Harleen #1 is published by DC Comics under their DC Black Label imprint with story and art from Stejpan Šejić (Sunstone) and letters by Gabriela Downie. The book follows the famous character Harley Quinn in her days as Dr. Harleen Quinzel, before she was terrorizing Gotham as the legendary super-villain. After giving a presentation on her revolutionary research on the mind’s ability to corrupt its own fight or flight response after being overused, Harleen finds that most benefactors aren’t interested in her world because it is not lucrative, despite how life-changing it could be. But a night of drinking her sorrows away leads to the worst and best night of her life as she has a run-in with the Joker himself.
While not exactly love at first sight, following her run-in with Joker, Harleen cannot stop thinking about Gotham’s own clown prince of crime. Harleen decides not to tell anyone about her traumatic experience and instead throws herself into working on her revolutionary cure for the madness. Now with a benefactor willing to fund her research, Bruce Wayne, she just has to prove it actually works. She has to do so despite the criminal justice and mental health establishments determined to undermine her and her work.
Harleen #1 is a reimagining of Harley Quinn’s origin and specifically her tumultuous romantic relationship with the Joker. Harley Quinn’s original origin in Batman: The Animated Series, the episode titled “Joker’s Favor,” was downright perfect. Her first comic book appearance, Batman Adventures: #12 followed by the excellent The Batman Adventures: Mad Love (Special), set the tone for what the character would be like on the page. Harleen #1 borrows a lot of elements from her original origin but elevates them for a more mature audience.
To be honest, Harley Quinn is not my favorite character and in recent years she has become DC Comics’ Deadpool. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but also not my cup of tea. However, Šejić is able to bring a level of empathy and emotion to Harley that other runs seem to forgo. Here, Harleen is tortured by her past mistakes and determined to prove herself despite them. Harley is incredibly intelligent, but vulnerable and haunted by her work. Šejić does an excellent job of showing the cracks in her facade and the truth that no matter how much she thinks she has it together, she, like the Joker, is one bad day away from lunacy. In addition to crafting an engaging Harley Quinn, Šejić also captures the Joker’s charisma perfectly. He is unhinged while exhibiting enough intrigue and perceived empathy to make anyone want to get closer.
The best stories about Batman or his rouge’s gallery explore the fragile nature of the mind. Harleen #1 does a fantastic job doing this and sets the series up for success in further exploring Harley Quinn’s descent into insanity. The book also tackles mental health in a more tactful way than most superhero comics. A common trope within Batman is mentally ill villains who become wildly violent. And while Harleen #1 still contains that, it also adds dimension to Harley. The irony that her research leads her to have insomnia as she becomes so obsessed is a familiar sentiment. The burnout and desperation she feels is believable, even in a comic featuring a humanoid crocodile that has murdered hundreds of people. Additionally, Šejić’s art is incredibly expressive and in many panels adds an unsettling beauty to Harleen. Even as she begins to lose her mind, she looks stunning, which only makes it more uncomfortable and is a reminder that illness is not always visible.
Overall, Harleen #1 is spectacular. It is a retelling fitting for the character that borrows enough for the original to keep it familiar but adds darker themes and tones that elevate it. Harleen #1 is the best Harley Quinn story I have ever read. It manages to create something fresh from a story riddled with characters that have oversaturated DC Comics. The oversized issue, which retails at $7.99, is well worth the price.
Harleen #1 is available now wherever comic books are sold.
Overall, Harleen #1 is spectacular. It is a retelling fitting for the character that borrows enough for the original to keep it familiar but adds darker themes and tones that elevate it.