Eisner and Emmy Award-winning writer-producer Paul Dini has transformed the pop culture landscape through shows like Batman: The Animated Series and characters like Harley Quinn. With BTAS set to make its HD debut on DC Universe, we sat down to chat with Dini about the legendary series and the impact its had on fans and other creators...
A new generation of fans is about to experience Batman: The Animated Series for the first time, and in HD. Are you excited?
I'm very excited to see the show back again, and that people can get it, can watch it every day, or binge on it. It's also its coming out on Blu-ray, so that’s exciting too. More batman on tv is always a good thing. [Laughs.]
I know it’s not easy picking favorites. But if you had to, what would your Top 5 BTAS episodes be?
"Over the Edge" would be on the list. Let’s see... "I Am the Night", "Almost Got 'Im", "Heart of Ice", and "Harley and Ivy" maybe? There’s so many that I had such a good time with. I think there are little gems in each of the episodes. Whether we got a great vocal performance by an actor or there’s something new revealed about Batman and his world, they're just tremendous. It's really amazing when a show has that longevity and it’s become a part of culture the way it has. Mark Hamill, for instance -- he does such a fantastic job as The Joker.
He's the definitive Joker in the eyes of many fans.
Oh yeah, and he’s very generous with the credit. He will go to a big Star Wars event, and he will wind up doing his monologue from "The Man who Killed Batman". I go, "Dude, I mean you didn’t have to… Swing a lightsaber or something!" [Laughs.] No, it’s wonderful. He has always approached it with a great sense of humor and a great dedication as an actor. Same with Kevin [Conroy]. Kevin just made the role of Batman his own. It’s so great to hear him out there still doing it. Maybe not in every Batman thing they do in animation, but I notice he did the voice for LEGO DC Super-Villains. And he does it here and there and its always great to hear him, all those great resonant tones.
Your original creation, Harley Quinn, has also become iconic. What do you think accounts for her popularity?
Harley invokes a sense of playfulness. She's somebody who just doesn’t take life too seriously, doesn’t take herself too seriously, and she's very devoted to doing what she wants to do. Yet she does have a caring and compassionate heart for the people she loves and the people she is trying to help. Yes, she is a female character, but everybody can embrace her, everybody can embrace the Harley Quinn spirit. I always think of her like Peter Pan, you know? Peter Pan, yeah, he’s a little boy, but everybody can be Peter Pan. Anyone can be Harley Quinn. Anybody can put on red-and-black outfits and pick up a bat and go out and have a good time.
Is there any one episode that chokes you up the most when you revisit it?
Oh, "Heart of Ice". When the rough cut from "Heart of Ice" came in, I was in Bruce Timm’s office. We were watching it together. He directed it, I wrote it, and he did a ton of the storyboard on it. It was playing without music, without sound effects, with a lot of reshoots waiting to be put in. I didn’t break down in tears or anything. But we watched the ending and I just said “Damn,” and he said “Uh huh.” And we just sort of shook hands and nodded and were like “Well done, sir. Job well done." That’s something I always think about.
There’s a few of them that get me, and I think that’s the testament to the directing. To the directing both of the actual animation directors and [voice director] Andrea Romano, who always brought such wonderful performances out of the characters to the storyboarding. The storyboard artists put their all into it, and the animation and the editing... People worked their asses off to make a very cinematic show that really would stand the test of time. We never really thought, "People from the future will be looking at us." It was more like, "Let’s do a show that we really want to show our friends." When you do that, when you’re allowed to do it, you always do something good.
As is the case with many of the best animated feature films, the show's creators always seemed to be put story first.
Yes. It’s very gratifying to always put story first, because the story is the template that everything grows from. Also, tone is important. I know people talk about just the tone of the episodes and the series itself. There are certain violent things we couldn’t do, there are certain adult themes we couldn’t explore. But as long as we were true to the tone of what we wanted to do -- that this was a world of life-or-death stakes, incredible threats, and true villainy -- as long as you kept that in mind, you could do anything that you wanted. You could do a story that would perhaps read darker than it was. If you got that going, that made the light moments shine so much brighter... I see that very rarely in a lot of shows. But it’s out there when a creator and their crew really care about something. It shows through.
Regarding the animated films on which you've worked, is Batman: Mask of the Phantasm still your favorite?
Mask of the Phantasm, yeah, that’s pretty good. I was very proud of what we did with Return of the Joker, but there’s something... I’ll tell you, Mask of the Phantasm is a Batman story first and foremost. He’s not just reacting to villains running around Gotham. He’s not a traffic cop. It focuses on him and the choices he made to be Batman. That always works, that’s a solid story. A Bruce Wayne story always works. Backstory is the best vehicle to propel a story... I’m very pleased with that. I’m very happy with that. I’m sure that will have another life on DC Universe too.
You mentioned Return of the Joker. That film may have Mark Hamill's performance as the Clown Prince of Crime.
Yeah, it’s very good. Because it is a very complex role for The Joker. We see him as the classic Joker halfway through. He’s the Joker all through it, but there’s something a little different about him in the present day and that's really what’s great. He brings everything to it. He loves that character, he thinks about that character the way that I do. It’s a great role for an actor. He’s one of the great villains I think. Over the last 80 years, The Joker has gone from being an almost bizarre cult character to a true tragic villain in some ways. There’s a whole lot of tragedy to him. That was one of the things that really came through in Mark's audition. When he did the laugh, it was bloodcurdling, it was funny, it was psychotic, yet there was an element of tragedy, of loss. Of a lost soul in there somewhere. Like, "I used to be human once." Maybe that’s reading too much into it, but he is a great character and Mark has really done my favorite version of the character without question.
Arleen Sorkin appeared to give just as much of herself to Harley Quinn. She obviously created the character's voice, but she also created a kind of textbook other actresses who've played Harley can refer to.
It’s great. I spoke to her about it recently and she said that it was a lot of fun for her to come up with a voice for that character. That was a character-type voice she had worked up sometimes for skits or for auditions or things along those lines; and it was a lot of fun to finally bring that voice out and have a character to match it to. It just suits her. There have been some really incredible actors who have done the voice since then. They bring out that kind of naughtiness or the twistedness in a sense. It’s as defining as Bugs Bunny’s voice. I’m sure Bugs and Harley would get along great together. Until they start killing each other. [Laughs.]
"The Battle of the Mallets"?
Oh, there’s no way Harley would ever hit a rabbit. For any reason at all. No, she loves them too much. They're good together. [Laughs.] Harley works well pretty much with everybody because you can bring her in any situation and she is always the wild card. That’s how I like writing her, having an established situation and then, "Oh, look who’s here! Okay, things are about to get crazy..."