No­body’s Fool

DC Comics’ hugely pop­u­lar vil­lain­ess Har­ley Quinn steps into the spot­light with her own adult Warner Bros. An­i­ma­tion se­ries. By K.J. Yoss­man

Animation Magazine - - EDITOR’S NOTE - By K.J. Yoss­man

DC Comics’ hugely pop­u­lar vil­lain­ess Har­ley Quinn steps into the spot­light with her own adult Warner Bros. An­i­ma­tion se­ries.

Over the last two decades, DC Comics’ su­per-vil­lain­ness Har­ley Quinn has blown up the box of­fice, kicked ass in comic books and made an in­deli­ble mark on pop cul­ture (she was #15 in most­searched-for cos­tumes for Hal­loween this year ac­cord­ing to Google, above “vam­pire” and, more poignantly, “Joker”). Now DC’s res­i­dent psy­chol­o­gist-turned-psy­cho is re­turn­ing to the place where it all be­gan: television. Or, more ac­cu­rately, web TV, with a new epony­mous se­ries on DC Uni­verse in which Har­ley’s as likely to be seen hav­ing heartto-hearts with Poi­son Ivy as slam­ming one of Joker’s hench­man through the knee with a base­ball bat — all while drop­ping plenty of F-bombs. Be­cause not only is this ver­sion of Har­ley Quinn hi­lar­i­ous, touch­ing and ir­rev­er­ent, it’s also R-rated.

“The stu­dio called us and lit­er­ally just said, ‘Do you have any in­ter­est in do­ing an R-rated, adult an­i­mated Har­ley Quinn show?’ To which, you know, we couldn’t say yes quickly enough,” says Patrick Schu­macker, who wrote and ex­ec­u­tive pro­duced the se­ries along­side Justin Halpern and Dean Lorey. The cast, which in­cludes Big Bang The­ory’s Ka­ley Cuoco in the ti­tle role along­side Alan Tudyk as The Joker and Lake Bell’s Ivy, were equally en­thu­si­as­tic. “It was a no-brainer,” says Cuoco, of the op­por­tu­nity to play Har­ley. “Who doesn’t want to voice one of the most iconic, badass, edgy fe­male char­ac­ters we need to­day?”

Hav­ing first ap­peared in Bruce Timm’s Bat­man: The An­i­mated Se­ries 27 years ago and quickly emerg­ing as a fan-fa­vorite, to­day there are an over­whelm­ing num­ber of Har­ley it­er­a­tions to draw from. For pro­ducer Jen­nifer Coyle, how­ever, the orig­i­nal se­ries was the ob­vi­ous start­ing point. “For me, there’s only one Har­ley Quinn, and it’s from Bat­man An­i­mated,” says Coyle, al­though she adds that this lat­est in­car­na­tion of Har­ley shares “DNA” with Amanda Con­ner and Jimmy Palmiotti’s comic-book ver­sion, while Schu­macker also cites DC’s New 52 and Mad Love as touch­stones.

“We took a nod from [Con­ner’s] de­sign style,” Coyle ex­plains. “And we took a nod from the orig­i­nal se­ries, and then we took a bit of the Sui­cide Squad ver­sion of Har­ley with the pink and the blue hair.” As for Cuoco, with Har­ley hav­ing been voiced by a carousel of cher­ished ac­tors such as Ar­leen Sorkin and Tara Strong, she de­cided to fo­cus on putting her own spin on the char­ac­ter rather than mim­ick­ing any­one else’s. “Har­ley’s iconic enough,” Cuoco says. “Also, my voice is ex­tremely rec­og­niz­able so I didn’t want to try a voice that sounded fake and put on.”

Build­ing a Fe­male Icon

Char­ac­ter de­signer Shane Glines, who trained un­der Timm at Warner Bros. was tasked with in­te­grat­ing all the dif­fer­ent an­i­mated in­spi­ra­tions “and coming up with some­thing that works as per­fectly as she does,” Coyle says. While cre­at­ing a co­her­ent ver­sion of Har­ley was a chal­lenge, so was bal­anc­ing the char­ac­ter’s sen­su­al­ity. “That was a big con­cern, be­cause this show is re­ally about her evo­lu­tion as a woman and over-sex­u­al­iz­ing the char­ac­ters could be the op­po­site of that,” Coyle ac­knowl­edges. “I mean, we wanted to be loyal to the char­ac­ters — like, the woman is wear­ing vinyl un­der­wear [in Con­ner’s comic-book ver­sion]

— but hav­ing said that, we took pains to not make her overly sex­u­al­ized.” Not only did that ex­tend to Har­ley’s ap­pear­ance — of all the char­ac­ters she went through the most de­sign it­er­a­tions — but also her body lan­guage. “She slouches,” says Coyle. “And she never does this doll pose where she’s looking va­cant and her toes are pointed to­gether like you see a lot in anime shows. We were on a con­stant look­out to make her not too girly­girl and more just like a real, adult — psy­chotic — woman.”

