Harleen: The Joke’s On Me

I think I spoiled this one for myself, folks. We’ve reached peak Harley Quinn saturation. Reading a graphic novel origin story pales in comparison to the brilliant Harley Quinn animated series on HBO Max. Stepjan Šejić’s Harleen sets out to tell of the iconic harlequin’s origin story, but it ends up getting weighed down by the stories of Gotham’s other villains and vigilantes. 

Dr. Harleen Quinzel keeps her head down and does her research. In college, she was disgraced and chided for sleeping with a professor. She did good work, though (on her research, I’m not sure about the tryst with the professor). Harleen kicks things off at a science symposium, where the eponymous doctor presents her research about empathy degradation. She believes her theory could help solve Gotham’s metahuman/supervillain problem. Later, Lucius Fox funds her research, and Harleen goes to Arkham Asylum to study the inmates patients there. She strikes a connection with the Joker, who she previously encountered during one of the villain’s raids. He spared Harleen back then, and now she’s tasked with unraveling the Joker’s mysteries. 

Allow me to start my review with a brief detour. Harley Quinn has been immensely popular of late. Every convention I go to features dozens of Harley cosplayers. Margot Robbie delightfully portrays the villainess in otherwise-droll DC B-movies. The often overlooked primo Harley Quinn content, however, is Harley Quinn the adult animated series on the Max streaming service. The series revels in Harley as her own person and severs her ties to the Joker (though he still appears in the series, and it’s hilarious). The show proves that Harley Quinn deserves her own story instead of one that’s problematically tied to the toxic man who lures her to madness. 

I say all this because 1) anyone who’s even mildly interested in the character should watch the show and 2) the show does what Šejić can’t quite nail down. Harleen fails to give the character a purpose or identity beyond being one of the Joker’s victims. She’s a different type of victim, of course. He isn’t killing her or making an example of her to prove a nihilistic point. Instead, Harleen is a psychological victim. The Joker manipulates her into madness, but the story speaks more to his power as a villain. It can’t make a compelling case for Harleen’s fall.

Šejić’s art is this book’s saving grace. Every panel is full of detail and drawn with great care. Some full-page spreads left me awestruck. As a reader, I sometimes struggle to lock in on the art of graphic novels, but that wasn’t an issue here. Šejić makes it a core element of the storytelling—as it should be—and his art is undoubtedly the star of this particular show. 

Harleen’s affair with her professor hangs like a cloud over her career, and she often remembers it as a turning point, referencing it as one in a long line of “bad decisions” that eventually leads to her transformation into Harley Quinn. Šejić can’t connect the dots, though. From “sleeping with a professor” to “falling for the most notorious villain in Gotham” requires legwork (or a lot of empathy degradation), and this book’s legs are atrophied. 

Further muddying the book’s potential is its focus on Harvey Dent. Harleen is as much an origin story for Two-Face as it is for Harley Quinn. Two-Face exists to spur the story to its rather abrupt end. We lose precious time with Harleen. Two-Face’s space in the book could’ve been used to bridge narrative gaps in the main character’s story. 

Šejić succeeds in weaving Batman into the story. It’s subtle, and his appearances are few. It makes sense: why would Batman care about a psychiatrist beyond a few chance encounters? Sure, he funds her research as Bruce Wayne, but Harleen doesn’t know that. In other words, Batman’s inclusion here makes sense, and the moments that include him fit the story well.

Harleen ends with more of a fizzle than a gut punch. I’d argue that Šejić could’ve started the story much later and offered more about Harley’s early days with the Joker. The story we get is at once drawn out and not enough. It’s a weird dichotomy, and it makes the book a tonal conundrum. 

I played myself, dear reader. I read Harleen years after falling deeply in love with the Harley Quinn animated series. When you have the quintessential story about a specific Batman character, it’s hard to go back. Stjepan Šejić’s Harleen has some gorgeous art and a few interesting story beats, but it ultimately fails to live up to Harley Quinn’s reputation as a fun, engaging villain who can stand on her own.

Rating: Harleen – 5.0/10

Buy this book on Bookshop.org

Leave a Reply