When most people hear the name "Harley Quinn" they generally think of a relatively one-note character, be that character the Joker's girlfriend or the absolutely bonkers, hammer-happy member of the Suicide Squad. The reality, however, is that while both of those assessments are true there is so much more to the character with Harley Quinn ultimately being perhaps one of DC's most complex, intriguing, and in many ways insightful characters. She's also one seemingly in a constant state of reinvention depending on the artistic hands she lands in.
The latest incarnation of Harley Quinn may just be the most interesting and most creative yet -- a reimagining of Harley as high school student Harleen Quinzel. In the upcoming young adult graphic novel Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass, Eisner Award-winning writer Mariko Tamaki and artist Steve Pugh take the ever-popular and beloved Harley and give her a whole new story, a fresh and utterly unique look at a character fans think they already know so well. Set in Gotham City, Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass will see young Harleen trying to make her way not online in an unfamiliar city, but in high school as well. Joined by new friend Ivy, her Fairy God Person Mama, a small caberet army of drag queens, young Harleen soon finds her chosen family threatened by gentrification of the neighborhood, leading her to act to save the community she loves.
Recently, ComicBook.com recently had the opportunity to sit down with Tamaki and Pugh to talk all things Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass and what it was like to bring this creative new take on the character to life.
You guys really knocked it out of the park with this so I'm really excited to see how other people react to it, but, first and foremost, how did reimagining Harley as a high school age character for this book come about?
Mariko Tamaki: Well, I had done Supergirl: Being Super with Joelle Jones with DC before, which is sort of a similar thing. We sort of really made sure that the sort of reimagining of them was of an actual teenager as opposed to just like a small adult, you know? So, it was about kind of giving her ... Yeah, just the environment, still have her be a superhero, but give her the sort of environment of some of the actual experiences of being a teenager. So yeah, it was also sort of ingrained into the project itself, which was like to do YA versions of DC characters.
Steve, for you, I know if my memory is correct on this, you've done some work within like the supernatural horror type of series. I'm specifically thinking about Hellblazer.
Steve Pugh: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I came up through the Karen Berger initiative, she came over to London and stole artists from 2000 AD. I actually worked for the Americans first and then went back and worked for 2000 AD.
What was the shift like to going onto something like Harley now? I mean technically speaking, Harley in like some of the more adult-geared comics and such just have some horror elements to it. I'm thinking of some more contemporary runs with her, but what was that jump like going from a very different type of genre?
Well, I ended up in horror, but that wasn't specifically because I was drawn to the material. It was more that they were looking for artists who could do things or draw people in real close basically. At the time they were looking for people who could draw like naturalistic looking characters for their horror stories rather than the leotards and stuff. So that's kind of where I ended up.
In my self-published stuff. I was doing stories more like this. I was a big Jaime Hernandez fan and I was kind of trying to rip off Love And Rockets with my friends at college. So it was actually almost coming home to this kind of story.
With Breaking Glass you're not taking her as that psychologist from Arkham but we're going further back with her as a high schooler and we see her in a world that is becoming more and more gentrified, especially with the corporations moving into her neighborhood, which is a real issue for a lot of neighborhoods in metropolitan areas. What was it that you both wanted to kind of inject into that element of the story? Both visually in terms of how we see the world but also in terms of writing the character and what that world looks like?
Tamaki: I think I wanted it to feel like a real city. And I think this idea of sort of like cities having villains and heroes versus like the city itself being a place that feels kind of precarious and kind of not necessarily unsafe, but just unstable which I think is always like a nice added element to have to work with both your characters. I live in the East Bay in California and so I'm surrounded by gentrification. So. it seemed like a kind of natural thing to add, something else that you could put into a character's experience that I thought actual teenagers would relate to.
Pugh: Well I think any story set in Gotham is really going to have Gotham as one of the characters. And it was great to be able to draw the contrast between the stainless steel and the mirrored glass of the corporation buildings and the more real and lived in buildings that the community we're in, and build these like little, little shops and fit them out with all the kind of knick-knacks and then the people who owned them. I had a cat that lived outside one of the shops and I used use that cat as a little gadget. And every time you went past the shop the cat was doing something else. I loved populating this little world. It was very satisfying.
Tamaki: Details are so great for a story too, right? Like as opposed to just kind of having like a false front behind your characters. Like to have people actually having other people with other stakes in a story I think is always really nice. So, kind of having sort of various levels around her where she has some people who are doing really well. And then you've got people who are worried about losing their business, or their homes, and you have this kind of like mix of people and it's like a high school really, it's like a small diverse population. Your first small diverse population that you have to deal with and then kind of expanding that out into the community that Harley lives.
Speaking of Harley's community, kind of an unexpected element of the story are the drag queens that become her family. They're not only a safe place for her, but they're supportive and they're drag shows in a very real way or kind of how she develops her identity. What was it about that environment that made you want to add it to the graphic novel?
Tamaki: I sort of came of age in queer theater, I grew up in Toronto, so Buddies In Bad Times Theater, which is a gay theater space in Toronto, is pretty much where I think I sort of first developed as an artist and certainly drag was a huge part of that. I'm an unrepentant like mega-fan of RuPaul's Drag Race. So that's obviously a huge part of it. To me it just seemed like a natural place to go to get a character, sort of like input for this very theatrical personality that she has. I loved this idea that she is kind of on the outside of ... Harley has a very unique interpretation of events at any given time. I just thought she would perfectly connect to this other group of people who were trying to have their own unique take on, in this case gender. I think Mama is probably like an amalgamation of many queer men in my life who had been like the sort of blended support from the age of like 19 to like 43, there's a whole bunch of gay men that are all sort of mixed up inside Mama.
