Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Harleen #1 Stands on the Brink

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Spoilers for Harleen #1, and Trigger Warnings for mentions of abuse and violence.

Ah, Harley Quinn. I know and love her, you…at least most definitely know of her, even if you’re not the biggest fan. She’s been everywhere recently, and even those who don’t even watch comic book movies are likely to at least recognize some version of the character. Pretty impressive for a character intended to be a one-off in an animated show!

And now the DC Black Label has gotten its hands on her. For those unaware, DC Black Label is an imprint of, well, DC Comics, designed to present classic DC Comics characters in a more mature, adult-oriented way. And so we now get Harleen, a three-issue miniseries dealing with Harley Quinn’s origins, back when she was still Dr. Harleen Quinzel, written and drawn by Croatian artist Stjepan Šejić (thank god this isn’t an audio format, I wouldn’t even know how to go about pronouncing that, dumb American that I am). Šejić is a talented writer and artist, with a good talent for being able to actually write women as well developed characters, which is something those who have read his comic Sunstone will know. Which is good because this series is tackling a rather delicate subject, and you need a good writer to handle it.

So, enough beating around the bush, let’s dive right in!

Art Style

This is an important topic to tackle up front, because as a visual medium, good art can make or break a comic. If the art style doesn’t work for you, then it doesn’t really matter how good the story itself is. Šejić’s art style is distinct, and rather immediately recognizable once you’ve seen it. Unfortunately, I lack the art education to quite describe the style properly with words, so…here’s a panel from Harleen and the Joker meeting in Arkham, their first encounter as doctor and patient. It should give you a good grasp of Šejić’s style if you’ve never encountered his work before.

If I had to find a complaint, I’d say that I’m not the biggest fan of the way he draws the Joker. It’s not quite as bad as the Mortal Kombat 11 design (very little is that bad) but it’s not good either. I think it’s the mouth, though him spending most of his time in plain colors, coming off kind of dull and colorless, doesn’t help either. His mouth is just…normal. A little redder than usual, perhaps, but it’s not any sort of exaggerated, not bigger or painted out the sides or anything. And while aspects of the Joker’s appearance is always subject to change, and the artist certainly is allowed to depict their own version of a character, the Joker having a big smile is so iconic to the character that to not have it, to have his mouth not stand out feels intensely jarring.

But that’s a nitpick ultimately, and not remotely anything close to a deal-breaker. Just something I, a pedantic fan girl, got bothered by.


Alright, now that’s been sorted with, and you have an understanding of the art style of the comic, let’s dive into the true meat of the thing, the story. Choosing to make Harleen was an…interesting choice on DC’s part because as a character, Harley’s backstory was never exactly what you’d call opaque. In the early days of The Animated Series it was, perhaps, but ever since the episode Mad Love, which delved fully into the Joker and Harley’s, for lack of a better term, relationship, we’ve known more or less what happened to her. There’s not a whole lot of mystery as to what exactly happened to her, or how she went from doctor to villain.

Harleen #1, at least, doesn’t seek to retcon anything. Or at least, no major retcons appear to be present, I may be missing some minor ones. Instead, it fleshes out the details, focusing on the build-up to what we all know must come. What was Harley researching, why was she at Arkham, what drove her to take on the Joker as a patient? These are all things that the comic tackles, attempting to flesh out a backstory that we only truly know the broad strokes of. You won’t be learning anything new or shocking in this issue, but there’s definitely enough going to be worth your interest.

Our story begins with Harleen in a dream (feels weird calling her that, but she’s not Harley yet) where she walks down a winding Gotham road, the air full of mist and bats. She tells us that she has this dream many times, but that something has changed. That normally there’s manic laughter in the air, and she’s attacked by a grinning beast. This time, however, at the end of the road she finds the Joker, being swarmed by bats, while a towering beast, a monstrous form of Batman, looms over. She chases them away, declaring the Joker to be her patient, someone she can save, and the beast and bats leave, telling her that it’s on her hands then, and she comforts the Joker before explaining to us, the audience that her story is rather the opposite of the Beauty and the Beast tale her dream presents us with. It is instead, in her words, ‘the one where the girl dances with the devil’, showing her in the classic costume, dancing with the Joker (in the pale moonlight no less!) before moving to a different point.

