By Stjepan Šejić
Review by Sarah Wagoner
Harleen is a complex retelling of the origin of the popular DC Comics character,
Harley Quinn. The graphic novel follows Dr. Harleen Quinzel as she intends to prove that mental illness is a survival mechanism. Part of that research includes interviewing the most dangerous inmates of Arkham Asylum which leads her to meet Joker. Will her empathy for him be her downfall?
The art and writing are both from the hands of Stjepan Šejić, a Croation comic book artist. He is most well known for his LGBTQ, BDSM comic series ‘Sunstone’ which has been critically hailed for capturing the best aspects of the BDSM community, the gorgeous art, and the relatable characters. Since the success of that series, he has created other successes like “Witchblade” and “Aphrodite IX”. In these, he shows a love for his characters and never-ending beauty in his art. Lately he has worked with DC Comics as an artist, providing the art for big books like “Justice League Odyssey”, bringing a fantastical element which is present in all his works, including “Harleen”.
“Harleen” was published as a part of DC Comics’ new publishing label, “Black Label”. Recently this year DC dismantled Vertigo, an independent publication under their belt which handle more mature stories such as Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” and the original run of “Constantine” which included adult themes such as extreme violence and sexual assault. As they still needed the adult audience who wouldn’t settle for their PG-13 stories, they created Black Label. However, unlike Vertigo, all the stories from Black Label are about the popular DC characters, not original creations, as well.
Black Label has been quite the success both financially and critically. “Harleen” is no exception.
Many critics have hailed the book for treating Harley’s tragic origin with respect. Without getting into spoilers for those who do not know, I will just say that there are elements of her origin that some have romanticized that should be treated with respect. In the same vain, at times she is oversexualized. Some of you may worry the same upon reading that his first big hit was a BDSM book. That is a fair worry, but in all of his works he knows how to make female characters sexy without making them feel oversexualized. Their bodies are realistic. He makes sure that they are in control of their sexuality. Many critics also realized this and greatly appreciated it.
In a ‘descent into madness’ story, it is easy to forget to give your characters a sense of agency from the beginning. Šejić does not fall into this trap. Immediately, Harley has a plan for her research. She is smart when interviewing the subjects. She knows how they may try to manipulate. She is not a ditzy woman who somehow made her way through medical school. By writing her this way, we can trust her. We are on her side. When people question her, she has answers that make sense to the audience. We may not agree with her, but we understand her.
Šejić’s writing is not perfect, however. I think the story could be stretched out, as the third book (it is separated into three books) is rushed in execution. It is an excellent ending, but I think we need to live in it a little more in order to get a full sense of the gravity of the situation.
While I love the story structure overall, and the interactions between characters, Harley’s internal monologue is very basic. She is retelling what we know in the narrative. She talks in a lyrical way, that wishes to seem clever, but ultimately fails. In my opinion, you could get rid of her internal monologue and not lose anything. You can tell her emotions, as well as the events of the narrative through the art.
When it comes to comic book art, the most important aspect is being able to tell a story
through the art. This is absolutely accomplished. The fantastical art shows us how terrifying this all is for Harleen. The inmates are drawn in subtle, yet horrific style. Gotham City has a distinctly gothic style, giving a thematic element to the city. Overall, the art is the kind that you need to stop for a minute just to appreciate each page. This may make it seem overwhelming to readers, but it is done in a way that you can read it over and over to appreciate the details more and more.
My, and many other critics, only issue with the art is that all the women’s faces have the same structure. It doesn’t ruin how beautiful the art is, but it is distracting, especially when they are in a scene together.
Overall, it is a worthwhile retelling of a tragic story that is complemented by great art and decent writing.