More than 20 years after her introduction, the DC Comics character is riding an all-time high wave of fan popularity, including DC’s current run of special February variant covers. CBR has been exploring the roots of Harley mania all month long including a look at what makes her tick, a rundown of her greatest moments and an inside look at her comedic history. But what better way to celebrate the woman who’s much more than “the Joker’s girlfriend” than a chat with the writers who deliver Harley’s manic adventures every month?
Teamed with artist Chad Hardin, Conner and Palmiotti have turned the character into one of DC’s biggest success stories in years. From her chart-topping monthly comic to the wacky special issues that arrive every quarter to send up Comic-Con, romance and “rub and smell” effects, the team continues to delight readers. But even they have been taken aback by the increasing popularity of their clownish character.
In a wide-ranging interview with CBR News on their book and its history, the writers dig into the wish fulfillment qualities that have brought new readers to the series, explore the cultural impact Harley has had on roller derby and fashion, tease where the series will go when it returns with a new companion title “Harley Quinn/Power Girl” next spring and speculate on how high Harley can go when she makes her big screen debut in “Suicide Squad.”
CBR News: Guys, Harley Quinn may be at the highest point of recognition in the history of the character right now, and you have a played a big role in that. I wondered what your personal history with the character was. Have you been following her as fans dating back to “Batman: The Animated Series?” Is that what brought you to the book?
Amanda Conner: I think so. I love Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s stuff, so for the most part what brought me to the book was Jimmy going, “Hey, do you want to do this?” and me saying, “Yeah, that sounds like fun!”
Jimmy Palmiotti: And didn’t we do a Harley story that someone else wrote a while back?
Conner: Yeah! A looong time ago we did a Harley story.
Palmiotti: I don’t even remember when that was. [EDITOR’S NOTE: It was a 2001 “Our Worlds At War” event tie-in.] But yes, we loved the Harley cartoon. That was the version we were familiar with, to be honest. When they offered us up this book, we knew that she was in the Suicide Squad but it was a different kind of character there. It was a different take on her. So when they offered us the book, we did our research and a lot of reading. We kind of liked the older version, but we had to mix with the new one because you can’t ignore what people are doing now.
Conner: So we just kind of smashed them together.
Palmiotti: Right. It’s an amalgam. So a lot of our stuff reads like Dini and Timm in a way, but then there’s the Suicide Squad version mixed in too, which is kind of more vicious at moments. But DC said, “You guys do what you want to do with the character. Make it your own and show us what you can do.” And, you know, we didn’t expect it to do this well. [Laughs]
From the very start in the #0 issue, you seemed to have injected a lot of your own selves and your interests into this version of Harley. Is that the kind of thing you hope to do with every project, or did Harley invite a more personal touch for some reason?
Conner: I guess we did set out to make it our version, but she almost dictates what she’s going to do. For instance, with the roller derby thing, it was me just messing around with her costume and realizing, “Gee, this sort of looks like a roller derby outfit… oh my God! That would be the perfect job for her.” So she almost tells us what she wants.
Palmiotti: Amanda’s first image that she drew of Harley to let DC know what we would do with the book was that image of her in front of the giant Joker circle like a spoof of the Coney Island clown. Once she did that, we thought, “It’d kind of be cool if she would live in Coney Island.” And we knew we needed to get her out of Gotham if this was going to be her own book. If you leave her there, she kind of has to run into Batman and Catwoman all the time. It’s hard to avoid all the heroes running around. But if we put her somewhere else and give her a supporting cast of her own, it kind of make her her own character. It’s better than being a supporting character or part of a group like the Suicide Squad. We needed her to stand on her own. And sometimes in life you want to do that. You move somewhere else, and you can be an all-new person. We kind of did that with Harley — and in some ways it was just to make our lives easier. Because if we left her in Gotham, we’d have to clear everything in the book with the Batman office. [Laughs] We just decided, “Let’s go crazy on this.”
And you’re right. As a result of that, we’re writing neighborhoods that we’ve lived in, and we’re writing people we know into the book. We’re putting Ivy in just for the fun of it. But a lot of it is based on the stuff that we know. And the rule of writing is write what you know first.
I know it’s been years since the animated series was on, but when I read this book I still head Arlene Sorkin’s voice in my head. [Laughter] Is that something that happens to you as well, or when you write do you kind of have to act out Harley’s parts to make sure you’re capturing her right?
Conner: When I do her dialogue, I definitely hear Arlene Sorkin’s voice, but it’s just a little bit deeper. I’ve got Harley’s voice in my head really, really well. I can hear her talking when I look at the page. That’s another thing. Maybe this is creepy, but I hear her voice following me around.
Palmiotti: And also she was born in Canarsie Brooklyn, so I definitely hear the Brooklyn accent in her voice. But Amanda definitely has the voice down better than me. Even when I sit down and do dialogue, she always comes back in and makes it Harley.
Both of you have worked on a wide range of series over the years, and it’s always a crapshoot in comics whether something you’re doing is going to connect with a lot of readers or just get ignored by the market. This book has been a phenomenal success — always at the top of the sales charts and with a lot of passionate fan support. One year into the creative process, have you been able to wrap your head around why it hit as hard as it did?
