Creator of Harley Quinn Reveals the Personal Tragedy of His Batman Years

Paul Dini wrote for 1990s classics like "Animaniacs" and "Batman: The Animated Series." He created the character Harley Quinn with Bruce Timm and won an Emmy. In his new graphic memoir, he recounts how during this time he was dealing with the worst...

by Mitchell Sunderland
Jun 24 2016, 5:15pm

Photo by Luiz Rampelotto, courtesy of Getty Images

Paul Dini was one of the main writers on Batman: The Animated Series, a Saturday-morning cartoon which ran from 1992 to 1995. Critics and fans typically regard it as the best adaptation of Batman for its art deco design, featuring shadow-filled streets, grey skyscrapers, and three-dimensional portraits of both Batman and his enemies. Where Batman films tend to clog the screen with too many villains, preventing filmmakers from developing the characters, the series tackled characters through multiple episodes, creating them the same way David Chase developed The Sopranos ensemble over the course of eight years.

Dini, alongside his colleague, Bruce Timm, created the show's biggest contribution to pop culture: the Joker's girlfriend Harley Quinn. Today the character is an icon. Margot Robbie plays her in August's Suicide Squad, and Warner Brothers has already begun work on a spin-off focusing on the character. "In sort of a sinister way, Harley symbolizes joy," Dini says.

"Batman is a sort of strictness. Joker is indulgence," Dini continues. "[Poison] Ivy symbolizes the unattainable and doubt. Scarecrow, of course, is fear and inner terror and the resistance of change. I found it very easy to cast each one of those characters emotionally to what was going on in my head."

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Dini, surprisingly, is also one of the creative minds behind screwball, lighthearted kids' shows like Animaniacs and Tiny Toon Adventures. Though he won several Emmys for his work on Batman, this period marked the worst part of his personal life. He went through a series disenchanting romantic relationships, struggled with self harm, and nearly died when two men mugged him. Dini's new graphic memoir, Dark Night: A True Batman Story, details the grim personal backstory of Dini's professional milestones.

"I look at cartoonists like Harvey Pekar and Art Spiegelman and Robert Crumb, and a few others who have taken elements of their life and put it out there for public display," Dini says. "I think that having read a lot of material like that in my head gave me some sort of idea of what I was going for."

In Dark Night, Dini merges memoir with the superhero genre. He depicts conversations with Harley Quinn, Batman, Two-Face, and other Batman characters in his head to defeat his demons in the early 1990s. The uncanny therapeutic process taught him why he loved comic characters but also made him realize he needed to live his life outside the writer's room.

"Magic doesn't solve everyday problems," Dini says. "You can conjure up a storm or turn people to stone or something, but getting a date or balancing a checkbook takes real life skills."

Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez, courtesy of Getty Images

Dini's animation career started in 1979 during a bleak period in animation history. Walt Disney Productions had failed to produce a hit following Disney's death in 1966, and cheaply-made cartoons like The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse, Heckle & Jeckle, and Hanna-Barbera's The New Shmoo, a huge decline from the company's Flintstones heyday, aired on Saturday mornings.

Dini still wanted to work in cartoons. However, since he was attending Emerson College instead of the prestigious animation school CalArts, he worried about landing a gig. His father worked as a singer, though, and knew a DJ named Norm Prescott, who had gone on to found the Saturday morning cartoon mill Filmation Studios. While studying at Emerson College, Dini submitted drawings and writing samples to him; Prescott hated his drawings but liked his story concepts. Dini continued sending him stories, eventually selling him a few. For a year, Dini worked at Filmation.

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"[I] just wrote everything that they threw at me," Dini recalls. "It's like, 'You got a week. Write a half-hour Tarzan script,' so I would, and it was a good experience."

He left, came back for a bit, and then bounced around from Hanna-Barbara to Marvel to Ruby Spears. He eventually moved to Los Angeles and continued hanging out with college friends, whom he refers to as the "Emerson Mafia." At a party, he bumped into his old classmate Arleen Sorkin. The blonde actress had succeeded in her dreams, becoming a soap opera star in the hit Days of Our Lives. They became best friends.

