In most detective stories, there’s normally a point in the second act where the protagonist is reprimanded by a higher authority – on account of a crucial mess-up they might have made. Maybe the loose canon got too rough with a suspect, or the alcoholic private eye let his drinking get in the way of their work. Either way, they’re emotionally compromised. They’re too close to the case, too lost in the minutia of the story, to obsessed with the details they’ve latched onto that they can’t step away and see the bigger picture. The only way to solve that – to really crack the case that no one else can crack – is to take a step back, take a breath, and look at the whole story from a new angle.
Of course, it’s not really as noble a cause when you’re just an asshole reviewing comic books online – but hey, I figured the principle still applied. So, I took a day: I sat down with some Coke Zero and too many snacks for my own good, and I reread the whole damn thing.
I discovered a couple of things upon observing Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity a second time. For one: it is a very good idea to listen to music while reading comics. I listened to the Hereditary soundtrack while reading Three Jokers, and I found a detective playlist on Spotify while reading this comic. It’s a great tool to heighten the atmosphere in whatever you’re reading, and it helped with my enjoyment of this book to boot. It also made me reevaluate some of my previous reviews. I stand by a lot of what I said: for example, the book reads a lot better as a single piece, which is why I believe the sporadic release of this comic to be a detriment to my opinion of it. (Not that I blame any of the creators for taking their time with this product, but I do think this will ultimately read better as a complete edition.) When I read the second issue immediately after the first – and the third issue immediately after the second – I began to get a much better idea of where the story was headed. While the audience knows that the antagonist of the thriller is both the Joker (the criminal who killed Harley’s roommate), as well as the man conducting these new art-piece murders, Harley absolutely does not. Investigating two murders at the same time works as an effective (if confusing) plot device, but it doesn’t mean she’s made the connection between the two. That happens within the pages of this issue, and it’s a good moment!
…Of course, you would think a professional criminal profiler would realize that the man in clown makeup sitting beneath a wall of evidence on the Joker might be, well, the Joker. Why she pieces that together from two missing larynxes instead of the literal writing on the wall is a mystery to me – unfortunate evidence that even when reevaluating everything from the beginning, I still don’t love how the comic is shaping out.
That said, a major benefit of stepping back to look at the story in full was that I had a major turnaround towards the art. In previous issues, I made a few mistakes as to which pages belong to which artists: predominantly between the comic’s two main illustrators, Mico Suayan and Jason Badower. I apologize for these errors, and I think rereading the comic has helped me identify their work more, whether their illustrations are in black-and-white or full colour. While I still have issues with the uncanny valley you can find in the comic’s near-photorealism, digesting the story in full helps one get used to it: and reminds you about all the wonderful work that goes into each panel, whether or not you find the style agreeable.
Many comics do not have the production time – or the desire – to go into the intricate detail that you might see in a page of Criminal Sanity. Often, comics don’t need it, but it does nothing but help a crime book when you make the world feel like it really is real, developed, lived-in. In Badower’s pages here, we see a splash page that manages to tell several stories in one: outside of the fantastic work on the aquarium itself, there’s a novelty to looking between each and every one of the aquarium’s patrons. Each person feels like they have a story of their own, whether it’s the families at the bottom of the tank, the man on the phone near his friend at the top, or the lonesome woman to the right side of the room. Suayan does a great job in his own right: a great example of this is in one of the final pages, involving Harley investigating a crime scene. Here, we see Harley making her way across the aquarium floor, while Gordon and various other officials attempt to talk to her. It’s darkly comedic, heavy with all the atmosphere you’d want in a noir, and does a great job at showing the transition of time with a literal transition in space – something only a comic can do.
Then again, it should be clear by now that the art isn’t where I get hung up on with this book. I’ve seen people call me harsh on Criminal Sanity, and I think I’ve figured out why that might be true: it’s because I really want to like it.
Honestly, all the pieces are there! It’s got two characters who I’ve loved while growing up, a compelling mystery to hook me as the characters journey deeper and deeper into the belly of the beast, and an atmosphere so rich it could buy itself a whole floor on Trump Tower. What about this story isn’t clicking for me? It’s a question I spent a lot of time thinking on as I analysed the book from page to page. As the hours of procrastinating on this review grew longer and longer, I began to consider that each piece of the puzzle might be a little crooked – just barely keeping them from fitting snugly together.
