“My story’s the one where the girl dances with the devil…”
DC’s Black Label is an interesting experiment. The idea was to deliver standalone, prestige-format comics aimed at a slightly more adult audience. If normal comics are PG-13, these are definitely R-rated. How they go about this differs. White Knight was a clever, more realistic take on the Caped Crusader/Joker mythos (and is still one of my all-time favourites), while Batman: Damned earned its adult rating through sheer edge and Bat-todger. Harleen goes a different route and tells a grown-up tale of tragic love in a dangerously abusive relationship. But, even then, things aren’t that black and white. Gorgeous, exceptionally well-written, and presented beautifully, it’s a tour de force for writer/artist Stjepan Sejic.
So Harley Quinn – like the Joker – is one of those characters that has entered the mainstream and become instantly recognisable, becoming more than just an enemy to Batman. Like her beau, she’s also come pretty close to getting boring. I’m not blaming it entirely on Suicide Squad (just mostly) but I think we’re all tired of seeing Harley Quinn and Joker t-shirts, merchandise, and couples’ cosplays. They’re the Deadpool of the DC universe; constantly trying too hard to be quirky. I was pretty impressed when I read the reviews for Sejic’s take on the character. Like Brian Azzarello’s Joker, he was doing something new. And when that happens in comics, you betcha it’s worth paying attention to.
Harley Quinn has as an interesting history. Created in 1992 for the animated series, she quickly became a fan favourite. But almost as quickly, she was sexualised to the point of nausea. One of her defining characteristics became how hot she supposedly was, and her relationship with the Joker was all too often shown as some weird kinky fetish thing. And the fans loved it, with many talking about how great she was, what a strong female character she is. But this misses the point. She’s not someone anyone should want to emulate, especially in her relationship with Mistah Jay. She becomes a lot stronger when she’s out of the relationship (a la Birds of Prey), but for the most part she’s a walking warning about domestic abuse and violence. Her story is one of tragedy. And Harleen is probably the first comic I’ve read that tackles this with the depth it deserves.
Dr. Harleen Quinzel is a budding psychologist who’s working on a radical new theory on the evil that plagues Gotham. She’s believes that she can truly cure the troubled minds currently rotting in Blackgate Penitentiary and Arkham Asylum. Importantly, Quinzel doesn’t come across as naive. Sure, it’s an optimistic view of Batman’s rogue’s gallery, but the science behind it is sound. She knows how her theory is seen by others but she’s willing to put in the legwork to prove it. Thanks to a donation from Bruce Wayne – a man who believes in her cause – she finds herself interviewing the crazies at Arkham. This leads her to Joker.
What follows is a slow-burn story as the two try and untangle each other; the Joker seemingly playing his usual games and Harley trying to figure out how genuine they are. Her feelings don’t come out straight away (their first meeting is at gunpoint) but they build and evolve over the story. It’s exceptionally well done, showing how someone can be tricked into caring, twisted into thinking that they’re doing what’s best. And of course the other interpretation is that Joker loves her back, that it’s not a trick. There are definite moments of manipulation by the Joker, but equally there are moments of what seem like real passion. But are these truly real? The comic leaves that up to you.
People don’t want to hear Harleen’s theories, of course, setting up one of the themes of the story; if these criminals keep offending, wouldn’t capital punishment be the obvious answer? Can these monsters ever truly change? This idea is key in the relationship of Harley and Joker. Is he capable of love and will she be the one to cure him? Or is he destined to remain the same, using her for his own ends? Her struggle is mirrored throughout the three issues by Harvey Dent, who very recently received an acid cocktail to the face. After his transformation into Two-Face, he begins to see things in a very black and white fashion. To him, Joker is a lost cause. People like Harleen are meddlers, securing the animals light jail time when what they really need is a bullet. Somewhere between this, in his own murky shade of grey, is Batman.
Ultimately, whether the love is mutual or not, this is a tragic tale. Harleen is alone and vulnerable, facing so much adversity in her life that she leaps at the chance to make a difference, to be needed. Plus, if Joker can move past his craziness and actually love her, then it proves her theories right; that the criminals in Gotham are a product of mental illness. Joker loving her is the validation she needs as a person emotionally and in her work as a psychologist – an occupation in which she’s faced a good share of abuse and bullying. And this love and desperate need becomes confused, it becomes sexual, and it gets to a point where even Harleen doesn’t know what she’s doing. Just that she needs him, one way or another.
As well as the writing being top-tier (despite a few typos, but it’s my day job so I can’t help noticing) and the story dealing deftly with some heavy subject matter, the art is stunning. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it’s some of the best DC has come out with. Harleen feels real, not an overly-sexualised cartoon in a skin-tight outfit. There’s no male gaze, no gratuitous shots. If anything, Sejic subverts these age-old tropes with Joker. It’s not dwelled on, but he’s kinda ripped, and usually shirtless. It’s all about the image that he is putting forward. He’s tempting Harley (at least that’s one interpretation) and he’s vulnerable. It’s a welcome change from the norm.
Sejic is pulling double duty here, doing the art and writing, and maybe that’s the answer. Having him doing both, they work together in a way that I’m not sure you can get with a separate artist and writer. This feels like one man’s vision, a story by a guy who is a huge fan of the source material and a phenomenal talent to boot. In Harleen, with the massive prestige format, every page is rich and detailed. I’ve never read a comic so slowly, taking in every single panel. Check out some of his art, because this guy is the real deal. I hope DC realise that they’ve got a secret weapon here and commission him to do another series.
I can’t sing the praises of this comic enough. This is what DC’s Black Label is all about. It’s mature, but due to it’s subject matter and not because of Batman’s dick (fyi, I still love Batman: Damned). The world’s changing, and the comic industry has been struggling to keep up. You can’t draw and write characters like you used to, thankfully, and Harleen is a conscious and clever updating of a classic character. Thanks to its standalone nature, it’s a perfect introduction to what comics can achieve.