Artist: Bruce Timm
Mad Love, Mad Love, Mad Love. How do I begin to review Mad Love?
Since “Mad Love and Other Stories” was released this month and the “Mad Love Collector's Set” action figures have been announced for release next year (repaints of old sculpts and not the 'new sculpts' the advertising is claiming incidentally) AND the fact that we've hit thirty reviews for this blog... wow... (only 600 to go :P) and I thought well... I have to review Mad Love now.
But how do I do that?
You have to understand, I have no objectivity when it comes to this comic. I became a comic fan and a Batman geek because of JokerxHarley. Because watching them interact in a relationship with each other – just reeled me in. I found it irrisistble and enticing and enchanting and that hasn't changed in the slightest in the last twelve years.
I found out about Mad Love when I was researching Harley on the internet. Oh those early days of the internet! Some of you will know what I'm talking about – when there was about 1/8th of the information online that there is now and it wasn't a fully integrated part of people's day-to-day lives. It was such a new and exciting thing. Anyway, back then there was really only one Harley website – Fuzzy's Harley Home Page. When I found that site – oh wow. I still remember the butterflies. And it was on that page that I discovered the existence of Mad Love.
I had no idea that a cartoon character like Harley could have a whole other world I didn't know about. Comics!! It was an incredible and thrilling prospect to consider – and I actually got a feeling of nausea when I realised that Harley had potentially been in all these comics and how was I ever going to get my hands on them??
Of course, at the time, Harley had had only a handful of appearances, but I didn't know that. It was all new to me – and how would I ever access a list, either? Gosh, the thought she'd be in something without me knowing was horrendous.
I'd just started poking my nose into comics and Mad Love was at the top of my list. I can't recall if it was the first comic I bought, or amongst the first and when I say that, I mean in the first three. It wasn't in my local (remembering there are, like, three comic book stores in the entirety of Sydney, Australia's largest city... I mean Sydney is to Australia what London is to England, right?) but they had it way out in Parramatta, about an hour's drive from where I lived in the city proper. And I was a kid. And so when I discovered it out there, with that clinging, craving, covetous feeling of desperation, I pleased with my parents to drive me out there to get it and they did, and that rush of excitement and adrenalin I felt... I mean, you've all had fangeek experiences like that, right? Right?
Mad Love. I carried that friggin' comic around with me. I took it to school every day. I got a second copy so I could keep one mint. My dear friend Joanna, my first ever online friend, sent me her second copy of the out-of-print first edition, which I keep bagged and boarded and buried deep in a box. When I packed up all my comics and put them away in my parents' garage for six years, Mad Love was one of only two I kept out (the other was The Killing Joke). When I've had partners or friends I've wanted to understand me just that little bit better, I've handed that comic over and asked them to read it.
Reading Mad Love is a rollercoaster of emotional experiences for me. In some ways, some days, I can hardly bear to read it. Other days, I read it with so much delight and love. It's so precious to me.
Just writing this is making me tear up.
The thing is, I've now told you all this and I still don't know where to start in actually reviewing it.
Mad Love is a highly, highly regarded comic and for good reason. It won the Esiner and the Harvey Award for Best Single Issue Comic of the Year in 1994 & 1995 respectively. I don't know if many people realise, but it was pretty much Dini and Timm's first ever attempt at even writing/illustrating a comic book. Perhaps because of this, it is told in an uber-traditional style that only sets off the tale it contains all the more gloriously. I mean, if nothing else, this is storytelling at its best. Classic, deceptively simple yet terribly complex once you start delving deeper, woven brilliantly together, well-balanced between humour and tragedy and with timeless and compelling characters beautifully depicted, ensuring our full attention. It's the “whole package” - script and art blend seamlessly together to produce a tale that gets completely under your skin.