"She was like his surrogate wife before he got one," says Dini's wife, the feminist magician Misty Lee. "She was solid. She's so solid and so stable, and she's got this mouth. She's wonderful, and she doesn't put up with bullshit from anybody."

At work, his life was starting to soar. In 1985, he received a call to come work at George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch in Nicasio, California. Lucas wanted to take minor Star Wars characters and build Saturday morning cartoons around them to keep the franchise alive. Dini agreed to write a show called Droids, about robots like C-3PO.

"It was a chance to work with George Lucas. It was an office on Skywalker Ranch," Dini says. "The things I could learn and experience made it invaluable to me."

For several years, he worked at LucasFilm on animated projects, like the Ewoks animated series. He met people connected to Steven Spielberg through the job. Spielberg loved the classic Disney films. Amblin Entertainment, the director's company, had partnered with Warner Brothers to create artistic Saturday morning cartoons. His team wanted Dini to return to Los Angeles around 1989 to work on a project called Tiny Toon Adventures. The show was an immediate hit. The Little Mermaid premiered the same year, becoming Disney's first blockbuster animated feature since The Jungle Book. An animation renaissance was in full swing.

The cover of "Dark Night: a True Batman Story," by Paul Dini. Cover design by Eduardo Risso, courtesy of Vertigo

"[Spielberg] really wanted to set the bar high," Dini says. "He came in and said, 'I want to do as full an animation as we can, as funny an animation as we can. I want us to do parodies of contemporary things and really stretch ourselves like they used to do in the old shorts. I really think music is important. I want to have great music on the shows scored to picture.'" The studio really was into doing that because they really wanted to get started again in being at the forefront of animation."

The job led to Dini scoring a writing job for Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. He perfected writing villains. In the series' fourteenth episode, "Heart of Ice," he developed a backstory for the third-rate stock villain Mr. Freeze: The character became a sad doctor named Dr. Victor Fries, whose wife, Nora, had fallen ill, leading him to freeze her in a cryogenics tube. His boss, GothCorp CEO Ferris Boyle, thinks he has wasted his corporation's money by saving his wife. Fries fights him, but his boss pushes him into cryogenic supplies, transforming into into Mr. Freeze, an icy man with a broken heart.

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"Whenever I'm working on an animation project, the characters live in my head and live in close proximity to me and my imagination," Dini says. "There's no other way I can explain it other than the characters are very much alive in my head. You can ask my wife. I'm constantly talking about these characters, or talking to them, or talking as them."

As the show took off, Dini's romantic life plummeted. He worried about his future. "I never wanted to be the last guy at Comic Con, in my sixties, and coming home to a house alone filled with comics," he says.

Sorkin remained his platonic rock. "She'd be like, 'That girl's an asshole! You need to get rid of her,'" Lee says. "She was always there for him. She was definitely his best female friend." In her professional life, Sorkin had perfected the blonde comedic role. Dini turned to her for inspiration for a small character.

Dini was writing a script called "Joker's Favor." He wanted to play on the Joker's typical character and give him a female henchman. He recalls thinking, What if she's funny and she cracks jokes and the other henchmen laugh at her jokes and they don't laugh at Joker's? He borrowed from Sorkin's acting, and Warner Brothers even hired Sorkin to play the part. Dini and Timm named her Harley Quinn.

The characters are constantly in my head. You can ask my wife.

Timm and Dini loved the character and began including her in more stories. "I remember driving some place with Arlene Sorkin, who lived a few blocks away from me, and she was singing this song and I said, 'I see a whole musical number with Harley Quinn in that song, and I know exactly what's gonna happen." Directors started asking Dini when they'd get their chance to direct a Quinn story, and Dini realized the extent of her popularity. She then appeared alone by the Joker's side and also on car chases with her girl frenemies, Poison Ivy and Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman.

As Dini continued writing her, with Timm designing her, he developed Quinn's backstory. In 1994, the duo created a standalone comic called Mad Love. They revealed that Quinn had been the Joker's psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum. He drove her mad, and she fell in love with him.