We find Harleen interviewing an imprisoned soldier, a man who snapped in combat, and was dishonorably discharged after destroying a hospital, killing many innocents in order to kill his enemies as well. The story moves to the reason for Harleen interviewing that man, a presentation she’s giving to a number of potential investors two years after said interview. She explains that the ‘fight or flight’ response, in addition to overriding standard brain chemistry, dampens a person’s ability to feel empathy. She views this as a part of a mental immune system, designed to protect us, but that when a person is trapped in a place where they have to constantly view things as a potential threat, like soldiers or criminals in Gotham, that the system can break. An autoimmune disease of the mind, one that turns people into sociopaths, incapable of feeling empathy. And she wishes to work with Arkham, Blackgate, and the Gotham Police Department in an attempt to help identify the warning signs of this autoimmune disease, and perhaps even to help those suffering already. Throughout the presentation though, she notices an African American gentleman in the audience, who starts out listening but soon starts checking his watch and talking to the person next to him, causing her to stumble at points in concern and distraction.

We cut to her despairing in a bar with her friend Shondra, expressing dismay over the perceived failure of her presentation while Shondra chides her for not presenting everything from an angle of ‘here is my idea, here is how it will make you money’. The two part ways, Harleen pondering on her situation and a ‘road of life’ metaphor that’s going to be something of a theme for at least this particular issue, only for the night to be violently interrupted by the Joker and his crew. He spots her and points a gun at her, leading to an excellent page of her seeing her life flash before her eyes, but then lets her live. Apparently he liked something he saw in her eyes.

But then Batman arrives, causing the Joker’s van to crash (and giving us another very fun reference to the 1989 movie) and things quickly get more chaotic. Harleen is found by two retreating police officers, both wounded by the Joker, who help get her out of her dazed, panicked state from the violence while Batman and the Joker fight. Batman wins in short order, but Harleen feels a moment of disgust. Not at the Joker, nor at Batman really, but at the crowd who’d watched, cheering, as Batman beat down the Joker. A callback to the opening dream scene, one that invades Harleen’s dreams and makes it difficult for her to sleep, making her testier when she gets to work. Not helped by the fact that, due to having a fling in college with one of her professors, she’s often slut-shamed by her co-workers, a woman named Pauline in particular.

But before she can do more than snap at said woman, she’s called into her boss’ office, where the African American gentleman from her presentation is waiting. She panics, thinking he’s been complaining about her ‘boring’ presentation and is going to get her fired. But, as is soon revealed, he was not in fact bored. His name is Lucius Fox, chief scientific advisor to the Wayne Foundation, here to extend an offer to fund her research. Bruce Wayne, as one might imagine, has a strong personal desire to try and fight and prevent crime in Gotham. Harleen, unsurprisingly, gleefully accepts the offer and is quickly given a new job at Arkham.

It’s not the warmest of welcomes, Arkham being what it is, but Harleen doesn’t mind. Her work matters more than her pride, and so she quickly sets about picking super villains to interview. What follows is a lovely two-page spread, showing snippets of her attempts. Zsaz and the Mad Hatter are entirely unhelpful, Riddler just gives her a bad riddle, Killer Croc views things from a purely animalistic perspective, and Ivy guilts her about writing on paper. All the while she has nightmares of the Joker and can barely sleep. She’d been avoiding the clown for her first three weeks at Arkham, but eventually concludes that she can’t any longer. That she must face her own fear.

She’s not stupid though, nor enthralled quite yet. And so she gathers up the tapes, records of his previous interviews, watching and learning about his lies. But, in so doing, she encounters his famous ‘One Bad Day’ philosophy, which echoes the words of the soldier who started her research, and decides that she has to interview him. But even though she feels like doing so is essential for her work, she’s still nervous, still scared, and we get a montage of her attempting to do things to stop her Joker-centric nightmares. But nothing works.

Until that is, she receives a call asking for her to have a meeting with Harvey Dent. He tells her that he wants her to not only turn down the Wayne grant but to stop her research altogether. As he explains, eight out of ten of the most hardened criminals in Gotham are in Arkham Asylum, not Blackgate Penitentiary, and he fears that her research, expanding upon the nature and quality of mental health, will only enable defense attorneys to keep their clients out of the former. Harleen is…not pleased with this, to say the least. Especially when he keeps resorting to campaign speeches rather than actual arguments. The two argue, shooting back moral arguments, neither aware that in less than a year they’ll both be criminals in Arkham themselves.

