Harley Quinn may have been created as the Joker's girlfriend, but she's built a legacy and role in the DC Universe all by herself. It's about time Harleen got an origin story that focused on the young woman she always was, and the battles the forged her - as opposed to the man who 'broke' her. Which is exactly what Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass is here to deliver.
The new graphic novel for young adults is traveling back to Harley's own days in that demographic, as a fifteen year old kid from Gotham poorest neighborhood. Eisner Award-winning writer Mariko Tamaki (Supergirl: Being Super) and Eisner Award-nominated artist Steve Pugh (The Flintstones) are telling the tale, re-imagining the circumstances that led Harleen to become the Harley Quinn. Only this time, it's based on family, fairness, and what one girl can prove capable of when her friends are put in harm's way. And any fan who reads Breaking Glass is likely to wonder how her origin was ever any different.
Screen Rant had the chance to speak with Tamaki and Pugh about creating this new graphic novel, the new drag club origin for Harley Quinn, their brand new incarnation of The Joker, and more. Read on for our full interview, along with preview pages showing Pugh's work, and the official trailer for Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass.
I'll start by asking how you were approached for not just a young adult graphic novel from DC, but one giving Harley Quinn a new, teenage origin story. Was it easy for you to sign on?
MT: For me this is kind of a follow up to Supergirl: Being Super, in that I was in a conference room with a bunch of DC people talking about what I might do next. A similar project was offered up as something that I might do, and then when they asked me I had two very obvious questions. The first was who is the character I wanted to do, and I immediately wanted to do Harley. I get the first pick of everybody so I got Harley right away. Then when we talked about illustrators I was like, 'Steve Pugh, it has to be Steve.' Part of it is because I had just read The Flintstones series. I just thought that kind of physicality that he had in those comics I thought was something that would keep it in a style that felt real. Which was really important to me. It was ridiculous. It took a year to get approved but in terms of selection process, it was very simple.
Was Steve hard to convince?
MT: Steve was about to do something else when he agreed to do this!
SP: Yeah! I was lined up to go on rotation on one of the big DC monthlies, but Marie Javins, the editor showed me the script and I very ungraciously backed out. And DC were lovely about it, they totally supported me but they were surprised. I utterly loved the script, utterly loved the characters. And I wanted to be involved immediately. So it was a no-brainer for me.
You both got the chance to answer a question that most Harley fans have never even though to ask, which is: 'Who was Harley Quinn in high school?' Or even, 'What if her origin story had started while she was still in high school?' How did you land on this version of the story?
MT: To me it seems like a standard teenage story, and high school is part of that. I think it was a natural place to start to think about, in terms of the origin of someone's hero story, in terms of deciding to be a hero. And I think that school seemed like a great place to put her to encounter a bunch of different influences. She has multiple influences in this book. She has the drag queens that she lives with. She has this girl, Ivy, who she goes to school with who is incredibly smart and knows a lot about history and things that Harley is not very interested in. Then she has this other influence of the Joker. I think the thing about high school is it's a nice melting pot to put people in where they naturally encounter certain things. And especially because I wanted there to be a history of activism and a place for her to learn and talk about that stuff. That seemed like a natural setting for it.
In terms of this style of Harley and the rest of the characters, was that something you two took a lot of time to sort out. It's a different version of a lot of things readers will both recognize from DC Comics, and their real world high schools. Was that also a natural process?
SP: I really took my cues from what Mariko had put on the page. My planning stage is quite poor. I read the script and I imagine how it looks, I see it as a movie. But when I'm doing sketches and things, it never really works. Everything that I find works for me gets kind of designed on the page as the characters are moving about. I'm very much a sequential artist, I'm not very good at coming up with pin-ups or covers or things like that. I kind of find the characters as they're performing, and saying the lines, and emoting. That's how it worked, so it was very much script first and then I kind of ran with it and checked in to make sure I was on beat and in the right area of what everybody wanted.
It feels like these graphic novels are different from the regular ongoing comics, where you go in knowing that you're following someone, and will likely pass to someone else. Here, you get to design from the ground up, both in story and artwork. Do you start by asking what the version of Harley is that YOU want to make, or something you want to see in the character that you maybe haven't before?
