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From Hate Mail to Heroes: ‘Harley Quinn’s ‘Looney’ Journey to Fame

For Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker, and Dean Lorey, their show’s path to critical acclaim first navigated through some rather vicious fan backlash - which soon turned to accolades - over what eventually became unfounded fears the long-promised romance between the titular character and Poison Ivy was not to be.

Writers and executive-producers Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker, and Dean Lorey have received considerable critical acclaim for their adult animated dark comedy series, Harley Quinn. Produced by DC Entertainment, Warner Bros. Animation and Yes, Norman Productions, the show, which follows DC supervillain Harley Quinn's journey of self-discovery after breaking off her toxic relationship with Joker, has won Best Animated Series from both the Hollywood Critics Association TV Awards and Critics' Choice Television Awards, and has been nominated for four Annie Awards.

Now on Max and renewed for a fourth season releasing this year, Harley Quinn has been praised for its voice acting and writing, which doubles down on both the wild, uncontrollable energy of Harley and her gang of villainous friends, as well as the heartfelt moments of diverse relationship vulnerability, particularly between Harley (Kaley Cuoco) and her fellow villain, best friend and eventual lover Poison Ivy (Lake Bell). 

“It’s like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but instead of it being Mary Tyler Moore, it’s a psycho killer who is also playing that girl in the big city,” says Halpern, interviewed with Schumacker prior to this year’s WGA strike. “Harley is also such a Looney Tunes character. Bruce Timm even said she’s sort of like Bugs Bunny. So, I feel like she exists, first and foremost, in animation. And, frankly, I think she exists better in animation. She's so unmoored from reality, both physically and in the way that she operates.”

Schumacker describes Harley Quinn as a “workplace comedy” with all of Gotham’s heroes, civil servants, and the city itself portrayed through Harley’s eyes. 

“So, Gotham City is fun and vibrant and neon and not the typical Gothic gray and dark,” explains Schumacker. “Batman is this wet blanket and Superman is a boy scout who told really corny, cringy dad jokes.”

And, after waiting three years from the initial 2016 show pitch to see their vision realized, the Harley Quinn team is thrilled that the series is eligible for Emmy Nominations-round voting this year, which runs Thursday, June 15 through Friday, June 26.

But the deep love for Harley Quinn and its creators that’s been displayed over the last two years wasn’t always there. In fact, with the first season’s release, Schumacker says viewers were in uproar when the long-awaited romance between Harley and Ivy was not initially delivered. 

“There were some people out there that were real upset because they thought they weren't going to get together,” explains Schumacker. “We were definitely accused of queerbaiting. And I kept trying to be like, ‘Well, not spoiling anything, but keep holding out hope. I think you're going to be really happy.’ But I didn't want to explicitly say it.”

Halpern adds, “In the history of Harley and Ivy, the queer fan base has been taken for a ride for a really long time. That relationship is teased and hinted at, and it's never actually given to them. And I think that's really frustrating for fans of those characters. And for queer fans, especially. So, we really get it. I understand feeling like you’ve been strung along for 20 fucking years and are tired of it.”

In 2017, the creators were presented with a choice; either take the pitch for Harley to the new and lesser-known DC Universe streamer and make 26 episodes right away, or pitch to Amazon and Netflix, who had expressed a lot of interest in the IP. After deciding to put their faith in DC Universe and the freedom the team would have without a broadcast standards and practices division policing the show, Halpern, Schumacker, and Lorey wrote their first two seasons in a vacuum, with no external feedback from fans. 

Those two seasons dealt with Harley’s rebirth after leaving Joker, finding a true friend in Ivy, Ivy going on her own personal journey through a romance with Kite Man, and ending the second season with Ivy and Harley embracing their feelings for each other. But, unfortunately, the first and second seasons would be released nearly half a year apart. 

Having all that planned out made it really hard to just sit and watch the fan reaction on social media,” remembers Schumacker. “Because all they had was Season 1 to go on, and then maybe some trailer stuff.”

Schumacher even received hate mail from a viewer, expressing unmistakable disdain for the relationship choices made in the first season. 

