Harley Quinn’s history gets a unique new take this week in the Young Adult graphic novel Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass, with a 15-year-old Harley facing tough choices on the streets of Gotham City.
Written by Einser-winning author Mariko Tamaki with art by Steve Pugh, the story shows how Harley is affected by the gentrification of Gotham. To release her anger at the situation, she’ll have to choose between joining her friend Ivy, who’s campaigning to improve the neighborhood, or joining the Joker, who has much more dangerous ideas in mind.
Newsarama talked to Tamaki and Pugh to find out more about the book, how it was developed, and why the color red became so important to the story’s visuals.
Newsarama: Mariko, this is a unique approach to Harley Quinn. What’s the story behind the development of this idea?
Mariko Tamaki: I was just finishing Supergirl: Being Super with Joelle Jones, and I was invited to DC to talk about next projects, and I had wanted to do something very similar. My dream project was basically this - to take another character and do something that was out-of-continuity, something that was like an origin story.
And they basically put that on the table. They were like, "If you could do this with any other character, who would it be?"And my immediate answer was Harley Quinn.
I think the same day that we started talking about it, I had just finished reading Flintstones, the book that Steve did with Mark Russell. And so I told DC, "I want Steve Pugh to illustrate it." And they were like, :OK."
And they asked, "What kind of story do you want to do?" And I had always wanted to do a gentrification story, taking a larger systematic story and making that the obstacle, as opposed to a villain. I think it’s something a lot of kids can connect to, that experience that isn’t just a person that is your obstacle in life, but a larger thing that is affecting your life.
DC was into it the whole way. It’s kind of amazing. As soon as I pitched it, they were like, "Yep, that sounds like a comic. Let’s do that." So it’s been really amazing.
Nrama: So Steve, you jumped right in when Mariko requested you?
Steve Pugh: I’d actually just signed up to go on a rotation of artists on quite a high-profile monthly for DC. But Marie [Javins, DC editor] sent me the script and said, "Take a look at this." And I had to back out of doing the high-profile job for DC.
To be fair to them, they were really lovely about it. They thought I was crazy. But I knew this was a book I really, really wanted to see happen. And I wanted to be right at the center of it.
Tamaki: I’m friends with the person who was doing that book too, and I was like, "I’m so sorry that I’m taking him away from you. But he’s mine!"
Pugh: Funny enough, the same thing happened on Flintstones. I was supposed to do a Demon mini-series, and Marie kidnapped me.
Nrama: Coming at it from the gentrification angle, it really gives the book an urban feel. Was that what you were going for - a fast-paced urban style?
Tamaki: Yeah. You want the city to feel like a real place. I’m also inspired by Batman Begins and the Batman movies where Gotham actually feels like a city. It feels like a place where you can buy a hot dog for breakfast in the morning and also where you have shops that are going out of business or being bought up.
I wanted it to feel real.
Nrama: Harley is also young in this book, but she’s already got a kind of wacky way of speaking.
Tamaki: Yes! Marie and I talked about it. I was like, I just have this vision that she says stuff like she calls people "boogers." It’s really weird, but also very specific and old-timey. And as soon as I thought of it, I just couldn’t stop thinking of her saying that.
We thought it was also indicative of how she’s so her own person. She’s not really influenced by … it’s not a call way of talking. She’s not hip to the current lingo. It’s just that she talks the way she does.
Nrama: Can you talk about the choice that Harley faces? Was the idea to kind of frame the choices that young adults face in a new way, through a DC comic book?
Tamaki: The classic superhero story is, you know what’s right and you know what’s wrong, and so you do the right thing. Right? You fight for the right people.
But I think often, especially when you’re younger, it’s not really clear what that is. You take into account what you think is fair, and what hurts your feelings and what hurts the feelings of the people that you love. And so I think it’s much easier to go on that.
One of the things we played with a lot in the script was this idea of Harley being torn between her friend Ivy, who is an activist, and the Joker character who pops up in her life and is kind of like the devil on her shoulder and appeals to Harley’s desire to fix the things she doesn’t like. Just that kind of release-of-anger type character.
That’s the kind of influences you feel when you’re a teenager. That’s honest to me.
Nrama: Steve, we talked about the youthful, urban feel that Mariko was trying to achieve. How would you describe your approach to that visually, particularly the unique way you’re using the color red and the way you’re drawing Harley in this book?
Pugh: Her look started with the hat. I gave her this wooly hat, and I thought, she’s going to lose the hat at an important moment. I didn’t know what that moment would be at the time. But I knew at some point, she would lose the hat and it would be a big reveal of Harley crossing a border and becoming something else. So that’s where I started with her.
And with Gotham, the secret was the red sky. That seemed to open up this whole other aspect of the artwork. Up until that point, I was going to just be doing black line with 40% blue-gray tone, so I could do quite expressive faces. But Mariko really wanted red to be in the mix.
So I started using it as the symbol of power in the story. So it starts out in the Gotham sky, then it creeps into people’s costumes. Characters steal the red off each other. It became a kind of thing throughout the book.
So the art evolved, as we went. It was no planning at all, apart from the character designs.
Nrama: I’d like to hear more about the way Harley looks, because she’s got a changing look about her in the book. Besides her hat, how did you come up with her look?
Pugh: Yeah, there are a lot of different Harley looks. She very much explores her look through the story, and I was on the journey with her. She was trying to find something that was an expression of her personality and who she was going to be.
Tamaki: In the beginning, Harley has what a teenager would have, in terms of, like, jeans and sweater. But then she kind of accumulates stuff as she goes. So it’s not like she shows up, presto, in this bodysuit. It’s a journey that she goes through. And the book takes readers on that journey as the artwork reflects it.