Review: Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

January 12, 2022

 ·  3 comments

Among what seems rather a glut of Harley Quinn books in DC’s Black Label line, it occurred to me to wonder how two near-concurrent Harley titles — Kami Garcia’s Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity and Stjepan Sejic’s Harleen might stack up against one another. At the outset, I’d have bet Criminal Sanity was the better one — forensic psychologist Dr. Harley Quinn hunting serial killer the Joker, and without the distraction of Sejic’s often cheesecake artwork.

I haven’t read Harleen yet, but I was disappointed to find Criminal Sanity not as strong as I’d hoped. The apparent primary mission — to tell a Harley Quinn story by way of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal — is definitely accomplished, and I wouldn’t mind a sequel in which Garcia returns to her newfound detective. At the same time, while I admire Garcia for not ending this story where one might suspect it would end, the anticlimax leaves a lot to be desired. Further, if I’m not mistaken, this is Garcia’s first mainstream comics work outside her YA DC Ink books, and it shows in some awkwardness as the story goes.

[Review contains spoilers]

Definitely Criminal Sanity is a horror book, and it shows in the elaborate Hannibal-esque death sculptures that the Joker leaves for Harley and the Gotham City PD to find. Those are great, as are the parallel art threads by Mico Suayan and Jason Badower and Mike Mayhew. The present scenes, largely by Suayan and Badower, are rendered in the kind of stark black and white usually reserved for flashbacks, whereas the flashbacks are in lush color, often with Mayhew’s trademark photorealism. All else aside, this is a great looking book.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

Garcia conceives of a Harley Quinn who seems deliberately a considerable departure from the Harley we’re used to. There is no hint of slapstick here, none of the zaniness we’ve come to expect, and Garcia is even amazingly restrained with the traditional Harley Quinn iconography — one quick shot of the costume, a couple red stripes on her jacket (often presented uncolored), and that’s it.

Too, where one rather expects in these mature Elseworlds titles that some status quo will be reached by the end, Garcia never transforms Dr. Quinn into Harley, also a great amount of restraint that turns this “Harley” book into something else. I also adore the fatherly relationship Harley has here with Jim Gordon, two characters whom we’d never see in such an authentic partnership under normal circumstances.

But among Criminal Sanity’s difficulties is that it presents itself as a whodunit — complete with an impressive array of invented crime scene documents, conspiracy boards, and so on — but only from the perspective of the investigators. The audience knows the Joker’s identity and his likely motivations almost from the beginning, and the investigators also seem to but then doubt themselves in a way that makes them seem inept later on. What’s meant to be a climactic scene where Harley realizes the Joker’s involvement falls flat because this seems so obvious to the audience.

It appears in this particular story that people don’t know the red-lipped, green-haired man challenging the police is the selfsame Joker that everyone’s worried about, something that even without “our” familiarity with the Joker again makes the investigators seem inept. It leads to such unintentionally hilarious scenes as when a detective stares right at the multi-hued Joker and says “He’s our guy. I can feel it” (you think?). That the Joker can walk through a crowded concert without anyone looking twice isn’t just dissonant with the expectations of the audience, it’s a nigh unbelievable assertion on Garcia’s part.

Criminal Sanity features a lot of time jumps — from present to recent past to decades earlier — though presented inelegantly. More than once these are almost on top of each other — a blanket “Earlier” followed by a “7 years earlier” followed by a “The next day” or a long-ago flashback suddenly interrupted by an “Earlier.” Such micromanagement of the audience’s understanding suggests some lack of confidence in the story by writer or editor. Not to mention, despite the beautiful art, there’s oftentimes not consistent reason to why a scene is in black and white or color or which artists draw what — Harley, in the present, is not in color, but the Joker might be (or not) and his crimes might be (or not) — such that the color and artist is sometimes a misleading indicator of when a scene occurs.

(See also a particularly awkward sequence where Harley is watching a TV, then the scene skips to the Joker killing two victims, then the scene switches back to Harley, revealing she’d just watched the murder on TV. There’s no entryway to let the audience know we’re essentially still in the Harley scene and that this isn’t a cut-scene, such that the audience has to reorient themselves after the fact.)

