, 'Oh my God, I told off a psychotic master villain who's now targeted me. How did I get into this?'"
Due to the fact that the story felt so grim, Dini felt that he needed some laughs in there, but didn't want them at the expense of Batman or Commissioner Gordon. "I thought it would be fun as a way of taking the edge off of Joker and making him more sadistically whimsical and playful if he had somebody funny in his gang," he says. "So I figured you'd have the usual complement of these guys, but I thought, 'What if there's a girl in there and the girl is kind of a wayward soul and snappy and funny and kind of a fool to his Lear? Somebody who's like the Joker's jester.' It felt like there was some fun to be had there.
"And it's not without precedent," elaborates Dini. "When you think back to the henchpeople that used to cluster around the villains in the Adam West 1960s Batman, they all have mixed gangs of men and women, so it felt right to do that here. So from there I thought it would be fun to do a kind of 1930s girl-gone-wrong kind of thng with a 1930s Judy Holliday-type voice. My friend Arleen Sorkin does that type of character particularly well, and she was on TV a lot at the time, so it all sort of aligned."
That's where Harley started, but from there the character fell under the purview of other writers and creators — though Dini would weave in and out of her life over the years — and appear in additional animated shows and films, video games, comic books and feature films. "Over the years," he notes, "she went from being this kind of sideline character to someone we really liked a lot. I've always maintained that a character like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck or any of the others doesn't just spring fully born from the animator's pencil; that it's a process of evoluution and sometimes a character will start off one way and get redefined. Harley started off as pretty much a standard type of character, but the directors liked her and even before the show got on the air they were, like, 'Hey, where's my Harley Quinn episode?' So she was fun for the crew of Batman: The Animated Series to work with. And then, when she got on TV, there was some initial feeling from the audience of, 'I hope we don't see her all the time,' which was our feeling, too.
"We didn't want to diminish the threat of the Joker by watering him down too much by giving him too much of a predictabe supporting cast. But a little of her went a long way and I think people were more engaged by her than not. And that made you want to know a little bit more about her. So that wheneer there was a moment where the Joker would shout at her or she would have to apologize for something he did, it showed him off as being more of a monster, but it also showed their relationship as being more complex. By the time Bruce Timm and I created the Mad Love comic, we got to see that there was a deeply tragic secret origin to this character. That engaged the readership's sympathy for her and also the audience on the TV show. So they now knew that there was more to her than just what appeared on screen."
As time passed, Dini and other writers elected to do things that would move her further and further away from the Joker, which was appealing to the audience. Suggests Dini, "It was leading her to a point where Harley was going to get her turn and get even with him for some of the lousy things he does. I guess towards the end of the episode 'Joker's Millions' I had her very decidedly giving him crap for daring to replace her in the gang. And that showed that she could get angry, could have that side to her and really snap at him. That sort of fueled a lot of creators' imagations. Like, let's take her one step beyond and one step beyond that. So she became very real in the aspect that she was somebody moving out of a relationship that had, for whatever reason, turned very abusive. She was coming into her own as this very distinct character, and that's where she is today.
"She's a character who is off on her own," he adds, "who has been liberated in a lot of ways as far as unconventional thinking. Arguably you can thank the Joker for that or you can can just say she sort of arrived at that conclusion on her own. I always think of her as a very smart character and someone who might play silly and foolish, and somebody who will give into whims and fancies of the moment, but there's a very sharp, knowing undercurent to her."
Smiling, he closes, "She actually shares something in common with Batman, because when there's an injustice done and somegbody gets away with something, we would all love to be Batman for a few minutes and hunt that person down to deliver some justice to them. Harley's kind of the same way, except she does it with humor, ambiition and a really big hammer."