Harley Quinn and Mental Health: An Interview with Stephanie Phillips
Words By Stephanie Phillips, Interviewed by Dominic Loise
How did the “I Killed Comics” T-shirt come about?
I had posted the upcoming solicits for October, which included Wonder Woman’s eightieth-anniversary anthology that I’m writing a story in, and some Harley Quinn covers that have Harley and Poison Ivy on them. I received this comment that was very upset. They thought that the depiction of bisexual characters as well as Wonder Woman, who’s on the cover with a bunch of other women around her was “feminist propaganda.” The comment spiraled out from there about me killing comics. And I think that just speaks to this interesting point we’re at in the industry, where more and more doors are being opened to non-white, heterosexual creators. I think it’s amazing that we’re getting all of these unique voices in the industry, but that’s making some people upset. They want something very specific. And even though that still exists in the industry, they just don’t like the inclusion of others. I don’t think it’s usually directed at me as much as it is at others, usually people of color, creators in the industry that get this daily. Something about that line “I killed comics in cold blood” just stood out, and I was like . . . I feel like this person just gave me a gift. So then when it started taking off online and people were responding and reading it the same way I was, I just saw an opportunity to take it one step further and say, this person did something they thought was really mean but in their honor, let’s donate to The Trevor Project and turn it into a positive. And since one of the posts was about Harley and Ivy together as a couple, and this person seemed really upset about that, I chose the Trevor Project as a way to support LGBTQ+ youth as well.
Tell me more about choosing The Trevor Project to support, and how it connects to Harley Quinn as an LGBTQ+ icon.
One of the covers on there was purely celebrating the relationship of Harley and Ivy. I recently came out publicly as bisexual. One of the reasons I decided against keeping that private was seeing it as a big responsibility to write a character like Harley. I think, at least on an ongoing title, I’m one of the first female, bisexual, Jewish creators to take on this character and Harley is all of those things. So, when I write her, I’m putting these things at the forefront. After taking the reins of a very openly bisexual character that’s celebrated for this, I almost felt that I was doing a disservice to myself, the industry, and Harley by not letting it be known that this is how I’m approaching the character. So to have somebody come and attack Wonder Woman and Harley and say that these things are “feminist” or that they’re grossed out by it, you know, it really speaks to one of the reasons why I did stay private for so long. Donating the proceeds of that to The Trevor Project was important for me and I think it’s something that Harley would have chosen too.
A comment started the T-shirt; does this comment tie into the themes of your graphic novel Averee, where not only high school popularity, but access to things like transportation, parking, and your career are determined by an app’s ranking?
I think Averee focused on some of the more dangerous sides of social media. And honestly, as someone who sometimes slams social media, I actually think that this post and the way the community has come and supported the shirt and donated to The Trevor Project, is showing a cynic like me why social media can be good. Averee is the worst-case scenario. In real life, this community really did come out to support. And I wouldn’t have this community without social media. And during the pandemic, taking on a character like Harley and not actually being out in the wild, interacting with people, social media became a really important way to talk with cosplayers or people in the community that is super invested in the character of Harley. Feeling how much they love this book and this character makes it exciting to continue working on Harley. It’s an amazing responsibility and an honor to get to be a member of that community in this way. And that’s something that I don’t think would exist, or that I wouldn’t get to experience, without social media. Yeah, there’s a bad seed in there, and there’s always going to be, but I think the good really came together to say that we totally outnumber this, and we’re willing to support and help people and build a positive community and I think that’s really cool.
Can you talk about how the current comic is dealing with self-love and moving on?
That’s a huge theme. In a lot of ways, it’s taking it a step further from just moving on from a relationship with the Joker. Harley also has to wrestle with her past. There’s a lot of guilt associated with things she’s done in the past and she wants to be accountable, but accountability is incredibly difficult, having to actually face yourself and say, I did terrible things, and here’s how I’m going to learn and improve. We’re giving Harley the space to do that. We’re not excusing all the past behavior and I don’t think Harley is doing that to herself either. I think a part of Harley’s self-love journey now is that extra step of being okay or at least acknowledging that you did terrible things in the past, but still know that you have something to contribute moving forward and being allowed that space to do that.
The current series opens with an act of Harley apologizing to someone who doesn’t accept the apology. Issue #2 shows Hugo Strange embraced by Gotham for a second chance even though he never officially apologized for his past actions. There are these themes of apologies and amends that we see through these two characters. Can you show how Harley and the character of Hugo Strange represent the two emerging mindsets of mental health awareness and an antiquated mindset of mental health awareness?
Hugo is really invested in external factors. It’s clearly not therapy. He’s just experimenting on people. But he’s also invested in the external factors that made him “bad”—something like, Gotham was bad or I was here at a bad time, or whatever the excuses are. The city sees this person coming back as this big authority figure and they’re just very willing to be like, yeah, he’s going to tell us what to do. Meanwhile, Harley is not so confident in who she is at this moment. She’s trying to figure that out. But Harley’s apologies are so much more authentic because she’s feeling them, she’s going through it, and she’s not trying to take the easy way out. Instead, she’s looking at it, and saying, you’re right. I did that. And I’m sorry. And I think there’s something uncomfortable in that because then it forces the other person to have to say that they accept it or they don’t, or they think it’s genuine or they don’t. And I think we’re seeing an interesting reaction from even the city as a whole, saying yeah, it’s Harley Quinn; it’s not genuine, and judging her, and not letting her be very sincere. I think as much as Harley is going to try and fail every once in a while, she’s sincere, and I want that to come through. Harley is asking questions of herself too. Does she deserve forgiveness? So at some point, there’s a sad element to the book where Harley isn’t sure she deserves that, but she’s still trying and she still has this motivation to keep trying to be better because, as she says at some point, that’s all I can continue to do.
