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How Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity reinvented two of DC’s best characters
There is such an embarrassment of riches to be found on a weekly basis at comic book shops, it’s easy to overlook titles that deserve our attention and dollars. Not just new issues that come out each month, but collections of storylines that perhaps we missed for any number of reasons. It's a first-world problem for sure, but it's still a problem. There are simply too many good comics for any fan to be aware of all of them.
On top of that, there is such a focus on the release date that often, all the media coverage about a new comic is built around that first on-sale date, and then, poof! Once it drops in stores, it falls completely off the map, and we move on to the next upcoming release.
That's why this week's Behind the Panel column is about a book that debuted several weeks ago. The Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity hardcover collects the complete eight-issue limited series for DC Black Label by New York Times bestselling author Kami Garcia and all-star artists Mico Suayan, Jason Badower, and Mike Mayhew. It is simply too damn good to allow to fall off the radar without preaching the proverbial gospel about it.
Like most everyone else, I'm a fan of Batman and the entire Gotham eco-system, especially Harley Quinn. But I've always enjoyed Quinn more on her own, so at first, I didn't have much interest in reading this story. Then I read the first issue and was instantly hooked for the entirety of the series. Garcia and artists Suayan, Badower, and Mayhew found a way to tell a Joker/Harley story we hadn't seen before, which is an incredible accomplishment given the ubiquitousness of these characters. It's a procedural crime drama, not a superhero comic. It places these characters in a story that is as plausibly realistic as any Joker story we've ever seen before. It will thrill you and disturb you at the same time.
A big reason for the stellar "creep factor" in the story is that Garcia did extensive research on it. After talking with Dr. Ed Kurz, a forensic profiler Garcia had used as a consultant for her book X-Files Origins: Agent of Chaos, she saw a way in to understanding how the mind of a serial killer like the Joker could be formed. "If you start reading serial killer nonfiction and watching documentaries," Garcia explains during a phone conversation with SYFY WIRE, "One of the first things that becomes clear is that the most difficult, the most calculated and intelligent killers that were the most difficult to catch in real life, were not insane. They were depraved, but they were totally sane."
Taking that approach led her to a very different version of the Joker. He's not the Clown Prince of Crime, he's a brilliant young man whose killer tendencies were forged by his torturous upbringing. He's a performance artist, and his art is death (with apologies to Christopher Walken from Man on Fire). "I wanted to show the scariest possible version of the Joker," Garcia says.
Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity was supposed to be a monthly release, but an unprecedented combination of issues, such as a global pandemic and DC Comics switching distributors interfered with the release and pushed it to bi-monthly. It's one reason why Garcia and Badower were happy to take a break from other deadlines to talk about the collected edition. Aside from being loaded with Suayan's character designs and all the different variant covers, it gives readers a chance to take in the entire story at once. Re-reading it in the hardcover version is incredibly intense, almost like binge-watching a serial killer tv series, which is sort of what the creative team was after. Garcia would have preferred to release the series on a monthly basis, but given the time-intensive nature of a series like this, it became impossible.
"This project literally has taken almost three years to complete. Obviously being able to get an issue every week or every other week, would have been the best in a perfect world," she says. "But I also feel it's super fun to binge in the collected format, because not only can you read it all the way through, but you have the luxury of having it in one binding so that you can flip back easily to previous pages and look at other crime scenes without having all eight issues in front of you."
Badower, however, admits that the collected edition does have one major drawback. "I think Kami's cliffhangers are absolutely spectacular. To live in the tension between them is just so much fun," the artist notes. "And while I absolutely love the collected edition, I think that is the only thing that it loses, because you get it all in one place."
It was a rather unique situation on this book, with three artists working on it. While Suayan worked in traditional format with copic markers on board for his pages, Badower worked almost exclusively on digital, because it gave him more time to work on the intricate layouts that fill each issue. "Me having the extra time I needed for the layouts was huge. Otherwise, [trying to] do it by hand would have been like trying to answer all your emails as handwritten letters," Badower says. "It just didn't seem feasible. I thought I could use that extra time to put all that detail in and the incredible amount of forensic detail that Kami gave me to was phenomenal. It was so inspiring, but also like a big hill to climb every page."