Conner: We were just as surprised as anybody! We were shocked. It was just “Wow! Everybody really likes this!” [Laughs] I guess the closest I can come to guessing why she’s become so popular — and I was saying this the other day — is try to think of something that makes you really, really angry. Like, you’re at a stop light that changes green, and within a split-second there’s someone laying on their horn for you to go forward. You wish in that moment that you had rear-facing rocket launchers on your car, but you can’t do that in real life. The wonderful thing about the book is that Harley can do that. She sort of does all the fantasies that we think about doing that we’re not allowed to do. That’s part of the popularity.
Palmiotti: I also think the timing is right. Justin [Gray] and I worked co-writing the “Injustice” game, and Harley appeared in that, and people just loved the character there. Every guest appearance she makes anywhere gets people excited, and you can’t go into a Hot Topic without being beat over the head with some Harley Quinn clothing. It just seemed like now was the right time for this book and, thankfully, the right tone.
I’ve got to be honest: I’m used to my books not selling. My stuff is always juuuuust about hanging in there. [Laughs] So when this thing started selling like it’s selling, we were like, “What the hell?” Especially since DC just let us do the #0 issue the way we saw it. We wanted to use all these artists and get a little crazy, and they were really great. Normally Editorial is a little more heavy handed with us on things because the books have to tie in to everything. But with this they said, “Do your own thing.” I guess there was a little bit of a lesson in there.
But I also think we actually caught more of a female audience and more of a young audience. Those were the kind of readers where a lot of other books just weren’t catching the attention of that audience, and that really helped us. I’m basing this on us going to conventions and seeing a hell of a lot more women on our line than ever before and also a lot of young kids. They’ve been bringing their books up which is not a normal thing you see at the cons.
Conner: It’s more normal now than it used to be, which is awesome. Conventions now are so different than conventions ten or fifteen years ago.
Palmiotti: But really, we don’t even know what’s made this connect. Because if we did, we’d be doing it in 15 books. [Laughter]
What was the turnaround for you guys from when you debuted the new roller derby look on Harley to when you saw a fan cosplaying in that outfit at a show?
Palmiotti: What was that one we saw? Was it in Albuquerque?
Conner: Oh yeah, it was! That was the first one we saw.
Palmiotti: It was a couple of months later. But what happened first was that we got invited to some roller derby bouts in Florida. We weren’t able to go because of scheduling, but there have been all these people on Facebook inviting us to come see them kill each other. We started to realize there that this hit on something. We had a roller derby site interview us as well. We just hit on this other group of people that we never expected, and they started buying “Harley.” At one of the derbies in Florida, they were giving away copies of “Harley” #1 signed by me and Amanda. We sent them a bunch of books to do that, but that’s when we realized the audience for this book was all over the map. It was also video game people and traditional comic book people, and a lot of this became word of mouth about, “Hey this is a comic that you don’t have to read a lot of other stuff to understand.” I think it was a perfect storm. It’s not necessarily our fault. It’s just that the character itself became more popular.
Though in the story of the book, you’ve done a lot to build up an original world around Harley between the Coney Island cast and the longer mysteries of the series. Of late, you’ve brought in characters like Power Girl to expand out into the DCU a bit more, but how have you found that balance between keeping this its own thing while also playing in the bigger sandbox when it makes sense?
Conner: It’s always fun to put your favorite DC characters into the book you’re doing, but at the same time our goal is to always keep the focus on Harley. It’s Harley’s book. But putting guest characters is in a blast. Any chance we get, we’ll do it, but it has to be the right storyline too. We’re not just going to throw someone in there just because we can.
Palmiotti: Or because we’re looking for sales. We threw Power Girl in there because we knew Power Girl. We worked on her for over a year of our lives.
Conner: And I missed drawing her! [Laughs]
Palmiotti: So we just thought, “What a weird team that would be. Power Girl and Harley.” We just started laughing, and we proposed it, and DC was like, “Sure!” That was great. Even with the Valentine’s special, it’s Batman, but really it’s a lot more Bruce Wayne. It’s not exactly what you’d expect to see, or it’s not the Scott Snyder Batman. It’s just Batman — the Batman everyone knows. Without getting hung up on what’s going on in any other books, we just say, “Bruce Wayne is coming to New York, and he’s going to have to put on his Bat suit at some point.”
You mentioned the #0 issue earlier, and I feel like that comic was not just an art lovers paradise of a story, but it was also full of in jokes and the kind of Easter Eggs fans enjoy. I get the sense that the specials and the annuals have kept up that feeling while the series builds the continuing story. How important a part of the whole book are those one-shot flights of fancy?
Conner: It’s an outlet. The special books are ones where we usually try and make something that can grab an even wider audience. It’s its own little universe rather than tying too close to what we’re doing in the monthly title. I think in books like that, we amp up the craziness as much as possible.