I have this fear, right now. In the past, I have done long, intense and meta-laden reviews of other classic Joker stories and Mad Love is owed the same. But I feel intimidated. I'm not sure I can give it that, not to the same extent. I think it may be too close. I think trying to go down the path of describing everything I get out of this story would simply drive me to insanity. I'm sort of afraid to get started lest I never know when to end.
I'll do my best, okay? And try to keep it a reasonable length...
Mad Love, Mad Love. It's Harley's story, but you would be mistaken to think it's just her story. It's the story of Joker and Harley but it's not just about them either. It's about Batman and Joker as well. Finally, it's a Batman story. Truly. Through Joker and Harley and their twisted, torturous relationship, an absolutely classic Batman story is told – this is all the things the Batverse is about. Through witnessing these two together somehow we get to the heart of the Batverse and of Batman and everything he's about as well.
A villain can be measured by their origin story. The world of superhero comics has seen multitudes of villainous births and more than most of these are trite, repetitive, cheap and predictable. Female characters fare even worse. Harley's origin story is unique, sophisticated, compelling and even ugly – whilst at the same time being subversively humorous and parodic. Yes, like many female characters, Harley's motivations here are a man. But not one who has been killed or who has raped her or murdered her family. Her story is not one of a pursuit of vengeance or retribution. In the moments her sanity finally shatters, she spins the story on its head, becoming empowered – it is she who drives the action, releasing the Joker from her former place of employment rather than the other way around. Indeed, it is she who drives the action throughout the entire story as her love for the Joker compels her to push for control of her life and situation. She is not content to sit back and be dragged along – it's Harley who makes things happen here.
It is also made clear Harley is not wholly a victim – that she came to the Joker already with a streak of ruthlessness and cunning. It was this the Joker spied; in combination with her obvious naivety it must've been an intoxicating brew for that psychological warfarist. It was this that prompted him to reach out to her – to extend the invitation to enter his world. He manipulated her, but she was there to manipulate him, too.
But of course, the critical difference between them is Harley's heart. Though she may be manipulative and cunning, ambitious and even ruthless to a degree, her heart is warm and true and open. Regardless, it's still staggering it is the Joker that captured it, eager though it is to give. It reflects only further Harley's strange uniqueness – that all of the love and devotion she had to give, she gave it to him, a monster through and through. It's something by which Harley can be measured and something for everyone who dismisses her should bear in mind: she loves the Joker. This is not someone you mess with or underestimate. She loves the friggin' Joker! Yes, she's foolish and delusional and hopeless. But the girl has something more – she's fearless. She's unafraid of being swallowed up by the gory black pit of his madness. She dives right in.
And possibly the greatest accomplishment of all of this operatic drama – we are with her. From beginning to end, we're so utterly with her. We love her. We feel for her. We laugh at her and cry for her. She does terrible things. She does terrible things and treats them like a game. But our hearts break for her anyway.
I know there are people out there who don't like Harley Quinn. I don't understand them, but I know they exist.
By and large though, it seems that most people love her and love her because we see ourselves in her.
I wonder if many of those who dislike her do so for the same reason.
Much like any great Joker story is arguably also a Batman story, any great Harley story is arguably also a Joker story. Mad Love reveals to us a great deal of the Joker also, what motivates and drives him, demonstrates how he sees the world and interacts with it, shows off just what sort of monster he is by exploring his two major relationships.
One of the key themes to Joker stories is his capacity and desire to drive others mad. Nowhere is this so neatly embodied than in Mad Love: she was his psychiatrist. The person responsible for his mental health. The person who, symbolically, stood 'over the line' of insanity, representing absolute reason and sanity.
He didn't just drive her insane – he's done that to other doctors – he drove her into leaping over that line and joining him in his particular brand of madness. What could be more horrifying, more threatening? What could serve as a greater lesson to the world as the proof of his most awful convictions? It's Harley. In all her giggling, playful, sweet-natured, friendly, perky insane dangerousness, Harley is the Joker's most devastating joke and a very real warning to the world of what he will do should the world mess with him (as those damned doctors are always trying to do...).
