Now, with the character’s major motion picture debut just days away — in “Suicide Squad,” played by Australian actress Margot Robbie — Harley Quinn could be the next big pop-culture icon.
“I think [Harley Quinn] is going to go from queen of the cult characters to mainstream very quickly,” said Paul Dini, Harley Quinn’s co-creator. “When you hear comedians making jokes on late night [television] and using the name of your character, it’s like, okay, the character has broken through.”
Harley Quinn has become so popular within the pages of DC Comics it is easy to forget she actually made her debut in the 1990s classic cartoon “Batman: The Animated Series.” Dini, who helped co-create Harley Quinn with animator-artist Bruce Timm, was looking to create a female character to play off the Joker as one of his gang members. He was inspired by the villain henchwomen that appeared on the ’60s “Batman” television show, and the 1940s Batman comic-books in which the Joker’s diverse gang would occasionally include a “girl gone wrong.”
“I thought it would be fun to do a ’90s version of that,” Dini told The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs. “There’s a tremendous freedom in writing [Harley Quinn] where any crazy idea that pops into my head, I can put down on paper and it always seems right for her. She can be funny, sad, sexy, heroic and a real pest, and be all of those things at the same time. I think a lot of people respond to that kinetic element of her personality. She’s a great character to express personal freedom in that she doesn’t have to take any rules from anybody.”
All of a sudden there was a new dynamic duo in the animated adventures of Gotham City. Harley Quinn’s red and black jester outfit, with her chalky white face and black domino mask, were the perfect complement to the Joker.
The Joker is a character that normally didn’t need a lot of people around him to be effective, but “because Harley was funny and cute and was able to stay one step ahead of him, she added an interesting dynamic to the Joker,” Dini said. “For the first time we saw him in something like a relationship, where [Harley] was following him not because she was getting paid or a cut of the loot, but because she really loved him. That was something new for the Joker’s personality.”
According to Dini, after her animated debut, all the writers and directors on “Batman: The Animated Series” wanted to do an episode with her. That sentiment transferred over to DC’s comic-book division, where Harley Quinn debuted in a series based on Batman’s animated adventures and eventually arrived in DC’s main comic-book universe, where she has her own series as well as frequently appearing in other titles.
Dini says he won’t soon forget the first time he saw the live-action Harley Quinn. It wasn’t in one of the trailers from the film, but from leaked footage that had hit the Internet while “Suicide Squad” was filming in Toronto.
The leaked scene showed the Joker (Jared Leto) and Robbie’s Harley Quinn racing down Toronto’s streets in a purple Lamborghini as Ben Affleck’s Batman chased them in the Batmobile. Dini couldn’t help but smile when he saw the video for the first time.
“I said, ‘Look at this. Isn’t this amazing?’ How many times have we done this on the show, where Batman has been chasing after the Joker and Harley. And now they’re doing it [in the movie],” Dini said. “I felt like we had sort of put a big joke over on the rest of the world, because we’d put something into our cartoon show and it made it out there into a movie. I thought, that’s pretty great.”
When Dini experienced a brutal mugging that almost brought an end to his writing career, he decided he would turn his darkest moment into a graphic novel, “Dark Night.” In the story, Dini recounts many of the Batman characters he’s written guiding him on the path to recovery in his mind. One character he kept at a distance until the end was Harley Quinn.
“I kept Harley kind of at a minimum throughout ‘Dark Night,’ mostly because I wanted to tell the story through other characters, but also because at that time Harley symbolized joy and fun in my life — and there wasn’t any,” Dini said. “But yet she’s still there in the fringes and when she comes back in the end, that’s sort of indicative of where my life is now. There’s fun and there’s happiness.”