In Issue #3, Harley realizes that the best way to open up the conversation in her support group for survivors of the Joker War is to drop her note cards and just speak from the heart to help de-stigmatize the conversation about mental health for the survivors. How important is it for Harley to just be honest and “drop the smile?”
The note cards are like a shield. Harley’s still working on letting that come down and just telling people in her life what they mean and what she means and advocating for herself. Harley is someone who’s had an issue with setting boundaries in her past. If she was trying to set a boundary with the Joker, that was clearly not going to be respected, and she kept letting him disrespect boundary after boundary, which is why we have someone who is now a little afraid to set a boundary for herself. Because what happens if somebody doesn’t respect that and this is somebody you want in your life? And we internalize when someone doesn’t respect who we are. We start questioning ourselves and our identity.
I think Harley’s at a point where she’s really learning post-Joker, post-Joker War stuff, on her own, who her identity is, what those boundaries are going to be, and how she’s going to set them. Losing the note cards, losing the shield is important for Harley in this quest for sincerity. She’s going to say how she feels and how she wants to relate to people and let them choose how they want to relate to her. At some point, not everyone is going to relate or connect to her in that way, and I think she has to learn that that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with her or the other person. We don’t have to internalize it and let it crush us, which has happened to Harley before. Acknowledging those things is the first step for Harley.
Harley’s first group session does not end well, but it gives her a chance to be there for those who came to her for help. How does this moment help Harley find her identity post-Joker War?
She sets up this thing that’s like, here’s the mission, here’s what I’m going to do. In her mind, she’s done everything right and it doesn’t go according to plan. And that’s incredibly difficult to deal with. My favorite Captain Picard moment is when he says the hardest thing for us all to learn is that we can do everything right and still fail. How we react to that is really important. I want to push Harley in those ways. She thinks she’s done everything right—setting up her new place in Gotham, working with Batman, finding Kevin, helping Kevin, setting up a support group—these are all positive things. And she can do them but there are still external factors.
One reason I thought Grundy was going to be such a good foil for her was that he doesn’t say much, so it’s Harley figuring things out for herself. She just has somebody listening and not judging her for it. Because Grundy is absolutely not going to judge Harley. He’s not entirely interested as is; he likes her, which is fun to establish, but Harley’s still working it out for herself and has this nice ear to listen to her. And she thinks she’s failed. I think that’s her also measuring herself up to someone else. She’s still working out her identity and allowing herself to do this in the most Harley Quinn way possible. Having an ending with her, Kevin, Solomon Grundy, and former Joker Clowns—this very motley crew, which is so Harley. It doesn’t look like a Batman ending or even a Batgirl ending. That’s something that I think Harley needed to distinguish for herself—what does my heroism look like? It’s a very sincere quest for her to figure it out. We’re not there yet and I’m excited about where more of the story goes as we explore her relationship with Kevin and the new villain Keepsake and things like that as well.
Can you tell us more about Kevin and how he keeps Harley on track?
I wanted to show that there’s more than one way to go about this journey. Harley’s way isn’t going to be the right way for every single person. Kevin is also wrestling with similar things. We see in some flashbacks that he’s done things he’s not particularly proud of either. We gave Harley a bit of a foil with Hugo, looking in the mirror about the opposite side of mental health for her, and we’re about to do something similar with Kevin. Keepsake is a former Joker villain as well—or a former henchman—and it’s like this other side of Kevin, looking in the mirror thinking am I like that? Could I become that? Do I have the same capacity in myself that this person has? I think it’s something that’s going to push Kevin in ways that we haven’t seen yet.
We also give Kevin quite a few opportunities coming up. He’s going to be narrating for a while and we get to learn a little bit more about his thought process, how he views Harley, how he views his journey as well. Compared to Harley, where you have her bouncing all over the place, Kevin is a little more structured, and I think there’s something a little bit sad under there, growing up, being teased, and looking for acceptance, and finding that in a way that wasn’t particularly good or helpful for him, and having to realize that just because someone accepts us—or just because they give us time—doesn’t mean they’re a great person to have in our lives. Kevin is thinking through those things as well. I love Kevin and I think he represents another side of this journey, so we’re watching two people going through things, just in a very different way.
This interview began talking about a negative social media post. Have you received positive social media posts thanking you, or about how people have connected to the mental health journey and finding these connections to the characters of Harley and Kevin?
I didn’t make the post to get the attention. More than anything, I thought it was funny. But it’s also indicative of being in a somewhat public sphere, and that’s a really odd position to navigate. I want to have those connections with people—I think that’s honestly one of the greatest parts of the job, finding someone that connects about the same thing that I’m interested in—and obviously, I think that writing something like Harley Quinn is just raw. Obviously she’s funny, but these are things that I genuinely care about and I see a lot of these things in Harley, like chances for empathy and sincerity. These are things I don’t have answers to, but I want to work through them with Harley. So that’s been really personal for me and something that I’m very invested in with the character. Seeing other people react to that and appreciate it is really cool. Seeing people go so far as creating fan art or cosplay is a little surreal. And with some conventions coming back I’m also excited to start talking to people and having these conversations and finding out what other people are liking about Harley or connecting with. I think we probably all see different things in Kevin or Harley or even Solomon Grundy, just because of the way we approach these issues or the series. I think when people say my Harley is a little different from Harleys that came before, you know, I love all iterations of her. I’ve always read Harley books. What I’m highlighting are just the things about Harley that always stood out to me. I’m just highlighting those components that other writers brought to her that I loved. It’s an honor to get to write her after such an incredible line of talented creators.