That much is ev­i­dent in the nar­ra­tive, which fol­lows Har­ley’s emo­tional de­vel­op­ment as she ex­tri­cates her­self from an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship with Joker and re­gains her self-es­teem.“We did want it to be emo­tion­ally grounded,” says Halpern. “That was re­ally im­por­tant for us through­out the show, [be­cause] if it didn’t have any emo­tional ground­ing to it, if you didn’t care about what Har­ley cared about, then it’s just a lot of peo­ple say­ing ‘f***’ and a lot of blood.”

Mean­while, her bond with Ivy acts as the linch­pin of the se­ries. “It is about a fe­male re­la­tion­ship at its core but with a lot of testos­terone in there as well,” says Bell. The show neatly zips be­tween poignancy, comedy and sense­less vi­o­lence, with any emo­tional de­vel­op­ment punc­tu­ated by plenty of gore and meta quips (“Women aren’t funny,” Joker com­plains in one scene, be­fore shoot­ing a hench­man through the chest).

“There’s a naugh­ti­ness and kind of an ag­gres­sive­ness to some of the sto­ry­lines that I feel like are of­ten held for male char­ac­ters,” says Bell. “And I think that that part of it, get­ting to do wildly ex­pan­sive and vi­o­lent and ag­gres­sive heist and ac­tion se­quences, is re­ally re­fresh­ing. The peo­ple who are driv­ing that hard comedy but then hard ac­tion are the fe­male char­ac­ters.” As well as the fe­male-led cast, the crew in­cluded a num­ber of women in the writ­ing room as well as on the pro­duc­tion team, with Coyle once again work­ing along­side su­per­vis­ing di­rec­tor Cecilia Ara­novic.

Funny, Out­ra­geous and Grounded

“When we pitched the show way back in 2016, we talked about it as like a fe­male ver­sion of Fer­ris Bueller,” says Halpern, en­vi­sion

ing Har­ley as Fer­ris and Ivy as Cameron Frye. “There is that sort of clas­sic two-han­der buddy comedy.” Halpern, Schu­macker and Lorey also cite Rick and Morty, Archer and Ar­rested De­vel­op­ment (on which Lorey was a pro­ducer) as comedic in­flu­ences. “It just runs the ab­so­lute emo­tional gamut, from su­per happy to su­per vi­o­lent to su­per an­gry to su­per bro­ken-hearted,” says Coyle of the se­ries. Cuoco agrees: “It’s edgy, out­ra­geous, ag­gres­sive and hi­lar­i­ous, but com­pletely grounded at the same time.”

Much of that comedy is driven by the dis­tinctly R-rated hu­mor, which, in ad­di­tion to graphic vi­o­lence, in­cludes a ton of f***s. “There was re­mark­ably lit­tle push­back from the stu­dio,” says Lorey. “We were kind of amazed that they were as will­ing to go with it as they were. There were very, very few things that they ac­tu­ally pushed back on, al­though, af­ter a point we did hear a lit­tle bit about ton­nage. We were very ‘f **** ’. We cut back a lit­tle bit.” In fact, af­ter the writ­ers man­aged to cram 22 F-bombs into the pi­lot, the stu­dio in­sti­tuted a cap of eight to nine per episode. “I’d get emails say­ing, ‘Did any­body do a f*** count on episode 20?’” laughs Coyle.

“We’ve pared back,” says Schu­macker. “But I don’t think it re­ally loses any­thing. If you’re looking for foul lan­guage, this is the show for you!”

The team also took ob­vi­ous de­light in be­ing able to poke fun at DC’s flag­ship su­per­heroes, in­clud­ing Bat­man and Su­per­man. “[The stu­dio] has been great in the sense that, re­ally, they gave us carte blanche to use any of their char­ac­ters,” says Lorey. “I mean, we’ll see as the se­ries goes along, there’s pretty much no gi­ant char­ac­ter, hero or vil­lain, that’s un­touched by the show.” There was, how­ever, a limit to just how much rag­ging stu­dio ex­ecs were pre­pared to see some of those char­ac­ters en­dure. “I think Bat­man for cer­tain they are very pro­tec­tive of,” says Coyle. “We did pitch one board where Bat­man — I think they taped a sign to his back that said, ‘I f*** bats,’ and DC was like — [in fact] I think it wasn’t even DC. I don’t think it even got to that. The [show] ex­ec­u­tives were like, ‘Ab­so­lutely not. You can’t do that to Bat­man.’ So there are lines.”

