Harleen- Featured Cover

A little over a year after DC Comics’ controversial release of the initial part of their Black Label imprint, BATMAN: DAMNED, the proclaimed “mature” face of modern DC traverses the dark grey matter of Gotham City’s infamous residents once more with creator Stjepan Sejic’s HARLEEN #1. Sejic’s art and storytelling, narrated by Harley Quinn, is a tragic, psychologically painful, and horrifically inevitable retelling of her origin.

Harleen- GUN!
As meet-cutes go, it’s unusual. (Courtesy of DC Comics)

My Story’s the One Where the Girl Dances With the Devil

HARLEEN #1 is surprisingly vulnerable. Over the course of its 60 pages, Harley talks openly about her nightmares, her guilt, trauma and regret. We witness her life before the madness. She lived as a young professional: capable, highly intelligent, but extremely insecure. She went through her life completely unsure of her purpose, her relationships, or her future. As a result, she hides herself in plain sight. Presenting as shy, she dresses in muted colors and simple, if any, makeup. She has let her impostor syndrome seize control.

Interpersonally, she also proves self sabotaging. She’s someone who alienates herself from all but one friend. Her sex life has renders her a professional pariah after a relationship with a professor. In general, she trudges through the world with a naive lack of self preservation that’s a far cry from the confident, exaggerated character we’re familiar with.

It does not feel exaggerated or beyond the pale. In fact, it’s shockingly normal. I’ve known people like her. In some aspects of life I’ve even been people like her. This will likely make HARLEEN #1 an uncomfortable mirror to look into for some, but made me so much more invested in her than I’ve ever been.

Harleen- Dance
Our first glimpse of the iconic costume. (Courtesy of DC Comics)

Harleen’s First Steps Towards Harley

There’s also a revamped introduction between her and the Joker that I liked a lot more than the quick, out of character in my opinion, seduction in MAD LOVE. Instead, they meet in the dark, in the streets, him pointing a gun to her head, and she’s fucking terrified. However, as her life flashes before her eyes, Joker spares her and Harley sees this as a kindness, maybe even a shred of vulnerability to this monster that makes her pity him when she watches Batman beat the ever living hell out of him moments later.

Meanwhile, Joker mentions that he let her live because it’s better that she sees him in her dreams forever. Ie: He gets more pleasure letting her live with lifelong trauma and her PTSD nightmares than blow her head off. It would be too easy that way. Less “fun” even. In Harley seeing this calculated cruelty as an almost romantic kindness, we see the crack in her judgement that will later become the floodgate that lets Joker inside her head completely. He might be different under there. There may be something I, a top mind in my field, can fix. He doesn’t want to be bad perhaps. It’s the first fray in the rope of logic that leads people into abusive relationships every day, and it is, again, uncomfortably real.

Harleen: Lecture
A pre-transformation Harleen Quinzel shows off her psychological chops. (Courtesy of DC Comics)

A Jester Psychoanalyzes Herself

The cold, clinical narration of Harley throughout the issue also adds another layer to Harley that made her incredibly somber. After interviewing a war veteran who snapped and massacred a hospital full of children, she goes on a crusade to find a cure to sociopathic violence and crime, the likes of which have always plagued Gotham City.

In front of a packed room containing donors like Lucius Fox, she hypothesizes that in extended exposure to trauma, the brain will shut off its ability to feel empathy in order to save itself. In essence, trapping that part of the person deep in their subconscious as they become something unhinged and almost inhuman at the extreme. This thesis of hers, combined with the clarity of her narrations, makes one thing extremely likely: she knows exactly what is happening to her psychologically, has always known, and is still completely incapable of saving herself.

It’s a horrific thought, and one that many sufferers of severe mental illness or trauma experience all too often. This makes Harley so much more of a tragic figure than the lovelorn clown we’ve gotten to know over the years. It paints her as a prisoner in her own body, a shy and ultimately kind girl that became trapped in her own head as her situation spiraled out of control.

Harleen- The Shadow
Quinzel’s future seems already cast in shadow. (Courtesy of DC Comics)

The Looming Shadows of Sejic’s HARLEEN Art

Harley being a prisoner within herself shows up all over HARLEEN #1’s artwork. The standard cover shows a familiar Harley Quinn in full garb with a psychotic grin. Behind a crack, though, dwells a glimpse of Harleen Quinzel, wide eyed and afraid with mascara tears running down her cheek to form a shattered diamond. She holds the mask up with her hand, afraid to let it slip off; because what would happen if it did?

The shadow of what Harley will become also lurks over the pages, growing stronger and stronger. From the red and black outfit she wears whenever she needs to feel more confident, to sun shining through her office windows in the shape of her iconic diamonds (matching the golden choker on her neck), to the literal shadow of her body as she enters the gates of Arkham Asylum for the first time making the shape of Harley Quinn in full costume with her mallet and her gun.

It lends a sense of inevitability or future fated by “the stars” as her friend Shondra constantly tells her. This poor girl had no chance. She was always Harley. She would always be Harley. And with this first issue both we and the narrator in the future are powerless to do anything but sit there and watch all the signs this woman will never see until it’s far too late.

Harleen: Destiny
Destiny takes its first step. (Courtesy of DC Comics)

Be it on Your Hands, Then, Doctor Harleen Quinzel…

Overall, HARLEEN #1 is a fantastic, uncomfortably grounded revamp of one of Gotham’s most iconic resident’s origin story. Sejic paints Quinzel as a normal but very gifted woman doomed to walk a lonely path to eventual psychological unraveling. If there was ever a KILLING JOKE for Harley Quinn, this mini series is going to be it. I greatly look forward to the final two chapters of HARLEEN in October and November of 2019. A true tragedy in three acts.

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