Harley Quinn has become a controversial character in recent years, as some fear the character glamorizes abusive relationships. While different writers have their opinions on whether or not The Joker is capable of feeling love in any capacity, it cannot be denied that he manipulated Dr. Harleen Quinzel to his own ends, regardless of whether or not he did come to care for the woman who gave up everything in her efforts to try and redeem him. Still, the question remains; how did this young doctor, once so full of promise, come to subvert everything she was in the name of what she thought was love?

Harleen is an exploration of that question and it’s a damn good one. Rather than dismiss Harley’s problems as simple Stockholm Syndrome, Stjepan Šejic presents Harleen as a fully-developed and complex character. While Harley’s original background in the graphic novel Mad Love suggested that Harleen Quinzel slept her way through medical school and possessed a mercenary mindset that sought to use psychiatry as a road to fame and fortune, Šejic establishes Harleen as an idealistic young doctor who is good at her job but held back by her own lack of confidence. Yes, she did sleep with one of her professors in medical school, but it was out of an honest attraction to older, intelligent men and a complete naivety as to the problems their relationship would cause, leading her colleagues to gossip about how she’s known as Harley because “every old dude in a mid-life crisis has ridden her.”

As Harleen opens, Harley is trying to find financial backing for her research. Harleen’s theory is that people have a mental auto-immune system which protects them from trauma in the same way that the physical auto-immune system protects the body from infection. Harley’s idea is that psychosis develops when this mental auto-immune system is overtaxed and the ability to feel empathy for others is overridden by the survival instinct. It’s a compelling idea, at least in the mind of Lucius Fox, who arranges a Wayne Foundation grant to get Harleen special access to the Gotham City Police Department and Arkham Asylum. This brings her into the crosshairs of both District Attorney Harvey Dent (who isn’t crazy about doctors suggesting that there’s no such thing as absolute evil) and The Joker, who shares with Harley his own idea that all people are monsters and that most normal people would live like him if they weren’t so scared.

For the most part, Šejic’s script avoids psychobabble, though the medical angle of the story is a compelling one. The main focus of Harleen is upon the characters and Šejic does a phenomenal job of presenting these characters in a new light while remaining true to their classic interpretations. Harleen Quinzel is still a literal fool for love, but the story of Harleen makes a convincing case for how a woman who should know better falls for someone who is no good for them… and just plain no good. The damnable thing is Šejic also writes a Joker who is honestly funny and, at times, charming. However, Harleen does not pretend to be a romance novel on any level, nor does it inspire sympathy for the devil. This is a cautionary tale for every Bella Swan out there who thinks she can find the heart of gold in the brooding bad boy and the final scenes, in which Batman and Alfred Pennyworth debate to what degree Harleen Quinzel fell from grace or was pushed in her journey to becoming Harley Quinn, make that message clear for anyone who missed it when Harleen said her story was not one where “the girl helps the beast regain his humanity.”

Šejic’s artwork is as amazing as his scripting. The linework in Harleen is so fine that one can barely believe it was penciled at all, with everything looking like it was painted. Šejic is also a master at drawing expressions and his knack for subtle detailing results in some pages where one hardly needs the dialogue balloons or narrator captions to know the story. It is Šejic’s use of color that is most astounding, however, and it is unsurprising that Sejic got his start in professional comics as a colorist.

Harleen is a must read for every fan of Harley Quinn and anyone who enjoys a good psychodrama. It was released under DC Comics’ Black Label for mature readers for good reason. While there’s no overt nudity, there are a lot of adult situations, salty language and sex scenes, as well as a number of scenes of an insomniac Harleen Quinzel writhing in her bedclothes or lounging around her apartment in her underwear. There are also several violent scenes, including people being shot in the head and one man being thrown through a windshield. Older Teens should be okay, but this is far more risqué than Mad Love.

Harleen
By Stjepan Šejic
ISBN: 9781779501110
DC Comics, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 17+

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Bisexual

  • Matt

    | He/Him Librarian

    Reviewer

    A librarian with over 10 years experience in public and academic settings, Matthew Morrison has been blogging about comic books for nearly as long as they’ve had a word for it.  Over the past two decades, he has written regular columns, commentary, parodies and reviews for such websites and blogs as Fanzing, 411 Mania, Screen Rant and Comics Nexus.  He has served as an Expert in Residence for a seminar on Graphic Novels and Comics for Youth and Adults at the University of North Texas and has given several lectures on the history of comics, manga and cosplay culture at libraries and comic conventions around the country. In addition to his work for No Flying No Tights, he is the Contributing Editor of Kabooooom.com and maintains a personal blog at MyGeekyGeekyWays.com.

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