Under their control, Harley exploded in popularity, with the two cited as inspirations not only for the DC Universe animated Harley Quinn show, but also the current Birds of Prey movie. With the new Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey comic book series, both come back to the world of Harley but with some changes: Not only does the four-part series co-star Harley’s cinematic peers, but it’s a series released under DC’s Black Label rating — for mature readers — and features Conner doing artwork as well as co-writing.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Conner and Palmiotti about their history with the character, and what to expect from the new series.
The first issue of Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey is so fun; it feels like everything that you two were doing on the regular Harley Quinn title, but more so. What was it like coming back and doing what is essentially the next issue of the series, but ramped up to 11?
Amanda Conner: It’s been a couple of years now, so it was really, really was fun to tackle Harley again. She’s just a really fun character.
Jimmy Palmiotti: We thought, especially with the Black Label, they kind of enticed us: “you come back and just do whatever you want, throw the Birds of Prey in there.” We’re like, “OK, we can do that.’ (Laughs.) I don’t know how obnoxious it is, but we started the book the minute after we ended the last issue [of their Harley Quinn run] two or three years ago.
Conner: I mean, it’s possibly six to eight hours after the last issue. (Laughs.)
Palmiotti: We wouldn’t take on the job unless we could do what we usually do, which is just have fun with the characters, put Harley in a crazy situation and let her leave a trail of chaos wherever she goes. And then getting to work with the other characters, the Birds of Prey, was really fun as well. Just the timing of everything is kind of perfect as well, obviously with the movie out.
What does the Black Label rating mean for you both? Obviously, it allows you to get away with language that you couldn’t in the main Harley Quinn title, but does it change the way you approached the writing beyond that?
Palmiotti: It’s funny, because — you wouldn’t know it, but on our end, pretty much every issue we wrote, we got a note saying, “can you fix that, you can’t show that, can you put her clothes back on?” so [our approach is] not that much different with the Black Label rating, except for the language. I guess we’ve always had, you know, crazy violence, we’ve always been we’ve always been a little Tarantino …
Conner: She is a little bit of a violent character for the most part.
Palmiotti: Us, completely uncensored, I think you wouldn’t be able to print it, right? (Laughs.) The Black Label, at least, is a little closer to that, it’s a little more freedom to do what we can, but in the end, we’re just trying to capture a great moment with the character and have fun. All we care about is the reader getting into this and having a good time and wanting to pick up the next three issues. We’re writing something that Amanda and I find a lot of fun, and we’re hoping that comes out. Especially with Amanda drawing it now, that’s like the extra thing we didn’t get on the regular book.
There’s always been a sort of cartoonish quality to Harley, and to your Harley especially, a sort of Looney Tunes-esque quality.
Conner: I’m having a great time on it, I’m having a blast. I’m loving doing this book.
Palmiotti: What I like about Amanda’s art is the postures of everybody, every character has a different posture, which you don’t really see a lot in comics, you know? Harley kind of leans into things, Power Girl’s pretty straight, Ivy has this sort of way about her, and then the Birds of Prey … But when you said Looney Tunes, that’s our favorite thing.
Conner: Yeah! Harley really is the Bugs Bunny of the DC Universe …
Palmiotti: … Except the stick of dynamite Harley has can really cause some damage.
That’s the thing — you have this cartoonish quality, but also there’s an impact to it. The book starts with, what would be in Looney Tunes, violence someone would immediately recover from, but instead, he ends up in the hospital and it’s the inciting incident of the book. It’s fun that you’re managing to mix the tones of, I don’t want to say “real world,” but a certain level of actual implications along with the cartoonishness.
Conner: I’m glad you noticed that! I always wonder if people even notice that!
Palmiotti: You have to ground the characters, or else it all plays silly and it all plays like it doesn’t matter. It’s a very fine balance with the character and the humor and what’s going on, and it’s the balance we’ve always had in our books, even when we did Power Girl or any other books, we’ve always had the characters grounded in reality — but reality can get very strange once in a while. That’s the fun of Harley, because strange is pretty much everywhere around her, from her beaver to her — wait. That sounded wrong.
