One of the most complicated, problematic romantic relationships in the DC Universe is the one between the Joker and his frequent partner-in-crime Harley Quinn. First debuting on Batman: The Animated Series, Quinn has since crossed over into comics and film while enduring a toxic romantic partner in the Clown Prince of Crime. This tragic element of their relationship is the focus for Harleen, the latest miniseries under DC Comics' mature reader-oriented publishing imprint DC Black Label.
Written and illustrated by Stjepan Šejić, the debut issue of Harleen modernizes and expands the classic backstory of Doctor Harleen Quinzel's descent into crime and insanity due to her association with the Joker. The story traces its eponymous protagonist's beginnings from graduate school to her eventual work as a criminal psychologist in Gotham City. The oversized opening issue reveals the unassuming character's first memorable encounters with the Clown Prince of Crime and the Dark Knight before she's inevitably drawn deeper into the Joker's seductive web when she begins working at Arkham Asylum.
Told entirely from Harleen's perspective, Šejić's vision of Gotham is wholly familiar and iconic, yet more atmospheric and haunting than grounded in overt realism. This portrayal of the longtime DC location is accented as the walls of reality and sanity begin to crumble around Harleen as she grows closer to the Joker.
Šejić's grasp on his protagonist's voice is strong. Šejić is no stranger to telling stories about characters who quickly get drawn into intense romantic relationships. He co-created Image Comics/Top Cow's bestselling Sunstone series. In Harleen, the future Harley Quinn is depicted as a long-suffering yet capable woman just trying to get by. Harleen's mental struggles almost appear as an extension of her residency in Gotham, with the Joker serving as a dark, seductive guide through a city that brings out the absolute worst in those that live there.
There is a caustic wit that permeates the issue as Harleen contends with toxic coworkers and seeks corporate funding to carry out her rehabilitation of Gotham's worst criminals. Šejić invites readers deeper and deeper into Harleen's psyche, increasing their sympathy for her while providing an entertaining look at Gotham through her rather innocent eyes.
And what a look it is. Šejić's artwork here is especially evocative, with breathtaking, street-level looks at the city and menacing, sinister visions of the shadows within Arkham. Šejić has packed the visuals with iconic characters and nods to various aspects of the extensive Batman mythos, with the promise of even more to come as the miniseries progresses.
Also, the action sequence in which the Caped Crusader bursts into Harleen's story is one of the issue's standout scenes. Šejić stages the brutal confrontation between Batman and his mortal foe with all the grace of a violent dance between Gotham's two most iconic characters.
For longtime fans of the character already familiar with Harley Quinn's origins or new readers looking for the perfect point to jump onto the fan-favorite's story, the first issue of Harleen provides a refreshing, accessible look at the titular protagonist's beginnings. Stjepan Šejić makes Gotham City and its noteworthy characters feel iconic and familiar and yet wholly his own at the same time. This is partially the result of Šejić telling the story from Harleen's perspective, which lets readers share her hopes and fears as she moves deeper down the dark rabbit hole with the Joker acting as her very own sinister white rabbit. A haunting modernization of a classic tale, Harleen will leave fans wanting more as Šejić continues to spin a tragic web.
Harleen #1 is in stores now.