The Joker, as Batman's monster, is compelled by his desire to destroy his creator – by seeking out Batman's attention. Likewise, as Joker's monster, is Harley motivated. They are in opposition to each other even (especially) in their union. Yet somehow they both make it work. When Joker presents the rose to Harley at the denouement of the tale, it is his statement that he wants to make it work, although it will never truly be possible.
Mad Love also demonstrates how, as much as she may love and adore him, Harley ultimately doesn't truly understand the Joker. This is perhaps key to what keeps them from being wholly united. Harley “gets it” more than anyone else, but not sufficiently so that the Joker can feel she is his equal. Harley fundamentally does not understand Joker's obsession and fixation on Batman although it mirrors her own with him and this leads to the Joker's unending frustration with her. It's a craw in his shoe that he can't be without her and yet she doesn't get it. He finds roles for her to play in his schemes – hell, even allows her to collaborate – and she's right alongside him, enjoying it thoroughly and yet – she's missing something. How infuriating he must find that, especially in her obliviousness to it as well. Of course, this is most fully realised in the climax of the story, where Harley so earnestly attempts to kill Batman, believing this will “fix” everything.
Yet even as this lack of understanding keeps her from being his truly perfect partner, it is also what lends her the humanity she retains – that is arguably the reason she is so very much beloved. In fact, it is this humanity that enables her to love the Joker as much as she does; her capacity for compassion and ability to empathise with him is critical in why she loves him. She's the one who sees him in his most private and unguarded moments, beyond the sob stories about a concocted childhood, and it's what keeps her tied to him, even as it keeps her apart from him.
In this way, Mad Love is a tragedy. It is the story of a very real but very hopeless love. We should ache for Harley, pity her, cry for her. As the tale of her seduction, manipulation and madness unfolds, we should be at once enraptured and horrified, knowing there's simply no way this story can have a “happy” ending and we don't really want it to either...
Yet, in its twisted way, it IS a happy ending, because it's the ending she really wants. He reaches out to her, there's validation in that. That's what she seeks more than anything else. Harley is most miserable in her moments of sanity, when she's trying to convince herself he really doesn't care.
But Mad Love is also a comedy, which helps to display its tragic qualities all the more. Somehow, it's the way a romance story of such exaggeration, a parody of contemporary romance and ideals, should be.
Joker and Harley perform their gendered roles in a very particular way, whilst at the same time queering them up (for example Joker has effeminate qualities, Harley is the muscle). I'm not sure I can explain this so that I mean is clear, but let me give it a go: they're clowns. They therefore literally perform a classic and exaggerated parody of gender roles – yet at the same time, because they are clowns and it is therefore their inherent nature to do that, this performance is genuine. They're at once conscious and unconscious of it, contrived and entirely natural. But critical to that, as well, is giving it a twist – reversing those roles on occasion (the petite, all-American blonde is the bodyguard, the red-blooded male is more often pleading a 'headache') and then equally inhabiting the space where there are no defined gender positions (is it the boy's or the girl's job to kidnap the mayor and rig the explosives?).
If that ramble made any sort of sense, Harley's fantasies of happy families and suburban living, suitably distorted with murder, mayhem and bloodshed, continue this performance. Harley is a glorious parody of the pining girlfriend who just wants her wild man to settle down – and is made more so by the violent methods she uses to try and attain this goal. Her fantasy is not pure – it is perverted by her own insanity. This makes it more obvious that her fantasy is more about what she/we are told we want – it's also a clear theme of Harley's stories that the normalcy she claims to so desire often leaves her unsatisfied and even at this early stage in her development, we see that clearly in how her fantasies have their ugly, twisted edge to them. It's a commentary on the brainwashing we all undergo – that's not to say the urge for a loving family environment is ridiculous, unattainable or undesirable, but that Harley's uber-traditional yet completely perverse visions of such are based on a contrived ideal that really doesn't translate well to reality. That Harley positions herself as happy homemaker in these fantasies – although her actual lived role in her relationship with Joker at the time was far more active, if you will, in terms of participation in his 'career' and her duties – in a completely over-the-top parody of the nuclear family unit that really hasn't got much of a place in modern society and not much at all to do with Harley's actual life – being a housewife was the furthest thing from her mind when she went to Arkham; pursuing a life of crime seems a step even further removed from that traditional duty. So why does she concoct this vision of herself in this way? It enables a wonderful satirical comment to be made, not particularly on modern romance, but on the way modern romance is commercialised and represented in media to us. How those rigidly defined roles and aspirations are largely unnatural and a carefully ingrained and trained set of performances. What makes it so delightful is we are laughing at ourselves as much as at her.
