There is no small irony that Harleen #1 should come out this week, when many in the mainstream media are discussing fears that the upcoming Joker movie could trigger a wave of emotionally-repressed wackadoos to start acting out against society in imitation of The Clown Prince of Crime. On the one hand, this argument flies in the face of all the research done as to what causes psychotic breaks and and while Joker may be used as an excuse by future mass-murders, it will not be a true trigger, because it takes far more than “one bad day” to push someone over the edge. On the other hand, Harley Quinn’s classic origin story is built off that faulty premise – that someone like The Joker could bring someone around to his way of thinking by living as an example and convince them that going mad is the only sane response in a world where the same people who complain about young people tuning-out the outside world to stare at their phones are now complaining about the young people becoming activists.
I mention all this because while Harleen #1 is clearly influenced by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s seminal work Mad Love, it addresses this point that is too often overlooked when it comes to the character of Harley Quinn. Many have handled Harley as if she were a bubble-headed bimbo or were honestly as insane as The Joker; either through exposure to the same chemicals as him (as in the New 52 origin story) or by having been driven completely crazy by association. Many people forget that Harley has a brain (she’s a doctor, for cryin’ out loud!) and that she only plays dumb and crazy because she’s found life is more fun when she doesn’t worry as much. Hakuna Matata and all that.
The story of Harleen is the story of how Dr. Harleen Quinzel became Harley Quinn, yet as the story opens there’s no sign of the Harley Quinn most fans are familiar with. This is because Stjepan Sejic does something I can’t recall any other writer truly doing since Mad Love; showing us Harley Quinn’s story from her own perspective, inside her own head, without Harley breaking the fourth wall or playing to an audience. Yet even Mad Love was largely told from Batman’s point of view, with the Dark Knight relating Harleen Quinzel’s past as a student who slept her way to success and sought fame and fortune analyzing famous supervillains to Alfred while perusing her file on the Bat-computer.
While Sejic does present these same details, his telling puts a softer spin on a young Harleen’s actions. Yes, she did sleep with one of her professors, but it was because she had an honest attraction to him and owned her sexuality, even as her fellow students started calling her Harley because “every middle-aged man wanted to ride her.” Harleen is also given a stronger motivation for wanting to research supervillains as a means of proving her theories regarding a mental health immune system and the existence of a sort of mental immunodeficiency disorder that turns the mind’s defenses against itself, resulting in violent anti-social behavior. That conceit alone is more thoughtful than what we see in many Harley Quinn stories and well-worth the price of admission.
It will surprise no one familiar with Sejic’s work as an artist that the artwork for this issue is equally detailed and well thought-out. While largely avoiding the fantastic imagery he became famous for in his on-line comics and Aquaman, there are several breathtaking pages where Harley describes a recurring dream where she is surrounded by mist and how this dream comes to change as she becomes more and more obsessed with The Joker. Make no mistake, however; this comic does nothing to romanticize the Joker/Harley relationship, even as we see how Harley comes to have her professional focus shift in strange new directions for reasons she can’t explain beyond it being love.
Harleen deserves credit for attempting something new and ground-breaking with the character of Harleen Quinzel while building on what came before. How well it succeeds in the end remains to be seen, but this first chapter is the best thing to come out of DC’s Black Label line to date, with strong writing and amazing artwork. It is a must read for every fan of Harley Quinn.