Stephanie Phillips has had a busy 2021. As the writer for DC’s ongoing Harley Quinn series, she and artist Riley Rossmo have given the fan-favorite character a new mission – one of redemption for all of her misdeeds as The Joker’s mischievous moll – and a new best friend in former Joker Gang member Kevin, himself on his own path towards righting old wrongs. Phillips is also helping ring in Wonder Woman’s 80th anniversary this fall with a new miniseries, Wonder Woman: Evolution, where she’ll team with Mike Hawthorne for a story that finds Diana defending humanity against the judgment of an alien race. And also in November, Phillips will debut her next creator-owned project, the Comixology Originals historical crime series We Only Kill Each Other, with artists Peter Krause & Ellie Wright, letterer Troy Peteri, and cover artist Dave Stewart. For someone who allegedly killed comics in cold blood, Phillips is sure working hard at putting out new ones.
The Beat had a chance to chat with Stephanie Phillips at last month’s Rose City Comic Con, where she discussed the role Harley Quinn has to play in the current Fear State storyline, asking big questions in Wonder Woman: Evolution, and what appealed to her about the story of We Only Kill Each Other.
Joe Grunenwald: Let’s start by talking about Harley. With Fear State starting, it seems like she has maybe her first official Bat-mission. She’s been working on her own so far, but now she’s got a clear purpose, to unite the two Poison Ivys. Does that help or hinder her, to have that pressure on her?
Stephanie Phillips: I think some of the pressure that she’s putting on is personal, because it’s not just ‘go unite the two Poison Ivy pieces.’ She has this relationship with Ivy, and I think that’s a really complicated mission for her to carry out just personally. Not only is it difficult, because there’s going to be all these villains and people [who] are like, ‘Wait, if we reunite the Ivys, are we now in control of something super powerful?’ So it’s going to become like a magnet for all the baddies. But, you know, for Harley, I think it’s a really important mission for her because there’s a lot of choices we’re going to have to see her make. She’s on this new path, [and] is Ivy going to be on this path with her? What is their dynamic going to be once those two sides are united? And is she going to be okay carrying out the mission, even if the answer to those things is ‘no’? So it’s going to be a big test for Harley, and that’s one of the reasons I’m really looking forward to Fear State.
Grunenwald: What’s The Gardener’s angle in all of this and in working with Harley on this? What is she after?
Phillips: I remember talking to James [Tynion IV] about this early on. So you have the dynamic of [The Gardener as] a past girlfriend of Poison Ivy’s, and I love that the dynamic with Harley has never been a competition or jealousy. We wanted it to almost be like, they are almost excited that they have that connection in common, and it’s not competitive. I was thrilled when James started talking about this. I think that’s such a cool dynamic, and I was really excited to get to include her in some of our missions. So I like her personality, and I also like that, I think she gets Harley a little bit because she understands there’s a good dynamic between her and Ivy. So Gardener is kind of a cool character who gets to come in and, at least in our book, kind of support and help Harley on this mission and kind of kickstart that mission to go get Poison Ivy.
Grunenwald: What’s Kevin gonna be up to?
Phillips: Oh, this is one of my favorite parts. So I feel like we’ve kind of been developing Kevin as someone that’s on a similar journey to Harley, and here is where we get to see Kevin really make some of his own decisions. If he’s trying to imitate Harley as she’s going on the Poison Ivy mission, Kevin is back in Gotham, [and] we’re gonna get to see him in a new costume that he models a bit on Harley’s. And so it becomes, is he just making a decision to become Harley? And if not, how does he kind of diverge from this and become Kevin? Like, what is Kevin? And I’m really excited for that, because I think he’s a really unique character. And he’s somebody that I’ve loved since the minute Riley [Rossmo] and I started discussing him, so getting to see him do his own thing, [and] involve him in these missions, like, I’m thrilled. I love the costume we’re giving him, and his relationship with Harley is incredibly important, and we’re definitely discussing that, but also giving him kind of his own things so that can feel really solidified, personally, and as a character.
Grunenwald: Yeah, I really enjoyed the Kevin spotlight in the annual. That was great.
Phillips: Yeah, we’re gonna keep some of that up. Starting Fear State, Kevin will also be narrating some things. I really wanted to explore, with him especially, how does body positivity fit in with Kevin? I want to explore that from his perspective and what that means to him. How he was driven into the Joker Gang, and then how he’s trying to re-right those wrongs now in Gotham during Fear State.
Grunenwald: How is Kevin going to react to the potential return of Poison Ivy to Harley’s life? Is that going to be a complication?