And that said, I think it indicates Harley lived a life devoid of family. Her desire to go back in time – her fantasies are completely retrograde – suggest Harley never knew that sort of life and feels its absence. And this, too, is why she concocts the particularly out-dated image that she does – it's one she would've absorbed through media rather than something she actually experienced. In the end and despite its genuine hilarity, it's also a rather poignant insight into a lonely and broken mind.
The lengths Harley goes to for her love is also a brilliant satire. Love inspires us to great deeds? Yeah... sure... she takes it to the extreme. She takes it beyond extreme. She takes it as far as she can go, truly fulfilling that oft-cried phrase in movies and songs: “I'd do ANYTHING for love!” Love as the passion which consumes our souls is an incredibly popular, predominate, overarching theme, and in Mad Love is where we see that so wonderfully actualised. It's a love story. It's romance. It's a fantastic distortion of a love story, but it's no less of one for that. It takes all the drama and pathos and times it by a thousand and we still recognise it.
Mad Love is also a careful and irreverant depiction of an abusive relationship. I'm sure everyone is already aware aspects of this story were based on a person Paul Dini and Bruce Timm knew. Please note that relationship was not traditionally abusive – the lady in question was expending a great deal of energy on someone who was using her and not reciprocating the commitment. Nonetheless, inspiration was drawn from it for Mad Love. In the early days of this relationship, its abusiveness was more subtextual and implied – for the better part of Mad Love Joker seems largely neglectful and disinterested, with his impulsive behaviour leading to incidental endangerment (squirting acid at the Batfigure Harley is standing in front of) rather than him being concertedly abusive. This makes the scene where he ultimately does strike her all the more shocking. But it's important to remember the abuse is constant, underlining the relationship at all times. It takes place on multiple levels and making it wholly physical takes away from not only the impact but the true and full tragedy and horror of it.
What is perhaps worse is that, regardless of this, there is a genuine twisted happiness and delight to it, moments of absolute unity that add another layer to the abuse. This is the only way the Joker knows how to function in a relationship and to remain with him, Harley has to accept that.
Whilst I believe very strongly that Harley is not truly a “victim” in the traditional sense, and while Mad Love, in Dini's own words, is not intended to be a victim's tale, Harley is still, in many ways and in this way most especially, a victim.
For some it may be disconcerting the abuse here is often depicted in comedic fashion. That's good. It should be disconcerting, even as yes, you laugh. If you look at the traditional clown characters throughout history and time, their partnerships again had this exaggerated, ridiculous and truly grotesque violence between them – that got reversed. It was never wholly one-sided, as it isn't between Joker and Harley and the purpose of that is to, once again, depict a distorted reflection of society and relationships. It's over-the-top to make its message clearer.
