Spoilers for Harleen #2, and Trigger Warnings for mentions and depictions of abuse and violence.
Well, here we are! Once more we return to the tragic past of Gotham’s favorite daughter, Harley Quinn. This one is a bit darker than the last one friends, fair warning. We’re not done with seeing Harleen’s transformation, there’s still a way to go, but we’re definitely going to see more of the process of her breaking than we did last time.
I have less to say before we get to the recap portion this time. It has been a good bit since my review of the first issue though, so perhaps some quick summarizing. Harleen is a miniseries, three sixty or so page issues released by DC Comics under their Black Label. Due to the more serious and ‘adult-oriented’ nature of the Black Label, this comic is a lot darker than typical DC fare, and shows the process by which Dr. Harleen Quinzel was brainwashed and hurt by the Joker into becoming Harley Quinn, something that’s never really been delved into in much detail in the past.
The art and writing come to us from popular Croatian artist Stjepan Šejić, and, like I said in the first review, he continues to do quite good work, as demonstrated by the image above. I will say that his color palette is perhaps a bit washed out looking. Not in an ugly, or even really bad, way mind you. It makes things stand out, and probably hits a more realistic note. All the same though, there’s something jarring to me, a fangirl, to seeing these usually more vibrant characters drawn a little less brightly than normal. It might cause you the same momentary issues it caused me, but maybe it won’t. It’s still good after all!
This second issue begins where the first left off, with Harleen interviewing the Joker while he stands in his cell, one arm in a sling. He begins giving his usual ‘one bad day’ speech, albeit not in those words, while the art takes us to what one presumes is a bank, as Joker robs it with some minions, including a person in tight red and black sleeves, whose point of view (POV) the panels are drawn from. Someone, presumably a guard if this is a bank, gets the drop on the Joker, putting a pistol to his head, but a gesture from the Joker signals the person who’s POV we’re seeing from to attack with a bat.
As you can see, we’re not seeing a flashback but a glimpse of the future, as Harley (not Harleen) kills the guard with her bat. It’s an interesting scene and a benefit of making a prequel. No need to pretend that we don’t know how this is going to end, or try and be coy/sneaky about Harley Quinn. Using the inevitable future to illustrate the Joker’s point was a clever move, at least in my opinion.
In the present though, Harleen isn’t interested in the speech the Joker’s giving. She’s seen the videos of him giving this speech to previous therapists, and considers it boring and canned nonsense. In point of fact, she finds it downright offensive that he’d give her the same crap he gave everyone else. That he’d think so little of her intellect when she already demonstrated she wasn’t in the mood for his usual shtick.
We move to her home alone at night, drinking and frustrated with her lack of progress in Arkham. None of the supervillains she’s been speaking to have much interest in telling her about their past, about how they became villains, more interested in talking about who they are now than in who they used to be. This is a bit of a problem since she’s mainly studying how they got to where they are now, and trying to determine if there’s a diagnosable reason for it.
As she muses over this issue, she gets a call from her former boss, Dr. Matthews, the woman who got her the position at Arkham. The older woman has gotten Harleen access to the Gotham City Police Department (GCPD) as promised but warns her that events that happened earlier that day might make things difficult. Harleen is unclear on what she’s talking about, having missed any news after her stressful meeting with Joker, and turns on the TV. We then watch as one of Gotham’s non-Super Villain crime lords, Salvatore Maroni, douses District Attorney Harvey Dent with what we learned is an unknown but absurdly dangerous chemical cocktail, getting half of his face and his hand. And thus we watch Two-Face be born, starting his slippery slope the same day Harleen does.
Things escalate from there because, as the reporter Harleen watches points out, this is Gotham. Maroni’s lack of subtlety gets him promptly arrested, but the van transporting him is commandeered by a group of masked members of the GCPD, who declared themselves the Executioners, pushed to the breaking point of their tolerance by the attack on Dent. They declare that mercy has ill-served the people of Gotham, and promptly execute Maroni on camera. A few moments after though, Batman and Robin (since this is from Harleen’s perspective, more or less, we don’t really know which Robin though) intervene, and while they’re too late to save Maroni, they do manage to capture the three Executioners on camera.
