Carl takes a detour to Gotham City for a rendezvous with The Joker and Harley Quinn in Paul Dini and Pat Cadigan’s fantastical Batman 80th Anniversary adventure…
Over the years, many people have created unique and dare I whisper it, LOVED villainous characters for the Batman brand. Of course, The Joker, The Penguin, The Riddler, Catwoman and Poison Ivy are the ones that spring to mind instantly. Others like Killer Croc, Magpie, The Scarecrow etc are adored but don’t immediately throw themselves out as beloved in the universe created by Bob Kane.
However, back in 1992, a character was created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm for the animated show, Batman: The Animated Series. This classic animation show is regarded as probably the best incarnation of the character and his world that there’s ever been. Dini and Timm came up with an idea of having a muse for The Joker, one that could fit easily into his world and be not only his loyal sidekick but his love interest. He loathed her at first but soon came to realise he couldn’t be without her at his side. The feelings of love went one way however, her love for him. But once Joker had his hooks in her, she couldn’t resist him and stay away. A character that is a play on a character which originated in Commedia Dell’arte. That character was Harley Quinn.
This year Batman celebrates his 80th birthday and Titan Books have contracted authors to submit novels on previously published graphic novels. I’ve already had the pleasure of reading and reviewing The Court Of Owls and probably the best and darkest tale of them all, The Killing Joke. Now we come to Harley Quinn: Mad Love.
Harley Quinn: Mad Love | by Paul Dini and Pat Cadigan
This came as a bit of a surprise to me, being released for The Dark Knight’s birthday, for Batman hardly appears in the book at all, only playing a cameo role in the story. All the same, I ploughed headlong into the book and was enthralled from the offset. Paul Dini and Pat Cadigan have taken the entire graphic novel and turned it into a book of rich enjoyment. This isn’t the story of how the caped crusader wins the day. This isn’t a story about The Joker’s latest scheme on how to kill Batman. This is the story of a young girl who sets out into the world full of wide-eyed innocence and good intentions only to be corrupted by a master manipulator, a psychotic insane asylum inmate. And how she is betrayed by the most human of emotions, love. The heart wants what the heart desires. But the heart is the true traitor, the one emotion and organ of the body that ultimately betrays us all.
The story starts innocently enough. Seven-year-old Harleen Quinzell isn’t exactly enamoured with her life. Seeing her mother and father argue and beat each other on a nightly basis, having to take charge of her three younger brothers, all she yearns for is to spend a single happy day with her father at Coney Island’s theme park. She has been promised this for ages but until now, its never materialised. Until one day it does. Her father takes her to the park and they spend the whole day, just the two of them having the time of their lives. After leaving the park, they decide to eat at a nearby diner where Harley hears the waitress speak in her drawn out, high pitched Brooklyn accent complete with mannerisms. Deciding to make the waitress and her father laugh, Harleen imitates the waitress’ words and actions to perfection, bringing about much laughter and comments about how cute and smart she is. This is her perfect day. Every child dreams of having one, this is hers.
Sadly, on their way home, Harleen’s father is attacked by two thugs he is in league with. A robbery has gone wrong. The two thugs have had to shoot their way out of what they suspect is a setup and blame Harleen’s father as a result. They start to beat him, causing the young girl to go running to the nearest police officer. They are the beacons of law and order. They’ll help her daddy out. They’ll stop the nasty men from beating up her beloved father. It’s their job. Only they don’t. The two thugs have run off into the night but the cops arrest Harleen’s father. He’s a known criminal and is wanted. To Harleen’s disbelief and horror, the cops bundle him into their car for the drive down to the police precinct. Harleen refuses to abandon her father and goes with him to the lockup. It’s here where she discovers the horrifying truth about her father. Not wanting to believe it, she runs from the precinct and goes to the only place she knows is safe. The Coney Island theme park.
The two thugs that assaulted her father have followed her there. Here, she is confronted by her fathers boss, Delvecchio. His plan is simple. He can’t get to her father so he will use Harleen to get her mother to come to the park with money where she will be murdered and Harleen handed over to a paedophile for gratification before also being murdered. Harleen attempts to use her imitation technique to make them all laugh with her Brooklyn girl routine, thereby making them fall into a false sense of security and let her escape. It doesn’t work. Harleen manages to escape from the thugs’ clutches and proceeds to turn on all of the attractions of the park, setting some booby traps along the way. As she is pursued into one attraction, one of her assailants accidentally kills his partner. Swearing vengeance, the remaining thug manages to catch Harleen and is about to kill her when Harleens mother arrives and quickly dispatches him instead.