What about the visual references for this little wonderful world that's created in the book?
Pugh: Oh gosh, well I don't know, I just kind of drew it on the page. I mean it's a very difficult thing to put into words. You kind of work these characters up on the page. And I started ... Funny enough, I watched a lot of interviews of the drag queens out of drag when they were just talking about their experiences and some of the problems they faced and some of their anecdotes and things. And I was trying to build up a kind of picture of how people moved and how they moved in their spaces and when they were in their drag, I had to a certain extent, I had to almost pull it back because some of the makeup, I mean this beautiful sculpted makeup that they use wouldn't have worked. It wouldn't have ... I wanted to make them like fantastic, but at the same time you have to be able to see their eyes, you have to be able to relate to them. You have to be able to look into their faces and see they were people, not just fantastic creatures. So I think that was kind of the hardest bet. Finding that balance. I mean, I could have gone so much further and they would have looked, you know, amazing. But at the same time I wanted to kind of keep them in the room with me.
We get an interpretation of the Joker in this that's a little bit unexpected. Can you tell me how you kind of came up on this fresh take of what is such an iconic character visually and otherwise? And I mean that both in terms of characterization but also how he looks as kind of like a proto Joker.
Pugh: Oh well like all the characters in the book, they develop over the course of the pages and he is really, again trying to find himself. He's got this kind of, if I had to put into words is he's kind of ransom note head and the cutouts change every time you see him. And the idea was to make him initially quite charming and quite appealing and make him more and more sort of sinister and off every time you saw him. Like his t-shirts started to get more sinister and that was what was Mariko was doing with his dialogue. He was becoming more curt and less charming as he felt he had hooks into Harley. I kind of ran with that and just try to reflect that in how he was changing physically.
Tamaki: I mean the thing that I wanted to do was to have this be the sort of beginnings of all of these characters rather than having them already be like Harley Quinn and already be the Joker, but to try to imagine how somebody kind of comes upon themselves as that character, like comes up with that character. I mean for me it's about kind of Harley making kind of an emotional choice and sort of like embracing a part of herself in a unique way. And for the Joker I really liked the idea of having it be kind of very meta, like having it be somebody who is consciously making the choice to create a character in a certain way. So there is a part of it, like with Steve, with the mask, that's sort of a mishmash of things, right? Like if you were researching how to make a really solid villain, these are all the sorts of things that you would do.
I think that there is supposed to be, for me, like in terms of like these three characters, like how for Ivy, Harley and Joker, how they are. There's sort of varying levels of performance in it, right? From the Joker to to Harley to Ivy. So I watched a lot of sort of classic ... I think I re-watched Reservoir Dogs and re-watched all these sort of movies where you have a villain make a speech, like the good villain speech. And I thought like, "Yeah, if you were sort of putting together a villain speech," it is supposed to feel very practiced and very reversed and feel not necessarily ... Also I always want to say to people like these characters are teenagers so they're not going to seem ... It's not like Shakespeare, right?
Because they're sort of doing their version of it. I think we want teenagers to be so much more eloquent than they actually are. I mean adults aren't even, as I am now portraying, very eloquent at the best of times. So I kind of wanted to play that up with the Joker.
One of the things that you often see with representations of Harley is her mental health, she's either portrayed as being completely insane or just barely managing, and sometimes we see her with some very raw depression issues as well; but in this book you don't lean on her mental health. You more or less normalize who she is as a character and you end up really feeling for her and identifying with her in a very human way as you read along. Was this a deliberate choice in writing the story to not make her "crazy"?
Tamaki: Yeah, I think for that part of it, it maybe that, and again this is supposed to be Harley when she's like 16, 17 so who knows what's gonna happen to Harley sort of later into it. I feel like Harley is very open and vulnerable and a very true character. She's very explicit about what she feels and she generally says what she feels. So I sort of leaned more into that side of the character. Also, my take on Harley, which again is like one take on Harley, was that she is somebody who just so intensely marches to the beat of her own drum, so to speak, that there are things in life probably that are going to come as a rude awakening to her, which may or may not have impact later in her life because she just like takes things purely and unfiltered. So that's was sort of, yeah, my go on it.
What is the thing that you're most proud of or excited about? Favorite scenes?
Tamaki: I mean it was just so much fun to do. I feel like I write a lot of upset turmoil, written teenagers. I write a lot of things on face kind of thing. So it was really fun to write somebody who is just like fucking digging what they're doing at any given moment. So I really liked that part of it. To me there's like little moments of Harley-isms that I really enjoy. My favorite scene is probably the scene that takes place in the ice cream shop. To be able to rehearse and then write down someone telling someone off succinctly is certainly much more fun than doing it in real life. So yeah, that's like my favorite, one of my favorite scenes.
Pugh: I do love the ice cream scene. I love any of the interactions between Harley and Hello Dolly, their friendship was really lovely. I really liked them. I actually, yeah. Right. Yeah, there is. When I designed the characters, I gave Harley this beanie hat partially because I was always a bit, I don't know, I always had, I was never really comfortable with Harley's bunches. I thought as a big school girl, you know? So I jam this hat over them and I thought, "I don't know when it's going to happen, but I will lose that hat at a moment. That will make it work." And I had Hello Dolly pull the hat off when she gets the reveal of her makeup where all the queens have done her face paint. I really liked that. I thought that was a really ... And you get the big face shot of her looking just delighted. And I thought that worked quite well.
Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass goes on sale September 3rd.