Again, it’s impressive that Garcia doesn’t go the easy route and that this is not a Harley Quinn origin story, despite what we might expect. That Dr. Quinn should “go dark” is table stakes, as is her violent confrontation where she almost kills the Joker in the end. But the art in the final fight is a little confusing — does Harley stab the Joker? Does he stab himself accidentally? — and then pulled off the Joker, Harley jumps on her motorcycle and that’s the end. There’s no epilogue or denouement, such that things feel unfinished. That’s a good position, I guess, for Garcia to write a sequel, but the unsatisfied feeling lessened my estimation of the book overall.

There’s a nice set of extras at the back, including detailed interviews with all of the artists. I might have liked to hear something from Garcia herself, perhaps related to what seems like an admirable amount of research that went into this book. There’s been an actual forensic psychologist consulting with Garcia on the book, and the included Secret Files special contains an impressive amount of “found documents,” all of which I’d like to have heard more about. Badower mentions that about 90 pages of the book (about a third!) was remastered by the artists for this collected edition, different from the original issues — that’s amazing, but unfortunatey there’s no before-and-after included here to see how it changed.

2.5

Rating

With Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity, that’s one DC Black Label Harley book down and one to go. A book where Harley does not (yet) fall under the Joker’s spell and they remain adversarial is a nice surprise; again, I think Criminal Sanity struggles at times, but it gets points for originality. Dr. Quinn took off on the road, but I can certainly imagine a sequel where she plays Clarice to the Joker’s Lecter …

[Includes original and variant covers, character sketches, interviews]

Comments ( 3 )

  1. the artwork was so nice I would bump this up to a 3. But agree on the "time-jumps" , very confusing. 3 Read throughs , I finally "think" I put it all together. Also very Law And Order SVU influenced. Also a very "modern Crime" novel influence.

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  2. I wonder, do you live in a big city?

    Your comments about the detective saying "He's our guy. I can feel it" while staring at Joker, or Joker walking through a crowded concert, bring to mine criticisms I kept hearing of the beginning of "The Dark Knight," with the Joker starting off standing on a public street corner, sans clown mask, presumably in full makeup, with no one reacting to him. People kept insisting it was unrealistic, a "plot hole," etc.

    To which I - living in the very city the movie was shot - can't help but think "Really? Have you never lived in a big city before?"

    When a weirdo walks around in public, wearing a flamboyant outfit - be it Ledger's makeup or the bright green hair and red lips of this book's Joker - we don't notice it. Because that kind of thing happens all the time in places like this. We've been forced to become numb to it, to ignore it, to even train ourselves to automatically and subtly force ourselves to look in the other direction, for fear of stirring up trouble with a slightly unhinged, unknown "crazie" on the street.

    Agreed 100% that it's kind of hard, being an audience member who "knows" who and what the Joker is, to put ourselves in the shoes of that cop or those concert-goers. But put that aside, and what do you have? A cop who's worked in the city long enough to know that if he pounces on the first "freak" he comes across in a case as the culprit, he's going to have a lot of false positives. And concert-goers who are all too used to the "goth weirdos" and the punkers to think it's out of place - or to risk pissing the wrong guy off for staring.

    Anyway, I'm also fully onboard with hour anti-climactic that ending was. It definitely needed a few pages for a denouement.

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    Replies
    1. As you indicated, for me a lot of the difficulty is the cognitive dissonance between being an audience member who knows who the Joker is and Garcia's stipulation that the Joker is visually unknown in this story even if the public knows a "Joker" is running around —— just my opinion, but I think that's on Garcia to have established the different rules of this story better. Though also I still think there's silliness in everyone looking for the "Joker" but having doubts when someone with clown makeup on is presented in front of them as a suspect.

      Furthermore, I'd sooner agree with the "standard weirdo" theory if Garcia had established that as a custom of this universe — if lots of people were walking around in makeup, a la Dark Knight Returns — but we don't get any such indication among the visuals. I don't disagree with you — I just think if the author wanted that, it should be more apparent on the page.

      Thanks for the thoughts!

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