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Harley Quinn’s writer tells us why she’s everyone’s favorite trickster
Jimmy Palmiotti talks Harley, her nebulous relationship with Poison Ivy, and Starfire’s new phase.
That’s in no small part thanks to the husband-and-wife comics writing team of Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner, who’ve been writing Harley since her New 52 debut. They’re taking their success in stride these days, as they helm ongoing series for not one but two of DC’s most popular female comics characters: sexy alien superhero Starfire and Harley.
With the growing influx of women in comics fandom, Harley has risen in recent years to take her place alongside sometime boyfriend the Joker as one of the most well-known characters in comics. Her appearance in the upcoming Suicide Squad is highly anticipated, and between Halloween and Empire magazine revealing its Harley cover from the film last week, we thought it would be a good time to chat with Palmiotti about the her success, and what’s next for her and Starfire, a.k.a. Kori Anders, in their upcoming storylines in the DC Universe.
You and Amanda Conner have been working together for two years now. What is your partnership like?
I adore her. I love and adore her. When she’s not around I wish she was around, and when she’s around I wish I had more time. So working together is fun because we get to argue a bit. And we’re not really arguing people, but we get to argue because we’re writing intricate characters and she sees it one way and I see it another. It’s a good—it’s a lot of fun. There’s nothing more fun than working with someone you enjoy being around. It doesn’t feel like work. We try to make each other laugh, and I think that makes its way into the books. There’s a certain silly joy to it.
Have you found that writing together has changed your interpretation of the characters?
We’re on the right character, with both Starfire and Harley. There’s a certain—Harley obviously is schizophrenic, crazy, maniac, silly, driven, and then Kori is, you know, new to the scene and the planet—a little bit of innocence, very charming, a little hedonistic. So we have a little bit of everything in that character. They’re not our characters to write if you really understand what motivates them.
Fans have praised your portrayal of Harley for working her Ph.D. into the mix, and there’s that great scene where she basically counsels the guy who’s stalking her.
Do you feel like that’s an interpretation of her character that gets lost sometimes? Are there other facets of her character that you’ve tried to bring out?
Well, I mean, if you kind of look at a character quickly, you’re gonna say, well, it’s Harley, the jokester, running around, the crazy—but she also is a doctor. And just that issue… you know, Amanda and I were talking, like, would she just kill this guy? The doctor in her would see that there’s a problem and try to deal with the problem and resolve it in a way—when she says, if you get this help, then we can come back and have a relationship, or at least have a conversation about a relationship, or we can be friends. There’s a later issue where she gives mouth-to-mouth to somebody in the hospital. Amanda and I talk about it. We say, you know, if she was just Harley all the time, the character doesn’t grow. But if she’s a doctor sometimes, sometimes she’s a roller derby girl, the character’s gonna keep growing.
Also, I think we see these moments and we start to realize that it makes the person more real. And we like them more because their heart’s in the right place. Even with the animals, saving the dogs and cats, having all those parrots—there’s a crazy charm about anybody who sees the innocence and the beauty in things. So we’re hoping that comes across and people reading the book have that feeling, that she’s more than just this cartoon that we see.
How self-aware do you think she is?
[Laughs] Well, she does talk to her own beaver! I think she has moments of total clarity. But her life is easier to keep busy with other things so she doesn’t have to deal with stuff straight on. We all do that. We all keep busy in our work.
She’s very compartmentalized.
Yes, that’s a perfect way of saying it. She’s not a simple character. She’s not a character that you and I, if we’re watching a situation, we know exactly what she’s going to do. And that’s the interesting thing, we don’t know what she’s gonna do, we have to check it out and see where it goes. We don’t know whether the doctor part of it is going to kick in, the nursing, the mothering part of her is going to kick in, or the aggressive wish-fulfillment Harley comes in, where she wants to get even with somebody.
Do you think that’s part of the appeal for her?
Absolutely. I don’t think people are simple, people are complex. They don’t want to read—there’s a place for simple characters, but they want to read complex characters as well. Amanda and I feel like there’s a little Harley in us. There’s a T-shirt.
And I think everybody who reads her feels like—I’ll tell you a good story. The other day a young girl came up to me, she’s maybe 23, 24, and she said, ‘I want to thank you and Amanda for taking Harley away from the Joker and that relationship.’ She said, ‘I was in an abusive relationship and when I started reading Harley I was so happy that she became her own person.’ She started crying and I gave her a hug, and I told her, I said, you know, if anything, Harley is a good-guy/bad-guy, but she also sees things for what they are. She’s smart enough to know this is not good for me. She’s not going to make excuses for what she does, either. That’s sort of a very modern attitude, in a way.
Honestly, Amanda and I don’t sit there and think about this stuff, we just write it. So people ask if we think about it, and I say, no, we write it to try to make it fun, but we’re happy that these things come out, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. We’re not thinking about it, we’re just saying that’s who she is. She’s a very complicated character. I think there’s a million ways to screw it up as well.
Are we gonna see the Harley Club again? Bolly and Harlem, etc?