Finally, it's important to note Harley does indeed trump the Joker in this story. This is at the crux of their relationship too, and her capacity to outdo him is an example of the more subtle ways in which a more equitable balance is achieved between them. He's painfully aware of this and it infuriates him. She does it wrong, of course – the joke isn't perfect, she just doesn't get it – but she gets. so. close. He created a monster, and it thinks and feels and acts independently of him and yet he just can't bring himself to get rid of it., because damnit, he created it and he's pleased with it too. What's worse is that his peers know this. Mad Love, in one of its many, many underlying themes, demonstrates how Harley is the Joker's vulnerability, summated when the Batman taunts him: “Puddin'”. That reminder of this all-too-human weakness of his drives him absolutely beserk. That Batman, of all people, should perceive this and exploit it – I mean, look at what happened – Batman didn't have to taunt him. Batman could've just taken him out. But no. Batman had to stand there and mock him: I know your weak point, and I'm going to rub it in your face. It's a matter of pride, so, so much pride here: that not only does he have this weakness, this monster he made that he loves and who calls him by silly pet names like Puddin', but that the wretched thing almost offed the Batman and that oaf is standing right there telling him so! Oh god, the conflicting emotions can barely be imagined. There is just so much of his dignity that has been compromised here – his abilities as a performer, as Batman's greatest foe, as the least human of all Batman's Rogues – that this twitty, silly little blonde bimbo should have the power to upend his world is absolutely critical to understanding Joker's behaviour in this relationship. Which is not a justification – he is a sick and wrong individual – but in his mind it's the only way to respond.
Harley Quinn gets her dues in this story. I just don't understand why people continue to dismiss her out and out as a screwup, as stupid, as incompetent. What these people continually fail to understand is that she is the Joker's girlfriend.
As Batman himself says it – in her own way, she is as crazy as him. SHE HAS TO BE! She's the friggin' Joker's girlfriend! That's not something just anyone can be. That puts her right 'up there', at the very, very top. She lives with the Joker, manages him, helps out in his schemes, stands up to him and LOVES HIM. She is a force to be reckoned with and more fool you if you forget that – and that's what Mad Love goes a long way to show us. She is a dangerous dame, completely crazy and not one to underestimate. Ever. Yeah, she's obsessively in love – and just look at what that love has driven her to do. She truly is a scary character in many ways, exactly as she is. If anything, her perky, childish bimbosity only makes her more so. All that comedy makes it too easy to ignore the people getting their heads bashed in. It's still happening.
Whilst it is the story that set-up the essential dynamics of the relationship between Joker and Harley and told its origins, it is not the story by which their relationship should be judged now. That's the thing, and that's what makes it a difficult and heart-rending read for me – it's very much the story of their relationship “early on”, before it evolves to the point which it has. But some will insist nothing at all has changed, simply based on Mad Love. It's a similar problem to that faced by The Killing Joke, in which that comic is considered the number one Joker story and so all other subsequent Joker stories are judged against it. Mad Love is held as the uber Harley and JokerxHarley story and so a blind spot can be developed to their later stories and how their relationship evolves. And yet, in the foreword for Dangerous Dames and Demons, reprinted in Mad Love and Other Tales, Paul Dini states that when they're together “now” it's an equal partnership.
So there's that, and there's the fact of Harley's own heartbreak within the story. I find that difficult to see and difficult to read. Her crisis of faith, the intensity of her torment – I've always felt it, been so with her in those moments, and the horror of that doubt. You could believe it if you wanted to, too and that hurts as well.
Yet in amongst all of that, amongst all the unreciprocation and abuse and neglect that you could dig into and sing as the gospel if you really, really wanted to, there's a far more interesting and even more heartbreaking story beneath it all. Because while it's so subtle, it's in there – the evidence of the Joker's love for Harley and his loneliness and his need for her, and how only she really understands that (although Bats certainly demonstrates an awareness on a couple of occasions) – and therein lies the real tragedy, because that's what really keeps her tied to him. And he will never, ever let her go. His dark love for her is revealed in the subtlest ways – his dragging her out by her liliripes in the beginning, the revelation he let her collaborate, asking her where she's been, his reaction to being called Puddin' and giving her that final rose – even at this early stage, it's there and is at once ugly and beautiful.
