(w/a) Stjepan Sejic
Writer and artist Stjepan Sejic has come to be one of the more revered artists in the comics industry. Making full use of classic and modern tools, he has developed a style that is instantly recognizable and has readers salivating for more. Moreover, he has also become equally lauded for his storytelling as seen in works such as Death Vigil and Sunstone. So when it was announced that he’d be working on his own project at DC, fans were salivating over the possibility of him taking the reins of one of the publisher’s iconic characters. However, the announcement of Harleen was met with deflated optimism, as readers saw it as yet another Harley Quinn project, with the character already seen as overexposed. With that said, the first issue of Harleen defies expectations by showcasing the woman who would go on to become Harley Quinn, and her descent into madness.
Harleen takes full advantage of DC’s Black Label, particularly the larger page format. Sejic does pepper in a few splash pages, but the issue primarily is full of well paced and laid out pages that focus on character development and introspection. Beginning with a surrealist dream, Sejic flexes the muscles he has honed over the course of his career. The imagery he uses is terrifying and mesmerizing. It is an excellent way to draw the reader into the story before plopping them into the boring, ordinary world of 30-something working woman Harleen Quinzell.
This is probably the most extended look at Harleen’s pre-crime life, and Sejic paints her as a deeply flawed, likeable, and relatable protagonist. She is a relative loner, having only one close friend in the big city of Gotham. She’s earned some personal baggage, the result of a tryst with one of her college professors. Seeing her struggle through the reputation she’s garnered and its effect on her own self-image is wonderfully balanced. Sejic really does a great job in portraying the emotional range that a character with these experiences would have, especially through his expressive artwork. Each emotion if earned and authentic. While there are moments in which Sejic makes a facial expression a bit too cartoonish, it is still believable in the world he has established.
Two of the book’s best sequences for this involve Harleen’s funding presentation and subsequent award. As she begins, she is confident and well spoken. But as soon as it appears that audience members are not fully paying attention, she begins to stutter and flounder as her own sense of self-worth begins to crumble. Later, when she meets with Lucius Fox over the funding of her research project, her initial reaction is “why me?” – indicative again of her own lack of self-esteem. This conversation is immediately followed up with one where she is reminded that just because she’s made mistakes doesn’t mean she hasn’t earned the funding.
Of course, the story of Harleen Quinzell would be incomplete without Batman and the Joker. A significant chunk of the issue is dedicated to a Joker-led rampage and battle with Batman in the streets of Gotham that Harleen is witness to. At first, she shares an interaction with the Joker that is, in the book’s words, was not “love at first sight.” Sejic’s depiction of the Clown Prince of Crime most closely resembles that of the 1992 animated series, where he is wholly unpredictable. This Joker will either kill you, tickle you, or play twisted mind games. Their first interaction sees him opt for that third option, thinking that he will haunt her dreams forever. And haunting her dreams is exactly what he does, as it becomes a recurring theme throughout the remainder of the issue. It drives her approach to research, her interviews, and her interactions with other characters. These are the building blocks for Harleen’s inevitable turn.
Sejic’s artwork is, as usual, beautiful. Admittedly, there are instances where the artwork looks rushed, which has been a recurring pattern in his DC work. But as a whole, his version of Gotham City is believable and lived in. While there are the usual flourishes of grimy and gothic, there are parts that appear modern and generally nice. It makes Gotham look like a place people would want to live, which is a recurring criticism of Batman comics throughout the years.
Harleen #1 is a wonderful opening chapter that allows for a singular, unique vision of one of DC’s most popular characters. While notably different from other Harley Quinn projects, Harleen honors the character’s history while forging ahead in a new direction that can serve as the character’s defining origin story. Not since Mad Love has a Harley Quinn story been this good.