“The Hidden Story of Harley Quinn and How She Became the Superhero World’s Most Successful Woman” describes how, from humble origins as an intended throw-away character on the Batman animated series of the early 1990s, Harley Quinn has become one of the biggest characters in the world of American comics.
Writer Paul Dini is credited as the creator of Harley, and that’s technically true. He came up with the character while he was writing for the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series in the early ’90s. But the true origins of Harley Quinn lie years earlier, in the mind of the actress who voiced her on the cartoon: Arleen Sorkin.
In 1987, Sorkin was a regular on the soap opera Days of Our Lives, playing the show’s comic relief: the ditzy, leggy, Noo Yawk–accented Calliope Jones. But unlike her flighty character, Sorkin was a skilled and experienced comedy writer. “I could never just come in and run my lines,” she told Vulture. “I was forever suggesting stuff, probably out of boredom!” So when she went to a screening of the faux-medieval The Princess Bride, an idea struck her: Why not do a fairy-tale dream sequence on Days? The producers were into it and aired an episode in which Calliope acts as a court jester, roller-skating into a throne room and doing some hackneyed borscht belt gags for a royal family.
Dini and Sorkin were college friends, and one day, she gave him a VHS tape of her favorite Days moments — including her jester bit. The tape sat idle for years. But in mid 1991, Dini was sick as a dog and popped the tape into his VCR. He was a budding television writer at the time, cranking out freelance scripts for the as-yet-unaired Batman: The Animated Series. He’d been struggling to come up with a female character to use as a one-off in an episode about Batman’s archnemesis, the Joker.
“I thought, Maybe there should be a girl there,” he said. “And I thought, Should the girl be like a tough street thug? Or like a hench-person or something? And then suddenly the idea of someone funny kind of struck me.” When he saw Sorkin in clown makeup, the pieces fell into place, and he came up with a silly little sidekick. He gave her the comic-book-y name of Harley Quinn, sketched out an idea for her look, and brought the sketch to the cartoon’s lead artist, Bruce Timm.
“He did do a rough design for her, which was, frankly, not very good,” Timm recalled. “It had a weird ’60s kind of vibe to it. It was just odd. Charming, but odd. I thought we could improve on that. So I immediately started researching traditional harlequin gear and did kind of a simplified super-villain version of that. It was always intended to be just a one-off.” Nevertheless, Timm was — and is — a perfectionist and labored to give this cameo character a distinctive look: a red-and-black full-body jumpsuit adorned with playing-card diamonds, ruffled cuffs, and a dual-pronged jester’s cap.
It’s a long read, and a good one.