Harleen’s father is jailed, her mother scrapes by as best she can and Harleen gains a college place on a gymnastics scholarship. Harleen is quite the gymnast and uses it to help keep her fit, little realising her skills will be used for a completely different purpose down the line. Gaining a qualification in Psychiatry, Harley, as she now prefers to be known gains employment at Arkham Asylum. They are crying out for staff. After an altercation on her induction with Killer Croc in which she shows her mettle and fearless attitude, Harley is welcomed into the fold. Her ideas, though viewed as time wasting and fruitless are gradually accepted and she begins a group therapy session with four of Arkham’s female residents. After one session goes wrong, Harley decides her next challenge will be trying to get through to The Joker. Of course, this is what Joker wants and has been manipulating events all along in his quest. He wants to destroy the new young doctor for his own amusement and gratification. However, to his surprise, she’s not a raw, uneducated young plaything for him but a tough cookie who could possibly be his match.
Harley starts to enjoy her sessions with Joker. She finds him to be fascinating. She truly believes she can get through his barriers and bring the real man out from under the clown facade. And then she starts to fall in love with him. The Joker’s plan has started to bear fruit. After he manages to escape during a planned visit to an indoor swimming pool for therapy, he is apprehended and brought back in a heavily brutalised state by Batman. Harley views Batman from the start as an even bigger criminal than the ones she deals with on a daily basis. Her hatred of him, already growing with the other patients’ hatred of Batman and blaming him for their incarceration, grows even further when he delivers her ‘Puddin’ back to her damaged. The Joker’s masterful manipulation of her is almost complete. Harley decides enough is enough and contrives to break her love out of the asylum for good. Her downward spiral is complete.
The book has an underlying tension set throughout the pages. This manifests itself with the manipulation of Harley from the first page right up until the books end. Towards the end of the novel:
Harley almost manages to kill The Batman, something the Joker never really came close to. Batman manages to convince her to call The Joker so Joker can see for himself Harley has managed to do what he couldn’t. Again, it’s a man manipulating her and again, she can’t see it. When Joker arrives, instead of being overjoyed at Harley’s brilliant tactics and solution to his problem, he is enraged. He violently attacks Harley, throwing her through a window down onto the streets below, severely injuring her. He and Batman get into a fight on top of a moving train while Harley is rushed to the hospital for treatment and arrest for busting Joker from the asylum.
It’s this darkness that drags us in. Harley is manipulated everywhere she turns and not only by the men of her world but by several women too. It’s this underlying tone of the book that disturbs us. Harley is abused, both mentally and psychically throughout the events. Her treatment by Joker after she helps him escape is nothing short of abuse. And yet, she takes it, accepts it. It wears her down but he must love her surely? He’s not doing this to her out of spite, he’s doing it to her out of love and for her to better herself, right? She can’t see that she’s being used and abused by someone who doesn’t really care for her or if she’s dead or alive. It’s this underlying tone that jolts us to our core. We see this in our society every day. We see many women being abused in all forms throughout our lives. And what do we do about it? Nothing is the answer. Sometimes, the person being abused refuses to see the light, to smell the coffee, to come to the realisation that she doesn’t deserve the treatment she’s getting or has to accept it. And yet, with that blind sense of loyalty to her abuser, we just shake our heads, close our eyes and walk away and forget about that person. And that what makes things inevitably end tragically.
You can say one thing about these kinds of novels. They enthral us, entertain us, make us gasp and then over the page, cheer. But they also present moral dilemmas and situations that we see or hear about every day. How many times have we turned on the news to hear a report of someone being gunned down in an alley? How many times do we hear about a rape? How many times do we hear about an abuser getting away with their treatment of their ‘loved one’? And how many times do we hear that an abuser has killed their abusee ‘accidentally’? The comic book world entertains us but also tries to educate us in the same way. This book, although based on a graphic novel from many years ago, does that in spades. We feel Harley’s pain at being rejected. We feel her pain at being abused and manipulated. We want to scream at the top of our lungs for her to wake up and gain salvation. The book sets out to do that and pulls it off with epic style.
Paul Dini and Pat Cadigan have adapted the graphic book to perfection. Dini’s creation springs to life from the page with enthusiasm and energy. She leaps out at us, grabbing us by the lapels screaming ‘Here I am! Don’t be too down on me. It’s showtime!’. Yes Harley, it sure is. Every comic book has a strong female hero for us to cheer for. Here, we have a female villain who entices us to do the same. Bouncing across the pages with unlimited energy, hoping that she will ultimately be ok by the end and engaging us with her every move and spoken word, Harley Quinn IS the ultimate, dominating female character in the DC world. We need her, we want to be near her, we want to help her, we want to be like her. By the end of the book, she has become a strong woman, independent of The Joker, no longer needing him to function or survive. And it makes us want to cheer in delight for her. That what makes the book to be such a rollercoaster ride of enjoyment. The Dark Knight and his arch-nemesis have an unexpected but worthy rival for our attention. She has become one of the most loved characters ever created. And I hope she sticks around for years to come.
Until Next Time…
“My names Harley Quinn! Pleased to meet’cha, Mistaah J!”
Harley Quinn: Mad Love by Paul Dini and Pat Cadigan is published by Titan Books and is available to buy now from all good retailers.
The Future of the Force. The future of pop culture writing.