With the Suicide Squad movie right around the corner, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to go back and revisit an early adventure with one of its principal characters: Harley Quinn. ‘Mad Love’ first appeared in “The Batman Adventures” in 1994 as a 64-page special from Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. It was one of her first comic appearances and, to this day, remains a doozy of a story.
Written by Paul Dini
Illustrated by Bruce Timm
Written and drawn by the masterminds behind the critically acclaimed “Batman: The Animated Series,” Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, this Batman one-shot reveals the origins of Harley Quinn as she proves her love to the Joker by trying to eliminate the Dark Knight on her own!
Make no mistake, ‘Mad Love’ is a deeply uncomfortable read. Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, creators of Batman: The Animated Series and Harley Quinn, use the material to explore themes of toxic co-dependency, obsession, and abuse. It’s a jacked-up triangle where Harley, Joker, and, even to an extent, Batman himself bring out the worst in each other, constantly making self-destructive choices and leaving behind a trail of collateral damage.
“We’ve all done it. We’ve all selected the wrong person, all gotten hurt, and hopefully all moved on wiser for the experience,” Dini writes in the forward of my edition of “Mad Love and Other Stories”. “But there are those who, even in the face of constant disappointment, continue to believe that the intensity of their desire will be rewarded by an eventual jackpot of affection.”
Batman: The Animated Series may be the best superhero cartoon ever produced. In all honesty, it might be the best piece of superhero media (outside of comics, but even then) ever created — followed shortly by The Incredibles. The design, the world, the performances . . . everything came together with this singular entropy. Most importantly, though, the show did exceptional work with its characters. And Dini and Timm brought that character emphasis and tonal control to their “Batman Adventures” outing.
What makes ‘Mad Love’ all the more interesting is Dini and Timm’s decision to tell the story through their villains. I am nowhere near qualified to discuss domestic abuse, the causes and the consequences, but I do think having the bad guys deal with it offers up a new and somewhat more terrifying perspective. There’s a part of us that feels some empathy toward Harley Quinn for all her suffering and mistreatment, but at the same time, we’re put off, because she sort of likes it.
And seeing these malicious characters in a perpetual cycle of self-destruction maybe helps us see our own evils and shortcomings. Harley may look cool — she bears a terrific design and an endearing personality — but there’s not much aspirational about her. Once a brilliant shrink, destined for fame and daytime TV, she’s now in Joker’s shadow, maniacal and unhinged.
She’s also at a crossroads in ‘Mad Love’. Dini and Timm make sure to show us how dependent she is on Joker and Joker’s approval (“Aw, c’mon puddin’…don’t ya wanna rev up your Harley?”), which Batman exploits at the comic’s climax. At the same time, they go out of their way to show us a Harley that’s capable of capturing Batman and one-upping Joker at his own game. By the end of it, she’s left with a clear choice of where to head to next, but that toxicity of her relationship is so overpowering, we all get a sense of where she’s going.
Timm keeps his lines minimal and his compositions focused, helping give the story a feeling of movement. Shouldn’t be much of a surprise, considering the animation origins, but he knows how much to show on any given page. He does well to sell an expression or feeling with a simple ink stroke.
Take, for instance, when Dr. Quinzel conducts her first interview with the Joker. Over the course of the scene, Timm presents Joker as excited, lovestruck, reflective, and conniving while never losing sight that he’s messing with her. We can see how he’s manipulating her to him whims, and it seems even a part of Harley knows Joker’s doing this. And she wants more of this attention and affirmation.Continued below
He also structures this book in the “Watchmen”-like 9-panel grid, giving the story something like a countdown, a tickling bomb to the next explosion.
Although there’s plenty of gags and jokes, Timm and Dini never downplay how terrible these abusive moments are. Joker’s treatment of Harley is downright horrifying and, as the story goes on, he becomes darker and more menacing, cast in shadows and silhouettes, a constant presence over her. For all the horrific stuff in and out of canon Joker has ever done, nothing feels quite as despicable as his behavior toward Harley. That might be because it’s such a human trait, something that we hear about all time. Joker’s such a big villain, with over-the-top gestures and schemes, that this very common behavior is unnerving.
It was probably through ‘Mad Love’ that audiences first started to fall in love with the idea of Harley Quinn. Finally not just a background character, but a person with her own ambitions and motivations, she became interesting. Paul Dini and Bruce Timm have a lot to say about these characters and their situation, and they do so with the same style and honesty as they did on the show. It’s a classic story for a reason.