A Batman Novel.
A BATMAN. NOVEL. I read the words over and over as saliva dripped out of my mouth and onto the keyboard. My desk neighbors at work noticed but didn’t say anything- they’re used to this by now from when I look at action figures.
A Batman Novel. A Batman Novel. TWO of them technically – Mad Love and The Killing Joke, my two favorite stand-alone books. Mad Love – the book arguably that’s why my entire apartment is literally stacked with Harley Quinn action figures and comic books and costumes and shirts and posters. In NOVEL format. The format that I, arguably, abandoned several years ago to become obsessed with comics. The ratio has, admittedly, shifted in the last few years, and I find myself only returning to novels to revisit old favorites or catch the odd true masterpiece (go read Annihilation right now). However I devour comic books and classic graphic novels at the rate I once read books at, and console myself that I still read more recreationally than the average American while ignoring the nagging voice at the back of my mind that they are picture books, and that my ten year old self would scoff at someone who read mainly comics, and neglected novels and short stories.
Broke and preparing for Christmas though I was, I immediately ordered both available Batman Novels, and pre-ordered “Court of Owls.” Nothing would keep this hybrid of my two favorite contexts from my possession. When at last they arrived it took everything I could do to not read them at my desk at work. Their cover art is gorgeous – personalized but in consistent style with one another. They weren’t thick, like a paperback Star Wars novel, but they weren’t embarrassingly thin, like a novelized version of a movie, or packed with “special features” – glossy sketches in the center, interrupting the book with fun info, making this less it’s own book than a collector’s item. Hardcover, attractive novels. Judging by the cover, I was impressed, perhaps even optimistic. After years of Harley’s popularity earning her quickly turned-over projects without much standout quality (don’t go watch Batman and Harley Quinn, for instance,) and with Birds of Prey on the way, I was craving something not just familiar, but well-written- not that lack of quality has ever kept me from enjoying something.
It was Paul Dini’s dedication in the beginning that gave me real hope that this would be a good book, and not something I loved just for the mere fact of its existence. He compared Pat Cadigan, his co-author in this project, to Arleen Sorkin, the original voice of Harley Quinn on Batman: The Animated Series, in giving Harley a real ‘voice’ in the context of the novel. Anyone who Paul Dini says understands my girl, must understand her perfectly.
I dove in.
Mad Love begins with a Lolita-like dreamy father-daughter visit to Coney Island. Honestly in the best and worst ways, it bordered on obscene while taunting the reader for finding something that explicitly was innocent to be so filthy. She loves her father, who works hard to provide for her and her three younger brothers in Brooklyn. What should be disturbing about her joy at spending a day alone with him? But the multiple comments about his “strong arms” and feeling safe – it struck the perfect slightly uncomfortable balance to set up the future walking Daddy issue that goes by Harley Quinn. I was hooked.
And as fast as I was settled into the story, the story became unsettling. Harley witnesses the brutal mob beatdown of her father, and in trying to rescue him, gets him arrested. Her nightmare continues as she eventually walks out of the police station in the middle of the night to return to Coney Island, stalked by two of her father’s attackers. Though she cleverly avoids them for some time, she’s eventually caught and threatened with being sold to someone with a taste for the young, and overhears plans to kill her mother during a feigned hostage exchange. Little Harleen escapes, but the price in trauma and lives is high.
This isn’t the first time Harley has been given a Brooklynite, mob-henchman’s daughter backstory, but it does hash out a lot of prejudices that later come into play as she slowly transitions from logic to madness, and a lot of her passions for circus imagery, as well as her daddy issues, are introduced in this newly detailed origin.
What I found interesting about this part of the tale was Harley’s awareness of the Joker prior to her mad love for him. In this story, as in many, Gotham and its Rogues Gallery are well established before Harleen gets her PhD. However she (as usual) first enters Gotham as a college student, and her discomfort with the idea of a vigilante like Batman being on the loose is more a focal point for her experience in Gotham City than anything to do with the Joker; who she dismisses as a crazed costumed villain a-la Gotham. I re-read the first paragraph that mentioned the Joker because I was certain I’d missed the part where she was intrigued from the beginning, but no – she doesn’t give him a passing thought that she doesn’t give to the other villains of his ilk.