When you bring in characters like Huntress and Cassie, and Renee at the end of the book, does that change the tone of the book? Like you said, Harley is a cartoon character; Harley can do things the other characters can’t. For want of a better way of putting it, when you’re bringing in the wider DC Universe and the Birds of Prey, does that change the book for you guys?
Conner: Not so much the book, but it changes — it’s always fun to see Harley interact with somebody new, because everybody’s going to act and react differently toward Harley depending on their own experience. You know, Jimmy and I love the way Harley interacts with Power Girls, for instance, but it’ll be a different way than the way she act and react toward Huntress or to Cass. So I think that keeps the characters really fresh, is when you’re able to bring out their individual personalities by their interactions with each other.
Are these characters that you wanted to work with before? I ask because the way that you did Huntress in particular feels really true to the character, but fresh and funny, especially because that the character isn’t traditionally fun.
Conner: I didn’t have as much of a grasp on the Huntress as I did on some of the other characters. I had worked with Black Canary before, and I’d done a whole tiny bit with Huntress in the JSA: Classified book that came out all those years ago, but not a whole lot.
I just wanted to keep her true to her core, who she is at her core. I feel like sometimes, characters — like people in real life — they grow and they evolve a little bit, so, it was a way of doing some fresh things with her, even though she’s still at her core the Huntress.
Amanda, when you’re drawing a book as well as writing it, does that change the way you write?
Conner: Yes, absolutely. It’s completely different than just drawing straight from a finished script. I’m actually adding panels and then I’ll add dialogue, while I’m working on it because while I’m drawing it, I’m hearing voices in my head — I know, maybe that is a whole other subject. (Laughs.)
Palmiotti: It’s maybe coming from the beaver. (Laughs.)
Conner: I’m kind of going through the dialogue in my head while I’m drawing it, and sometimes the dialogue will make me want to add some art, and a lot of times the art will make me want to add dialogue. So it’s actually an ongoing process while I’m doing it.
Palmiotti: Even with issue two, I’ve got to tell you, we have it written out and Amanda’s drawing it, and as we’re looking at it, we’re going to change a couple of little things here and there, because it’s “OK, there’s a little bit too much time with this and not enough with that.” So, it does give us a freedom to mess with things. The other fun thing is DC never knows what they’re going to get. (Laughs.) It is a surprise for them.
It’s funny because, how it works is you give an outline to the editor, and the editor gets it approved. And then we go in and write it, and it turns into something else, and that’s been pretty much our tradition since issue zero of Harley Quinn way back when. We kind of know where we’re going, but sometimes the characters grab the steering wheel and take it somewhere else.
You’ve been working on Harley since 2013. The two of you have, for many, come to define the character — certainly, the two of you are the ones responsible for turning Harley into the figure that she is today, more than anyone else. What is it like being so closely identified with Harley, especially right now?
Palmiotti: Well, we do get better tables at restaurants. (Laughs.) [DC publisher] Dan DiDio gave us the book and said, “do what you want? It’s not going to really last that long. “It’s going to be a miniseries or something, so just do what you want.” So, when we came in and changed direction, and we get to put a new outfit on her, and took her to the roller derby, we had to leave the Joker … We were just doing things that we felt the character needed, to get to a point where we can write the book clean.
We didn’t want it to be a character within an abusive relationship. We didn’t want the character to be all about the Joker and all that kind of stuff. We never, in our wildest imagination, thought that it would blow up the way it did. It’s very, very surreal. We’re very happy about it. I mean, we saw the movie and loved it. It’s so exciting just to see everything going on, but it is quite surreal.
I think, other than the comic community, nobody really focuses on us and what we do; comic book people know, but, the movie people and all that stuff — it is what it is. But we’re just so happy about it. I don’t know. Amanda, how do you feel?
Conner: It’s pretty cool to see it come to life on the screen the way it did. I think that Christina, she just stayed so true to [the character] and just, you know, seeing it happen on the big screen was really, really gratifying.
Palmiotti: Yeah, I’m hoping Margot and Christina and all that get Amanda in the next film. They should just have a cameo of Amanda in some scene, even if the Birds of Prey are just beating her up. That would be really nice. It’d be a cool thank you.
Conner: (Laughs.)Yes! I’ll be beaten up!
Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey No. 1 will be available digitally and in comic book stores Feb. 12, but you can get a sneak peek at what’s in store below.