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Harley Quinn was meant to be nothing more than a one-episode character when she made her debut on Batman: The Animated Series in September 1992.
Introduced as the brassy new henchperson to The Joker (Mark Hamill), she initially received a mixed response from fans and one of her co-creators wasn’t convinced she should even return to the airwaves.
But from those humble beginnings, Harley Quinn grew to become one of the most popular female comic book characters of all time — first giving The Joker a partner that would change his character forever — and then moving on to become both a feminist icon and merchandising phenomenon, a character who has spanned cartoons, comic books, videogames and now the big screen, with Margot Robbie stepping into the role for Suicide Squad.
Harley Quinn’s surprising origin story began when writer Paul Dini was sick at home and happened to catch an episode of the soap opera Days of Our Lives on TV. Dini recognized Arleen Sorkin, an old friend from their college days in Boston, playing a harlequin in a dream sequence … and it got him thinking.
“SHE WAS ALWAYS INTENDED TO BE A ONE-SHOT CHARACTER”
It’s 1992 and Paul Dini has left Warner Bros. after writing for shows such as Tiny Toon Adventures, to work on other projects, but he’s been asked to contribute scripts on a freelance basis for Batman: The Animated Series by executive producer Alan Burnett.
Paul Dini, Harley Quinn co-creator: One of the scripts I wrote was “Joker’s Favor.” As I was putting together the story, I thought, “What about giving The Joker a girl in the gang this time and referencing the Adam West series?” They had the Riddler, Joker, Penguin with their own henchgirls. I was friends with Arleen Sorkin, and I thought about a character kind of like her persona at the time, which was the snappy, wisecracking blonde. I was home sick and had the TV on, and there she was on Days of Our Lives playing a jester in a fantasy sequence. I saw her running around in a pied piper outfit, and I thought, “That’s kind of cute.”
Bruce Timm, Harley Quinn co-creator: Harley was always intended to be a one-shot character in just one episode. Paul pitched her as a change of pace from all the other henchman that we had for The Joker.
Dini: I told Andrea Romano, who was our voice director, that Arleen Sorkin is on TV a lot and she’s kind of like this character. “What do you think about giving her the shot?” Andrea brought her in and Arleen did a great job.
Timm: Going off of the name, Harley Quinn, as a play on the word harlequin, I did some brief research into harlequin costumes. I took the jester hat and the diamond patterns and the ruffled collar and the little balls and stuff. The thing I immediately freaked out about was classic harlequin costumes are really, really baroque. They have a lot of design on them. I immediately keyed in on that diamond pattern. I said, “I can’t put thousands of diamonds on her, because nobody is going to be able to animate that.” I just strategically placed them on her costume. For the alternate, red and black color blocking on her costume, there was a classic comics character called Daredevil in the ’40s — this was way before the Marvel character — who had a red and black outfit which I thought was a kind of unique motif, so I kind of stole that. And there we were. I wasn’t thinking about designing a character for the ages or for a character that would be turned into toys and toothbrushes and purses and stuff for decades. It was just intended to be, “Let’s come up with a cool design for this one-shot character.”
The Golden Age character Daredevil (from Lev Gleason Publications) partially inspired the look for Harley Quinn
Sorkin: I would sing in the car on the way to work — “Adelaide’s Lament” from Guys and Dolls. And when I got there, I was ready. Adelaide from Guys and Dolls is someone I always wanted to play. So it was very easy for me to find Harley’s voice. But I made her even more extreme. I also auditioned multiple times for Little Shop of Horrors. And I’d seen Ellen Green’s performance. I thought her performance was brilliant, so I wouldn’t be surprised if when I did Harley that some of her inflection came out.
Timm: When we got the rough footage for that first episode back and we saw her character actually moving in animation and paired up with Arleen’s voice and the personality they gave her, it was, “Oh wow. There’s something here.” It was immediately apparent to everybody. Paul was from the very beginning advocating for us bringing her back and I was a little reluctant. I thought, “Well okay, that’s going to kind of shift Joker a bit for what we intended to do with him in the series.” Even though we were doing the show for children’s television, we really wanted to try to make Joker as serious a threat as possible to Batman. Kind of balance the psychopathic, homicidal nature with the funny clown motifs, so we thought if he had a girlfriend, that kind of humanizes him too much.
Dini: A few months later, we were doing a story called “The Laughing Fish” and The Joker needed a gang again, and we thought, “What if we bring her back?” She was fun and fawned over The Joker and was a willing audience for him. The more we used her for that, the more we had this twisted relationship growing between them, where she idolized him or followed his orders to the letter. That really gave us an interesting dynamic.
Sorkin: To watch Mark Hamill act, I couldn’t believe how wonderful he was. Sometimes I forgot to pick up my lines because I would be so busy watching him. Everybody else sat with their headphones on, but he stood. I never saw anything like it. Mark owned that character. It was mesmerizing to watch.
Timm: It did give Mark more flavors to play. His relationship with Harley is obviously very complicated. I couldn’t honestly tell you what the Joker’s actual true feelings for her are, but there were times when he seemed to be affectionate toward her, or at least he would use her affection as a way of controlling her. It definitely brought different dimensions to The Joker than we had anticipated.