When Harley Quinn was first made for the Batman Animated Series episode ‘Joker’s Favour’, in what was supposed to be a one-off role, her creators Paul Dini and Bruce Timm couldn’t predict the impact that she would have, now being one of DC’s most beloved and recognisable characters.
Originally designed as a side-kick for the Joker, her origin story was heavily expanded in the graphic novel Mad Love, which was then made into an episode of the series, where it was revealed that she was in fact once the Jokers psychiatrist before he sent her mad. This is the story that the new novel Harley Quinn: Mad Love tells, albeit in a much more expansive and deeper way. Writers Paul Dini and Pat Cadigan work together to craft a tale that’s more about the deeper emotional journey of Harleen Quinzel rather than a focus on her time as the costumed villain.
Beginning during her childhood, the book explores Harleen’s early years, a time when she comes to believe that police and law enforcement officials are corrupt, evil men out to punish ‘good’ people like her father, and where the seeds of her future madness are sown when she witnesses the murder of two gangland thugs. This is an area that has never really been explored in the past, but is a welcome addition to the Harley Quinn mythos.
It’s always seemed something of a leap that the Joker was so manipulative that he could turn a well educated and intelligent doctor into someone as mad as Harley, so making it clear that she herself suffered through childhood trauma, that she was suffering from mental health issues before she ever heard the name Joker, makes her eventual psychological break much more realistic.
Harleen’s time in Arkham before she eventually becomes a patient there herself is also expanded upon, not only showing her as a competent young doctor trying new and innovative treatments, but also her first meetings with other Batman villains such as Poison Ivy and Killer Croc.
And yes, the book does cover the events of ‘Mad Love’, though these don’t fill a huge amount of the book. The initial meetings between Harleen and the Joker are heavily expanded upon, not just giving us more interactions between the two of them, but a deeper insight into the emotional journey Harleen is going through. The more memorable moments from the story, the Death of a Hundred Smiles for example, is very brief and feels a little out of place mainly due to trying to mix together a very real world and the events of a children’s TV episode, yet still works well.
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Harley Quinn: Mad Love gives readers the best insight into the history and mental state of Harley Quinn to date, making use of the novel format to spend time delving into her inner thought processes that a comic just couldn’t do with its limited space and restrictions of the format. The book lets you see Harley more as a real person than just a costumed crazy: a deeply flawed and damaged person yes, but a person nonetheless.
It’s strange to read about comic book characters in a prose book, a format where they’re hardly used. Comic books are such a visual medium and form of story telling that it can translate to television, film, and video games with little difficulty, but the written word can at times be difficult. Thankfully, the focus on character here means that it never feels like the story doesn’t belong in a book, or that the world is too fantastical to work in this format.
If you’re a fan of Batman, Harley Quinn, or even just comics in general, then Harley Quinn: Mad Love is a great read, one that makes the world of Gotham City and Arkham Asylum feel real, and the inhabitants less like colourful caricatures or stereotypes. Whether it’s major players like Harley and the Joker, or more minor characters that appear only briefly and are created just for the book, everyone is given the time and effort to be made into a realistic and rounded character. A great book for fans of comics, and an absolute must for those who love Harley Quinn.