By Dr. Mike Robinson – Professor of Communication Studies
Arleen Sorkin, the Voice of Harley Quinn. Photo retrieved from IMDB.
The enduring characters of popular culture are often the results of collaborative efforts. Credit is often lacking where credit is due. Sometimes though, it is important to highlight the contributions of a single performer. Recently, actor and voice over artist Arleen Sorkin passed away. Without Sorkin, Harley Quinn might never have happened.
Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) was one of the best cartoon series ever made. Debuting as part of the legendary Fox Kids block of animated show, this program was secretly a film noir influenced journey through the psychology of Batman, his friends, and his foes. Harley Quinn first appeared on this program, exploding out from there to become one of the most important and most recognized super characters on DC’s massive roster. Originally though, Harley was nothing more than an unnamed female sidekick for the Joker in the episode “Joker’s Favor.” Episode writer Paul Dini was inspired by a performance that his friend Sorkin gave in a dream episode of the soap opera Days of Our Lives (1965-present). Sorkin regularly played a character named Calliope Jones on the soap, but in a fantasy story sequence, she acted as a put upon court jester. That idea stuck in Dini’s mind, inspiring Harley and encouraging Sorkin’s casting in that part.
In “Joker’s Favor,” the Joker’s plot to kill Commissioner Gordon hinges upon an ordinary man who experienced a road rage incident with the Joker. The Joker allowed the man to live if he agreed to help the Joker in the future. Harley’s role in the story was basically to be the Joker’s main operative, distracting the crowd at a dinner meant to honor Gordon. Batman would, of course, eventually save the day.
Then the magic happened. Impressed by the character and by Sorkin’s performance, other creators on BTAS began to use Harley in different Joker stories. Pretty soon, they realized her character could stand on her own. In the magnificent “Harley & Ivy,” for example, the great relationship between Harley and Poison Ivy begins with a Thelma & Louise (1991) style rebellious romp across Gotham.
Even from her earliest appearances, Harley had something special as a character. As the Joker’s long-suffering sidekick and romantic interest, Harley could be humorously adorable but also tragic. There was something about her that made you root for her, even when she was being a little bad.
That’s where Sorkin’s voice really impacted the character. Sorkin gave Harley her own Brooklyn accent. More importantly, she gave Harley an irrepressible nature. Despite all the setbacks she faced, through her troubles with the Joker or through her own self-sabotaging nature, Harley remained optimistic. Harley was not a Pollyanna though. A world weariness shone through. Sometimes she was positive because it was clearly the only thing she had left to be.
However, Harley could also be dangerous. As plot events warranted, Sorkin could channel Harley’s enthusiasm into a dangerous edge. A personal favorite is the flashback sequence in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000) in which the Joker and Harley transform Robin (Tim Drake) into a Joker-like child to complete their warped dream of a perfect family. Harley’s desire for motherhood and her aggression in a fight with Batgirl are truly chilling.
Many others have gone on to voice Harley Quinn over the years with largely great results. Harley Quinn would not have become the ultra-popular character she is today without Arleen Sorkin.