The sparse use of color in the story was a choice made to play to Suayan's strengths after Garcia talked with DC publisher Jim Lee, who is certainly the right person to ask about such things.
"One of the first things I did when Nico said he would do the project and we were looking for our other artists was, I went to Third Eye Comics, my local store and said, 'I want to see everything he's ever drawn.' I didn't tell them why. And I studied his art," she says. "And one of the things that I thought was really interesting was he has a series of covers that are grayscale. And I just felt like that work felt so gritty and real. And when I was discussing with [then DC co-publisher] Dan DiDio and Jim Lee and Bob Harras about how we were going to differentiate the series, they had said sometimes people do black and white and color."
Throughout Joker/Harley, we see the present-day story in harsh black and white, while the flashbacks are presented in bright colors evocative of more traditional comics. It's a jarring shift that is incredibly effective at keeping the reader on edge, primarily because the linework by the artists and the colors by Annette Kwok are so vivid.
Badower says the flashback scenes weren't always supposed to be so bright and full of color. "I had envisioned the flashback sequence as being really desaturated, but Kami had the great idea of making them really colorful," he says. "It's a subversive color palette. I think what it does is it sort of offsets the horror of what's happening and it makes the book much less visually oppressive. But Kami could see the entire thing as a whole plate where we had our vegetables and we had our dessert, we had our protein, and it was a balanced visual meal there."
Something that was very important to Garcia was presenting a Harley Quinn that was not the same as we've seen in recent years. Not just as a profiler who is the GCPD's -- and especially James Gordon's -- secret weapon, but also as a character whose personal baggage comes from a different place than we've come to expect. From the comics to the films and even her HBO Max animated series, we've been treated to several different Harleys. A consistent element across those portrayals is that she has been a victim of abuse at the hands of the Joker. Garcia wanted her Harley Quinn to still have her scars, but instead the character is traumatized from her relationship with an abusive mother.
"One of the things I decided early on was I wanted to keep the core of who Harley Quinn is the same, because she is a touchstone to a lot of women who are survivors of abuse. And I have been the victim of relationship violence so I know how important it is to feel like you have the power to control your fate and reinvent yourself and your story," Garcia says. "But instead of making her a victim of relationship abuse, I made her a victim of parental abuse. She has a lot of damage from her mom. I think that enables her to still have those scars, but not to have been in love with her patient."
Badower says the depiction of Harley Quinn in Criminal Sanity and the Gotham City she lives and works in -- one where Batman is not a factor in the story at all -- shows the depth of the characters in the DC Universe. It also reinforces the notion that the only limitations to storytelling are the imaginations of the creators involved. "We're all huge fans of the DC Universe, but Kami said, 'I want these characters to exist in a real world.' And we found we can still keep the core of who these characters are, but using tremendous amounts of research and consultants and everything else to bring these characters through in a way that we still recognize, it's... I love it."
Before we wrapped up our conversation, I asked Garcia if she has another Black Label story in her. After all, her greatest successes until now have been in the YA sphere (and if you haven't read her Teen Titans: Raven and Beast Boy graphic novels, rectify that ASAP). But she's ready to pitch another dark, mature Harley Quinn story.
"I'd love to see Batman and this version of Harley interact," she says. "But there are certain characters I wouldn't want to take dark. Like I feel like Superman and Wonder Woman, part of what I love about them is the purity, the pureness of heart, so those are the characters that I wouldn't want to mess with. But I also love villains, very layered villains. I love Deathstroke, I think he's a super fun character. And Birds of Prey. I love Huntress. If I did Birds of Prey, I would want to do a more realistic take where we see Harley and Huntress together."
Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity is available now in the complete hardcover collection.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.