"We thought that'd be a really great surprise for the audience [to be] like, 'Woah! She's not a criminal. She's actually a psychiatrist, and he snapped her.'"

Quinn became a standout character from the 1990s animation revival. The decade became the first time a cartoon was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, when the Academy Award nominated Beauty and the Beast.

Dini believes his generation succeeded at writing animated films because they grew up on the Disney classics. They watched Walt Disney every week when he appeared on his Sunday television series Walt Disney's Disneyland, Walt Disney Presents, and Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. "It was the last generation who knew Uncle Walt, so to speak," Dini says. "He was someone I still remember from my childhood."

At home in San Francisco, Dini absorbed all comics and cartoons, good or bad, with a scholarly passion. He recalls lying in a hammock reading Charlie Brown cartoon strips. He digested Batman, Casper, and Josie and the Pussy Cats. "Everything," he says. "It didn't matter."

He loved comics and cartoons because they served as his friends, according to Lee. "They were his only friends when he was little," she says. At school, kids bullied him. He was round, nerdy, and very smart.

"As you would with any good friend, he really dug in and understood the psychology of these characters—even crazy obscure characters," she continues. "He knows these folks really really well, which is why he's able to write them. It's so interesting when he flips. When he's working on a book, he flips in and out of character. When he's writing for the Joker, his shoulders curl, and his eyebrow goes up, and he becomes the Joker for a minute."

"The characters are constantly in my head," Dini says. "You can ask my wife"

Illustration from "Dark Night: a True Batman Story," by Paul Dini. Illustration by Eduardo Risso, courtesy of Vertigo

Having cartoons for best friends comes at a price. In 1993, Dini was in a deep depression due to struggles in his personal life. After winning a Daytime Emmy that year for Outstanding Writing in an Animated Program, according to his memoir, he came home and cut his arms with his award.

"Luckily, nothing seeped through. I didn't have to go to a hospital," he tells Broadly. "The next day I just broke out Band-Aids and I went into work and was like, 'Hey everybody, have a good time at the Emmys?'"

Later, he was violently attacked: While walking to his house near the Ivy, the popular restaurant where starlets go to get photographed by paparazzi, two men walked towards him. Oh, these are two cool looking guys, their team jackets, probably athletes, Dini remembers thinking. They then jumped him. He decided to let them beat him, and they left him there for dead.

He stumbled home, covered in blood. He started to drink and refused to go to a hospital. When he finally went to the doctors, he learned he needed surgery. His depression worsened, and he stopped showing up for work. In his memoir, Dini recounts how he spoke to the characters he wrote during this time. They debated him; eventually he returned to work, and his life started to improve. The attack had transformed him.

Over the next decade, he worked on more shows—Spielberg's Freakazoid, Superman: The Animated Series, and even the live-action production Lost—but he continued to struggle with his dating life. In 2003, he received an email from a Detroit-based magician named Misty Lee. She had read his comic about the magician Zatanna and saw herself in the superhero. "I wasn't looking to date the guy," Lee says. "I was just trying to tell him good job."

Dini thought she was cat-fishing him. "Is she a female who's an illusionist or is being female the illusion?" he recalls thinking. But he found her website and discovered a beautiful brunette. He felt cautious at first. "I had been through the wringer with actress and performer types before, and I thought, I'm gonna stay away from this one," he recalls. They began emailing each other, and he asked if he could call her. He waited a few days. When he finally called, she yelled at him. "I'm not married!" he recalls her screaming.

"I took it kind of slow and it developed over time, and we became friends online and then by talking most every night, and then we met in person," Dini says.

The couple eventually married. Since Dini told her about his near-death experience, Lee has encouraged him to write about it. "I gotta write something about this, but I had no idea what from it would take," Dini says. "I wouldn't have known how to write it [ten years ago]."

Last year, he started writing the memoir. He would talk to the characters who helped him through his crises in the house. While writing it, he says, all the anger ended.

"I was approaching it from a much different point of view," he says. "Writing forced me to look at every element of my life today."