THE RISE OF HARLEY QUINN
The creator of Suicide Squad’s standout on the cultural evolution of “Daddy’s little monster”
How she went from Mr J’s puddin’ to one of the hottest characters in town.
PAUL DINI, THE man behind Harley Quinn, can pinpoint the moment when he knew his creation had truly made it. It was last October, in fact. The Saturday before
Hallowe’en, a time for most Los Angelenos to have a massive hooley. And then Dini peered out of his window. “I saw a roving gang of Harley Quinns going down the street,” he laughs. “There was a schoolgirl Harley, in a red-and-black outfit with the mask, a steampunk Harley, and the regular movie Harley. They were everywhere. I looked at my wife and said, ‘Well, there’s Daddy’s little monster.’”
Yes, 24 years after Dini, then a writer on Batman: The Animated Series, first introduced Harley Quinn, it’s fair to say she’s having a moment. A zeitgeist-piercing surge that can be traced back to that “regular movie”, Suicide Squad. David Ayer’s wildly successful caper ($745 million worldwide) brought together a bunch of the DC Universe’s baddest bad guys, including Will Smith’s Deadshot, Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang and Jay Hernandez’s El Diablo, and watched them cede the spotlight to Margot Robbie’s colourful, capricious take on the Joker’s mad, bad and dangerous-to-know girlfriend.
She gets almost all of the best lines.
She gets the meatiest story, as she begins to establish an identity away from her psychotic paramour. And the lion’s share of the film’s key moments. And in the new Extended Edition version of the film, the bulk of the additional 13 minutes restored to Ayer’s film involve Harley.
There’s a deeper dive into the twisted mechanics behind her relationship with
Jared Leto’s Joker: a lengthy scene in which a distraught and pre-transformation-in-vat-ofacid Harley chases down the Clown Prince Of Crime and, pausing only to kill a passing trucker, demands at gunpoint that the Joker fall in love with her. “A heart scares you and a gun doesn’t?” she asks. And then there’s
a sequence in which she deliberately antagonises various members of the Squad, trying to provoke them into a response. “She’s a rabbit hole,” counsels Captain Boomerang. “Don’t fall in.”
It’s no surprise that the Extended Edition ups the ante on Harley. For, even in a movie starring Will Smith and Jared Leto, even in a film that has Batman swoop in every now and again to bust some heads, she is the undoubted stand-out. The reason why you’re not reading a piece about Killer Croc right now. But where did it all begin?
“IT IS TO laugh, huh, Mr J?” With that one line, delivered while perched on a desk as the Joker throws darts backwards at a picture of Commissioner Gordon, Harley Quinn announced herself to the world in Joker’s Favor, a 1992 episode of The Animated Series. It’s fascinating to note just how complete the character already was. The costume may have changed — no redand-blue pigtails or hot pants for this Harley, who’s clad in a red-and-black jester’s costume — and certain intricacies of her relationship with the Joker had yet to be filled in, but otherwise it’s all there: the “Mr J” catchphrase (that’s studded throughout Suicide Squad), the insouciant attitude, the welcome dollop of female energy that enlivened the Joker, a character whose henchmen had traditionally been manly hunks of meat. They might as well have called him the Bloker.
Dini wanted to shake that up a little. “I thought a girl would be good in the mix.
I came up with an idea for a snappy blonde girl who would hang out with the Joker,” he explains of Harley Quinn’s origin. “And she really did have a purpose for him. He can’t go into a lot of places without being recognised, so it helps to have a couple of allies to do the dirty work for him.”
Although Harley’s personality sprang almost fully formed from Dini’s fingers, Bruce Timm — the animation director on Batman: The Animated Series — is credited as her co-creator. “I don’t think Bruce really knew about the character until I’d handed him the outline,” laughs Dini. Timm was entirely responsible for the look and movement of the character. “He came up with a design for Harley in her jester costume, and what she looked like when she was in disguise,” adds Dini. “She almost looked like a dancer in the way she was posed. That was the idea, that she was very athletic and capable if she got into a fight.”
There have been murmurings over the years that Harley Quinn was initially intended as a one-and-done character. Not the case. “I liked
the fact she added some humour to Batman’s world, and expanded it a little bit. I liked writing stories about her and putting her in episodes where she fit. I liked the character from the get-go and hoped she would catch on.”
That she did. Although she pops up in relatively few episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, Harley turned heads right away. Just a year later, DC Comics started including the character in some of their own titles. And then, in 1994, they approached Dini and Timm with an offer that would change the course of the character forever, and lead to Robbie waltzing away with a film just over two decades later.
