Harleen #1 review

I should start this review by saying that I’m a fan of Stjepan Sejic’s work. I have thoroughly enjoyed his run on Aquaman (issues #25-30). I have also read some of his explicit Sunstone stories, and I think his writing on that title is quite good because he has a way of examining his characters’ psyches in an interesting (sometimes humorous and sometimes tragic) way. Harleen is written and illustrated (which includes inking and colors) all by Sejic himself, and up until the moment of actually reading this book, I have wondered if he could maintain the same cohesion and integrity that Sunstone is known for. So, let’s find out by having a look.

Let’s just get right to it: from the first panel to the last, the artwork is fantastic. It’s very detailed, from the twisted cityscape in Harleen’s nightmares to the actual Gotham City (both at night and during the day), and every character looks unique—even the extras in the background. Sejic clearly has put a lot of effort into rendering the facial expressions of his characters: simply looking at their faces tells you how they feel, and Sejic creates an interesting dynamic between his characters with the looks that they give each other. In particular Joker and Harleen’s exchanges are great: there’s a constant tension between them, from their first meeting in the streets of Gotham to their second meeting in Arkham Asylum. We can tell that Joker has set his sights on Harleen as his eyes possess a hungry glimmer, and of course he is smiling playfully. As for Harleen, her wide-eyed gaze could be interpreted as frightened or intrigued. If we were to cut the dialogue from this book, and we would be left with just these expressions and the body language of the characters, we would still be able to follow the story—that’s how good Sejic is.

But that isn’t all. His page layouts are put together really well. While I think that some pages have too many panels, which makes for a crowded aesthetic, Sejic does manage to cover a lot of ground and he uses his panels economically. His page layouts also have cinematic qualities to them: the way that each panel leads into the next creates a nice sequential flow, especially when the smaller panels build to the larger ones, and the larger ones lead into jaw-dropping splash pages. Even during the quieter passages of the book, where characters are just talking, the panel shapes and the rhythm of the sequence offer plenty of aesthetic variety to keep us interested and entertained.

On top of this, Sejic makes clever use of visual foreshadowing. He literally does so when Harleen stands before the gates of Arkham, and though she hasn’t transformed into Harley Quinn yet, we can already see that her shadow has taken the shape of her villainous counterpart. Additionally, there are eerie dreamsequences throughout the book, which show Harleen’s descent into madness even before she has actually talked to Joker in Arkham. She dreams of how Joker gets inside her head, clawing at her, dragging her into the dark. There’s an interesting parallel to this on the issue’s final pages, where it’s Harleen who is standing in the shadows while Joker is standing in the lamplight in his cell, and he beckons for her to join him in the light. Throughout the book, there are many more visual parallels hidden in the narrative, which adds thematic depth. In sum, Sejic has crafted an intricate visual story that’s just out of this world.

The writing is up there as well. It stands out to me how different Harleen is compared to the Harley Quinn we see in other comics or in the movies. Yes, this is set before she assumes the identity of Harley Quinn, but still—this version of the character is rational and intelligent and well-spoken. She has made many mistakes in her life, such as sleeping with her professor in college, and she is often scared of the path ahead, but she doesn’t let these things stop her when she lands a job at Arkham Asylum as a therapist. Seeing how driven she is despite being afraid makes it easy to root for her.

There is, however, something that I find slightly confusing about the way this is written. Harleen is, naturally, narrating her own story, but her narration is written in the past tense, meaning that she is looking back on these events. The voice in which she narrates the events is calm and focused, and doesn’t sound anything like the erratic Harley Quinn that she will likely become over the course of this story. Granted, an erratic narrator can be hard to follow, but now I’m wondering if Sejic’s version of the character will retain some sanity or if she might, in the end, revert to her sane self? In any case, the choice to use this particular voice for the narration is interesting, and I guess I can’t really judge it until I’ve seen what the upcoming issues have to offer.

Joker is an intriguing character in this book as well, even though I’ve already read stories in which similar things happened to the character. In this story, Joker is extremely manipulative and has different ways of talking to people. He is also unpredictable: the one moment he might be acting friendly to his henchman, and the next he shoots that same henchman, only to instantly replace him with someone else. During the fight scene with Batman, he also appears to take a certain delight in getting his face bashed in by the Bat, and especially the fact that he doesn’t even notice Harleen while fighting Batman says a lot about how he views his relationship with the Caped Crusader. My favorite thing about Joker—and I’m really happy that Sejic included this in the story—is that he often lies about his origins. He tells the therapists at Arkham many different versions; this harkens back to Alan Moore’s idea that Joker prefers his past to be multiple choice. As such, Joker is appropriately mysterious, which makes Harleen—who is fascinated with him because he is so mysterious—even more relatable.

Recommended if…

  • You are a huge fan of Stjepan Sejic’s work!
  • You want to read a more serious and somewhat brooding take on Harley Quinn!
  • You appreciate detailed and intricate artwork—there is not a single book on stands that looks alike!
  • Joker is your favorite Bat villain!

Overall: This is such an intriguing book! The art is wonderful and the writing is crisp. It’s refreshing to read this version of Harley Quinn as well: she is much more down-to-earth and serious, and the overall tone of the story makes this feel more like a psychological horror story than anything. Moreover, there are many interesting parallels to discover in the art and there is some eerie foreshadowing going on in the right places. If you’re on the fence because you aren’t into Harley Quinn comics, do give this one a chance—you won’t regret it. Enthusiastically recommended!

Score: 9.5/10

Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with an advance copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.