It’s been just over a year since the unveiling of DC Comics’ Black Label imprint and the line thus far has been underwhelming, to put it mildly. How else can you describe it when the first issue of your highly-vaunted Mature Readers imprint was recalled because an uncensored image of Bruce Wayne’s Bat-Pole somehow made it through quality control and your company apologized for actually having adult content in a book aimed at adult readers?
The only Black Label production of any note so far has been Batman: Curse of the White Knight – a sequel to the most original Batman mini-series in years. Beyond that, we have a number of long-delayed projects, including Frank Miller’s long-dreaded attempt to modernize Superman’s origin story. For this we lost Vertigo Comics, just in time for Hellblazer to make a comeback?! But I digress.
Thankfully, Harleen is a step in the right direction and an example of everything the Black Label imprint should have been from Day One. This is a book for mature readers, but not in the sense that it is full of profanity and naked body parts. There are a few curse words here and there but there’s no real sexual content, apart from the fact that everything Stjepan Šejić draws is inherently sensual in every sense of the word.
Stjepan Šejić does not mearly draw comics – he breathes whole planes of existence into reality. There is a quality to his work I find hard to describe in words but those who enjoyed his recent run on Aquaman with Dan Abnett will know what I mean when I say Atlantis never looked quite so magical and otherworldly as when Stjepan Šejić was drawing it.
That same quality can be found in Harleen, though the mythic imagery is limited to a reoccurring dream which Dr. Harleen Quinzel describes in the book’s opening moments. Snatches of the dream show up later in the book, as Harleen’s circumstances change and she falls deeper and deeper under The Joker’s spell.
Oh yes. Spoiler alert! That much does not change in this story, which tells the same basic tale as the classic Mad Love. The difference here is that rather than seeing the story of Harley Quinn through the eyes of Batman, Harleen is telling her own story of how she made a series of bad choices in the name of love and understanding.
This makes more of a difference than one might think. Harleen is far from an angel, but by telling the story in her own words she is allowed to own the actions which others condemn her for, such as sleeping with one of her professors in college. Yet it is never clear just how unreliable a narrator Harleen is and how much we can trust her own assessment of events as they happened.
One aspect of the story I did love, however, involves Harleen’s theory of a mental health immune system and how this leads her to study the supervillains of Arkham Asylum, including the man who ultimately asks her to just call him Jay. As a former psychology student, I love it when this kind of detail gets worked into a story. I also enjoy how Stjepan Šejić works a number of classic Batman trivia nods into the story (the identity of Harleen’s one friend, for instance) and how his take on the Joker is honestly funny, in a dark, twisted way.
Harleen #1 is more than just a new twist on the origins of The Mistress of Mirth and Queen of Clowns. It’s a fascinating character analysis that treats one of DC Comics’ best characters with far more respect than she’s received in recent memory, remembering that behind the manic grin and goo-goo eyes Harleen Quinzel is still a genius who only plays at being a bubbly bimbo. This is Harley Quinn as she should be written.
Harleen #1 releases on September 25th, 2019!
Written by The Critic The Internet Deserves, but not the one it needs right now…. Matt Morrison. He’s a smart-ass guardian. A sarcastic protector. A Snark Knight.