Harley Quinn: Doing the Wrong Things for the Right Reasons
DC Universe's most lovable psychopath is turning 25 this year! Harley Quinn, that's Doctor Harleen Quinzel to you, has only seen her popularity grow over this past quarter of a century. Harley made her worldwide debut in 1992 in Batman: The Animated Series originally envisioned to be a one-time character. She came to life in the pages of comic books a year later in Batman Adventures, Volume 1, #12. Harley got to star in her very own book in 2000, which lasted for 38 issues and became a featured player in the 2002 television series Birds of Prey. She's famously appeared in several videogames and was the breakout star of 2016's big screen adaptation of Suicide Squad.
So what is it about the clown princess that makes her just so...so...Harley? We met up with dynamic husband and wife duo and Harley Quinn co-writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner at the DC booth during last week's San Diego Comic-Con to learn more about what makes Harley tick, from where they draw inspiration and the possibility of Harley running for mayor of New York City.
You've now been writing Harley Quinn since 2013. Could you start by telling us the history of how you two became the creative team behind Harley?
Amanda Conner: It was his fault. [laughing]
Jimmy Palmiotti: I went to a retailer meeting in Orlando. At the end of the year, DC gets Jim Lee and Dan DiDio [Co-Publishers of DC Comics] to go to different parts of the United States and meet with the retailers, get some feedback, see how are they doing, what should we be doing better and so on and so forth. And they were in Orlando, and we live in the Tampa area, and Dan said, “Why don’t you come for the day? Meet some retailers, you know, talk up what you do?”
AC: I think Dan just wanted some company.
JP: He probably just wanted some company! And I went out there and we were hanging out with a bunch of retailers and one of the guys said, “You know, Harley Quinn is a great character. You guys haven’t done a comic in years on her. You know, you should probably do Harley Quinn." And Dan just went to me and said, “Hey you wanna do Harley Quinn? Maybe with Amanda?” And I’m like, “Yeah let me talk to Amanda when I get home.”
I went home and we talked and we said, “Sure, let’s give a shot.” And I also said, but if we do it, we want to do it our way. We want to take her out of Gotham and put her in New York. We put her in Coney Island. We want to change the costume; we want to do all this kind of stuff because I said if we’re just gonna go back and do what was done before it doesn’t really make sense for the audience. Plus, taking her out of Gotham made the book about her, and not about Batman and not about the Joker. And then the other thing was that we wanted to finally establish that she’s not the Joker’s punching bag.
JP: So, they let us do it! We did the book and I don’t think anybody thought in a million years the book was gonna do what the book was gonna do. And it was just the right team at the right time I guess. The angle we came upon…we just wanted to create. I’ve always felt that with any character, you have to really get to know them to care. So our goal was to really get people to care something for her.
Can you describe the Harley “It” Factor? Because she is so enormously popular and seems to appeal to all types of readers.
AC: Yeah. I don’t know if I can exactly put my finger on the It Factor, but I just think that the way it is now, is that it was just a perfect storm. There were enough fans clamoring for Harley to have her own book again because she had had her own book before. And I think people missed that and wanted it again. And the fact that cosplay has become so huge and Harley can dress a million different ways and still be really recognizable as Harley. So all these cosplayers do their own spin on everything. And another thing about Harley is that she, unlike Wonder Woman…Wonder Woman is so iconic and is held to such high standards and is held in such high esteem, that everybody loves her but when you try and emulate her, it’s almost unattainable. But with Harley, it’s a lot more relatable. Everybody’s been in a rotten relationship….
JP: What are you saying? I’m right here! Do you want me to leave?
AC: [laughs] No you’re the good one!
JP: Ahh, okay.
AC: But you know, she’s incredibly relatable because she makes mistakes but she just picks herself back up, and I think that may have a lot to do with it.
JP: I also think she’s—you’ve said this before—she’s a wish fulfillment character. She does whatever is on her mind. She’s able to step away from any other thing. She’s able to be her own person. And then we added the things we added. She loves animals—to the point of exhaustion! She loves her friends. Her friends are her world, and she’ll do anything to protect them.
And she literally does anything sometimes. But I also think she's a character that that even if you’ve read her for years, you could still pick up the book and she’s still gonna do something unexpected. She’s still gonna do something you didn’t see coming and I think that is why she’s such a great character. The character Paul Dini and Bruce Timm created is just a brilliant character. Unlike…we know what Clark Kent is gonna do. He’s gonna do the right thing. Wonder Woman is gonna do the right thing. Harley? We’re not so sure. Her perception of things is skewed.
Over her 25 years, Harley's had a lot of incarnations and she doesn’t really fit into one clear archetype of hero or villain. She kind of walks the line. Do you find it hard to strike a balance with Harley?
AC: If you just keep in mind that in Harley’s head she’s a hero and Batman is a villain, that’s how we approach her.
That’s so interesting.
AC: So, she always feels like she’s doing something good for the world even though sometimes it ends up in murder and blood and broken limbs and decapitation! In her head, she’s a good guy. So she’s almost an anti-hero, but a really psychotic anti-hero.
JP: She’s conveniently irresponsible. And we know people like that. They conveniently do stupid things in their favor and play it in their head—this revisionistic history of it that they did the right thing. We know people who go through their whole life like that. They reconstruct everything they do so it fits into their agenda.
AC: We call her “The Psychopath with the Heart of Gold.”
If you just keep in mind that in Harley’s head she’s a hero and Batman is a villain, that’s how we approach her…The Psychopath with the Heart of Gold.
JP: But we know and I think the fans know that deep down Harley wants to do the right thing and sometimes the voices in her head, sometimes the situation at hand…she can’t. And she reacts, and she pushes back. It’s just a character that really lets her emotions run with her and I think they like that. I think it’s a nice break from everyone controlling everything. Again, I love that kind of character but they always do have to do the right thing, and Harley doesn’t always have to do the right thing. And that’s the fun of it.
AC: Sometimes she does the wrong things for the right reasons.
That’s the perfect way to put it.
JP: That’s the headline!
You just made that easy for me! With the 25th anniversary special coming out in September, were there any artists that you were super psyched to be working with?
AC: Oh wow. We’re always psyched to work with everybody. What we do is ask a bunch of people and hope they say yes.
JP: The anniversary issue has Amanda doing a story in it. It’s Catwoman, Harley and Ivy in Vegas. They go to Vegas for a break. And then chaos! We have a lot of different things—Paul Dini is working on it, we have a lot of different people.
Honestly, we love the different visions of the character. Like the cosplayers, we love them! They come to us with an outfit that they thought of that’s brilliant and is Harley and it's so wonderful to see that, you know? We don’t see a hundred of the same ones. They all make it their own.
So do you draw inspiration from your fans?
JP: Do we steal from them? [laughs] Yes! Yes, we are “inspired” by them. We’re not inspired to pay them but by their wonderful creativity.
AC: By their cleverness.
JP: They definitely guide us a lot into places we didn’t think of, and it’s pretty fun.
How are current world events affecting your writing and, in the larger sense, the world Harley lives in?
AC: Funny you should mention that!
JP: The next story arc is Harley runs for mayor of New York and it happens during the actual mayoral race in New York City.
Well, that’s very timely.
JP: The last issue is when we'll find out, so we’re hoping people do a write-in vote for Harley in New York City. Make some posters up and stuff. But we’re actually having her run for office. She thinks she can really do good for the city. It’s nice that she thinks that.
That’s right up her alley.
JP: We’ll see what happens!