Let’s go through the examples. First off, the characters. You’d be a fool to think author Kami Garcia isn’t putting any effort into developing the Joker and Dr. Harley Quinn. From Harley’s well-constructed explanation on the nature of psychopaths in issue 1, to the vigorous workout routine she keeps from chapter to chapter in order to work out her anger issues; there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Garcia spent a lot of time in making her own spin on the woman. The same goes for Joker – while he’s not the typical clown prince of crime we know very well by now, he’s certainly someone with a coherent narrative arc, from his troubled past with his father to his developing as an artist through murder. These are characters with layers, even if they’re nothing someone experienced in crime dramas hasn’t seen before: but are they really Joker and Harley?
I touched on this in a previous review, but I think it’s important to circle back to it. These characters, however you slice it, originate from a fantastical setting: criminals born from comedy, whether in aesthetic or intent. That doesn’t mean they’re always funny: but even in a story where the characters are at their darkest and most serious, those moments act as a subversion to the concept of a clown, a harlequin – or at least, something within the realm of the superhero. When you eliminate the fantastical element, and you eliminate everything that makes them unique… what do you have? Harley retains nothing from her origins aside from the psychological training, replacing her peppy sense of humor with a dry, sardonic grit. Joker? The image of a clown is literally surface level, originating from him being splattered with white paint. The names “Joker” and “Harley Quinn” are entirely superfluous, and despite Batman briefly appearing in the first issue, there’s no real reason for him to be there. I can’t see how this story is related to any of these DC characters at all, aside from their names – and I have to wonder if I’d like the book more if they didn’t even bother with the connection.
Of course, none of this would be a huge issue if I thought the story was good besides – but every time I try to view this as the realistic world the creators want it to be, I’m always hit with a snag. In many ways, the story reminds me of Heavy Rain – there’s a lot of great atmosphere in that game too, and the tone and presentation of the story created a package that left critics and audiences very satisfied. But much like that story, poking at the plot and its characters begins to leave holes that are difficult to ignore. Harley unable to tie the mysterious “Joker” with the murderer in clown makeup standing in front of her, Harley refusing to tell the police Joker broke into her home because they’d laugh at her – yes, that’s literally the reason – the fact that no one seems to have cameras that captured the Joker on tape, whether it’s in Harley’s apartment or the aquarium where the latest body was discovered, the fact that Joker has cameras seemingly everywhere in the aquarium, hell, the fact that a livestream on Harley’s computer has been titled as a .mov file!
Some of these seem like nitpicks – and sure, you’re not wrong – but they paint the picture of a story that doesn’t hit the realistic angle it’s trying to. I don’t enjoy a crime story where I end up looking too deep into the story instead of the crime. If other elements of the story were more fantastical, I might have less of an issue: but when the art is constantly striving to look like a live-action television show, when you release an entire comic dedicated to the meticulous profiling of the Joker, and when the characters retain nothing significant from their less realistic selves, it creates the dynamic I spoke of: two pieces of a puzzle, misshapen enough that they just don’t click when combined. That’s how I feel about this book, and it’s a damn shame – because despite it all, I’m invested, and want nothing more than for everything to connect.
- You’re not going to read into the story as much as I have.
- Realistic art is a big pull for you, and you find it easier to lose yourself in a world that’s rather expertly realized in full detail.
- You don’t mind the distinct interpretation of these classic characters.
I really do feel like I’d have a better time suggesting this as a trade – ultimately, it’s not like the story is harmful in any way, and for those who can step back and enjoy what the issue is actually offering, you’ll likely have quite a good time. But for me, it might be too late. Not only do the spotty release dates of this comic hinder its potential as a complete and satisfying story – one where the plot details are less egregious – but by the very nature of reviewing this book, my attempts to overanalyse might have soured me on it from the start. Now, I’m in too deep – and despite the effort that the creators have put into this detailed puzzle, I can’t help but want the pieces to be taking a different shape.
Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with a copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.
Author’s Twitter: @ObnoxiousFinch