‘Harleen’ is a classic and deeply upsetting tragedy

Article Originally Published by Will Tarpley on North Texas Daily

*Content warning for discussions of emotional abuse and extreme violence*

“There was a broken man in the abyss . . . I reached down to help him . . . I realized too late, he wasn’t slipping . . . He was dragging me.”

Struggling psychotherapist Harleen Quinzel just got her big break — a grant to fund her research into the minds of the criminally insane residents of Arkham Asylum.

Unfortunately for her, the Joker is one manipulative fiend and he begins to undo her increasingly loose grasp on reality . . .

But hey, at least this ride down the slippery slope into insanity looks really good!

Told in three “prestige deluxe” issues, Stjepan Sejic’s “Harleen” is a no-holds-barred retelling of Harley Quinn’s origin story. It has a far harder edge than any previous Harley Quinn story, depicting the emotional manipulation and abuse inflicted on her by the Joker, some light nihilism and some good ole fashioned bloody violence and profanity.

Some background on the artist and writer, Stjepan Sejic. Sejic is a Croatian artist whose work for Image Comics series like “Witchblade,” “Rat Queens” and his independent online LGBTQ+ adult romance series “Sunstone” made him a critical darling. Since then, he’s worked on DC properties like “Aquaman” and  “Justice League Odyssey” among other things.

On a side note, “Harleen” began as narratively-tied fanart Sejic would do on occasion, depicting the legacy of Harley’s trauma at the hands of the Joker and her becoming romantically involved in a far better relationship with Poison Ivy.

This new “Harleen” is also a Black Label book. Black Label is basically DC Comics’ recent mature-readers imprint, where creators get to tell mostly standalone stories without much in the way of content restrictions or previous continuity.

In my opinion, Black Label and Stjepan Sejic are a match made in heaven. Black Label has the potential for great stories and Sejic is one of the best creatives in the business. Aside from Gabriela Downie doing the lettering, this is entirely the work of Sejic. It is his hands that type and his hands that paint.

As a result, “Harleen” has one of the tightest narratives I’ve ever seen in a comic or a book. Each plot thread is woven with such care and value to Harley’s overall character arc. Even the smaller, one-scene characters contribute something meaningful and despite all each individual issue being a whopping 64 pages, very little space or dialogue is wasted or pointless.

Then there’s the artwork. Sejic really goes to town with the visuals, alternating skillfully between the moody realities of Gotham, Arkham Asylum and Harley’s increasingly abstract hallucinations. This has far-and-away some of, if not the, best comic art you will ever see. When Sejic wants a tender moment with a monster, he’ll give it a sinister edge, when Harleen is losing her mind, he’ll send reality out to lunch. When all hell breaks loose, all hell most certainly breaks loose.

As for criticism, there is maybe one single character near the beginning who ends up being kind of a token person of color. Also, Two-Face has a surprisingly large role here — which I didn’t mind, but they didn’t advertise his presence. Still, they’re more nitpicks.

Even though I haven’t read the latest stuff nor seen all of the ’90s Batman Animated Series, I can easily say that “Harleen” is the best Harley Quinn story so far.*

This also comes with a massive asterisk in the form of a content warning.

This is not a zany, energetic feminist-power romp like “Birds of Prey” or the socially charged coming-of-age “Breaking Glass,” this is a dark tale about a vulnerable woman naively believing she can fix a violent abuser.

In the end, I had trouble going through it again because of how unnervingly subtle the abuse is, to the point I’m pretty some of it still went over my head during later readings.

Now, Harley isn’t physically battered, but she does consensually have sex with the Joker . . . when she’s in the midst of a slow-burning emotional and mental breakdown and it’s becoming increasingly clear he’s manipulating her. So in other words, Joker has sex with her under false pretenses, which constitutes a form of sexual assault.

It’s not particularly graphic and I would argue the way it’s presented doesn’t feel exploitive, but I will give readers with more sensitivity to this topic a strong warning. Sometimes the least graphic stuff can be the most disturbing.

No spoilers for the ending, but there is barely a ray of hope. Even if Sejic appears to be readying plans for a Poison Ivy-centered sequel, this doesn’t stop the ending from feeling like a great big gut punch. Still, I’m going to say that if you can stand grim stories, this is one worth going through.

The three-issue series is now available in a $29.99 hardback collection, with bonuses like sketches and character write-ups included. Personally, I think this is the best way to experience the story, though I won’t advise against single issues or buying it digitally for less. You also don’t need to have read any Harley Quinn stories beforehand, nor Batman.

Reading “Harleen” is like watching a trainwreck. Not in that it’s a disaster, but in the way that you know it’s going to end horribly for everyone involved.

And yet . . . no matter how hard you try, you just can’t look away.

Final rating: 4.75/5

Featured Illustration: Austin Banzon

Source: North Texas Daily