Warning: SPOILERS for DC’s Harleen
When it comes to the origin of Harley Quinn, Mad Love is the madcap’s character bible. Every adaptation of the anti-heroine has elements inspired by the Eisner Award winning one-shot comic book by the creators of Batman: the Animated Series, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. But one story has all other adaptations of Mad Love beat, and that is DC’s 3-issue Black Label title Harleen by Stjepan Šejić.
Though her backstory has fluctuated slightly over the last couple decades, the groundwork established in Mad Love is essentially still canon in most adaptations of Harley. Prior to being the Joker’s girlfriend, Dr. Harleen Quinzel was a psychologist spending her internship at Arkham Asylum. Having earned a gymnastics scholarship to Gotham U, Quinzel graduated with top grades from the university’s prestigious psychology department thanks to sleeping with her professor. Though she “could’ve written her ticket anywhere,” Harleen picked Arkham to intern at because of its high-profile patients/inmates—her motive being to write a tell-all book according to a coworker.
After months of pleading, she finally gets a one-on-one with the Joker, and very quickly falls head-over-heels for his charming lies. Under the Clown Prince’s spell, Harleen has a breakdown one night after Batman returns her recently escaped patient to Arkham, beaten and bloody. In a state of manic outrage, Dr. Quinzel robs a costume shop, breaks the Joker out of prison, and becomes his happy go lucky partner in crime, Harley Quinn. She stays his loyal right hand for many years, until eventually the Joker’s constant abuse becomes too much for Harley and she leaves him.
For nearly 2 decades, Mad Love (both the comic book and later the adapted episode of The New Batman Adventures) served as Harley’s definitive canonical backstory. When DC relaunched its continuity with the New 52, her origin changed slightly to make the former Arkham doc less naive and more no-nonsense; even openly calling the Joker’s false origin stories “all a load of bull” to his face. Though her new motives were more professionally driven (it’s her boss that wants to write the tell-all book by stealing Harley’s research), she inevitably falls under his sway all the same.
In the DC Extended Universe film Suicide Squad, Harley’s origins appear to be a mashup of her original Mad Love hubris and her New 52 revamp. Like in Mad Love, Dr. Quinzel (played by Margot Robbie) sought fame and fortune in studying the Joker, but like in her New 52 storyline “The Hunt for Harley Quinn,” Dr. Quinzel becomes a new (and considerably paler) woman after taking a dip in the same chemicals that created her Puddin’.
What Šejić’s Harleen does differently than all previous incarnations of the Mad Love story is it tells all the same events of Dini and Timm’s acclaimed book, but with modern contexts that feel more like they are coming from Harley herself rather than are being told about her. While it is still true that Harleen slept with a college professor (and was caught) and it is still true that she received top grades from Gotham U, those two things had nothing to do with each other.
Šejić portrays Dr. Quinzel as a highly intelligent, highly motivated psychologist who becomes forever branded with a scarlet letter due to a problematic infatuation with older men who wield power. Her motivation in the story is to prove her hypothesis on trauma and sociopathy, something she presents at an educational symposium. This earns her a research grant from the Wayne Foundation, which leads her to Arkham Asylum. But because of her past, few of her peers actually take her seriously.
Harleen may not be the naive, fame-seeking woman portrayed in Mad Love, but that doesn’t stop the rest of the world from seeing her that way. Her goals are well-meaning, but she’s constantly met with cynicism. She knows her feelings for the Joker are wrong and dangerous, but Mr. Jay’s ability to manipulate others is just too strong for her to overcome. The added context offered by Šejić makes the original Mad Love continuity feels less like an origin story and more like mean-spirited office gossip—wherein all her mistakes are magnified to unflatteringly cartoonish levels.
Harleen takes a story most comic book readers are familiar with and manages to make it feel entirely new without changing any key pieces. Like director Todd Phillips’ critically acclaimed film Joker, this R-rated super villain origin takes a disturbingly honest look at the psychology of an often lampooned character—all while taking jabs at America’s poor healthcare system. And like Arthur Fleck’s final transformation in Joker, Harleen’s transition into super villainy is more grounded and significantly more powerful than simply falling into a vat of crazy juice.
And it’s not just Šejić’s writing that makes Harleen such a haunting story, his artwork is as beautiful as it is eerie. Unlike most portrayals of the Joker, Šejić’s Clown Prince of Crime is drawn to look rather handsome, more like a green-haired vampire in a fairytale than a deranged madman in a crime comic. Dr. Quinzel’s eventual romantic infatuation with the Joker makes considerably more sense when “Mr. Jay” talks like a melancholy poet and looks like he could be the lead singer in a new wave band. And though the story isn’t heavily action driven, the page layout of the fight scenes are cinematic in quality.
Despite being one of DC’s newer characters, Harley Quinn is a staple in the Batman universe—meaning she will be open to interpretation for a very long time. What Šejić does well with Harleen is he doesn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. He takes all elements of a somewhat outdated story and displays them through a new and modern lens. It is mature reading not only for its use of graphic language, but for how it treats its key characters.
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