Review by C.J. Bunce
It’s not every day the creator of a character has the opportunity to return to re-write that character’s origin story. Paul Dini has done that in a new novel co-written by Pat Cadigan called Harley Quinn: Mad Love, based on his one-shot graphic novel from 1994. Those who know Harley Quinn from cosplay, the Suicide Squad, or her popular costumes as merely The Joker’s sidekick will find a much darker story of life inside a mental asylum–DC’s Arkham Asylum–which has all the elements of 1950s true-life horror stories. Mad Love presents a young woman on her path to become more dangerously violent–this is Harley less humorous and quirky than the animated series version of the character.
Fans know this already, but for those who don’t: Harley Quinn is a character created in 1992 by Dini and Bruce Timm, with a name that is a shortened version of the created names “Harleen” and “Quinzel” (derived from the word harlequin), to add a female character to Batman tales named consistently with the names of a long line of popular DC villains. Mad Love is a character origin dissimilar to standard comic book origin fare, and something different from the goofy sidekick and romantic partner of The Joker readers will find in more recent stories. As a child, Harleen likes her father, who works long hours, and resents her brothers and mother. Her father turns to crime, distancing her from her family. She picks up gymnastics along the way, and is successful enough to make the Olympics, but doesn’t. Instead she takes to trying to use her knowledge of psychiatry from college to do some good. Unfortunately she chooses Arkham Asylum as her starting point. Her intelligent but distracted mentor trusts her, but once Quinzel starts breaking the rules of psychiatry, it’s a slippery slope, culminating in a career-ending decision.
Mad Love reveals a thinly crafted background for a popular character’s origin story. Here she is shown as single-layered: weak, easily manipulated by everyone she encounters, and she can’t get past thinking like a child, despite going to college, despite getting a degree in psychiatry. She shows the reader how little she learned when she tries too early in her career to take on The Joker as a patient. As the ultimate villainous mastermind of this DC universe, The Joker finds it easy to twist her into a tool of his escape. Yet all along she acts the part of doting girlfriend, never realizing she was never his girlfriend in the first place–she is defined by her poor choices. The Joker even let’s her know, but she likes him anyway.
At any point in the story any child could have realized she was being played, an excuse for a writer to make the character turn strong is missed repeatedly, perhaps she could have acknowledged or fought off the manipulation at some point, but, painfully, that never happens. The toughest part to digest is The Joker barely even tries to manipulate her.
Dini and Cadigan paint a character who is neither hero nor anti-hero. She’s lost somewhere between the heroes and anti-heroes of the DC pantheon, so taking readers on a full journey from youth to adulthood with so little a character arc becomes a difficult ride. The excuse for the character’s faults is a broken family, but that family presented is no different from millions of families that don’t result in life as a sociopath or partner of a master criminal. Her acquired dependent personality disorder is never addressed here from a treatment standpoint, except a brief afterthought at the end. Harleen Quinzel is given a bad hand and never gets her redemption. Don’t be misled by the title, this is not a love story–there is neither romance nor affection between anyone in this story.
A well-written story from one of Harley Quinn’s creators, taking fans on a dark ride, different from the typical superhero tale, but something Harley Quinn fans may want to check out, Harley Quinn: Mad Love is available in a 288-page hardcover edition from comic books stores and here at Amazon now.