The report continues, explaining that the Executioners have accrued a sixty-eight percent approval rating in Gotham, while the GCPD sits at a mere thirty-one percent approval. The former statistic becomes something of a theme to the whole issue, as we’ll see. Not the number, just the message it conveys. The fact that so many approve of such a savage act reminds of her of the Joker’s words at the beginning of the issue, and of her dismay at watching so many people cheer at Batman fighting the Joker, calling for Batman to hit harder than he did, in the last issue. It gives her nightmares, left dazed and weakened by this act from people otherwise deemed as sane.
After that disaster, Harleen strengthens her resolve and heads to GCPD as scheduled, intent on fulfilling her original plan regardless of the news. Gordon is willing to work with her, but believes that this is a bad time. He explains that not only is there the issue that the last non-police union shrink to do stuff at GCPD was Jonathon Crane (Scarecrow) but that this Executioners business is causing general chaos among the department. Not only because everything they’re doing is going to be under a microscope, but that since they caught the people at the murder of Maroni and yet the tape was still leaked to the press, they know there are others of the group still at large. This has lead to a surge in paranoia within the GCPD, and none of Gordon’s officers are likely to talk with a psychiatrist about their own lives and failings.
Harleen acknowledges that this is unfortunately true, but asks instead to speak to Batman. Gordon is reluctant, but given that he was going to turn the signal on regardless he agrees. That night, the Caped Crusader appears, and Harleen asks a very simple question that’s been plaguing her. If Batman believes that they, his supervillains, can be redeemed. If Joker can be. And, in a powerful moment, Batman admits that he truly hopes that they can be and that while that’s not the only reason he refuses to kill them, it’s definitely a part of it. I appreciate this moment quite a bit. It’s too easy to get caught up in the brooding Batman, in the dark aspects, in the work of Frank Miller and Zack Snyder, and forget that Bruce is a hero of principles and, to no small degree, compassion. The Black Label would have been a perfect opportunity to go with that interpretation, particularly with how small of a part Batman plays in the comic, but Stjepan Šejić gives us a more nuanced, heroic Batman that I can get behind.
Harleen muses over his words and statement and finds herself back at the Joker shortly after. They speak for a bit about things, particularly how Joker’s view of humans as monsters under thin masks works in relation to the existence of a rule of law. She’s actually very unimpressed with his answers, viewing it as self-important and self-satisfied nonsense from a narcissist. Somewhat ironic given that we know how this goes, something Harley (Harleen?) acknowledges with the benefit of hindsight via the narration boxes. But then the subject turns to Batman, his nature and status in Gotham as the city’s hero and avatar of the resident’s frustration. Joker expresses his belief that one day Batman will snap and kill someone, which will, in turn, lead to more killing and war as the citizens of Gotham turn on each other.
He uses similar phrases to Harleen’s own thoughts, in fact, particularly echoing the descriptor of ‘howling beasts’ that she’s had herself. He realizes that fact, joking that it makes him feel better about his sanity. He attempts to dismiss her, but she’s not quite done with him yet, wanting to know why he didn’t kill her when they met in the previous issue. He tries to brush her off at first, but when she persists he says that the only expressions he loves to see are abject horror and an honest smile. And that when he saw Harleen in the street, he thought that he’d love to see her smile. He immediately tries to downplay this statement, suggesting that the alternative answer is that he was out of bullets and laughing. Are either of these reasons true? It’s really unclear to be honest, as befitting the Joker. He’s presented three alternative reasons for sparing Harleen, one to his driver in the previous issue and two to Harleen, and heaven knows what the real one is. He does, however, end the session by saying that he’d love to see her smile one day, doing so in a way that strikes Harleen as entirely sincere and real.
This, more than anything, starts Harleen’s descent. There are bigger moments later on that drive things further, but this is when he gets his foot in the door so to speak. She spends the night reading a book about the Joker that paints him as empty and uncaring to clear her head, then has a nightmare. In it a crowd of monsters with poorly made human masks lead her to the Joker’s execution, cheering. A monster looms in the background, asking Joker if he has any last wish, to which he responds that he wants a smile.
