The adage, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is proved in this excellent origin story of Harley Quinn, formally Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel, who meant to reform Joker and instead became his lover.
We are introduced to Harleen as a new psychologist who has the theory that sociopathic behavior could be modified if scientists could understand the stages of losing one’s empathy in this downward spiral. She believes by studying the stages of deteriorating empathy, one could then identify sociopaths in the making. Her lecture leads to her funding by Bruce Wayne, so she heads to Arkham Aslyum to begin interviewing the prisoners there for her research. But before she begins, she is witnesses a battle in the Gotham streets between Joker and Batman. At one point the Joker holds up a gun to her, but he chooses not to shoot her. The incident shakes her and she begins to fixate on him, losing her impartiality.
Harleen is shown as a woman with few friends and no family. She had some missteps in college when she had an affair with a professor, and it is held against her years later by her peers. But she truly does have the right intentions, and wants to redeem her reputation, but gets sucked into the Joker’s orbit. While she does interview other inmates and shows compassion to Poison Ivy, her mind returns to the Joker and he begins to manipulate her. Her lapses of judgment are jaw-dropping (compounded with sleep deprivation and too much alcohol), and eventually, she succumbs to his toxic charms. A plot of corruption within the police department ties in at the end with how Harleen turns a corner with her morality and joins the Joker in his escape.
While you know the entire time that this story is set in Gotham, Batman’s cameos are almost surprising, because you are so immersed in Harleen and Joker’s universe. Truth be told, I’ve never been a fan of the brooding Batman, and in some small way, you might even start to root for Harley and Joker, as you want the familiar trope of a good woman who saves a bad man with her love to actually work. The ending is a bit ambiguous because we all know in the DC universe Harley isn’t all evil and will at times help Batman.
Stjepan Šejić is both the author and illustrator and he does an amazing job with crafting the story and illustrating it. In fact, I am shocked this is the first book I have read by him. His art is detailed and precise and is a treat after recently reading a few too many graphic novels with minimalist art. He is truly talented and I loved how realistic the people looked and then the details he would add into the panels, such as the bank building’s interior (see picture below). His splash pages were fantastic and there was a nice variety of panel placements. His coloring was subdued but had pops of red with Harleen’s clothing that would foreshadow her Harlequin costume. The only tiny misstep was too many panels of Harleen biting her lip and looking sideways- I get it, she’s conflicted!
Harleen is an outstanding self-contained story about her downfall, and fans of this anti-hero will love it.