By Ani Bundel
DC Comics is first and foremost known for Superman, the Man of Steel, whose introduction in the 1930s coincided with the rise of popularity of comic books. But the most recent hero to take center stage is the grand dame of the Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn, the polar opposite of everything Clark Kent stands for. He is order, she is chaos; he is righteousness, she is devious.
And yet, putting together an NYCC panel with the two writers responsible for the character’s most current comic book runs an a single stage made a strange sort of sense. Stephanie Phillips, author of Harley Quinn, and Phillip Kennedy Johnson, currently responsible for the Action Comics series, both take their characters utterly seriously and with respect not only for the history of their stories but also for each other.
Phillips and Johnson came to superhero stories from opposite mediums. Phillips first fell in love with Batman: The Animated Series and then later discovered the written stories; meanwhile, Johnson said he learned to read on comic books. But both had similar journeys to making it a career – it was a thing that happened while they were supposedly working on something else (her a Ph.D., him music).
But both treat their characters with the utmost seriousness. That’s a tall order for Phillips, who has a character who is naturally seen as comical. Phillips compared her run at Harley’s jokes as akin to the old 1970s series MAS*H: gallows humor to deal with trauma while working in deadly serious conditions. And in between, she uses Harley as a method of critiquing the world of superheroes, using the former psychiatrist to psychoanalyze the characters.
As for Johnson, he compares his Clark Kent to the one he considers the definitive article: Christopher Reeve. He’s not here for the self-doubt or the relatable insecurities of Henry Cavill‘s Man of Steel. As he sees it, this is a character who points the way to being our better selves. It’s why he says that under his pen, fans will never get a dark or gritty version of Superman. In a world where absolute power corrupts absolutely, he feels seeing someone wielding absolute power with utter kindness and humility is critical.
The two also talked about how their characters would respect each other. In one of the rare times that audience questions elicited genuinely thoughtful exchanges, the two authors were asked how Harley and Kent would respond to each other should they meet. Phillips said Quinn would immediately doubt Superman’s sincerity and would set about doing everything she could to upset his apple cart, pressing every button until she ran out. Johnson said that Kent wouldn’t take her behavior personally. He’d recognize her persona and her behavior was born of trauma and pain and that he would believe with all his heart that one day she’d find the good woman who was once called Harleen Quinzel inside herself.
Fans of Stephanie Phillips can next look forward to her take on Diana Prince in the upcoming Wonder Woman: Evolution, to be released in November 2021. Johnson will continue releasing new Action Comics every month, which will launch the Warworld Saga later in October now the Warworld Rising arc has wrapped.
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