Phillips: So I don’t know that Kevin has fully thought about it yet. As we progress in Fear State he thinks about it more, and he’s a really supportive character. But my favorite thing coming up with Kevin is, and not to like spoil too much, but Harley is not going to be the only one with a romantic line in the comic. So getting to explore some stuff for Kevin is really important so that, you know, Harley [isn’t] the only person in this book who has a fully-formed life. Kevin gets to have that, and that was really important. Riley and I, day one, we were like, we don’t want him to just decide [to do] this. He has something going on and it’s going to be really pivotal to the story, introduce some new characters, and that’ll be important.
Grunenwald: Nice. I want to ask you about Keepsake as well because I think that’s a really interesting new villain. I see a parallel between Keepsake and Harley as a henchperson who sort of comes into their own and tries to forge their own identity. Was that intentional? And how do you think Keepsake diverges from what Harley is trying to do with herself?
Phillips: Yes, that was intentional. We wanted to kind of explore that, or at least say that not every villain or every person that was a member of Joker’s gang is going to come out of this and have the same exact line. They’re not all going to grow into much better people or something like that. They’re all going to take different paths, and so it was really exciting to take someone like Keepsake and say, somebody like I think Kevin’s path is different, Harley’s is different, and Keepsake’s is obviously very different, but there’s something scary there. We saw in the annual with Kevin where he’s like, ‘Am I different from Keepsake? How am I different from Keepsake?’ These are questions he’s asking because seeing someone like Keepsake, it’s a little scary to be like, ‘Am I going to turn into this person? How close am I to becoming this person?’
Grunenwald: You’ve also got backup stories in Detective coming up. What is Arkham Tower? What can you tell me about that?
Phillips: Arkham Tower is a new facility that’s supposed to be an, eventually anyways, open-to-the-public mental health facility using the name Arkham and actually using the same headquarters that Hugo [Strange] is currently in. I guess even in the solicit there’s a slight spoiler that that real estate will be used and available soon. [laughs] So it’s something that Batman is going to be investigating. Obviously Batman has a very complex relationship with Arkham Asylum, [and] in Gotham there’s going to be this kind of uproar about, should we be using the name Arkham? Why even use it at all? And it’s something that Batman is asking as well, and some mysterious things start happening in the Arkham Tower construction site that lead Batman to go investigate, and eventually Harley to get involved as well.
I think that’s going to be really interesting because we have two characters both with a history with slightly different histories with Arkham, but I would say that neither are super-positive about it. But Harley being all about accountability and redemption will actually offer some interesting insight to Batman. And David Lapham is absolutely incredible, so if you’re like ‘Wow, I really hate Stephanie Phillips and Batman is the dumbest thing in the world,’ still show up for David because he’s just incredible.
Grunenwald: That was gonna be my next question. I love David Lapham.
Phillips: Yeah, I think DC asked if I could write the scripts sooner than we were planning to because they were like, ‘if you can we can get David,’ and I was like ‘I can write them today. What do you need?’ So that was really cool. It was fun working with him.
Grunenwald: Is that part of Fear State or is that a separate thing?
Phillips: That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure that I would say it’s part of Fear State. It’s almost like a post-Fear State kind of thing, so there are some editorial notes to recap parts in Harley, but essentially if you’re reading Harley it will kind of lead into the Detective backup stories a bit in terms of what’s going on in Gotham and how the S.A.F.E. headquarters becomes available for purchase by Mayor Nakano.
Grunenwald: You’re also writing a Red Hood story for the Gotham City Villains anniversary one-shot that’s coming out. Can you tell me anything about that?
Phillips: [Artist] Max Fiumara, who has done every part of it, is absolutely incredible. So super stoked to work with him. With the Red Hood story we wanted to look at the symbol of the Red Hood and [do] something really apart from The Joker. I know it’s really connected with with the Joker origin and we kind of wanted to stay away from that and just tell a crime and kind of fun story. So looking at classic Gotham City and what crime looked like on the street level. Not just supervillains but, like, what did it look like to be your average Joe Bankrobber, which, I’m not sure bank robbers are super-average Joes, [but] in a city full of people that have, like, mutant powers and things like that I guess they are. So, how are they reacting to the emergence of Batman and things like that? It’s one of my favorite things I’ve written just because I love street-level stories. I love crime, I like noir, and those are things that we dive really deep into. It’s a really good-looking story and I think it’s kind of cool, like a recap or a look at crime in Gotham City and how it evolved into what it is in modern day.
Grunenwald: Interesting. Yeah, that’s sort of Simon Saint’s whole argument for the Magistrate, the average Joe criminal versus the supervillain. Is there any tie to modern day in that story?
Phillips: We wanted there to definitely be. So we wanted to look at things like, you know, how Scott Snyder deals with the Red Hood Gang later on, so we wanted to make sure that what we were doing could show how it bleeds into later appearances and things like the Red Hood Gang, or how the Magistrate and Simon Saint think about crime in Gotham today.
