Book Review: Harley Quinn: Mad Love by Paul Dini & Pat Cadigan
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Media Tie-in, Comics, Superheroes
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Titan Books (November 13, 2018)
Length: 336 pages
My towering TBR and healthy skepticism for comic tie-ins be damned, as soon as I was sent a pitch for Harley Quinn: Mad Love I knew I had to read it. This beloved DC character has been a favorite of mine since my grade school days in the 90s, back when Batman: The Animated Series was pretty much a staple in every kid’s TV repertoire. But what really sold me was Paul Dini’s name on the cover, co-authoring with Pat Cadigan. As one of Harley Quinn’s original creators, Dini’s the only one I would trust to write the definitive origin story for the character.
Most fans are familiar with the broader details behind her transformation into the motley-clad femme fatale who is a frequent accomplice and love interest for the Joker. Before she became Harley Quinn, she was Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a brilliant young psychiatrist who fell in love with the Clown Prince of Crime while treating him at Arkham Asylum, eventually throwing away her promising career to help him escape. But who was she before the Joker, before Arkham, or even before the medical degree? In this novel, Dini and Cadigan take readers back to the very beginning, with a look at Harleen’s childhood growing up in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood as the daughter of a conman and his ex-surgeon wife.
A traumatic event introduced seven-year-old Harleen to death and violence, giving rise to her macabre sense of humor. From a very young age, she had also harbored a strong distrust for law enforcement figures, after witnessing the callous way a group of cops treated her father. This attitude followed her to college, which she attended on a gymnastics scholarship, and then to Gotham City, where she became disgusted with the people’s strange hero-worship of Batman. At Arkham, she sympathized with her patients’ hatred for the caped crusader, who was responsible for putting nearly all of them there in the first place. Of all the inmates, however, she was most fascinated by the Joker, and became obsessed with the idea of making him well. The rest, as they say, is history—though the exact events that took place and the words exchanged between them have always been a bit of a question mark. Until now.
As much as I adore Harley, her story has always struck me as one of the most tragic in the world of comics. Here was this bright, beautiful and talented young woman, who traded it all to be in a relationship where only one person is truly committed to the other. Meanwhile, the Joker, who keeps her close but treats her like garbage, never really seemed to care either way. Even as a child watching the cartoons, I sensed there was something deeply broken about her character, and I believe there’s a good reason for this perception. In all the different forms of media in which she has been portrayed, most either paint her as an oblivious flake or a crazed sexpot. Rarely is she ever given any kind of real agency, as mostly she’s there to play second fiddle to the Joker, to be kicked around and emotionally exploited.
That’s why I think this novel is different. In a way, her manipulation and victimization by the Joker will always be a character-defining element of Harley Quinn, but at the very least, the authors made a real attempt here to explore her personality and give her the autonomy she deserves. In this origin story, Harley’s a genuinely complex individual, not just a lovesick sidekick. The sections detailing her childhood show that the seeds of her deeply-rooted psychological issues were already planted there, long before she met the Joker. The book also takes great pains not to romanticize their relationship. Before Harley fell in love with the Joker, she fell in love with the idea of curing him, and it is this fixation that initially sends her down a dark path.
I guess one could say Harley’s story is a cautionary tale against caring too much. Reading this book, I was reminded of how much I enjoy the duo nature of her character, which is also why I’ll always have a soft spot for her original two-toned costume. She is both villain and victim, in a relationship that is a mixture of love and hate. And while her heart may be in the right place, all her actions are primarily driven by self-interest. The combination of her extreme ambition and her extreme sympathy to others was what ultimately led her to her downfall, and the fact that she severely underestimated the Joker’s abilities as a master manipulator. Knowing exactly what to say and what buttons to push, he was able to use Dr. Harleen Quinzel’s own traumatic past against her, bending her to his will in ways so subtle that even she, an expert in psychiatry, was unable to tell what he was doing to her, or realize what she was starting to become.
Granted, a lot of the story will be familiar if you’ve read the “Mad Love” Batman Adventures comic or have watched the 90s animated series, because then there will be several scenes in this novel you will instantly recognize. Still, the full story of Harley’s origins including her childhood background makes this one worth it, not to mention with the well-rounded treatment of her character by Paul Dini and Pat Cadigan, she actually feels like a real person with real agency in a story that’s all her own. For fans of Harley Quinn and comics in general, I can’t stress enough how much you need this book in your life.