Review: Harleen hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

January 16, 2022

To the question of which is the better DC Black Label book, Kami Garcia’s Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity or Stjepan Šejić’s Harleen, the answer (contrary to my initial expectation) is Harleen. It is not, of course, a competition necessarily and no reason one can’t enjoy both, but given DC’s two different (and perhaps excessive) mature readers Harley Quinn books published at the same time, I was curious which was the stronger of the two.

They are, to be sure, two different books. Where Garcia’s imagines a rather different forensic psychologist Harley Quinn on the trail of mysterious serial killer the Joker, Šejić’s is a traditional Harley Quinn origin story with generous continuity liberties. That Šejić’s art is amazing here almost doesn’t bear mentioning, given what we already know Šejić is capable of. That his story itself is so nuanced and detailed, however, and the other Batman lore that Šejić plays well with, are great and happy surprises. Šejić does more than the other book does in about 100 fewer pages.

We are not supposed to love the Joker as Harley Quinn loves the Joker here, though we are perhaps meant to understand what it is that caused Harley to fall in love with him. That’s a heavy lift, and I’m not sure anyone could be successful with it, Šejić aside. To his credit, Šejić gets some moments in, Arkham Asylum meet cutes that I didn’t think would be possible. Some of it is ruined for me simply because I couldn’t help still hearing dream boy Joker talking in Mark Hamill’s voice.

In all, a much better contribution to the volumous library of Harley Quinn lore than I expected it to be.

[Review contains spoilers]

What thrilled me most while reading Šejić’s Harleen is that, as it turns out, it’s something of a “Batman: Year One”-esque story. No, not knit caps and bridge fights, but inasmuch as this is an origin of Harley Quinn, it’s also an origin of Two-Face Harvey Dent, and how — in Šejić’s story — the two influenced one another.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

I noted in my review of James Tynion’s Batman Vol. 1: Their Dark Designs how Harley increasingly gets “original” Batman villain status these days (a case that involved Legion of Doom stalwarts Joker, Penguin, Riddler … plus Harley Quinn), and Harleen imagines her way back at the beginning, before Harvey Dent turned bad. That’s a very cool bit of historical fiction (built on a fictional history), and Šejić draws a particularly gruesome Two-Face, too. I particularly liked what I dubbed Šejić’s “Harvey-vision,” the psychedelic double-images representing what nightmares Dent sees through his injured left eye.

Two-Face becomes, somewhat accidentally, the leader of a group called the Executioners, Gotham police tired of Arkham’s revolving door that take justice into their own hands. Toward the middle of Harleen, this becomes not just a Harley Quinn origin story, but a paranoid tale of the Gotham police when one couldn’t be sure which side each officer was on (shades, perhaps, of TV’s Watchmen). That’s much more than I expected from Šejić, a story where the thematic background window dressing is just as interesting as what’s happening with the protagonist.

Harley Quinn origin stories are difficult things and I’ve yet to see one where I can overlook the cognitive dissonance. Since, with Criminal Sanity, we’ve been talking Hannibal, let’s say that despite Dr. Lecter’s penchant for eating people, Bryan Fuller and crew did a convincing enough job showing us there was something Will Graham might see in the good doctor and vice versa. And not that, in Harley’s case, it isn’t true that people fall in love with partners who are clearly bad for them. But I’ve yet to see a Harley story where it wasn’t demonstrably clear that the Joker was evil and yet Harley goes with him anyway, and so for me the romance (when that’s what the story is trying to achieve) never quite lands.1

To that end, I could never quite feel Harley’s “he just wants to see me smile/his empathy was killed long ago” pining for the Joker here, because it’s all quite clearly a manipulation (which Šejić is clear about, and even reinforces in the end). At the same time, I thought Šejić found clever, effective opportunities for love and romance among the padded walls — an ingenious straitjacket striptease, for one, and then later, the hilarious rush to get strapped up again before Harley and the Joker get caught. Too, a key moment in the book is when Harley does first smile at the Joker, and Šejić gets it exactly right, losing some of the (otherwise attractive) flat sketchiness of the art toward a more robust three-dimensional look (not unlike Mike Mayhew on Criminal Sanity).

There’s a great debate in Harleen, the question of whether prolonged exposure to bad circumstances can boil the empathy out of someone (and whether Gotham City is such a cauldron), whether that empathy can be regained, and whether evil is bubbling under the surface of all of us just waiting to get out. Given those questions, Harley Quinn and Two-Face are good characters to focus on, seemingly normal people exposed to corrupting influences not entirely of their making (see also Dave Wielgosz comparing Harley to Man-Bat Kirk Langstrom in the recent Man-Bat miniseries).

3.0

Rating

A good amount of this is muddled, however, by the presence of the Joker, in whom Harley tries to see empathy but where the reader knows there is none. If there is redemption, we’re left to believe, it is not for everyone (though maybe for Harley, in a sequel). Sean Murphy’s Batman: White Knight is another largely Harley-focused DC Black Label title that does a little better job of mitigating the Joker such to see him as redemptive, though Stjepan Šejić’s Harleen is not White Knight, nor do I think it’s supposed to be. Lushly drawn and unexpectedly nuanced, Harleen is worth a look.

[Includes original and variant covers, evolution of the series, scripts to thumbnails]


  1. In part I think this has to do with comics trying to take what was essentially an animated gag — the Joker with a stereotypical gangster‘s moll — and bring sense to it. Plenty of good stories and an entire character franchise have come from this, but it remains that the moment one starts thinking about the Joker and Harley Quinn as people with pasts, presents, and futures, the initial charm falls away — this can’t be anything other than a woman being manipulated and abused by her partner.  ↩

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