Harleen #3 review

I haven’t enjoyed a Harley Quinn story as much as I have enjoyed Harleen since Dini and Timms’ Mad Love. I often find it hard to relate to recent iterations of the character, because a lot of writers seem to sacrifice deep character progression for wacky, over-the-top comedy. Of course, this is largely a matter of taste, but, to me, if I can’t relate to a character because the main focus is on what kind of jokes one can make with said character, I’m usually not as interesting in the story anymore. So the fact that Sejic takes a more grounded, serious approach to writing Harley Quinn is definitely refreshing. While I have more points of criticism this time around, this conclusion is still a great read that I highly recommend.

Sejic’s Harleen is a complex character. From an outside perspective, it’s obvious how she’s going crazy, and I feel like the way she justifies her actions and misbehavior—which includes sleeping with her patient—is written in a realistic way. We see her arguing with herself less and less, constructing an unhealthy and unreliable narrative around her situation. Every action that she takes and every justification that she thinks to herself shows just how far her obsession with Joker goes, and every time that it seems like things can’t get any worse, they do get worse.

For example, the moment where she sleeps with Joker isn’t the culmination of all the build up toward her giving in to insanity—it’s merely the thing that finally pushes her over the edge. In that sense, the sex scene is entirely functional to the narrative. The idea that Harley gives herself to this psychopathic murderer in this way shows how she’s not even seeing that dark side of him anymore. But I think the aftermath is actually more interesting than the deed itself: her thoughts go wild as she tells herself that, in this way, she’s showing Joker that he’s needed and loved, and she believes that that’s how Joker will open up to her, thereby making it possible for her to rehabilitate him. The way the scene itself is drawn is also very tasteful: Sejic finds a way to only show the bare minimum to make it clear they are indeed getting it on, and he really only needs a single panel to get this across. It’s a pivotal moment in the story that seals the character’s fate.

However, while it’s clear that Harleen is madly in love with Joker, Sejic keeps it a mystery whether or not Joker genuinely loves her back or if he’s manipulating her. Sejic has been providing evidence that points to both options, which complicates the relationship between Joker and Harleen and makes the story all the more intriguing. That said, it’s still entirely possible that Sejic’s Joker does really love Harleen but that his feelings for her don’t stop him from manipulating her anyway. And here Sejic strikes exactly the right balance with the character. On the one hand we see Joker’s tender side when he is with Harleen, but this is offset by the delight he takes in being hyper-violent and setting people up against each other, even making people kill each other. The fact that Harleen is still drawn to him so strongly even after witnessing him bashing someone’s skull in with a brick and getting blood all over himself speaks volumes about how he has her in the palm of his hand.

There’s an epilogue at the end of the comic, where we see Bruce and Alfred in the Batcave discussing some of the points I addressed above, and their discussion never reaches a solid conclusion, thus inviting us to put things together ourselves. What I like about this, is that there is no objective way to look at the events in this book: everything is seen through the eyes of different characters, and all these characters have different opinions. Ultimately, the comic that Sejic writes is a great example of how to work with not just one, but multiple unreliable narrators.

However, no work of art is ever perfect. For example, I think that Harleen is able to get away with a lot of things too easily. After switching off the security camera in the therapy room, Dr. Hugo Strange reprimands her, but she manages to convince him that it’s okay, and he lets her continue to have her sessions with Joker without the camera. I don’t think that Harleen is providing sufficient arguments and so this plot point just comes off as too convenient to me.

By that same token, Mr. Bronson, the security guy in the asylum, comes barging into the therapy room to check on Harleen, to make sure she’s okay while having her session with Joker. Harleen tells him to get lost, and afterward Mr. Bronson apologizes to her and tells her that it won’t happen again. This seems strange to me, especially because, in the middle of his apology, he talks about how Joker has killed some of his friends during his latest breakout.

While I am willing to overlook these two instances for the sake of the story, I think it really becomes problematic when Harleen is even able to tell Batman to leave Joker alone, while Batman is there on an “urgent matter.” If Batman requires information from Joker, then I don’t think it’s in his nature to let himself be instantly turned away by one of the therapists.

That said, I think that Harvey Dent’s arc is great. Sejic writes and draws his madness well. He has Harvey hallucinate phone conversations and people, and his growing anger and frustration are the big driving forces that lie at his core. He is consumed by rage and pain, and so Two-Face becomes truly intimidating in this story, in the way that he behaves and talks and also in the way that Sejic draws his disfigured, demonic appearance. It’s Two-Face who is the true villain of this story, and his characterization is nuanced, down to small details like him constantly saying “we,” and only correcting himself by saying “I,” when other characters ask him who he means by “we.”

Even Two-Face’s coin plays an important role in this story. He explains that the coin helps him make decisions because he is having difficulties distinguishing fantasy from reality, something that Sejic illustrates with his renderings of Two-Face’s hallucinations. This speaks to Two-Face’s madness, and so the coin is well integrated in his duality issues. It’s not just a gimmick. He is even associating a persona with the coin.

The artwork is, as is to be expected, incredible. Sejic’s character’s poses aren’t like the typical flashy superhero stances that you see in most comics. Sejic’s grasp on anatomy is unparalleled, and all the expressions and body language just make these characters seem so lifelike, even when it’s a more fantastical character design like Poison Ivy.

What works really well too is that the story makes an aesthetic shift from quieter, more grounded scenes in the therapy room and Harleen’s apartment to a much darker horror environment when she enters the asylum toward the end, when all the villains have been set free. Here we first see her walking hesitantly through the shadowy corridors until she discovers a bloody corpse, and on the next page we’re presented with a hungry Killer Croc that she has to run from. While this looks very grim, Sejic also draws Ivy’s vegetation in the middle of the asylum’s walls, and he blends that with the rest of the horror setting, and it never seems out of place. Sejic maintains aesthetic cohesion throughout, regardless of the type of imagery that he chooses to depict. Sejic even plays with panel layouts; for example, he draws panels shattering like glass in the background while, on the foreground, we see Harleen shooting someone in the head—this illustrates how Harleen’s world falls to pieces and how she crosses a point of no return. All in all, Sejic is a master storyteller, not only verbally, but definitely also visually, and I’d love to see him return to Gotham City with perhaps a sequel to this book, or a different story.

Recommended if…

  • You love complex stories told by various unreliable narrators that invite you to make up your own mind.
  • You’re a fan of Poison Ivy.
  • Two-Face is your favorite Batman villain.
  • Stjepan Sejic. Nuff said.

Overall: The characters are complex, the art is gorgeous and detailed, and the story is a twisted romance and a slasher horror all at once. If you’re looking for a great Harley Quinn story that’s much more grounded, serious and grim than most other stories with the character, then look no further. This is a great example of the kind of sophisticated storytelling that can be applied to Harley, and this is something that I feel the character deserves.

Score: 9/10

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