Paging Dr. Quinzel (Harleen #1 Review)
Writer/Artist: Stjepan Sejic
Letterer: Gabriela Downie
Editor: Andy Khouri
Publisher: DC Comics
DISCLAIMER: Harleen contains themes which some readers may find disturbing.
DC Comics’ recent Harley Quinn titles have got me completely re-invested in a character I’d previously criticised. Like many others, I was fed up with Harley’s constant over-sexualisation and the damaging promotion of an idealistic female body image. Unexpectedly, the complete rebrand of the character seems to be something that DC are willing to stick to – finally!
It’s a new era for Harley, and what better way to celebrate than with an origin story that finally allows her to recognise the toxicity of the Joker and comment on the unhealthy nature of their relationship?
This first issue of Harleen mainly explores her professional life as a psychiatrist and researcher of psychology. We learn what led Dr Harleen Quinzel to begin her research at Arkham, experiencing her first interaction with Sejic’s Joker and her decision to eventually engage with him again.
The narrative briefly confronts toxic anti-feminist behaviours between women in the workplace – an element that I’m surprised to say was effectively written by a man (as he obviously can’t have experienced this for himself). The competitive attitudes of women exhibiting jealousy towards their co-workers is a common problem, and Harleen deals with the issue with dignity.
Brief cameos from Lucius Fox, Doctor Strange, Killer Croc, Zsasz, Poison Ivy, Riddler and Mad Hatter remind us that whilst this is, in essence, a Harley/Joker re-telling, Gotham is an important element of their story. Harvey Dent also makes a quick appearance, and imagery of his future self suggests that Sejic may be planning to delve deeper into Dent’s villainous transformation. It wasn’t something I was expecting in this particular arc, however I’m intrigued to learn more.
Sejic’s take on Dr Harleen Quinzel is refreshing, allowing for a deeper insight into a part of Harley’s life that’s often side-lined and simply used as an excuse for the reader to accept an unapologetically abusive relationship. With this being the debut issue, my key concern was how Sejic would present Harley’s perception of Joker’s abuse. Luckily, my fears were quickly dismissed by Harley’s narration just a few pages in:
“My story’s the one where the girl dances with the devil, and he takes her with him on a long road to Hell.”
Harley also out rightly states that Joker never actually loved her, which to me acted as reassurance that – when Sejic does visit the dark corners of their twisted relationship – we will get to see some form of recognition of abuse and potentially Harley rejecting Joker.
The book has an intriguing format – the oversized pages allow for Sejic to explore a multitude of compositional styles, to the benefit of his artistic prowess. Due to Sejic’s dialogue-focused writing style, the larger size also stopped the pages from feeling over-crowded.
Sejic was the sole writer and artist on this project and it shows. From interesting page structures and compositional techniques, to solid character development and mood-inspired coloring, the presentation of this story is impeccable. One scene where Harley’s life flashes before her eyes was done very well and would not have worked had it not been for the larger format.
Being fully aware of the narrative he wished to create, Sejic’s artwork merges perfectly with the message and thematic elements of his writing.
The decision to create a visual comparison between the unison in which Joker/Harley are both inducted into Arkham with Harley’s description of impending chaos and destruction was a stand-out moment of narrative skill on Sejic’s part.
Subtle elements of Surrealism contribute to the nightmarish aesthetic of the book. From distorted and uncomfortable environments, to over-exaggerated facial features, Sejic sucks you into the distressed mind-set of traumatized Harleen.
From this first issue, I’m fairly confident that the way sensitive material is being handled will provide a more realistic representation of an abusive relationship compared to what we’ve seen from DC in the past. Harleen is a DC black label title – I know it’s bound to get pretty dark. However, my issue isn’t with the dark nature of the content, it’s with the way the characters perceive and handle the situation. I want to see a Harley who doesn’t accept being abused; a Harley who stands up and rejects Joker for the monster he is.
As with any sensitive material, I think it’s important that we as readers have accessible content that deals with horrendous issues that happen to real people. However, getting that right will depend on the realism and ethics of Sejic’s storytelling. Will Sejic keep on getting it right? I guess we’ll find out on the 30th of October.