Grunenwald: Gotcha. Let’s talk about Wonder Woman: Evolution. That launches in November. I wanted to ask about the scope of the series, because it sounds it sounds like maybe a more cosmic Wonder Woman story than we’re used to, but it also sounds really personal. How would you describe the scope for that series?
Phillips: What I initially told Mike Hawthorne is, I want it to look and initially feel like this big cosmic story, but once you get into it, it’s actually a very character-driven personal approach to Diana. So while she’s in this giant setting, I actually think there’s something really interesting to the contrast of this gigantic endless universe and Diana trying to figure out a lot of important questions. Even though we’re asking umbrella questions about, is humanity worthy of even being in this universe anymore? Have they overstepped? Are they a threat to not only their own planet, but are we now a threat beyond our planet? Are we just a bigger threat than the universe can kind of handle? Diana [has to] reconcile with that, but also more personally questions of, Where do I fit into this? Have I done something wrong to allow humanity to get to this point? Those things will really push her.
This book has been really hard to solicit or give the ‘elevator pitch’ to because there are levels that, I’ll spoil it once you go deeper. So while that’s like the ‘elevator pitch’ version of the story, there’s another story within that. The most I’ve been saying about it is, literally question everything that happens in this book, to the point where Mike and I wanted to design a story that, when you get to issue 8, you read the ending, and hopefully say, ‘holy shit,’ [and] you can go back and read issue 1 and find weird nuggets that we’ve been dropping about the truth the entire time. One of the cool benefits was we knew where the story was growing from day one. Mike’s had full outlines for all the issues, so when he draws things, there’s little hidden things starting in issue 1 that actually tells you the truth of where the story is going, that even Diana doesn’t pick up on. We’ve tried to design something that’s really engaging and that you can read through more than once and find different things.
Grunenwald: You mentioned truth generally. Truth is kind of Wonder Woman’s whole thing. From the solicitation and the way that it was announced, it sounds like she’s sort of acting as an attorney for Earth. How is she going to reconcile being truthful about what Earth is like while still defending it?
Phillips: I’m so glad you asked that question. Yes, we wanted to initially take all of the things that are symbols for Diana like truth, or even physical things like the bracers, and put all of this up for question. Wonder Woman as a symbol is in question. Truth is in question for both the reader and for Diana. When you’re taken by these godlike beings, and told that they’re going to destroy the planet, do you believe them at face value, if you’re told that this is the consequence of you not participating? I think Diana is somebody that would be, like, swords at the ready, ‘what I need to do, I’ll do,’ but there’s also interestingly not a lot of questioning, what is the truth behind this or even what is my own truth? Am I the person that should be standing trial for humanity? And kind of questioning her role as a human and Amazon, you know, her blood also was the blood of a god in it, so you have somebody that, her own personal truth is in question.
We wanted to set part of it as, like, a Platonic dialogue, so there is a character that comes in to talk with Diana, and she’ll do things like question [her], you know, are you happy, Diana? You have been a member of the Justice League, you finally left your home to go live on Earth, but do you like the decisions you’ve made? I think asking those questions as somebody gets older is a really weird thing to have to think about, and Diana has probably never stopped to think about [it]. So putting her in conversation with someone that kind of, I don’t even know what to call them, [is] almost like a guide through the trials, that follows [Diana] around essentially, they’re very inquisitive and ask her a lot of questions that she doesn’t want to be asked. As she’s facing a lot of moments from her past, so we also have a ton of people coming in like the Amazons will be in there, the Justice League will be in there. So I feel like almost every issue you’re getting like another new blast from the past. It’s just been a lot of fun.
Grunenwald: Will Wonder Woman’s bisexuality play any role in the series?
Phillips: I don’t know that it does entirely. One of the big things that I’m interested in, with Harley, with Wonder Woman, with any queer characters that I get to take on — I’m a big proponent that we get to just exist without justifying that element. For Harley, there’s never been a segment of questioning her identity, and I find that to be amazing, she can just talk about it without having to have a monologue about what it means to be a bisexual woman. And I’m not saying there’s not a place or a need for those things, but I’m currently interested in media where we just exist in the world, like doing a normal thing, which is really, I think, a cool move forward for these characters. So these things can be, like, an element of who Diana is, but in this one, I think we’re looking more at some of the larger questions of where she fits in on Earth or with the Amazons or with the gods.
Grunenwald: I was just curious, because it’s an aspect of the character that I feel like hasn’t been explored a lot.