With Har­ley tak­ing fre­quent pops at some of DC’s most beloved char­ac­ters in ad­di­tion to maim­ing and killing Gotham’s goons, another chal­lenge was keep­ing the au­di­ence on-side. “That came up a lot, es­pe­cially at the be­gin­ning. We were all very con­cerned that too much vi­o­lence would make her — that peo­ple would not like her any­more,” Coyle ad­mits. They mit­i­gated that in part by en­sur­ing Har­ley sticks to killing uni­ver­sally de­spised char­ac­ters such as bankers and hench­men. And even there the writ­ers tem­pered some of the more ex­treme vi­o­lence, in­clud­ing one idea which in­volved Har­ley tear­ing off some­one’s head and hit­ting some­one else with the spinal cord. “So we didn’t we didn’t end up go­ing with that,” Coyle dead­pans. “And I think that was a wise de­ci­sion at the end, be­cause over­all she is quite a sym­pa­thetic char­ac­ter.”

The team also built in em­pa­thy by en­sur­ing view­ers see the world through Har­ley’s eyes, for ex­am­ple by ton­ing down the tra­di­tional heroes’ color pal­ettes. “Their cloth­ing is a lit­tle bit more muted, their col­ors are a lit­tle bit darker be­cause they are the dull ones,” Coyle ex­plains. “Har­ley doesn’t think they’re cool at all. They’re not ‘sparkle peo­ple’ to her.” Else­where Gotham’s col­ors pop a lit­tle brighter than they have in pre­vi­ous it­er­a­tions of the city. “And things are a lit­tle bit more ex­treme and wild than you might have seen be­fore,” adds Lorey. “And that was sort of true of the gore. If it’s from Har­ley’s point of view, she rev­els in all that kind of stuff, so we wanted to lean into that.”

On top of bal­anc­ing the ac­tion, “hy­per-real” vi­o­lence, snappy di­a­logue, comedy and heart, the an­i­ma­tors (some of whom were based in Korea) man­aged to de­liver al­most all 26 episodes in the space of 24 months. With each episode tak­ing al­most a year to pro­duce, the team worked across mul­ti­ple episodes si­mul­ta­ne­ously. “It was an in­cred­i­bly de­mand­ing show for an­i­ma­tors. Like re­ally, re­ally de­mand­ing, be­cause it had to be funny,” says Schu­macker. In many scenes char­ac­ters talk over each other or dur­ing in­tense ac­tion se­quences, which proved not only dif­fi­cult to sto­ry­board and an­i­mate but also to voice. “I do a ton of scream­ing and fight scenes that I ba­si­cally act out in the booth, so my voice tends to get ex­hausted,” says Cuoco.“But it’s so worth it be­cause I no longer have to pay my ther­a­pist. This has be­come my ther­apy!”

No doubt Dr. Har­leen Quinzel would thoroughly ap­prove. ◆

Har­ley Quinn de­buted on DC Uni­verse on Novem­ber 29.

‘She never does this doll pose where she’s looking va­cant and her toes are pointed to­gether like you see a lot in anime shows. We were on a con­stant look­out to make her not too girly-girl and more just like a real, adult — psy­chotic — woman.’ — Pro­ducer Jen­nifer Coyle

Femme Fa­tale: Cre­ated by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, Har­ley Quinn first ap­peared in Bat­man: The An­i­mated Se­ries in Septem­ber 1992. The char­ac­ter finds a new life in an­i­ma­tion this year in Warner Bros. An­i­ma­tion’s se­ries

Wide In­flu­ences: Ac­cord­ing to pro­ducer Susan Coyle, the artists were in­spired by the Bat­man an­i­mated se­ries as well as Amanda Con­ner and Jimmy Palmiotti’s comic-book it­er­a­tion and the Sui­cide Squad ver­sion of the char­ac­ter.

Bad Girls Unite: The show fea­tures the voices of Ka­ley Cuoco as Har­ley Quinn, Lake Bell as Poi­son Ivy, Alan Tudyk as Joker and Diedrich Bader as Bat­man. Jim Rash, Christo­pher Meloni, Tony Hale, J.B. Smoove, Ja­son Alexan­der, Gian­carlo Es­pos­ito, Tom Kenny, Wanda Sykes, Rahul Kohli, Vanessa Mar­shall, Will Sasso and Phil La­Marr are all part of the starry cast.

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