When people describe a modern work of media as being “noirish,” most of the time what they’re actually thinking of is neo-noir—the tremulous, bloodstained worlds of films like Chinatown, Miller’s Crossing and more modern films like Drive. But noir in its original incarnation wasn’t quite as bleak as it’s remembered nor as gruesome as the legacy its progeny would leave: whether it came from the machine gun wit of Double Indemnity or the open batshittery of early Sam Fuller films like The Naked Kiss or Shock Corridor, early noir had room for levity and playfulness in a way that frequently distinguished it from the films and novels the genre ended up inspiring.
In this sense, Mad Love by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm can be thought of as noir by the original definition of the world: existing in a world of stark violence and moral turpitude, there is nonetheless a joy and spritely ease of storytelling here that’s rarely been repeated in a Batman comic in the two-plus decades since this story was first published. It’s little wonder it’s so fondly remembered by fans and widely regarded as one of the best Batman comics ever made, even if there are some unexplored avenues that make one wonder what could have been upon a closer reading.
Like many of us, I first experienced Mad Love not in comic form but as an episode of the Batman cartoon from the 1990s. It was striking to me how, even having not seen the episode since I was a little boy, I remembered so many of the story’s beats, down to specific lines of dialogue and facial expressions. Much of that is due to the art of Bruce Timm, whose approach here I can best liken to Jules Dassin by way of Tex Avery. There’s a boldness to his work that can make iconic moments out of words and gestures. His layouts are simple and economical, yet he conveys an incredible amount of information. The Joker practically booms off the page every time he appears, and Harley Quinn is the perfect marriage of brazen seductress and stunted naïf; glinting and swaying one moment, howling and cowering the next, the rapidity with which her body language changes, and the ease with which this change is conveyed, is fascinating.
And indeed, it’s Harley who (quite literally) steals the show in Mad Love. Though not her first appearance, the comic functions as her origin story and Paul Dini works it as a compelling dramatic vehicle for her character. There’s an ongoing debate in comics fandom, likely never to be resolved, about whether Harley Quinn is a feminist powerhouse or a stereotypical battered spouse who normalizes abusive relationships. Mad Love ducks this question entirely by showing that she is in a sense both, and more: from an ambitious, cutthroat professional to a simpering romantic sidekick to a bold criminal mastermind in her own right and back to a psychologically tortured victim, the arc that Harley follows in this story is schizophrenic and noncommittal, forcing the reader to acknowledge that all of these parts of her are concurrent and yet none are definite or final. Perhaps next to the story of Mr. Freeze or Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight, Mad Love is the most varied and dynamic study of a supervillain in Batman’s media history—and, by extension, in all of superhero lore.
Yet even here, it feels like there are elements of Harley’s character that don’t feel imbued with the significance one would think they’d have. The journey Harley takes from an unscrupulous doctor willing to step on anyone for fame and prestige to a battered wife figure who is literally dependent on her mate’s approval for survival is easily explained by Freudian comic logic: The Joker is a vortex of Self, a hundred million personalities that coalesce into a dark nothing that subsumes anyone who comes too close. In that regard, it makes sense that Harley would sacrifice her being unto him once she became romantically invested.
But upon reading it again, I found myself disappointed that the untainted Harley, the schemer and saboteur, doesn’t make much of an appearance again in this story. True, she conducts a masterful performance which lures Batman into her trap, and Batman herself even compliments the ingenuity of her scheme. But her great idea is a simple repurposing of something the Joker left on the cutting room floor: even in her finest hour, she is subservient to the machinations of others. We only ever get to see Harley in the context of her superiors during Mad Love; her potential, her true self, remains a tragic mystery.
Yet the more I write about it and the more I think about it, the more I believe this adds another wrinkle to Mad Love that makes the story richer rather than cheapens it. When you strip away our lovers, our enemies, our schemes and dreams, who are we really? Harley is written as a distinct and layered character, but we’re left with the impression that her luckless situation could become the fate of any one of us were we to live without caution or prudence, only firm belief and naked desire. Mad Love is a fire in a hall of mirrors that paints a compelling cartoon portrait of an unspooled but incredibly determined psyche, and likely boasts more layers and greater empathy than a comparable slew of “mature” superhero comics to come after it. As kinetic psychological pulp comes, it doesn’t get much better than this, whether the setting is shabby 1940s New York or a kooky, uncorked Gotham ready to blow at a moment’s notice.