The Origins Of Madness
Tripwire’s contributing writer Laurence Boyce takes a look at DC Black Label’s Harleen hardcover by Stjepan Šejić …
Published by DC Black Label
Writer: Stjepan Šejić
Artist: Stjepan Šejić
Letters: Gabriela Downie
Harley Quinn has become one of the most iconic ‘Batman’ universe characters of the past few decades. Created by Paul Dini, she was first introduced in Batman: The Animated Series in 1992 as little more than a wackily dressed gangsters moll for The Joker to order about. She found a place in the hearts of comic fans (especially female ones) to turn into an essential part of the DC Universe in all its forms. The best part of the Suicide Squad and the Birds of Prey films (not difficult, but Margot Robbie deserves praise as does a very committed marketing campaign) and currently the centre of a praised cartoon show, Quinn has struck a chord. There’s the moral ambiguity of her character as well as her wisecracking persona alongside a vaguely progressive examination of both her sexuality and her dealings with abuse that have made her – in comic book terms at least – a rich and complex character. But it is Harley Quinn who has captured the imagination, the jester outfit wearing dealer of both quips and punishment. Stjepan Šejić’s Harleen looks behind the white face paint for a sober and dark exploration of her origins that strips away the outré elements to examine the psychological damage that gave rise to the crazy jester persona.
Doctor Harleen Quinzel needs to go to Arkham Asylum. Her hypotheses that a lack of empathy is some sort of ‘autoimmune disease of the mind’ leading to the creation of sociopaths needs to be tested – and where better to find potential sociopaths than in Gotham’s infamous version of Bedlam. But it’s not easy for Quinzel with disinterested professors, the bureaucracy of Arkham believing her a nuisance and colleagues sniping at her. It doesn’t help when, on a typical night for Gotham City, she finds herself in the middle of a battle between Batman and The Joker and his goons and a chance encounter with The Clown Prince of Crime leaves an impression on Quinzel.
When The Joker is admitted to Arkham, Quinzel sees her opportunity to push forward her research and gain the respect that she craves – as well as satisfying the curiosity that was engendered in her during her first meeting with the white faced criminal. But as her interviews with The Joker begin, she finds herself becoming obsessed by him as he slowly inveigles himself into her life. As sleep becomes scarce, her career becomes complicated and The Joker consuming her thoughts soon Quinzel must make a decision that will change her life forever.
Šejić eschews all the affectations that have become associated with Harley Quinn over the years. A scant few flash forwards showcase her iconic jester outfit, but the “puddin’s” and “Mister Jay’s” are few and far between. We’re left with a story about the psychological disintegration of a woman that has a chillingly eerie sense of foreboding thanks to a conclusion that we all know is coming. As with other portrayals of her character, Šejić presents Quinzel in a sympathetic light showcasing both her obsessive personality and need for love that is absent in her life. But there’s also a steel, a hint of darkness that would go on to inform her criminal future.
There’s a dark romanticism here, both in the art style and the story. There are sharp lines and subtle colours, all with a sense of realism – a far cry from the cartoony, primary colours associated with Harley Quinn’s origins. The Joker here cuts something of a Byronic figure, the thin and wiry criminal of old replaced by a lithe and muscled embodiment of charm. There’s certainly more of a believable chemistry between the two and an insight into the extent of his manipulative behaviour (though a coda in The Batcave veers towards ‘too much exposition and information’) and the sense that much of what we’re seeing is all from Quinzel’s damaged POV.
Those expecting a traditional Harley Quinn story – or indeed a story full of well-worn comic book tropes – will find themselves disappointed. Harleen is a dark and adult story of a damaged woman and a manipulative relationship which is as grimly compelling as it is disturbing. For all her brightness and whacky ways, Šejić reminds us of the darkness at her heart that is sometimes easy to forget.
Harleen is available now published by DC Black Label at 17GBP