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The creative team behind Harley Quinn on letting an icon grow

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DC Entertainment

Harley Quinn might be unstoppable. Even though she started off as a throwaway henchwoman in Batman: The Animated Series, she’s since exploded in popularity to become one of the most recognizable characters in all of comics. She’s certainly not on the same level Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman, but she’s getting there. In her world, she’s so much more than the Joker’s ex-girlfriend. Right now, she’s a core member of the Suicide Squad, and headlines two series of her own. And in Hollywood, she’s easily one of the best parts of one of this summer’s top-grossing movies, with a movie of her own on the way.

Harley has long been a zany, over-the-top character with surprising depth, but she’s in a league of her own thanks to Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti, the husband-and-wife creative team who’ve worked on her since 2013. Thanks to the pair, Harley’s now an anti-hero based in Coney Island where she leads her own "Gang of Harleys" who fight crime under her banner. She’s gotten pretty good at it, too, even earning the respect of Batman himself.

New York Comic Con has long been a haven for Harley Quinn fans, where they’re about as common as Deadpool cosplayers. I sat down with Conner and Palmiotti to talk about Harley Quinn’s impact, what it’s like to write her, and what it means to develop a character that’s quickly becoming a mainstream icon.

You've both worked together on a whole host of books starring Harley Quinn. What is it like working with that character now that she's at the height of her popularity.

Amanda Conner: Man, it surprised us! You know, we knew that people loved that character, [and] we love that character. But we had no idea that it was going to take off the way she did. We’re a little unprepared for it. [laughs]

"We had no idea that it was going to take off the way she did."

Jimmy Palmiotti: Because she's become more popular, we're actually upping our game a little bit, because we know there's a big audience. We enjoy all the noise, we enjoy the attention, but at the end of the day we're actually working harder to keep true to what we see with the character. And like all good jobs, eventually they'll say "Get out of here, you guys are done." But for now we're trying to keep true to what we set off: keep the books fun, approachable, for people who've never pick it up before to randomly pick up an issue, and bring them up to speed pretty quick. It's very important for us, to make sure that's happening all the time.

AC: [Being] inclusive to new readers, you know, like maybe they've never picked up a comic before.

It's a balancing act.

AC: It is.

JP: And part of our job is to piss off a certain amount of people! Because I don't think you can be creative and make everyone happy. I don't think that really works for any kind of creative. Somebody's always gonna hate Bob Dylan. You know what I mean? And our job is to do what we see and then let everyone else sort it out.

Harley is a pretty young character, all things considered, but she has such a storied history with Batman and especially the Joker. How do you balance the background with all the new stuff you're trying to embed in her character?

AC: Well, we do acknowledge that she does have that background. We don't just try and say "Hey, that never happened." But I think it's really important for a character to grow. And that's what we're trying to do with Harley. It's like, make her grow, make her have new relationships, [give] her responsibilities. And that's another reason she's kind of awesome. She was a supporting character in Gotham and now that she's in Coney Island she's her own character.

What's it like playing her off of iconic characters like Superman now?

AC: It's so much fun because they're always the straight man. Harley is always the person that throws all of the cotton balls into the blender.

JP: It's great for us because if we wrote those characters like that, they'd never let us write them. But if we throw Harley in it, Harley can poke fun at them, and go "You're ridiculous" [to] Batman. We have this Superman one coming up, with Harley and Superman, and she knocks him out, under a red sun, she completely gives him a sucker punch and knocks him out. I don't know how much they would let you do that in a Superman comic. But with Harley in it, we get to have some fun and kind of put these heroes in crazy situations.

AC: You get to see another dimension to all the other characters because usually they're dealing with somebody who wants to destroy the universe. They have to like beat them down and be victorious over them. Whereas Harley, we get to see our favorite, iconic characters roll their eyes a lot.

One thing I'm very interested in is the different perspectives you bring to the book. So much has been made about Wonder Woman being queer, but Harley’s world has long been a queer one. How does that make you think about what you’re bringing to the DC universe?

JP: We create our own universe. We've been accused of creating our own little pocket universe sometimes. [I’ve been a] New Yorker my whole life, and what media thinks is "Whoa, look at that what they did to the characters!" I'm like, these are people I've known my whole life, so it's not really a big thing. Some of these characters are just characters. Somebody like Harvey, when he wants to be Harley, great, we love it. And actually he's inspired by cosplayers. The Gang Harley is inspired by cosplayers. We have cosplayers of every race, every sex, so we thought, "Well, why not create a guy [who’s] Harley?"

"We create our own universe."

AC: That's what real life looks like. You know?

JP: I mean yeah, that's how we see the world. And I guess a lot of times you get to know the writers of the comic a little bit. Again, we have either the most bizarre sense of humor as well, but it sort of the fun of writing these characters. They're not iconic. Harley is becoming iconic, we're still forming that.

What's it like, you're the writing / creative team, what's your process together, where you're both writing and drawing and creating all these ideas?

AC: We actually usually will just go out to lunch or dinner, and we'll have seen something completely insane earlier in the day, and we'll talk about it, and we'll think, "Well if we did it this way it would make a great Harley story." So we talk about it over lunch.

JP: Although I love all the action and people beating each other, for me it's always been about the characters interacting, that makes the comic fun. I always liked the soap opera aspect. Even growing up, Peter Parker was infinitely more interesting to me than Spider-Man. Spider-Man would be great, but I would like that he had trouble. That he had Mary Jane and Gwen. Like how was he gonna deal with that? Harley has a lot of soap opera in her. I think that's part of the appeal.