One of the driving creative forces behind "Batman: The Animated Series," writer Paul Dini is a legend in multiple industries. He's written for television, animation and film, penned Batman stories and "Gotham City Sirens" (among many others) for DC Comics and introduced original creations like Jingle Belle and Madame Mirage. While you may know him for any of these, he casts the longest shadow for co-creating Harley Quinn with Bruce Timm. Harley is everywhere these days, from multiple DC comics to the upcoming "Suicide Squad" feature film.
But Dini isn't resting on past accomplishments. This June sees the release of "Dark Knight: A True Batman Story," a Vertigo original graphic novel drawn by Eduardo Risso that's equal parts Batman and his own life, inspired by a violent mugging 23 years ago. And while he considers creating Harley "a start," he's more concerned with putting more new works out there than whether any of them top what he's already done.
At WonderCon 2016 in Los Angeles, Dini visited the world famous CBR Tiki Room to speak with Jonah Weiland about how big Harley has gotten, the trauma that inspired his latest Batman tale, and the advice he'd give anyone, whether they want to create or they're struggling with things in their day-to-day lives.
Harley Quinn co-creator Paul Dini spoke with CBR TV in the first part of his lengthy conversation about why Harley has gone from fan-favorite to amazing success, how she balances innocence with madness and whether she could take Deadpool in a fight.
On what is it about Harley that allows her to be interpreted in so many different ways and still feel like the same character:
Paul Dini: There is a sort of manic unpredictability to her. I think of her as almost like a sprite who goes out and does what she wants, she's very passionate about what she's doing, for better or for worse. So if she's on your side, great. If she's against you then that's not so good for you because she will go after you with the same sort of passion. But I think she's a character who does kind of represent passion and sort of a joie de vivre, just wants to go out and do whatever she wants.
I'm happy to see her break away from the Joker. When I had been writing her in "Gotham City Sirens" and a few other places I was moving her farther away from that, where she'd still have moments of, "Does he like me or not? Should I go back to him or not?" And maybe that'll always be a smaller element of her character, but I think of her now as more of a super screwball who's just out doing what she does, she loves completely and totally whatever she loves, but then moves on the same way. She does have the sort of manic quality to her but there's an innocence to her that a lot of people respond to, and that's especially apparent in all the cosplayers. They're not doing the mean version of her, they're doing the more funny, upbeat, or their own interpretations of her.
On which character created in the last 20-30 years even comes closest in terms of mainstream success:
Deadpool. And look at they're costumes, they're both red and black. I actually did something the other day where I went, "Deadpool, red and black. Harley, red and black. Mickey Mouse, red and black." Maybe there's something to that color combination that just makes popular characters. I said to somebody, "She's like Mickey Mouse. She's everywhere and all these different permutations of her. If you're looking to make money off a cartoon character, make them red, black and white, I guess. Like they did with Deadpool, that sure captured his look and he's not hurting these days.
The second part of the interview turns to "Dark Knight: A True Batman Story," Dini's Vertigo OGN drawn by acclaimed illustrator Eduardo Risso. The writer discusses the real-life violent origins of the story, how he dealt with the trauma and how writing this story allowed him to continue healing. He also talks about working with Eduardo Risso, how it felt to see some of the more violent pages brought to life and what depths the artists had to plumb within himself to bring it all to life.
On how a mugging inspired his new Batman story:
I look back to that time and there was a big split to the way I was living my life. I had gone through this experience and after months after I had got into it I was back at work and being upbeat, my same self, and I would go home at night and I would just drink myself stupid over this. Nobody really knew that I was doing that because in order to function I had to be one guy in one world and when I got home I was the other guy. That was just dealing with grief and misery and a lot of struggling feelings. It was something that I worked hard to get through at the time. People who were very close to me or who I worked with certainly knew about it, my family knew about it, but after that I felt like, 'I got through it. I'm not gonna talk about it, I'm just gonna go on with my life.'