Oh, absolutely. They’re not going away. They take a step back, although Harlem Harley goes with Harley for the next issue. They take a step back because the book can’t be all about them. But we love those characters. And you know, that’s our cosplay-inspired take, because we kept having different ethnic backgrounds and people and sexes coming up dressed as Harley, and we said, we have to do something with this. That’s why Harvey exists, and all these characters, but we decided also that New York is such a multicultural city. So we have one Harley from every borough and it’s fun. We have plans for them in the future, it’s coming.
A while back, you guys were on Twitter, and there was some conversation going around in the fandom because people thought you guys had basically said that Harley and Poison Ivy were in a queer relationship. And I read those tweets and I read them completely differently, and I was like, no, no, no. So I’m just going to ask: Are Harley and Poison Ivy in a queer romantic or sexual relationship?
Amanda’s quote is the best one. Amanda says, “Harley and Ivy are friends with benefits.”
Literally friends with benefits?
They are friends with benefits. And they are good friends with benefits. They have each other’s back.
Do you think they’ll ever go in that direction? Will one of them ever develop romantic or sexual feelings for the other?
Well—OK. It’s like—you know, there’s a million stories I could do to lead up to this, and to say it straight-out kind of smashes those stories down. If I say, yes it’s going to happen, then the lead-in for those stories kind of gets cheapened out
It’s just that in fandom we’re very sensitive about being strung along, because so many times we get teased for queer relationships to sort of draw us in that never actually happen.
Sure, sure, and I think—there’s issues, there are panels in there, where I’m thinking, if you think it’s anything else but what’s happening, then your brain is somewhere else. Because I don’t understand how, they’re on top of each other, I don’t get how you could think they’re not. But we also have to work the book into—it’s an all-ages book. So I will say, we will constantly push the envelope on that book. And we do. There’s all this outrage about things on the Internet and I say, thank god they’re not reading Harley, because they would find something every issue.
But I want to say, Amanda and I look at it, and we model their sexuality after people we know. One of my best friends is bisexual and she always tells me, she goes, “It’s not guys or girls, I fall in love. The sex of the person is after that.” And I always thought that was the greatest thing she said to me: the idea that we don’t have to point and say it’s this or it’s that, we follow our heart and fall in love with something, and I think that’s pure.
And Harley does that with everything. She falls in love with everybody around her, animals, her best friends. So I think their relationship is a really special one because Ivy also looks at Harley as a little sister in a weird way, she’s protective of her. Harley’s the one who’s getting in trouble all the time and Ivy has to come in and say look, let’s do it this way. I know you want a straight answer, but I’m giving it to you in a way—
Oh, I don’t expect a straight answer, but I have to ask!
Yeah, yeah, no, it’s OK—Amanda said it online, she said it’s friends with benefits. And I always say they’re best friends that love each other. Sometimes love takes you one way, sometimes it takes you another. Sometimes the timing isn’t right for the love you have. So with that, I will say it gives us a lot of room to explore a lot of things in the book. That’s good juggling, right there!
A while back fans were talking about the new phase Starfire has gone into, and the fandom was divided over it, half of them were like, she’s adorable, I love her like this, and the other half were like, no, she’s coming across as really brainless. Were you guys aware of that?
We’re very aware of it. We approached the book as if she’s an alien on the planet and she doesn’t know everything. We also approached it as if she’s smart enough to know exactly what it is, but she’s playing everybody around her, and it’s a ‘her’ thing. We did it in the first issue. She’s with the guy by the trailer park, and she’s kissing him, and Stella goes what are you doing? And she goes, I’m learning the language, and Stella’s like, but you already speak it, and she’s like, well, I need to learn more English! That was not her being dumb, that was her playing with what she wanted, getting what she wanted and making an excuse. It’s her sarcasm in a bizarre way—I didn’t see that as her being dumb, I saw it as her being, “Ooh, I got caught, but who cares? It’s all good.” She’s naive about certain things, but she’s naive because she hasn’t run across them yet. We were all like that when we started out young, you know—this is something new, I don’t understand what this means.
But she’s a really smart character, a princess, and she’s been through this horrible time, so we’re trying to write her as someone who’s looking at us, and our planet, for the potential it can be, and the joy it can be. That’s why the book is less fight, supervillain club—it’s not a supervillain book. We’re celebrating the idea that Kori is looking at the world for what it could be, and how beautiful it can be. So I looked at [the discussion] on the Internet, and I said, you know, it’s issue 2 or 3, it’s new content, we like the emojis because it gives us something kind of fun to do. But I see her as a really smart character trying to navigate a new world. So she definitely does have her moments, but she’s also a lot smarter. I think it comes out in later issues.
But you know, when you start a book, you’re against the wall, because people have preconceived everything. But we have to ignore that and dig in. And Amanda and I, we always go by our gut. We’re always asking, do we like her? Is Stella the right person to have around her, with Saul? Is that the right person?—because that’s a person of authority. That’s why our supporting characters are so important, because they build our main character up. We’ll see. It’s almost at the half-year mark and people are still buying it, so I have to say maybe that’s a good sign.
Screengrab via Comixology
Aja Romano is a geek culture reporter and fandom expert. Their reporting at the Daily Dot covered everything from Harry Potter and anime to Tumblr and Gamergate. Romano joined Vox as a staff reporter in 2016.