Phillips: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I think with Harley, it has been explored there. And I totally agree with you. It’s maybe not something I set out to explore, because I don’t think there’s a very romantic element to the story we’re telling. It’s very isolating for Diana to be alone on a planet. And even when other people come into the story, are they real? Are they an element of the trial? Are they summoned by the gods? Those things kind of come into question, so there wasn’t really an opening for anything too romantic.
Grunenwald: That makes total sense. I wanted to ask you also about We Only Kill Each Other, which is a great title.
Phillips: Thank you.
Grunenwald: That was your pandemic project, right?
Phillips: Yeah, we started that at the very beginning of the pandemic. Pete and I were pitching it around, and we didn’t get very far into even pitching the project. Comixology was really interested in projects, which is awesome. I think doing Butcher of Paris, I got really interested in my heritage. I’m trying to think of what year I left, like, Jewish school, but my parents had us in Jewish school for a long time, and once I left, I kind of feel like I abandoned that part of me. And so getting to write about it and explore it, I don’t think makes me more religious, but it’s definitely interesting to me to learn about my family history and my heritage, and get to tell stories about cool stuff that interests me. To see Americans doing awesome things like beat up Nazis in New York seems pretty awesome to me.
Grunenwald: Yeah, I hear what you’re saying. I think as you get older, you can have an appreciation for religion or a different perspective on it that you wouldn’t have as a younger person. Like just a different relationship with it.
Phillips: Yeah, and not even, like, making you religious, but just interested in the history behind it, which is something that I think I never paid attention to, and that was really cool. It’s based on a true story where the government asked Jewish American gangsters to beat up Nazis in New York City, which is really cool. Ours is a little bit like alternate history where we do alter a lot. The characters are fictitious, slightly based on some real life gangsters, but really for the most part there’s stuff we wanted to explore in these characters.
Grunenwald: You said Peter Krause was involved from the beginning. Was everyone involved from the beginning? How did this team come together?
Phillips: It’s definitely one of those things that made, like, probably my whole life to get a message from Peter Krause saying that he wanted to work on something with me. We had kept in touch, and I pitched the story to him because I really loved his take on crime stories. He loved it and did some character designs for it and we talked to Amazon and it kind of grew from there. And then Ellie [Wright] came into the project, we talked colorists for a while. [And] pretty immediately I was like, I like what Dave did on the Butcher of Paris covers, so I want to bring in Dave Johnson again.
Grunenwald: I guess the last thing I want to ask is about the two leads you have in We Only Kill Each Other, Jonas Kaminsky and Levi Solomon. It sounds like there’s generational differences and ideological differences between them. Can you tell me a little bit about them?
Phillips: Jonas is our leading character, actually named after my cousin. He’s maybe coming a little bit more from my perspective, but also something I couldn’t have. He was really discriminated [against] for being Jewish, living in New York City, and so he turned away from it, because he was just like, it’s really caused nothing but trouble. I have no interest in religion, he just wants to be like a super-tough gangster, quick to a fight, those kinds of things. Whereas Solomon, Levi Solomon, who immigrated to the US from Poland, he’s a Polish gangster, an accountant. He’s running his mob basically from behind the desk, [while] other people do the dirty work.
Jonas really takes issue with that, like, ‘you should be involved, you should be on the street, or how can you call yourself a leader.’ And basically Solomon’s point is, you just don’t get how the world works. You’re too young and too naive, in the way that like, Jonas being in his 20s — I’m guilty of it, too — like most people in their 20s think, at some point, [they] know everything, and then all of a sudden, you’re no longer in your 20s and you’re like, I know nothing right now, I knew nothing then, I will probably know nothing ever. [laughs] I don’t know when I will ever know anything. And hopefully that changes for people, I think it’s good that that’s changing. There’s a lot of young people that think that way. Jonas is one of them that thinks he’s right about religion [having] no purpose. He has no need to be Jewish, and doesn’t care about his family, his heritage in the way that Solomon is very invested in it, very invested in his temple and his Jewish community and those kinds of things. So there’s a lot of clashes between them.
And essentially, when they were both arrested, a little like in Suicide Squad fashion, they’re told that the record can go away, and the D.A. will stop bothering them if they agree to stop the turf war, and instead focus their energy on the American Bund, which is essentially the American Nazi movement in the U.S. So the D.A.’s plan is killing two birds with one stone, ending some of this violent gang war that’s going on, and hopefully getting the Nazi rallies off the street, without getting government hands officially involved in it. That would have been problematic to have the U.S., who was not currently involved in what [was] going on in Europe, to have them actually take a side and say, ‘We’re against the Nazi movement,’ would be a problem.
Harley Quinn #7, the first part of the series’ Fear State tie-in, is out now, and the “Arkham Tower” backup stories in Detective Comics begin later this month. Wonder Woman: Evolution #1 (of 8) and We Only Kill Each Other #1 (of 5) are both due out in November.