But their relationship has evolved and this story, whilst a brilliant depiction of their earlier days, would not ring true if it were told now. That's not to say I think it should be any different – it is absolutely right and true for the period in their relationship that it was written about and could not be a single word different.
Having this story told through the perspective of the woman who loves the Joker is also a really beautiful way to make it a Joker & Batman story. And really, you could only tell this sort of story through Harley's eyes – because so much of Joker's existence revolves around Batman. Telling it through Selina's or Talia's just wouldn't be the same, wouldn't throw into as fantastic relief this tense, codependent rivalry and obsession, because Joker is Batman's monster and his reality revolves around him. In this way, we get to see how thoughts of the Batman dominate the Joker's every waking moment, how the ongoing battle with him is a matter of pride, of proving himself and of triumphing over the world – making the point about the horrible darkness he believes is the only real truth of life. This is the Joker's mission, this conviction the world is a great joke, and he believes that by conquering Batman he will somehow prove this once and for all and be validated. It's a big reason why he cannot commit fully to Harley, cannot give her more attention – so much of him is consumed by this effort to understand and prove himself. It's a very wretched sort of love triangle – his ongoing rivalry with Batman ties him to a sense of purpose and so the need for him is unending. As we witness this through Harley's longing for him, we come to understand the Joker and his relationship with Batman much better.
Now, before I finish up with this ramble I laughingly call a review, one thing I notice a lot of people pick out about this story as a criticism is both the unbelievability of Harley being given the Joker as a patient, and how quickly he works his magic on her, that no one would believe his 'opening up' to her would happen in the first session.
Yeah, sure. Of course it's unbelievable. No, realistically she'd never be allowed near him at that early stage and it would've taken him a lot longer to break down her mind and he would've played the game very carefully.
But what I think this is a really good example of, and one thing I really feel Paul Dini excels at, is utilising good storytelling techniques. That's not to say he never stumbles or makes mistakes, but I don't think this is one of them and I don't think it's something that should be criticised. From a storytelling perspective, it simply makes good sense.
They had 60 pages to tell the story in, and had to utilise every single panel and page to the absolute best of their ability. This includes Harley's backstory as well as the primary story.
From a storytelling perspective, having the “big confession” in anything but the first session would've been anti-climactic. If you think about what that would've required, say a narrative box explaining that, for example: “We'd been having sessions for three months when the day finally came...”. It's like a hiccough in the story. It reduces impact as opposed to going straight into the revelation in one smooth motion. They have to keep the pace going, in a way that keeps us engaged, keeps the stakes going higher and makes best use of the page numbers they have to tell the story in. it's also useful for demonstrating Harley's own mental instability. Again, due to that space limit, Harley having the Joker as a patient is explained by a narrative box discussing months of imploring, but even a few panels showing her pleading with Joan would've slowed the story down.
It's really worthwhile paying attention to the way Dini both constructs a story and talks about constructing a story, cos he's very, very good at it. Of course, he can't claim all the credit – Bruce Timm no doubt loaned a heavy hand here too, and Mad Love really stands as a wonderful testament to both their excellent storytelling skills. It's not as simple as you think.
Mad Love, Mad Love, Mad Love. I don't think I have even begun to do justice to this glorious story. Writing this has been so hard – I've teared up a few times (I'm tearing up now!), felt frustrated I wasn't expressing myself properly, sure I've missed out so much. I apologise if it falls short, but my perspective and objectivity on this one is seriously handicapped. I'm too close to it, it means too much to me.
So with that said – I'd really like to encourage your comments on this one. If I've missed something you think is critical, please speak up! Share your own observations, your own stories of experiencing this comic, countering opinions, whatever!
You know, if I really only had to tell you to buy one comic book, I think this one would have to be it. And since it's just been released collected, you have no excuse. I can't even begin to encourage you enough to get this comic. You MUST get this comic. If you have any love for Joker and Harley in your heart, you owe it to yourself to get this comic. GET THIS COMIC.