Harley Quinn is perhaps the most famous female comic book character not named Diana Prince. From her beginnings in Batman: The Animated Series, to being touted as the fourth pillar of DC Comics, everyone’s favorite psycho psychiatrist has had an interesting existence. But one thing has always been missing (at least in my mind): a concrete explanation of how one goes from Dr. Harleen Quinzel to Harley Quinn. And I think I may have found one.
Harleen does something that no other piece of media featuring Harley does: it drops us right at the start of her “road to hell” and has us walk it with her. We watch the plucky, wide-eyed idealistic psychiatrist, we see her introduction to the eventual object of her desires and destruction, we see the slow, methodical corruption of her soul (contrasting the popular mythos that she was always crazy), and we see her fall, like Icarus in flight. But better than all this, we see it all through her perspective. She’s giving running commentary on the events as they happen, so we can hear her thought process as everything goes down (I’m doing my best to not have spoilers). Harleen has us walk a marathon in Dr. Quinzel’s shoes, and almost dares us to answer the unasked question: would you have done things different?
Something else that this book does well, characterization. When you’re telling a story with established characters with decades of lore, it becomes easy to fall into the trap of rote characterization. After all, the audience has probably read every variation on the theme under the sun, so why bother? Well, Stjepan doesn’t do that. And you see this most clearly with Mr. Jay. The Joker is perhaps the most famous supervillain of all time, and everything that makes him The Joker has to be present. But we get another side of the white-faced, green-haired clown. The schemer. Joker has always been able to craft plans, but his main attribute has always been his explosive unpredictability. He’s very rarely, if ever, portrayed as a cunning gamemaster, capable of moving people like chess pieces on a board only he sees. But that’s the Joker we get and the story is all the better for it. From the moment he sees Dr. Quinzel in Arkham he makes moves for his ultimate endgame, and (with a healthy dose of chaos courtesy of Harvey Dent), it worked. He had her hooked and that was that. A masterful plan worthy of the best tacticians in fiction.
One final thing this book does is answer a question that I’ve had since I started reading DC comics. Batman tends to be very particular about the people he works with. But the one person that he has a “soft spot” for (if the Bat could be said to have a soft spot) is Harley. She and Ivy regularly help the Family (even if reluctantly), and in some alternate universes, she’s even a sidekick (read Injustice 2). The book proffers one answer, that Bruce feels so responsible for her current state because his funding of her research led her to Mr. Jay, that he’s decided to do his part to drag her back into the light, or at least his very tinted version of it. The book provides layers to an already layered relationship between Bruce and Harley, and it does this with them interacting all of two times in the entire thing.
Harleen is a wonderful book with excellent art and top-tier writing. Stjepan shows an understanding of the character of Harleen Quinzel that is very rarely seen in main continuity books.