In the Batman: The Animated Series episode “Mad Love,” we learn that the quirky Harley Quinn was once Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a well-meaning psychologist at Arkham Asylum. Through her interviews with the incarcerated Joker, she began to see him as a lost child with a troubled past who only wanted to make people laugh. Batman, she reasoned, was the self-righteous one, always getting in the way. She ultimately adopted her Harley persona, busted her beloved out of Arkham, and took her place at his side. Throughout the series, no matter what abuses the Joker threw at her (nor how much Batman or Poison Ivy tried to dissuade her), she always managed to forgive her Mr. J.
DC Black Label’s Harleen, written and drawn by Stjepan Sejic, doesn’t stray far from this origin story, but it does give us a more nuanced and adult tale, complete with a deeper look at how and why the Joker was able to manipulate her. It’s a tragic story, but one that rings with topical themes, hints at future friendships, and leaves the door open for Harley’s redemption.
The story picks up several months before Dr. Harleen Quinzel will become Harley Quinn, an unfortunate trajectory that’s entwined with D.A. Harvey Dent’s own transformation into Two-Face. Here, Harleen is 30, somewhat cynical, and yet endearingly optimistic. She believes that Gotham’s most hardened criminals are suffering from a lack of empathy, which the streets of Gotham City itself help to deteriorate. In a lecture to potential funders, she proposes that by studying the inmates of Arkham and Blackgate, researchers could track the stages of deteriorating empathy and identify sociopaths in the making. Her Mindhunter-esque ideas have an altruistic implication. Perhaps if they could understand the criminals and how they got that way, they could truly be rehabilitated. This proposal catches the ear of Lucius Fox, who procures her funding via Wayne Enterprises (and thus, Bruce Wayne).
This is a win for Harleen, but she lacks confidence. In college, Harleen had an affair with one of her professors. This opened her up to a deluge of slut-shaming that’s followed her throughout her career. In fact, one colleague accuses Harleen of sleeping with someone to get her research funded. Much like many real-life women (Monica Lewinsky, Katie Hill), Harleen can’t outrun her youthful scandal and it impacts her professional life and self-esteem. This is just the kind of thing that might make it easy for Harleen’s history of being taken advantage of by manipulative men to follow her into the halls of Arkham. It’s a reality many women may know all too well.
But Harleen doesn’t meet the Joker in Arkham, not at first. Rather, she runs into him on the streets in the middle of a heist. Though he points a gun at her, he ultimately decides to spare her. He tells a henchman it’s because he knows from that moment on, she’ll think of him every day of her life. He wants her trauma to live eternal.
Indeed, Harleen’s stricken with nightmares over the encounter and avoids interviewing the Joker at Arkham for several weeks. Many of her interviews go poorly—Killer Croc, the Hatter and the Riddler are too focused on their own obsessions. Some go pretty okay. The foundations of her later camaraderie with Poison Ivy blossom in her interviews and again towards the end of the book when all hell’s broken loose. But inevitably, Harleen can’t avoid Gotham’s most notorious clown criminal.
This Joker, Harleen’s Joker, is younger, hotter and more charming than previous incarnations. It’s easier to see how she falls for him. We watch as she does so, but we also watch as he manipulates her. Sometimes he’s kind to her, telling her he didn’t pull the trigger that night because he was hoping one day he’d see her smile. Then he negs her, telling her she just wants to write a book and make money, like every other doctor. He forces her to plead her case and convince him that she really cares. He gets in her head, using her own stolen research. He gaslights her. He pretends to be vulnerable with her. And finally, he makes her believe that she’s the only one who can really crack him, unlike all the shrinks who’ve tried to drill into his head before. He’s a bad boy, sure, but only she can save him. He needs her to save him.
In this way, Batman and Harley aren’t that much different. Both try repeatedly to redeem a man who, by all accounts, is truly beyond redemption. We often think of Harley as the silly one and Batman as the strong one, even though their patterns regarding the Joker are similar. Is it because she’s a woman who typically wears revealing outfits and cracks wise? Is it because she shares the Joker’s bed, while Batman’s always grappling with him on shadowy streets? Wouldn’t they both—wouldn’t Gotham—be better off if someone just put this guy six feet under? It’s a question Harleen seems to ponder, especially as Harleen turns to Batman when she’s wondering, in the beginning, if Joker can be saved.
Though dark, Harleen isn’t too hopeless. It’s gritty, and it’s perhaps a more realistic depiction of a too-often glorified, yet wholly abusive relationship. It shows us how she got there and why it’s so hard to leave in a way that humanizes the woman versus fetishizing the jester. While Harley is drowning in toxic love like it’s that mythical vat of acid, the Harleen that narrates this tale knows she’s in a bad place and silently screams to escape. Here’s hoping that someday, she can climb out.
Juliet Bennett Rylah writes about horror comics and the dark side of superheroes for DCComics.com. Check out more of her writing on WeLikeLA, No Proscenium and IGN, and be sure to follow her on Twitter at @JBRylah.