As a Batman fan, and honestly, as a Harley Quinn fan, my own feelings for the Joker are complex and embarrassing. Though he’s fully evil, in every rendition, the Joker’s excuse/mantra of going mad because of a single bad day has always rung very true to me, and I empathize with him though he’d be incapable of empathy altogether. I’ve also always loved a skilled manipulator – even if I fall victim, I tend to enjoy the ride and become more and more seduced by overturning lies and investigating motives than I am with the overall show they put on. The Joker is a showman, and the few glimpses of his perspective that the Mad Love novel gives us are flawless demonstrations of the layers his performances contain. In this adaptation, Harley isn’t the ditzy, “slept her way to the top” student we sometimes get, and yet she only manages to penetrate a few layers of the Joker’s onion of lies in her strategy of immersive therapy which she employs, for some time, as a proof of concept, and later, as an excuse to spend every waking moment possible with her patient.
The steps skipped in Harleen’s logic to get to the Joker’s innocence are filled perfectly by her fears of the police, and her reservations about Batman. Her trauma as a child and the Joker’s ability to laugh in the face of his (feigned) abusive childhood, his strength and bravado, fill the father-sized hole in her heart, and Batman being a trusted and beloved figure acting on his own authority to dominate the weak reflects the faces of the police who took her beaten father to prison instead of the hospital the day they went to Coney Island.
When at last, as we know, Harley assumes her new identity and breaks Mr. J out of prison, she takes him to an abandoned amusement park and weans him off his morphine and into control. He soon drops the act he seduced her with, and her beloved puddin chills on her significantly over time. He still depends on her in ways, but resents it, abusing her verbally until they can be picked up by his gang and transported to a new hideout, where his behavior does not improve. At this point the book overlaps with the comic more than most of the rest, but offers instead detail and insight to beloved scenes like the dentist’s office assassination plan on Commissioner Gordon and the attempted seduction in the Joker’s lair; Harley’s near-defeat of Batman in the piranha tank and the Joker’s battle with Batman on top of the train. The insights offered are painful, crafted lovingly, and make nearly romantic and relatable the classic abuse-victim lines Harley mutters when carted off to Arkham. They hurt the reader the way we know Harley hurts – knowing it’s wrong and silly and fully absurd and still helplessly hurting.
Then it gives us more.
Harley doesn’t have a dead end stay at Arkham, and eventually her former boss, Dr. Leland, declares her safe to send to the halfway house in Gotham, where Harley’s newly minted mental health is immediately tried, and the book ends not with a bang, but a giggle. A nice, powerful turn-around from sighing “angel” at a single rose on her hospital nightstand.
I haven’t always been this way. I used to scoff at Harley Quinn fans, girls glorifying an obviously abusive relationship saying they’re in love with the Joker, a villain not only irredeemable but mostly genuinely, for lack of a better term, unfuckable. This of course was before I read any Harley Quinn content.
She’s been through several reboots, breakups, costumes, and breakdowns, and she’s been a villain, hero, anti hero, and political candidate. She’s pansexual, polyamorous, schizophrenic, and has a PhD. In a lot of ways, Harleen Quinzel reflects the mentality, if not the life story, of a lot of women my age – suffering from childhood trauma while trying to navigate co-dependence, abusive relationships, mental illness, socio-economic imbalances, horrible romances, sexuality, and our inner desire to ignore all of it altogether. Harley picks up any ticket to release her inhibitions – whether it’s jumping on the Joker bandwagon or weaving in and out of a relationship with villainess Poison Ivy, living with actual freak show freaks on Coney Island, or travelling to Apokolips – Harley’s self care routine is to release her id entirely. She hasn’t even always been “excusably bad” or under the Joker’s thumb for her worst crimes – sometimes she’s straight up evil, even more so than the Joker. But she’s always struggling, always rationalizing and layering and it’s always fascinating. She won me over.
Mad Love; A Batman Novel, by Paul Dini and Pat Cadigan exposes Harley in a way even many of her comics had yet to do, probing not just her internal monologue, but the Joker’s, and Batman’s- even Joan Leland’s, to show us the journey Harleen took to madness in perfect clarity. I’ve rarely enjoyed a read this much, and I highly recommend it.