Ricky Church reviews Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity…
Since her debut in Batman: The Animated Series nearly 30 years ago, Harley Quinn has become a huge character of her own with a large popular following. Her origin story of a psychiatrist who treated The Joker before being manipulated by and falling in love with him is one of the most tragic aspects to any villain in Batman’s rogues gallery and is just as popular an aspect for writers and artists to explore. Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity from writer Kami Garcia is a new take on her origin story, but one with a very fresh and unique twist that does not play into any of the traditional elements to Harley’s origin. The book’s psychological horror approach is superbly done and with absolutely fantastic and gruesome artwork Criminal Sanity is a must-read for any Harley Quinn and Joker fan.
Instead of being a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, Harley Quinn is a psychological criminal profiler for the GCPD, working with Commissioner Gordon on a number of cases. Originally training to be a psychiatrist, she was spurred into criminal psychology years before when her best friend and roommate was murdered by a serial killer known as The Joker. When a new series of brutal killings begin across Gotham, Harley has to figure out if it is the work of a new killer or if Joker has returned and evolved his method, taking her down a potentially dark path in her psyche.
Garcia writes a very compelling and captivating story in the vein of Manhunter, Se7en and Zodiac. She captures many of the tropes found in psychological thrillers, but also puts her own spin on them. Much of the story is dedicated to the nature of evil and how exactly you define insanity, something perfectly illustrated (both in Garcia’s script and Mico Suayan’s artwork) during a lecture Harley gives on many of history’s infamous serial killers and their behaviour, control and rationale for their heinous deeds. To use this approach on The Joker, one of fiction’s most evil and insane villains, works incredibly well as Garcia finds something new to say about both Harley and Joker and the depths they are willing to go in order to succeed.
Harley is quite an interesting character in Criminal Sanity. Her intellect is on display throughout the book as she examines many crimes scenes that only become more horrific as each one is revealed. Harley is sharp, committed and has a dry, sarcastic wit as she has to put up with a few clueless investigators who don’t take her theories as seriously as they should. Garcia conveys her thoughts and emotions quite well, making it easy to side with her and see how she’s able to make such insightful and often accurate deductions. While there is a tragic element to Harley with the death of her friend and childhood abuse, she is not exactly sympathetic as she puts on a tough exterior and buries her feelings, preferring to devote herself to her work in trying to uncover The Joker’s identity. It exposes a different kind of vulnerability from her usual interpretation as it puts her at risk of following a darker path of vengeance if not becoming a bigger target for Joker than she already is. Her evolution is well-plotted and examined, creating a complex character arc for this new take on Harley.
The Joker, meanwhile, is presented as a very frightening and deadly mastermind killer. Garcia shies away from the grinning laughter, the slapstick weapons and the dark sense of humour for something that feels much more real and dangerous. Though Joker usually works best without an origin or backstory, the one Garcia presents works for the context of the story’s serial killer focus. Joker is as deadly as he is intelligent, driven by a singular nature to constantly evolve his methods of death to shock Gotham. Throughout the book Joker is presented in a very creepy manner through dark colours and facial expressions alongside Garcia’s cold and to the point dialogue. It is one of the more disturbing characterizations of The Joker that still feels very much in character, even if his obsession with Batman is replaced with Harley Quinn.
In regards to the Dark Knight, he is barely mentioned throughout the story and only appears once at a distance. His absence though isn’t really felt thanks to the focus placed on Harley and her investigation. Under a different writer his absence might have been more noticeable, but Garcia’s characterization of Harley and Joker is strong enough to not even miss Batman making a full appearance. The pacing of the story keeps everything engaging as the tension continuously builds, even when it switches to a flashback of Joker or Harley’s upbringing. The only small nitpick is the ending feels a little rushed in the final few moments, but it is still a very exciting and satisfying climax.
If it hasn’t been said enough, the artwork of Criminal Sanity is simultaneously gorgeous and bonkers. Mico Suayan, Jason Badower and Mike Mayhew deliver excellent visuals throughout the whole book. It is interesting Suayan and Badower’s present time portions of the story are displayed in black and white, giving off a strong film noir vibe with only splashes of colour in certain images to emphasize a character or moment, such as Joker’s make-up, fire or blood. Mayhew’s flashbacks give a consistent style and feel that compliments Suayan and Badower’s work while Annette Kowk merges their them together with her vivid colours that pop off the page. She is especially effective in the present when any sort of colour has much more meaning against the black and white imagery. It is definitely one of the most visually compelling books DC has ever published.
Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity is a very unique and intriguing take on the relationship between Harley Quinn and The Joker. Garcia excels at the characterization of both central characters and finds new depths for readers to explore. The tone of a psychological horror/crime thriller fits perfectly within the world of Gotham City and gives Harley an exciting twist to her usual appearance. The artwork from Suayan, Badower, Mayhew and Kwok is detailed, rich and gruesome with their character’s expressions and body language, city backgrounds and grisly crime scenes. Fans of either characters or of the psychological crime genre will definitely get a kick out of this well-written and visualized book.
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