Galvanized by this exchange, she finally goes to see the Joker. He plays games with her, but given that he’s in a cell she at least feels like she’s on even footing with him. And that’s where the issue ends, with him insisting she calls him by a nickname and Harleen calling him ‘Mr. Jay’ for the first time.

Final Verdict

Harleen #1 is an ambitious comic, the first in an ambitious trilogy, tackling questions of mental health, morality, and fate. The most serious aspects of the Joker and Harley’s ‘relationship’ have yet to be tackled by the comic, so we don’t know how well it will handle the difficult subject of her abuse and mental breakdown. But from what we’ve seen so far, I am optimistic that it will be done in a good way. For a retelling of a story that we already know the broad strokes of, it does an excellent job of never feeling like it’s tired, never like something we’ve already heard before. I never found myself wanting to skip, despite already knowing how things were going to go.

From a character standpoint, the way the comic depicts Harleen is a very interesting choice. Most times we see glimpses of the woman who’d become Harley Quinn, she’s depicted as fragile, vulnerable, easy prey. Someone who was manipulated from the get-go, a little lamb. The New 52 even went so far as to depict child!Harleen as basically the same as Harley Quinn which is…actually more distressing than the usual depictions when I think about it. Regardless, the woman we see in Harleen #1 is vulnerable, yes, but she isn’t easy prey. She might be underestimating the Joker (though given that we know at least three other psychologists had interviewed the man and not been twisted into his sidekicks, I feel we can cut her some slack) but she goes in to her talks with him knowing that he’s a threat, and only after spending a good amount of time trying to prepare.

She shows her strength throughout the issue, her dedication to doing good and helping others, her sincerity, and her flaws. The Harleen we see depicted in this comic feels like a real person and is a well-written character besides. You feel her strength, her wants, her goals, and they all combine to make her more sympathetic, and will no doubt work to increase the gut-punch her fall and abuse will be. We know her past now, her mistakes, her regrets, and her hopes. These are things we never really had for her before. Harley Quinn is so big, so larger than life, and so frequently depicted that one tends to forget how little we actually know about her life before the Joker, and this comic serves as a reminder of that oversight, calling attention to it and filling in our gaps.

From a storytelling standpoint, not a whole lot really happens, but this is just the opening act of a three-part series. It’s all setup, and that’s fine. It’s good setup. It takes its time, paces itself, doesn’t rush to get to Arkham, and once it’s in Arkham it doesn’t rush to get Harleen to the Joker. In fleshing out Harleen, it gives the world of the story, the city of Gotham, more character. Too often those not involved in the war between the Bat Family and the villains are just sort of brushed aside, as if Gotham only exists at night, or when a main character is around. This more street-level view of the city helps to flesh out one of DC’s most famous locations a good deal. We see police officers outside of Major Crimes (if only briefly), we see psychologists working outside of Gotham, Harvey before Two-Face, Lucius Fox outside of a Wayne lab, and Bruce is only seen in one scene.

If I had to place a criticism (beyond my earlier nitpick about the Joker’s appearance) it’d be that the series really only works if you’re familiar with the setting. This isn’t a terrible place to go if you want to know more about ‘that clown lady on all the t-shirts’ but nor is it a great place. Similarly to the Arkham series of video games, Harleen operates under the assumption that you are already familiar with the mythos and the characters of Gotham. ‘You know who Harley Quinn is, don’t lie.’ It seems to say. ‘You know who the Joker is, you know who Batman is, let’s just get into the story already.’ And if you are familiar with them, which is likely, then you’re fine. But if you actually don’t know any of that, you’ll likely be in a bit of trouble.

Still, that’s really just a nitpick once again. There’s nothing deal-breaking about that, you just need to know that this isn’t a story interested in slowly explaining the world to you.

At the end of the day, I genuinely loved Harleen #1. The artwork is good, the writing is good, the pacing is good, the themes are clear, it’s everything I could have wanted from a comic depicting this story. I highly recommend you all give it a read if you think you can handle the issues the story will be dealing with!

STORY: Stjepan Šejić

ART: Stjepan Šejić

COLORS: Stjepan Šejić

LETTERS: Gabriela Downie

Images Courtesy of DC Comics

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