Palmiotti: It’s funny because when we’re writing, we’re not necessarily thinking “Joke Joke, Funny Funny.” We’re very concerned with character first. But when you throw Harley in the middle of it, you go, “Wait a minute. She wouldn’t react like that. She’d do this. She’d blame DC for that.” So we just put all that in. Or sometimes we just say, “If she’s got a catapult that flings poo, are the DC offices close enough to be hit?” [Laughter] It’s ridiculous, and it’s funny because when we write we just put in crazy stuff. And we always expect [editor] Chris [Conroy] to come back and say, “You can’t do that.”
Conner: “You’re not allowed to say that!”
Palmiotti: So for everything we put in, there are probably ten things we end up taking out. But we’ve also found that they’ve been very generous with letting us make fun of them. We take full advantage of that. And Harley doesn’t break the fourth wall that much, but I love the idea that she can look at the camera every once in a while. I’m dating myself with this reference, but it’s sort of like John Belushi in “Animal House” when he’s looking through the window and just turns to the audience and turns back. That was one of the greatest moments to me in the movie as a kid. The audience started howling. He just stopped to acknowledge, “Hey, look what I’m looking at.” They do that in a lot of movies, and we like to have fun like that.
But we also like the idea that when you buy the book, you don’t know what’s going to happen next. That’s so important for us as we write comics.
Conner: Also: in Harley’s brain, maybe she really does think she’s in a comic book. She’s nuts, after all.
It’s fun to see that aspect break through. I’ll admit that when I read the Comic-Con issue that referenced her first appearance in “Batman Adventures” being $250 or some such, I thought, “That can’t be right.” Then I went to eBay and saw it and thought, “Holy shit. Do I own that issue? Can I sell it right now?”
Palmiotti: [Laughs] Yeah! When we were signing last year, we had a lot of people coming up to us with “Harley” #1, but it was the second printing, and they’d had to pay $25 for it. It was more because it was a collector’s thing, and we’d feel horrible. I’d say, “How much did you pay for that?” and the answer would be “I paid $35 for the Adam Hughes one. It was a bargain!” And I thought, “Dude, you could have got three pizza pies and a couple of beers for that.” [Laughter] But you just have to say okay, and I try to sign those with all the letters of my last name.
But you just realize the insanity of all that, and we like to throw some of that back into the book. Now that you’ve got me talking about this, I think at some point she’s going to have to go into Hot Topic and do some shopping. She has to buy her own clothing.
What can you say about the future of the book? There have been some long-running mysteries from issue #1, and while Joker was in the “Futures End” one-shot, he’s back in play n the DCU for real now. What do you think you can do to pay off the big first year the book has had?
Palmiotti: We have a lot of the second year planned out right now, and we’ve also got the specials in place. So DC gave us the Valentine’s Day one, and we had the “>scratch and sniff Annual or the San Diego one. The series itself will see a lot of setup for what Harley will go through in the next year with #16. Pretty much the idea is that because Harley has an apartment to run with tenants and all the animals and because she is a doctor and because she’s in the roller derby at night, it’s going to be all about Harley being overwhelmed. She’ll have to enlist some help, and the result is probably the craziest thing we’ve ever done in comics. When we come back after “Convergence,” that all starts, and we also have the usual madness. If you’re sick of Harley now, you’re going to be vomiting all night after what we get out there. There will be a Harley for everyone
And the book continues on as we’re gearing up for a big screen live-action Harley in Warner Bros. “Suicide Squad.” Do you have any designs on playing into that or capitalizing on it?
Palmiotti: Aren’t they still searching for a Rick Flag? I’m auditioning for that. [Laughter] I think it’s all “win-win” in a way because it just brings more awareness to Harley. I would love it if they just took our Harley and made a new animated show while this was going on.
Conner: That would be awesome!
Palmiotti: This book was made for that. But films are great for awareness in general, though I’m not sure they always translate into sales. What do you think?
I think as many people in the general public who know the character from the animated series or as many fans of comics who know the character as she is now, there has to be a huge amount of folks out there who will be seeing her modern version for the first time with a film. There has to be room to expand things there just because of the platform that provides.
Conner: Yeah. I’m curious to see how they’re going to handle her in the movie. I wonder if she’s going to be really, really dark or if she’ll have some of the fun that makes her character.
Palmiotti: It’s a “Suicide Squad” movie, so I’d guess it’d be pretty close to that version of Harley. If we’re still around doing the book when the movie comes out, and if they want us, I think the great thing about comics is that you can have many different voices on the same character. In comics we can come right out and do what we want. It doesn’t have to take five years to get there.
But I’m hoping that when the movie comes out, it has a positive influence. As we do with the book, we always hope that we can get a bigger audience. We want to let more people in, and we never want to scare a reader off with whatever happens on the first page of the book. It should be as easy as possible to say, “Here. Read this.” And when the movie comes out and does well, I’m sure we’ll continue to see a million Harley things all across pop culture.
You know, I was in a game store the other day, and a guy came in wearing Harley Quinn pants. [Laughter] I just went up to him and said, “Dude, that’s awesome.” And he told me about how he loves the character, but he didn’t know who I was, which was perfect. It was just cool. I love that that can happen.
The series-changing “Harley Quinn” #16 arrives in March from DC Comics.
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