MT: Yeah. Yeah! It's funny because I do feel like it's a narrative process: the first thing that I pictured was Harley Quinn on the bus on her way to Gotham. And what that character looks like, and really imagining a past and present and future for this character. I think the way she's designed is in terms of what she would have. She has this kind of knapsack type thing, jeans and a sweater, and her cap. It's what she would have on her. But at the same time, it's also us trying to get her to that place of the iconic Harley Quinn. What are all the things that she's narratively going to encounter that will take her to the place where she looks like the superhero that we know?
It was a matter of finding those things, and when I first saw Steve's character sketches for these concepts that we were looking at, it was really helpful. Because I could imagine this very excited and excitable kid, and what she would be like. It really helped because it gives you a personality, and a visual to go on that then feeds you for the rest of the story. Also we had the scripts but then we were editing in little chunks, so I could see her becoming more of a person on the page.
I imagine it all has to be in service of that core question of who Harley is, no matter what else you change. Was that something you each had in mind when entering this project, or something that you had to discuss to arrive at together?
MT: I think Steve and I mostly worked--like these last two days are the only times that Steve and I have ever spoken!
MT: We work through our editor Marie Javins, and I will say, she was a really good rudder for keeping us on track. That's a really amazing part of the DC Comics Editors, because they are so well acquainted with who these characters are, and the vast histories of them. They kind of keep you on track. They're the guards in the bowling alley, when you're playing in the little kids' bowling alley... Just making sure that you don't go so far out of what's legible as this character. But I feel like at the same time, Harley is such an iconic personality. That kind of playful strangeness of her is so pungent, that it was really easy to stay within who that person was. Or who she is. For me.
SP: Yeah, she's just endless charisma, enormous potential, looking for something to aim herself at. That quest for a purpose for family and for someone to care about her, and someone for her to care about. I feel like that's the common thread that's always been in Harley's journey. Falling in with the wrong sort, and falling in with the right sort, and which side grabs her destiny.
MT: Yeah. Yeah.
It seems a unique challenge, to decide who is this Harley and what is this story about.... now what does she look like? Because you know there is a whole army of cosplayers just waiting to show their love by bringing these looks and personality to life. I am so eager to hear any insight you can offer about developing that wardrobe--I imagine it starts with the natural progression you spoke about, but where do you go from there?
MT: Did you just read a lot of teen magazines Steve, what was the process there?
SP: [Laughs] Just observation, I suppose. I just remember people from college and how they carried themselves, and how they kind of experimented with looks. Harley is just exactly at the age when you're trying to find yourself, and the costumes were about--as Mariko said--she starts with what she's got. A gym bag that she's hooping her arms through and using it like a haversack, and the woolly hat. Then she picks up things along the way and creates looks. The drag queens help her out and widen her horizons. It moves organically and in many ways, a lot of this stuff is made up on the page. There is an enormous amount to be said for planning ahead. But what I tend to find is if I do character sketches and work it all out beforehand, the things that work in the character sketches almost never translate to the sequential panels. Because you don't see the character from that front-on, side-on view, you see them doing things. And things that work in a design in those kind of character sketches don't really flow when the character's leaping onto a ladder, up the side of a building, or something. It's really just kind of instinct.
Well you touched on what has to be one of the best changes you make in this origin story, which is to give Harley Quinn a drag mother. And I will now not be able to to ever see it any other way...
So where did the idea of MAMA and her crew come from, and what was that like, bringing this drag paradise to life?
MT: I am an obnoxious fan of RuPaul's Drag Race, and drag. Certainly for me, my introduction to--my own personal style really evolved when I was a teen going to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Meeting a group of people who are incredibly theatrical, and playing with gender, was definitely something that was very fundamental to me. I wanted to have a figure that was a caring, loving figure for her. The head of an atypical family. I don't know, sometimes I think Mama looks like... relatives that I have? [Laughs]
We really wanted to surround her with people who were very comfortable outside of the status quo, so to join her there and give her a group of people to fight for, was really important for the story. Then coming up with drag names is one of my favorite things to do for this book. One of the drag names is--my friend Billeh Knickerson, who is a poet, Mia Culpa is the drag name that he came up with--and then I asked him if I could use that. Then for me it's also my history with queer theater, having them really embrace Maxima Impact. This really big, over the top drag. Which I think is the perfect place to put somebody who is figuring out their superhero persona.
SP: It was just so great. It was so great to be doing a book where the characters were emoting, and acting, and not just kind of doing the "grrr" face for 22 pages. Designing them was a challenge, but it was also a lovely experience, you know? I always work out from the yes. Like on The Flintstones, with Fred, I wanted a big slab of a man. But the eyes had to be like super, super kind.