THAT OFFER WAS to produce a comic, Mad Love, in the style of The Animated Series, that would tackle Harley’s origin. It was something Dini hadn’t given a great deal of thought to but, “She couldn’t just be a girl that went wrong that he keeps calling up every time he escapes.”
From that sprang the idea — used in Suicide Squad — that Harley Quinn was once Dr
Harleen Quinzel, a psychiatrist assigned to the Joker during one of his stints at Arkham
Asylum. During that time, Dr Quinzel was seduced — emotionally and mentally at the very least — by the Joker, and fell in love with him. Or was convinced she had fallen in love with him. “The idea we liked a lot was that he had somehow gotten into her head, snapped her and brought her over to his point of view,” says Dini.
From the off, pretty much, it was clear Harley was suffering at the hands of the Joker. He constantly demeans her, belittles her, slaps her. He even pushes her out of a window. And yet she kept coming back for more, kept excusing away his violence. Some critics have argued Harley’s unblinking devotion to the Joker reduces her to mere chattel, another so-called strong woman who becomes nothing more than a plaything at the hands of an abusive man. But Dini, who was inspired by what he saw happening in some friends’ relationships at the time, says he wanted to shine a light on the plight of women trapped in cycles of violence. In, don’t forget, a show ostensibly aimed at younger viewers. “She was an interesting character in that she did have this tragic flaw, this weird co-dependency with the Joker,” says Dini. “We were saying, ‘Hey, kids, don’t be this. Watch out, this is the consequence of hanging out with a maniac like the Joker.’ If anything, it’s a cautionary story.”
In the comic books, Harley Quinn has long since found the inner strength to move away from the Joker. She’s more antihero now than villain, a part of the Suicide Squad on the printed page and someone who enjoys a polyamorous relationship with Poison Ivy. (The seeds for which were sown in The Animated Series, principally the episode Harley & Ivy). Dini continues to write for the character across media as varied as Arkham Asylum, the video game, and oneoff stories for DC Comics. But he has ceded the character’s development on the printed page to the likes of Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti on the Suicide Squad ongoing series, believing he laid the foundation for that change. “We gave her a place to grow from,” he says.
“The other writers who have taken over Harley have acknowledged where she’s come from and are keeping her evolution going.”
In Suicide Squad, with which Dini was not involved, that evolution seemed to halt somewhat, with the back-to-square-one iteration of Harley Quinn attracting criticism from some quarters. Throughout, she’s defined by her relationship with the Joker, and even though Ayer thrives with notions of her breaking the cycle of co-dependency, it ends with her being rescued from prison by Mr J, her knight in purple shining armour. “People say she should have walked out on the Joker,” muses Dini. “The Joker was barely in the movie. So even if he comes off as a psychotic, murderous but ardent boyfriend, why not show the two of them in love as they run off together? That way, the relationship has a place to go — then the whole thing can sour and she can move away from him.”
Perhaps wings will be spread the next time we see Robbie as the character, whether that’s in Suicide Squad 2 or the solo movie on which she is a producer. For one thing has been universal — even if some have been unhappy with certain aspects of Harley Quinn’s character or costume in Suicide Squad, Robbie’s performance has been acclaimed across the board. Like Robert Downey Jr. and Tony Stark, or Hugh Jackman and Wolverine, it seems one of those perfect marriages of actor and comic-book character.
The playfulness. The willingness to embrace the darkness lurking under the surface. The vivacity. And, of course, the ability to take a character that had been previously merely popular (just ask Kevin Smith, who named his daughter Harley Quinn), and turn her into a phenomenon. The kind of phenomenon that inspires people to dress up as Daddy’s little monster. “There’s always going to be supercilious finger-waggers and people who are ready to shame anybody else for anything,” says Dini. “But Harley is like a walking, smiling middle finger to all those people. Harley’s gonna do what she wants, she’s gonna look the way she wants. That’s what people embrace.”
Needless to say, she had the last laugh.
SUICIDE SQUAD EXTENDED CUT IS OUT NOW.
Harley Quinn debuts a new look in the Arkham Asylum video game. Driving the Joker wild in the forthcoming LEGO Batman Movie.
From top to bottom: Co-creator Paul Dini; Margot Robbie as Dr Quinzel with Jared Leto’s Joker; Batman: The Animated Series’ red-and-black creation; Cosplay Joker and Harley.