Understandably, Harleen has trouble sleeping after that. Joker’s not sleeping either though, and it turns out that he’s bribed an Arkham guard with a gambling problem to get him Harleen’s personnel file. This is the first real show of interest in her that he’s displayed when she’s not in front of him, and a sign of things to come. Frankly, it’s impressive that the series waited until the middle of the second issue to depict this, rather than rushing and having him decide to turn her from the get-go.
Back with our protagonist, Harleen is having a rough go of it. The Joker’s words are in her brain still, and the news is terrible. She declares that he’s stolen her days, her nights, and her smile, collapsing in a ball of self-loathing after catching herself thinking that the Joker had deemed her too beautiful to die. We further see her downward spiral as she interviews various non-Joker inmates at Arkham, but she stops really listening, unable to focus on anything but Joker. Highlights of this montage include her counting 16 forced riddles from Riddler, the Penguin being in Arkham for…some reason, her being adorably bundled up so much you can’t see her face while interviewing Freeze, and Ivy attempting to flirt but unable to get through the Joker obsession.
Frustrated with herself, she breaks and goes to go watch Joker sleep. As she does so she finds herself relaxing, the tension draining from her body as she stands in front of his cell. She compares it to imagining the audience being naked, that seeing him silent and peaceful makes him less scary.
The comic then decides to take the interesting tack of drawing a parallel between Harleen and Harvey, as we cut to him for a while. Seeing him wake up from a medically induced coma, discovering the extent of his injuries and discovering that the chemicals have damaged his brain, making him more violent and losing impulse control. This is demonstrated when he attempts to hold a press conference to reassure everyone that he’s okay, only to instead breakdown and start ranting furiously. Like Harleen, someone with good intentions trying to help save people, only to be broken by someone less stable and angrier than them.
Watching this happen does, eventually, lead to Harleen having a bit of a breakthrough with regards to Joker, and she registers something missing from all the recorded interviews with him. Namely, that nobody ever actually asked him if he felt sorry about any of the murders he committed. An interesting question perhaps, but unfortunately for her, Joker has read her file, knows what she’s studying, and knows exactly what words to feed her. And he does, exploiting both her study and her watching him sleep. He gets in her head, pulling on her wires, and eventually she turns off the security camera, undoes his restraints, and the issue ends with her turning her back to him and letting him hug her while telling him to call her Harley, thus marking the first time he calls her Harley Quinn (he’d previously declared Quinzel a tongue twister and gotten permission to just call her Dr. Quinn). Much like how issue one ended with her calling him Mr. Jay for the first time.
I liked this. I liked this a lot. It didn’t go where I expected it to go (I confess that I was expecting this to end with her becoming Harley more fully) but it still was quite good.
It handles the way the Joker gets into a person’s head very interestingly, and there’s an impressive degree of subtlety to what’s on display as well. So subtle in fact that it’s hard for me, the reader, to pinpoint precisely when he decided to start molding her rather than simply trolling like his previous doctors. Was it when he realized she had similar thoughts about Gothams’s residents being howling beasts? Was it when he read her file? Or was it earlier? It’s hard to say, but if any character’s motivations should be opaque, it’s the Joker’s.
Harleen delves so deeply into the slow tragedy and pain of what happened to the titular character that it makes me almost feel guilty to be such a fan of Harley Quinn. Knowing that she used to be a good, smart, kind person with a bright and happy future really makes me feel a little bad for not wishing she never became Harley. But at the same time, despite the deep, dark dive and the fact that it will more likely than not have a purely tragic ending, this never feels like grimdark. There’s enough optimism, and good, kind intentions, to Harleen, as well as genuinely funny moments overall, that the story never feels grueling or like a slog.
I’m sorry, I don’t have much else to say. There’s always less to say about something you’re positive about, unfortunately. This is just a really good issue, as the issue before it, and I have nothing but optimism for the third and final one. Check it out!
STORY: Stjepan Šejić
ART: Stjepan Šejić
COLORS: Stjepan Šejić
LETTERS: Gabriela Downie