Stephanie Phillips’ Harley Quinn: A Fond Look Back

Violet dives back into the instant classic Harley Quinn run by Stephanie Phillips.

We’ve reached a bittersweet end of Stephanie Phillips’ Harley Quinn run and we’re going to break down the themes she and her team explored throughout her time with our favorite jester. I never thought myself biassed regarding Harley but I definitely focus on all the positive emotions I feel while reading – this was simple for me as I was excited for this run before it even dropped onto our shelves. 

Through this piece, I will talk through the major themes that stuck out for me with some extra fangirling in between because if you’ve read my articles before you will know Harley is my special interest/hyper fixation which I think about most hours of each day. Yeah, I’m aware it’s unhealthy but my brain legit doesn’t produce dopamine so this is my hit. 

Phillips’ run starts after the events of Joker War, giving huge chunks of trauma for the character to sift through and find her feet again – Harley attempted to blow herself up to kill her ex, okay not the smartest choice – but his death is over DUE! 

Stephanie Phillips' Harley Quinn
Stephanie Phillips’ Harley Quinn #15 / Art by Riley Rossmo

When we interviewed Steph on the GateCrashers podcast she answered my question regarding her favorite aspect of Harley. She mentions: “Her intelligence is downplayed, I think that’s been done intentionally and that’s something that I wanna keep doing. But, also showcase how that intelligence can be used as a weapon.” She promised and delivered; Harley’s intelligence is utilized a lot during the entirety of this run, really leaning into the psychiatric aspects of her character. I think a lot of the time Harley’s intelligence is downplayed and we forget that she has a Ph.D. in reading people for filth essentially.  Throughout my reread I noticed Phillips managed to mention Harley’s doctorate at least once an issue – I found this comforting and true to her word. Not to mention absolutely hilarious whenever she would purposely tease her enemies with her knowledge.

The team were extremely creative throughout their time with the character. Several panels in silhouettes of characters and expressive action lettering excel in submerging you into the wild and colorful world of Harley Quinn. Series artist Riley Rossmo uses white boxes and numbers to capture the colorful clusters of acrobatic action while keeping it all on track is something new for me and I loved how unique his style is. 

For me, Phillips understands the character how I would in those surroundings; Harley is always three steps ahead of everyone else in the room – maybe not Batman but she’s a close second. She plays the ditzy persona to not come across as a threat – allowing her enemies to undermine her so that she can get the upper hand. Although she’s fairly uncertain of her footing and untrusting of those around her – as she should be; Gotham hasn’t exactly proven its appeal to Harley in the past – I will say it’s refreshing to see her back in Gotham after so many years. 

Stephanie Phillips' Harley Quinn
Stephanie Phillips’ Harley Quinn #10 / Art by Riley Rossmo

Poison Ivy and Harley’s relationship comes across as more stable and frequent than it had in a long while, maybe ever. A few years back we would have editors change the direction of Ivy’s part in Harley’s books. It was frustrating to only get a tease of what we knew was possible for their relationship. Phillips’ team was blessed to have slightly more room to be explicitly open, however, there is always a push and pull element to their relationship. For me, we take two steps forwards then six steps back. Ivy would feature for no longer than two issues and then have something more important than Harley and disappear until the next time. I understand Ivy needed to be developed on her own rather than just Harley’s sidekick.  Having said that, Phillips always ensured to keep Ivy at the front of Harley’s mind during her run while also setting up excitement in her finale “Ivy is my home.”

Harley’s trauma is portrayed in a very smart way – thanks to Riley Rossmo’s exquisite art. Her flashbacks and hallucinations are really impactful and that’s a huge part of Harley’s character and why I feel so many people are drawn to her – she’s flawed but forever interesting. She’s a fairly hypersexual character – granted the team could have planted these jokes simply for laughs – but knowing Harley I feel this is a result of trauma. Harley is notorious for unhealthy coping mechanisms. When Harley helps former Joker henchpeople – I found it endearing how she put her neck out for people who suffered just like her and in doing so started her journey to healing her inner demons. We see her deal with a bout of depression when Ivy leaves Gotham for self-discovery – Harley’s apartment is messy and she’s continuously distracted and tormented by the voices inside her head but the people she surrounds herself with remind her there is more than one kind of love. 

This run felt like home to me. I really felt Phillips understood the greater traits this character has to offer while also not ignoring previous writers before her or erasing any part of Harley’s past. One of my favorite things from the very beginning is how it is written on the cover of #1 “Let the healing begin.” 

Stephanie Phillips’ Harley Quinn #27 / Art by Jonboy Meyers

For me, I perceived this saying as a nod to Harley’s previous books. She had gone through heavy depression in her run with Tim Seely and Phillps ensured she carried on the despair and weight Harley had felt throughout the years. She’s damaged goods and it’s time for fans to see her better herself. Harley is defeated with just a few knocks at the start of the series, after which an adorable Soleman Grundy gives her a pep talk only she would be able to decode. 

In issue 15, Harley talks about masking and how so many people can put on masks to protect themselves. Being neurodivergent – this issue honestly felt like a therapy session with Harley and she was calling me out on all my BS. Throughout the series we see her gradually slip away from masking and learning to accept herself; flaws included. Phillips’ usage of Harley’s voice was incredibly smart; particularly in issue 3 with the smile monologue – it broke my heart but it felt as if Phillips really considered Harley to be real and assessed each possible emotion that has surfaced from her past. 

Kevin was a fabulous character introduced in this run. one that was heavily needed in my opinion. Whenever I yearned to reach into the pages to comfort Harley – Kevin was right there in the next panel telling her she had support and that everything would work out. I felt he was an absolute lifesaver for Harley – without him, I feel she would have snapped back into her old ways much sooner. Kevin was a good constant reminder of Harley’s past and allowed her to reflect daily. In my opinion, he was utilized in an extremely clever way to remind readers, and Harley, that people can change and find self-redemption. They both go on this journey together to better themselves. When we first meet Kevin he is seeking acceptance and finds inspiration through Harley and in doing so; he begins to inspire Harley to stay on the right track.

Stephanie Phillips’ Harley Quinn #11 / Art by Riley Rossmo

Phillips introduced her own characters throughout the run while still never losing Harley as the focal point. Between Keepsake, Verdict, and Kevin; she never strayed from the development of the character. I noticed she would continuously loop back to the main plot point of Harley bettering herself; the team didn’t stray from the redemption arc. They told their story of healing. It makes everything coherent when a team can execute their vision.

I’ll admit, at times I was lowkey hoping for Harley to snap back into her old ways and I think Phillips teased that a few times also; in issue 14 she slipped her cool when inmates taunted her about Punchline gaining the upper hand, and when Zsasz was taunting her in issue 24. I was on edge thinking to myself: “Yes this is where she will go on a killing spree to purge all the built-up rage” but Harley proved me wrong as I’m sure she did to many other readers. I can’t say that Harley’s new writer Tini Howard will keep her on the same path but it would be a shame to undo all the progress Phillips has made on the character. However, the best part about Harley is she is so versatile that it wouldn’t be out of character to regress back to her old ways, hopefully, this time with Ivy and not Joker. 

This particular run is suitable for any fan new or old alike – whether you want to join in on the Harley madness or continue following her journey; I’d suggest obtaining this run for your collection. Full-book collections are already available to buy online or in local comic book shops. As always thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy this run as much as I did!

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