In the 23 years since then I have a certain perspective over it and I feel like I can tell the story without a lot of the anger or conflicting feels I had at the time. I feel like I was too angry or confused to tell the story any time prior to this and I needed that time to kind of heal and become another person and I feel like I'm on the way to being a more healthier, happier person. Telling the story helped a lot, too, because it was something that was just tucked away in a box and it wasn't until Kevin Smith asked me about it on his podcast that I sort of pried the lid off. ... So I started talking about it and I started working through some feelings again and I had been talking to Dan [DiDio] and Geoff Johns about doing something, a graphic novel, and somehow this came up. We thought it would be a good fit for a Vertigo story because it was a chance to do Batman in Vertigo but not really the Batman that we know in the DC Universe. And they had also done the book, Steven Seagle's "It's a Bird," which is a wonderful book, and now this is sort of almost like a bookend. There's the Superman version and now there's the Batman version.
Because Batman was a very vivid character to me around that time, he was very much alive in my head and it was very easy for me to think in a very visual way of putting myself into that world, or have him standing next to me or hear the villains talking in my head. One step beyond that is bring them physically into the world where I'm having a dialogue with them but they're really ghosts or spirits or things in my imagination. So there are scenes where I'm in a hospital room and the nurse is taking my blood and the Joker is kind of laughing or something, there's a dialogue going on between all these characters, real and imaginary, at the same time. It worked out kind of therapeutic to tell the story that way. I think that a lot of people -- the Batman characters are just more than they are on the page or in a movie or on TV. They symbolize so many things. Batman himself symbolizes so many things. The Joker, the Riddler, Robin, they are all extensions of the way we use our lives and imaginations so they became a very good chorus to echo the thoughts that I had at that time.
On thinking he never wanted to write Batman again during "Mask of the Phantasm":
I never wanted to write Batman again, I knew that. We were in the middle of writing "Mask of the Phantasm" and I just told Alan Burnett, "Give my scenes to somebody else. I just don't want to write it." I was in the middle of writing this one scene where Bruce is assaulted by some street toughs, he's trying to protect his girlfriend, "I can't write this, and I don't think I can write anything else."
It was a time where what worked me out of it is people would say to me, "I like the cartoons. I like 'Batman,' I like 'Tiny Toons,' what's coming up next?" They would tell me the shows meant a lot to them and that's something I've discovered over the years. I got a wonderful letter recently from a police officer in Virginia who grew up watching the ["Batman"] animated series and it made him want to become a policeman. I think it's good that I didn't hang it up back then, and that's a point I make in the book. If people like this stuff -- rather than what it brings to me personally -- if they're really enjoying cartoons, and now's the chance to really make some good cartoons, I really want to go back and be a part of that. And more importantly, if I walk away the bad guys win. And they can't win.
On how confronting his feelings about the traumatic experience actually allowed him to get past it:
People have said to me, "Now that you've got the story out, does your heart feel lighter? Do you feel like a weight has been lifted?" And I said, "No, it's still there, but I feel stronger." And I feel that minimizes the burden is that I'm a bit tougher, I'm a bit stronger, and I can take on more than I thought I could.
In the final part of his conversation with CBR TV, Paul Dini explains why creating Harley Quinn is "a start," that he doesn't plan to give up or slow down any time soon, and relays a story about a recent fan encounter and the advice he gave to help put things in perspective.
On the lesson he learned from putting his creations out into the world:
Then they exist. Just bringing something into existence is really the best. And that's also -- I don't want to quit, and I don't want to give up anything. I talked to a little boy today who's 12 years-old who came to the panel earlier today. He's being bullied to the extent that he had to change schools and he says, "When does it get better?" And I said, "Not for a while. When you're 30, the gap of five years is not gonna be that great to you. It's great now because you're 12 and you haven't lived that much of your life, and I know how miserable this is. I know how bad you can feel. Everybody goes through it and I know that you just want to get through one more day. You gotta look at the big picture."
And I said to him, "Whoever's bugging you now is gonna stay where they're staying. You're gonna go on, so just go on."