SP: That's where I started with Mama as well. Working out from the eyes and then just seeing a face that you could trust. You would put your life in her hands. And at the same time, wanted to make sure that the world looked after her. The other drag queens had their own personalities in and out of drag, and Mariko wrote very specific bios for each of them. I worked that into their designs, their facial structure, and the style of cheekbone or how hooded the eyes were. There is a certain Scottish character in there, and I've got a lot of Scottish friends, I made sure... There is a very specific look around the eyes and the cheekbones of a Scottish man, and I worked all that in. Just a fantastic cast to work with, I love these characters. And I've been them quite often in the mirror! [Laughs]
SP: To work out how each of them look. They've each got a specific body language, a specific way of moving around the scene.
MT: I was saying to Steve later, one of my favorites scenes is when you see the drag queens out of drag, and you can see their physicality our of drag, and connecting that to them in drag. I think that's really fascinating in the comic.
When you're taking this story into that community, is there an added sense of responsibility to portray those people, that style, that culture, in a respectful way?
MT: I think there is a responsibility when you're representing people to be accurate. I definitely have a lot of amazing people who helped me and gave me advice and answered questions that I had, so I wasn't just going on the fact that I watch RuPaul's Drag Race every day [Laughs]. I don't think that makes me an expert in anything. I certainly felt a responsibility to make sure that people were being well-represented, or that I was considering what was going into their presentation in this. I mean the point is not just to make the story diverse, but to make the story interesting. I think that multiple perspectives in this story is what makes it interesting. It is very much a Harley Quinn story, and I hope Harley Quinn fans enjoy it, but I also think there is a story that is about all of these influences on her, that make her a more interesting character as a result.
SP: Yeah. I definitely felt the weight of responsibility. Because you know that when communities don't see themselves in particular media very often... you've got a responsibility to do it right. But at the same time you've got to put that responsibility to one side so you can do the work, and make the characters people, and not worry about making them too perfect, or too this, or too that. They've got to be allowed to breathe, and be empathetic, and live, and... You know, I took it seriously. I took it very seriously.
We all know that it is historic moment when a new version of the Joker in introduced. Without spoiling anything, what can you tease readers with for this new Joker? I don't even know where you would start in conceiving a new version, but from his first appearance, this is a Joker a lot of people will never be able to forget.
MT: I mean I don't know where Steve came up with the actual design of the Joker, but I was visually taken aback when I first saw it. Just, 'Oh my God!' It's so weirdly terrifying when you first see the Joker in this book. And again it really fits in with the story, it's not about taking an iconic character and putting him into the story, but this is the story of Harley Quinn, and who the Joker ends up being in this version of her life. It was kind of the x factor for me, because I had no preconceived visual of what the Joker would look like. And now I'm totally obsessed with this version of the Joker.
SP: Oh wow! That's very cool [Laughs]. Again, he was designed on the page. The Joker has a silhouette, we know what the Joker is supposed to look like, but I was trying to create this... it's a weird thing to say, but he's supposed to be a ransom note. You know when you cut out letters from a newspaper and paste them on a page? He's supposed to be a little bit like that. Just like Harley, he's finding himself and he's moving forward. He develops, over the story, and gets a little bit odder and little bit weirder, and his t-shirts get a bit more sinister each time. That was the thought process really. I won't describe what he looks like fully, but it's just a shopping bag full of ideas.
Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass is available now at most major book retailers. Head to DC's official page to order your own copy today, and read on below for the official cover and full plot synopsis:
Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass is a coming-of-age story about choices, consequences, justice, fairness, and progress and how a weird kid from Gotham's poorest part of town goes about defining her world for herself. From Eisner Award and Caldecott Honor-winning author Mariko Tamaki (This One Summer, Supergirl: Being Super).
Harleen is a tough, outspoken, rebellious kid who lives in a ramshackle apartment above a karaoke cabaret owned by a drag queen named MAMA. Ever since Harleen's parents split, MAMA has been her only family. When the cabaret becomes the next victim in the wave of gentrification that's taking over the neighborhood, Harleen gets mad.
When Harleen decides to turn her anger into action, she is faced with two choices: join Ivy, who's campaigning to make the neighborhood a better place to live, or join The Joker, who plans to take down Gotham one corporation at a time.
Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass is at once a tale of the classic Harley readers know and love, and a heartfelt story about the choices teenagers make and how they can define--or destroy--their lives.