“Someone forwarded me some erotic fanfiction that ended up delving into the world behind the scenes of the show and I showed up in it,” shares Schumacker. “There’s some disparaging commentary assigned to me in this fictional world. And then, at the end of it, my penis opens up and eats me. I think there was maybe some anger that people were experiencing, thinking that I was outright lying to them about holding out hope. Thankfully, there was no drawing.”

Stringing fans along was never the team’s intention with Harley Quinn, but the two-season time span between Harley and Ivy’s rekindled friendship and fiery romance was intentional. According to Halpern, it wasn’t about postponing for the sake of drama, but creating a realistic timeline for what it would take to establish a believable and unbreakable romance between these two women. 

“People wanted Harley and Ivy to get together very early, but our whole point was that these are two messy people,” says Halpern. “And if you put them together too early, either they're happy, which is totally unearned and not believable at all, or you have them go on their personal journeys, and then, when they try to get together, it's fucking messy. We wanted these characters and these relationships to all feel earned so that, when they did get together, people were like, ‘I've been on a journey with them. I understand why they're together. I understand why they're strong.’”

He adds, “And they're not going to break up. We've said it in a million interviews. We're never going to break them up as long as we're in charge of the show. That’s why it was important for us to have that relationship be earned. And that meant that the first season had to be about Harley’s self-discovery. We didn't want her to be defined by a man or woman she's dating.”

Of course, now that the two main characters are together and living happily ever after, the show’s creators have not received any backlash from fans. Instead, viewers have been singing their praises. 

“It was crazy to see the sea change overnight, and the part of the fandom that just went from being angry and accusatory about us being queer baiters to them just celebrating the show and calling us kings,” says Schumacker. “It was palpable, that feeling of relief and celebration and it continues on. Certain relationships from our show have made their way into the main canon. G. Willow Wilson is writing this amazing Poison Ivy solo series now and I know that she's a fan of the show. The relationship between Harley and Ivy in that book, which is canon, shares similar notes to our show.  It’s cool to now be in the zeitgeist.”

What Schumacker and Halpern hope to convey to fans of the show, as well as the DC Universe as a whole, is that this series is more than a chance to pacify superhero fatigue and infuse adult humor and gruesome violence into a world of witty, entertaining villains. It’s a show that dives deep into what makes human beings interesting, complicated creatures, and why even the right relationships take work. But conveying messages like this effectively requires the creatives to approach each topic with love and the viewers, in turn, to trust the writers and reciprocate with patience. 

“This show is a gentle ribbing, from people who really love this world,” says Schumacker. “I remember walking into the focus group testing very nervous. There were a couple of groups for participants. One group was people who fashioned themselves or labeled themselves ‘casual’ DC fans. And then we had another group of hardcore DC fans. We were fully expecting to get some flack from the hardcore fans. But everyone was like, ‘This is great. Yes, they're making fun of what we love, but they're also doing it with love themselves. They're doing it as fans of the source material.’”

In the upcoming fourth season, Harley and Ivy are still in a very committed, loving, romantic relationship, but Ivy is now going to be spearheading the Legion of Doom. And Harley, as a member of the Bat family, is going to try hero-ing for a little bit or, as teased by Schumacker, “maybe more than a little bit.”

“We’re going to explore what that does to a committed relationship,” says Schumacker. “There's some really Gonzo stuff in season four, but I still think you can expect a very grounded relationship story between Harley and Ivy amidst all of the insanity.”

The series and its team have found a symbiotic rhythm within the show and with its fanbase, and they certainly have nothing to prove. But, still, as voting season approaching, the creators are sniffing out an Emmy nomination. 

“Harley has, in a super cool way that I'm really proud of, opened a lot of doors for Warner Bros. animation, whose legacy has been primarily kids’ animation. They now have an adult animation division. That came after Harley, and I think the show helped pave the way for it. Being nominated for an Emmy would really highlight how we're doing things on Harley that are challenging and risky. Really, all that matters to me is that we get more eyeballs on the show, because people might enjoy it.”

Victoria Davis's picture

Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at