Writer/Artist – Stjepan Sejic; Letters – Gabriela Downie; Editor – Andy Khouri; Assistant Editor – Maggie Howell
Stjepan Sejic’s Harleen series for DC’s Black Label comes to an end this week, and what a run it was. For those that haven’t read issues one and two, shame on you. Now that that’s out of the way, Harleen is primarily a new, in depth take of the backstory of how an idealistic, young psychiatrist, Harleen Quinzel, transformations into one of Gotham City’s greatest villains, Harley Quinn. One must say ‘primarily,’ because this story also gives a new take on Two-Face’s origins and motivations that are quite good as well, though they take a little too much focus from the real star. In the first two issues, we see Harleen meet the Joker, become his psychiatrist, and slowly fall in love with him. In this final issue, we see how that relationship spirals, crashes, and burns, leaving the once hopeful doctor a super criminal trapped in an abusive relationship.
Sejic really does a fantastic job with this book. The way that Joker seduces Harley, from his looks to his charming dialogue and expressions, make her infatuation very believable and relatable. The book reads a lot like a love story at times in fact. It truly is nothing short of amazing how Sejic sets everything up like a romantic comedy or a Hallmark movie, but with this ever-present darkness, apprehension, and fear about it all, because the reader knows how horribly it will end. While Batman is only in the whole series for a few pages, he is there to warn her, but by time he learns the whole truth, it’s too late; she’s too good hearted and Joker is too manipulative.
Quinzel’s internal monologue also deserves praise, as the reader really does get invested and empathize as she falls for Joker’s trap and falls deeper in love with a psychotic murder that only uses her to further his own plans. She knows her feelings wrong, she knows acting on them is inexcusable, but she justifies it as treatment, saying this is why SHE can fix him where all other have failed, and she can’t help herself. She keeps allowing herself to be vulnerable with the Joker, and that allows him to manipulate her like nobody else before.
While he is not the focus of the story, it too is worth mentioning that the Joker is well fleshed out as well. Sejic really makes him likable and relatable, even if it’s all an act. This helps the reader to understand Harley’s position even better. The audience, with years of comics/movies/games, knows as well as Harley, a citizen of Gotham where all of his crimes have taken place, what kind of monster he is, but the writing really makes him seem vulnerable and emotional. The difference is, while the audience is far enough removed from the emotions and stimulations, Harleen is not, making her, in the eyes of the reader, an unfortunate but sympathetic victim of the Joker’s deceit.
As previously mentioned, Harleen also explores Two Face’s origin. This new take on how he gets his crew, the nature of his disease, and why he is so reliant on the coin are all great pieces of character development that deserve to become a well-established part of the canon, especially his motivations for committing crime. In this story, the reason that Two Face commits his crimes is to convince the government/citizens of Gotham that rehabilitation is not possible for super criminals, and that only through instituting the death penalty will the populace of Gotham be safe. It is a great twist that really challenges the reader to think through and confront a dark yet compelling point.
While one could lavish the story with pages of praise, the art is also equally deserving. The characters are all extremely realistic, a great boon for this story which gains so much of its powerful impact by making the reader feel that this all could happen, that it IS happening to these characters that they could know. They all have emotional and expressive faces, drawn with deep, emotional and colorful eyes, even getting details on the eye lids like depth and colors. Other examples include scenes in which the reader can see a character’s knuckles, gums, or individual teeth.
Sejic also puts great details into some of the minutia that helps the world feel more lived in, like how blankets or clothes wrinkle when a person is moving in/on them, or the way shadows fall. There’s also some very good blood splatter toward the end, though saying more would be a spoiler.
While not what one typically looks at as art, it is also worth mentioning the use of diamonds to fill space and denote Harley’s dialogue boxes; not exactly groundbreaking, but used very well and with good color and nuance.
One should also mention Joker’s design, as he is the main antagonist if one exists. It is amazing how real and normal he looks. Yes, he is particularly handsome, but not unrealistic so. He is normal handsome, he looks like an actual person, even more so than some of the movies where actual people portrayed him. That is to say, in the movies, while the actors were real, you wouldn’t expect to see somebody like that in real life; here, besides the pale skin and green hair, a fleshed out version of this Joker wouldn’t look out of place. He is a real person, no excessive glam to make him pop, just a sick and evil man.
Finally, Two Face’s design is classic. Sejic goes with the purple face and white hair that defines the look for many. He looks good, and his scene toward the end where lightning flashes to illuminate his face, while a touch dramatic for this series, really was awesome.
Harleen really is a series for the ages, a magnum opus for Sejic, and a story that will be required-reading for future generations of comic book fans. I bought the issues and I still can’t wait for the trade.