Publisher: DC Black Label
Writer/Artist: Stjepan Sejic
Release Date: 25th September 2019
“He smiles… and I make the worst mistake of my life.”
“I smile back.”
Stjepan Sejic is without a doubt one of my favourite creators working in the comic industry today. From stellar runs on the likes of Rat Queens and Aquaman to his seminal creator-owned work on Sunstone, Sejic has become a creator whose name on the cover pretty much guarantees a purchase from me.
His artistic abilities are clearly without question, but as a writer, the one thing Sejic has always excelled at is writing complicated relationships. So who better to dig into perhaps the most complicated (and contentious) relationship in comics in this new Black Label miniseries focusing on the rise and fall of Miss Harleen Quinzell?
In a lot of Harley Quinn stories, there seems to be a temptation on the part of the writer to glamourise or gloss over what is very much a controlling, abusive relationship between her and the Joker. And while Sejic deftly avoids this approach for the most part, there’s something about his alluringly handsome, catwalk model-esque Joker that does seem to be skirting a little too close to the wind. That said, while it would be easy to dismiss Harley’s growing infatuation with him as “he’s rather hot, isn’t he?”, it’s still unquestionably the power and menace of his personality that draws her in.
Sejic also does an interesting job of showing that while Harley – an undoubtedly intelligent, insightful and motivated woman – is acutely aware of the abusive nature of her relationship with The Joker, that doesn’t necessarily stop her from falling for him all the same. Doomed relationships are some of the most captivating ones to read about, after all. Additionally, having Harley recalling the events of this first issue in the past tense gives the whole thing a doomed sense of inevitability that really underscores the bleak tone of the story.
It’s also refreshing to see that while a lot of her recent incarnations have painted her as a bubbly, Deadpool-esque, fourth-wall-breaking hero, Sejic pulls no punches in digging into the darker side of Miss Quinzel’s personality and the frequently bad decisions she makes during her “origin story”. There’s a wantonly self-destructive streak running through her that makes her a difficult character to like but an easy one to care about (if that makes sense?), which has always been the main appeal of Harley to me.
The artwork, as should probably go without saying by this point, is of Sejic’s typically stellar standard, with beautifully expressive characters and jaw-droppingly creative layouts aplenty. There are several legitimately poster-worthy pages along the way here, including Harley’s arrival at Arkham Asylum and a particularly memorably ‘smile’ motif during a scintillating showdown between The Joker and a certain Caped Crusader.
More than the bold, superhero style moments however, it’s the quieter sections that really resonate here, particularly on the part of Mister J himself. Every word, every glance, every gesture manages to feel both sinisterly calculated and unpredictably random, which is, for me, the hallmark of a truly great Joker. Is he really crazy or is it all just an act to amuse himself? That’s what gets under the skin here, and Sejic brings that intoxicating mystery to the fore with both his writing and his typically expressive artwork.
This three-part series seems set to follow a distinct three-act structure, with this opening ‘act’ introducing us to Harleen and all her hang-ups and character quirks, as well as the research she’s hoping to carry out with some of the most dangerous criminals in Gotham. It’s both subtle and bombastic at the same time, with Sejic painting an unsurprisingly nuanced character study of one of the most interesting characters in comics (in the right hands, at least).
Ultimately then, the narrative style is undoubtedly effective and the story, while certainly familiar, is truly gripping, but it’s the world class artwork that makes Harleen an absolutely essential purchase. If ever there was a perfect character for Sejic to sink his teeth into it’s Harley, and this series seems poised to deliver a tragic and nuanced retelling of this immensely captivating origin story.