Writer, Artist: Stjepan Šejić
Letterer: Gabriela Downie
Cover Artist: Stjepan Šejić
Editor: Andy Khouri
Assistant Editor: Maggie Howell
Publication Designer: Darran Robinson
Publisher: DC Comics Black Label
Harley Quinn. Our favorite Clown Princess. When she was first introduced in Batman: The Animated Series just over 20 years ago, we met a psychiatrist who fell in love with the Joker and descended into madness — and fans loved her. Ever since, the sometimes-good, most-of-the-time evil psychotic jester has made us more than happy to sacrifice at least a little bit of our sanity. So people who come across Harleen #1 might wonder how, exactly, does a mature-themed Black Label book tell us a Harley Quinn story that we haven’t seen before?
It doesn’t. At least, not exactly.
Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel is an up-and-coming psychiatrist who is in search of a solution to an ever-growing problem: What makes people snap, lose empathy, and go on murderous rampages? She believes her proposal in front of a well-to-do (and mostly bored) audience is a flop … until Lucius Fox says the Wayne Foundation wants to fund her research. After a career full of backstabbing and dirty looks, this is the break she needed. Unfortunately, she is also haunted by a run-in she has with the Joker as he is up to his general mayhem in Gotham City. Her nightmares, however, become her obsession, and soon, the Joker becomes the main subject of her research. And we pretty much know how that goes.
On the surface, this sounds like the old, familiar Harley Quinn story. Why spend the money for the extra-sized, more expensive book with occasional swears?
In this case, it’s not what you see; it’s what’s under the hood.
What I really appreciate about Šejić’s approach to Harley Quinn is his thematic approach. We really get into the mind of Harleen Quinzel, and the bonus is that her voice is wonderfully written. Don’t get me wrong, Arleen Sorkin’s “Joi-zee” girl accent is iconic, but I appreciated that Šejić wrote her with a straight-forward, intellectual, and relatable voice in lieu of the typical “Mistah Jay” dialect we’re used to.
The Harleen we get to know in this book is extremely human. She doubts herself. She has flaws. When the Joker blows up a police caravan and is confronted by Batman right in front of her, she is at first stunned into paralyzation before she partakes with the rest of the crowd in a Roman coliseum-type blood lust. But most importantly, the story leans heavily on how her life is affected by a series of choices she has made — the good, the bad, and the “affair-with-your-professor” ugly.
So in that, the book succeeds.
My critiques of the book are fairly minor. First, it seemed like there were a few points in the story where the voice-over narration seemed like it was wrapping up the book when there were still 40 pages left, almost like this was written in the standard 24-page format before three issues got mashed into one. Also, the way Šejić drew the Joker took some acclimation.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but you’re used to seeing a manic, rough-around-the-edges look to the Joker. In this, he was basically a sexy anime character. At first sight, I wasn’t really a fan. But as the book went on, there were certain nightmare sequences that made the Joker look hella scary, and so the juxtaposition between dreamy Joker and nightmare Joker makes the nightmare visions that much more drastic. And Harley certainly seems fascinated by the Joker’s brain — I love how she studies all of his made-up stories and hones in on who she sees as the true Joker — but the defined jaw and surfer-bro hair probably doesn’t hurt in the falling-in-love department.
Otherwise, I was a big fan of the art. He nails Harleen’s facial expressions to the point where all you can do is empathize with her. One of my favorite scenes was the awkward staff photo. Another highlight was a two-page spread that had Harleen and Joker on either side while we see Harleen’s life play out in a series of small panels between them.
All in all, this book is built on a familiar foundation and made Harley Quinn’s backstory a lot stronger. While it easily could have been washed away into mediocrity by simply giving us more details about her backstory, Šejić wisely helps us get into her head and focuses on the nature and nurture side of Harleen to where we can see how she descends into her psychotic identity as Harley Quinn. It’s a fascinating character study which I eagerly anticipate to continue, but don’t get too close — you just might end up losing your sanity with her.