Harley Quinn: Who's Responsible For This?
Over the last few weeks, I have enjoyed making my way through HARLEY QUINN, the animated TV series produced for DC Universe’s streaming app but now available to watch on HBO Max. The show was developed and produced by Justin Halpern (the dude who used to run the “Shit My Dad Says” Twitter account), Patrick Schumacker, and Dean Lorey. It’s a very funny, continuity-heavy show that does a great job combining comedy, character drama and development, and fun animated action. The show has not been officially renewed for a third season but, hopefully, there will be more episodes to come. As it currently stands, though, the twenty-six episodes that were produced tell a wonderful love story between Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy.
Harley Quinn fascinates me as a character because she represents the question of creation. Who is responsible for Harley Quinn as a character? By the letter of the law, Harley Quinn was created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm for BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, an early ‘90s Fox cartoon designed to capitalize on the success of Tim Burton’s first two Batman movies. The character was originally designed as a sidekick and romantic partner for The Joker but quickly become a fan-favorite character in the series. Harley Quinn appeared in several episodes of the television show before making her way into comic books – first in a series of books inspired by the animated series and then, finally, in main-DC continuity in 1999’s BATMAN: HARLEY QUINN # 1.
In the years since, Harley Quinn has become one of the most popular comic book characters created in the last few decades, making the transition to film, live-action television, video games, novels, toys, and more. He's probably one of the most recognizable characters for mainstream audiences, which probably goes a long way towards explaining why the 2016 film SUICIDE SQUAD was such big box office hit despite not being very good.
The Harley Quinn most audiences would recognize today – whether through her portrayal in popular video games such as INJUSTICE: GODS AMONG US, the animated TV series, Margot Robbie’s portrayal in SUICIDE SQUAD and BIRDS OF PREY, or even the most recent comic book portrayals of the character – is vastly different than the original version who appeared in "Joker's Favor," the twenty-second episode of BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES. It's true that Harley Quinn, like real human beings, has grown and changed to adapt with the times – even in her relatively short existence as a fictional character. The various writers, artists, and performers who have contributed to her existence, building upon what came before to create something new, are as responsible for Harley Quinn as a character as Bruce Timm and Paul Dini.
So, when it comes to multimedia characters such as Harley Quinn, who deserves the credit – both financial and creative? I don’t pretend to know the intricacies of contracts signed behind-the-scenes and I would never dream of making a case to strip credit from the characters' original creators, but I find it fascinating that a character can be the combined creation of a small army of people. Who was first responsible for establishing the friendship-turned-romance of Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy? Who was responsible for designing her current non-clown costume? Who was responsible for her Brooklyn accent? Who was responsible for establishing Harley Quinn outside the shadow of The Joker? Creators such as Karl Kesel, Terry Dodson, Amanda Conner, Jimmy Palmiotti, Arleen Sorkin, Margot Robbie, and Kaley Cuoco have all contributed something to the character that has helped define her over the last twenty-eight years. The work that has come in the last ten years for the character is just as essential to the development and creation of the Harley Quinn that audiences know today as Paul Dini and Bruce Timm's original work.
A great mirror example of this phenomenon is Deadpool. I have been reading comic books long enough to have witnessed the evolution and rise in popularity of Deadpool, a Marvel Comics character created by Rob Liefeld and Fabien Nicieza in 1991. A mercenary with a habit of talking way too much, Deadpool sputtered around the fringes of X-Men comic books until the late ‘90s when Joe Kelly and Ed McGuinness launched Deadpool’s first ongoing solo series. It was under Kelly’s pen that many of the elements of Deadpool that audiences know today were established, such as his ability to break the fourth wall and the moral ambiguity that often cast him Deadpool in the role of hero. The writers that followed Kelly, such as Christopher Priest, Daniel Way, Gail Simone, and Gerry Duggan, not to mention the numerous artists who have drawn Deadpool, are instrumental in establishing the character that Ryan Reynolds would play in 2016's DEADPOOL.
Rob Liefeld has not been shy in taking sole credit for the creation of Deadpool, downplaying Nicieza’s contributions in a 2016 interview with the New York Times. The fact is, though, it’s almost impossible to read the first Deadpool stories by his original creators and see the same character that is widely understood and celebrated today: a pansexual, meta-humor loving, Chimichanga-obsessed antihero. Deadpool is a product of many chefs in the kitchen, just like Harley Quinn was.
When THE SHAPE OF WATER’s first trailer was released in 2017, HELLBOY creator Mike Mignola took to social media to make vague comparisons between the film’s imagery and that of his own creation Abe Sapien. Abe, a supporting character in the Hellboy comic book universe, had been brought to film in THE SHAPE OF WATER director Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 adaptation HELLBOY. Mignola’s relationship with Del Toro has apparently soured a bit due to disagreements the two had during the making of HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY. Not long after the trailer for THE SHAPE OF WATER popped up, Mignola pointed out similarities beyond the director's new character – such as the aquatic monster’s love for raw eggs - and Mignola's character that Del Toro had previously adapted. Mignola's posts seemed to imply that Del Toro was somehow making an unofficial Abe Sapien movie without the involvement of his creator.
The interesting thing, though, is that Abe Sapien’s love of raw eggs doesn’t seem to be something that was created by Mignola in the comic books (somebody correct me if I’m wrong). In fact, this element of the character was introduced in Del Toro’s film. So much of Hellboy's personality as understood by mainstream audiences is in fact a result of Mignola's work being put through the prism of Guillermo del Toro and his actors. Who created Abe Sapien? Mike Mignola, of course. But to underplay Del Toro's involvement in the development of the character and the way audiences will remember him seems disingenuous too.
Where is this all going?
I don’t know. I didn't start this blog with any real mission statement in play. I wasn't hoping to educate people about copyright laws. I'm just endlessly fascinated by the art of adaptation and the possibilities of long-form serialized storytelling across multiple creators. There has been a lot written by much more intelligent people than myself about the struggles between writers and artists to have the companies they worked for as freelancers acknowledge their creations and I would never dream of taking away the fact that they are ultimately responsible for bringing a character or concept into the world.
I find it fun, though, to chart how creations continue to grow and change after they are created. That’s how you know when a character has truly become something special – when they take on a life of their own separate from their creators. We don’t know for sure who created Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan but the creators of Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man will (hopefully) forever have their names linked to their work. But what about the people who came in the years that followed Bob Kane, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Stan Lee, and Jack Kirby? Will they be remembered?
Without taking away from the original creators, I wish more recognition could be given to the people who followed the original creators and continued to add on to their stories. But maybe that’s just the duel gift/curse of working on other people’s creations - you get to help turn characters into modern legends, but you do it knowing you are – in the long run – doing anonymous work.
Heck, maybe we should set priorities and start by making sure when creators do get credit, their names are spelled right.