When I was a young child, my father sat me down and told me an old story. You may have heard of it; it’s a popular little fable nowadays, said to originate from Native America. The tale is short, succinct and tells a powerful moral. It is the tale of Two Wolves, and it goes a little something like this:
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is telling me that the Joker and Harley Quinn are amazing, compelling characters, worthy of interesting new stories and interpretations. The other has insomnia and is up at 3am in oversized pajamas, and is telling me to shut the fuck up about the Joker and Harley Quinn.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee smiled. “Obviously the first one, have you seen Joker’s box office? Birds of Prey looks pretty lit too, tbh.”
I don’t know how previous generations were so insightful, but their wisdom is to be respected.
Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity #1, written by Kami Garcia and illustrated by Mico Suayan and Mike Mayhew, is yet another of the new interpretations of these characters that we’re going to be sitting through for the foreseeable future, and I’m a little disappointed to say that I don’t think this one sticks the landing as much as Harleen or Joker. I didn’t want to dislike this book going into it – Hannibal is one of my favourite shows of all time, and to see a version of that show from the perspective of these iconic DC characters would be a wonderful idea. But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that when you currently have Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity, Batman: Last Knight on Earth, Harleen, Harley Quinn, Joker: Killer Smile, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, Batman: Curse of the White Knight, and Batman: Three Jokers all in the works, at least one of these 8 (!!!) ongoing Joker and/or Harley stories is going to be less than a smash hit.
Let me be clear: I do not think there is anything wrong with the premise of this book, and I bear no ill will to the creators whatsoever – even though I’m not a fan of this book, there is absolutely something in it that may appeal to some people. Hell, this isn’t to say the book can’t pick up in quality in the coming issues! But to begin with, this book doesn’t provide much in the way of a compelling crime drama.
Sure, it hits the usual beats: the police are in over their heads, so they bring in someone who specializes in criminal psychology to help investigate the crimes. The psychologist has her own past trauma and has to prove herself to the chauvinistic force, save for the one lead policeman who has faith and trust in her to get the job done. There’s a lecture about the nature of killers and what it means to be insane, and there’s a crime scene where a body is mutilated in some meticulous, artistic statement- look I’m not gonna keep going. You’re already comparing it with “that one cop show you’ve seen”, and no matter the answer, you’re probably spot-on. This book, or at least the opening chapter, is really rather generic: from the characters we watch carrying the issue to the murders, nothing stands out as particularly impressive. Neither Harley nor Gordon, the only two real characters in this issue, have any of the traits that make them so compelling, and those qualities aren’t supplemented with anything else. Here’s an example of the wit they try to give Harley in the story, framed rather dramatically; keep in mind that the scene ends with this zinger.
Not only that, but it almost feels as if Garcia is trying to explain to us what a procedural drama is. There are actually five whole pages dedicated just to talking about well-known serial killers and how they relate to insanity – talking about how meticulous they were in their crimes, and how people are drawn to them as a result. I suppose to someone who has only read the traditional superhero comic, this could be an interesting transition into the world of crime fiction… but to me, it feels like a story I’ve seen done to death, with the name “Joker” plastered on the crime of the week.
Obviously, it isn’t all bad – to imply the art is anything less than meticulously crafted would be silly. Mico Suayan and Mike Mayhew are clearly giving this book their all, and it’s easy to imagine this as a real procedural drama you could be watching on TV. The depictions of the characters look incredibly lifelike, and there’s mood emanating from every panel. Props to Suayan for this wonderful opening shot of Harley, and the sheer effort you can tell he put into every crease of her jacket.
Suayan handles the black-and-white, present-day scenes, while Mayhew covers the flashbacks – such as when Harley arrives home to find her “roommate” (sure, Jan) the subject of a crime scene, or a flashback that tells the story behind a previous murder victim. Mayhew’s coloring is a pleasant breather from the dreary mood of the present-day content, and it creates a nice contrast. In the second flashback, he portrays a harrowing scene (with some flimsy logic behind it…) with wonderful, murky effectiveness, which might not have worked as well in black and white.
My main issue with both of these artists is that realism can be a detriment – comics are limited in the realism front, in that you don’t have the ability to present actors conveying their emotions from frame to frame. A comic panel needs to be a still life of that emotion, and that’s just easier with a stylized perspective; here, many of the panels start to fall into the uncanny valley, where the faces look just shy of being realistic to be a little creepy. It’s not too prominent, but it might occasionally hit you as you’re reading the story.
…Also, what the hell is this panel?
All of these elements come together to create what is essentially a crime thriller that we’re seeing in a comic for lack of a better budget. If it were a unique or compelling crime thriller in any way, that would be one thing… but so far, I don’t see it. The issue culminates in a scene where Harley arrives at the next crime scene (which we don’t see), and she spouts a rather cliché monologue about the nature of evil.
…Oh, sorry, were you expecting more? Yeah, no, that’s the last line of the issue. No hook for the next issue, no question to ponder, no resolution, and no cliffhanger or stinger to reel us back in. The comic just… sort of ends.
- Joker and Harley are characters you just need to see in every format, every genre, every setting. Joker isn’t in this issue, by the way.
- Hannibal has been cancelled for too long and you just NEED that fix (and don’t want to look for another crime show).
- You’ve never seen or read a crime procedural, and you want to be introduced to the genre.
- You wanna stare at the pretty pictures. And they ARE pretty.
This is a very “my mom just bought a new crime novel and she’s reading it aloud at night” kind of story. It’s not particularly intriguing so far, beyond how any crime story is intriguing: there’s a murder and you want to catch the guy. Harley isn’t that interesting here, Gordon isn’t that interesting here, and I’m not really seeing many other characters stepping in to fill that void. Hopefully in future issues, we’ll see the series go beyond that, but judging by the scenes trying to convey emotion in this issue, I’m not sure if we’re going to see it pay off.
Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with an advance copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.