The Joker has always been among the most terrific and nightmarish comic villains around. Few characters are as open to interpretation as the Joker, with numerous writers re-imagining and re-writing him over the years. However, a new recent interpretation of the character might prove one of the most distinct of all. Arguably, this new Joker is equal parts sexy and scary.
In Stjepan Šejić's Harleen, we are introduced to Harley Quinn at the start of her descent into madness. The Black Label title is able to explore the relationship between Harley and the Joker in a more complete manner. And given Šejić's brilliant, seductive art style, this might be the most alluring Joker ever -- although, in many respects, that makes him one of the most nightmarish versions of the character around. With this Joker, evil can come from a beautiful face.
Harleen follows young Harley Quinn as an ambitious psychologist early in her career. She's attempting to pitch a comparative study of the prisoners of Arkham Prison and Blackgate Prison in order to trace the origins of psychopathy. While her language and ideas are convincing, many of the people she approaches about her study seem unimpressed, leading her to bemoan her situation to a friend at a bar.
Said bar ends up being the epicenter of a Joker attack, putting her face-to-face with the Crown Prince of Crime...and his gun. However, rather than blow her face in, the Joker selects to spare her. He sees the promise in Harleen's eyes that this traumatic moment will leave her thinking about the Joker every night forevermore.
As Harleen is given greater access to Arkham, interviewing the various patients, she convinces herself she can handle the evil of the monstrous clown. Meanwhile, the narration makes it clear that she has no chance against this charming monstrosity -- something the audience also understands.
Sometimes, the fear surrounding a person comes from the trauma they inspire rather than any direct action of their own. While the Joker doesn't do anything particularly heinous over the course of the story (at least, not compared to other stories which feature him blowing people's heads off or skinning them alive), the impact of coming face to face with him leaves Harleen traumatized.
She drinks to drown the pain, avoiding everyone but the Joker in her study of Arkham's patients. In dreams, Harleen sees the Joker as a complete monster with a demonic, howling laugh. The impact of even minor crimes feels more potent and real when the Joker leaves such an impact.
In real life, post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD) is a real syndrome that occurs after a traumatic experience. As seen in the comic, it can manifest as nightmares or reclusive behavior. This makes what the Joker does in this comic feel more real. It causes real suffering that's less visible than the explosive, violent harm he commits.
The Beautiful Monster
Real-life serial killer Ted Bundy has a lot of women who find him attractive. It is no secret that many women wanted to throw themselves at him when his trial came up. Despite Bundy's crimes being unforgivable and wicked, some people could almost ignore it because the perpetrator was someone they admired and felt attracted to.
What Šejić does so well in all his art is create incredibly beautiful people who are alluring and hot at the same time. He capitalizes on this with the Joker who he makes as beautiful and gorgeous as possible. Despite his history of violent crimes, the Joker appears seductive and attractive. It is hard to imagine him being so pretty out on the streets, but alas, he is.
Even when committing crimes, this beauty remains. On review, this is even more apparent, but on a first read of the comic, we forget the Joker is capable of violence because of how much time is spent showing his behavior as calm and appealing. What makes this even more extreme is how the Joker appears in Harleen's traumatized nightmares. He is a twisted caricature of himself, with his perfect features becoming so exaggerated they become demonic.
Even though the Joker's crimes are very few in this first issue, he remains scary because those few crimes seem so unlikely coming from such a beautiful criminal. That ties into one of the comic's greatest, more nuanced themes. A theme that adds to the Joker's chaotic, otherworldly qualities.
The Idea of Evil in Gotham
The comic is not simply content with presenting the Joker as a threat on his own. It approaches the topic of evil as a concept. The citizens of Gotham, the comic argues, are a mob seconds away from exploding upon the world. It revels in violence, with people cheering for Batman's violence while also treating the Joker's crimes as a spectacle.
One interesting perspective is that of Harvey Dent, who tells Harleen to shut down her research because understanding criminals might very well prove a bigger problem than not as it could allow lawyers to help get violent criminals out of jail time. Rehabilitation, Dent argues, is impossible, for all criminals are two-faced.
This ties in with the beautiful version of the Joker we see. He is in many respects the idea of evil in Gotham personified. He is the mob's madness. He is two-faced. He does capitalize on this understanding of those around him in order to commit greater and greater crimes for the spectacle of it all.
This is all aided by the beautiful allure of Šejić's art, which paints the Joker frowning and grinning and scowling without ever losing the visual appeal of the character. This leads readers to almost forget that they're watching the Joker and, in many respects, puts the reader at ease with the character -- much like Harleen is put tragically at ease. Despite seeing his violence, he is also a pretty boy.