To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.
If you asked me to name the best adaptation of the Batman mythos, I would hesitate. I think Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy does a wonderful job of distilling the character to his core, and contextualising him within the cultural landscape of the twenty-first century. However, I’d also argue that Batman: The Animated Series is the most wonderfully comprehensive examination of the Caped Crusader’s mythology, and so perfectly captures a large volume of what the character is, has been and should be. Paul Dini would be on any shortlist of my personal favourite Batman writers, and Bruce Timm among my favourite Batman artists. So there’s something quite appealing about Mad Love & Other Stories, a collection of the pair’s work on comic books related to the nineties animated series.
What’s interesting about the nineties television show is the way that it not only drew upon the history of Batman, incorporating elements from throughout the character’s long and layered history, but also how it added to the character’s world. The DC Animated Universe influenced a whole generation of children, so it’s no coincidence that it spilled over into the comics. Superman got the villain Livewire, while Batman also earned a supporting cast member in Renee Montaya, who would serve as a police officer in Gotham Central before becoming a superhero herself in 52.
However, the most iconic addition made to Batman’s world by the animated series was through the character of Harley Quinn, introduced as the Joker’s psychotic henchwoman. The character was a hit with fans, as voiced by Arleen Sorkin, and almost immediately mapped over to the comic books. She had her own series, appeared as a leading character in Gotham City Sirens and is now headlining the relaunched Suicide Squad book. Aside from a generation of young fans now familiar with the Batman mythos, I think it’s safe to say that Harley Quinn is the greatest contribution that Dini and Timm made to the comic books.
Mad Love represents the “origin” of Harley Quinn, her back story. It explores how she went from being a relatively normal individual to the sidekick of a mass-murdering psychopath. In his introduction to the collection, Paul Dini casts Harley as one of those people “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.” That’s pretty much Harley’s story and motivation, condensed down as much as humanly possible, and it’s strangely compelling, and more than a little sad.
There’s a darkly tragic joke in this story, as it reveals that Harley was originally the Joker’s therapist, as well as the fact – reiterated throughout the volume – that she just doesn’t get the Joker. Of course, if she understood him, she’d recoil in horror rather than pursuing him, but she seems to operate on a completely different wavelength from her “puddin’.” After all, walking in on the Joker’s elaborate plans for a death trap, she asks, “Why don’t ya just shoot him?”Later on, she seems to be deluded in think the Joker would be proud of her for killing Batman, rather than offended that she’d robbed him of the honour.
Indeed, it’s hard not to feel a little moved when Montaya finds Harley bruised and bleeding in the gutter after the Joker throws her out of a window. Like many a battered young woman trapped with an abusive partner, Harley is quick to blame herself, rationalising while barely conscious. “My fault… I didn’t… get the joke…” It’s a powerful moment, and one that works the better for Timm’s cartoonish art. The Joker treats her like some sort of Looney Tune character who can withstand cartoonish violence (thrown from a window, kicked out a door), but she’s just a normal human being.
Frank Miller has famously described Mad Love as the best Batman story of its time, and he’s quite probably correct. Indeed, despite a markedly different tone to Miller’s iconic The Dark Knight Returns, Dini and Timm offer a somewhat similar portrayal of Batman’s foes and their particular brand of psychopathy. In many ways, Harley Quinn seems like almost the spiritual descendent of Miller’s new-age talking heads who insists that the crooks and villains of Gotham are just “victims” of “the self-righteous Batman.” Dini and Timm suggest that Harley had been the author of several “pop psychology” books, and she doesn’t seem too far removed from Miller’s arrogant psychiatrists determined to unleash reformed rogues like the Joker and Two-Face on an unsuspecting Gotham.
While do have some problems with how Dini generally writes the Joker, or at least the villain’s history and back story, Mad Love does an excellent job of deconstructing the tendency to paint these bad guys as inherently sympathetic. In Mad Love, it seems like Arkham has given up on the Joker. Of Doctor Leland, Harley notes, “She told me he was an animal, plain and simple.” Captured by Harley, Batman illustrates how cynically the Joker will exploit sympathy. “What did he tell you, Harley? Was it the line about the abusive father, or the one about the alcoholic mom? Of course, the runaway orphan story is particularly moving, too. He’s gained a lot of sympathy with that one.”
Indeed, it’s nice that the collection includes the pair’s work on Batman Adventures Annual #1, as it makes a fine companion piece, exploring how and why Batman’s villains tend to fall victim to their psychosis again and again and again. I know this isn’t the time or the place, but I’m a bit disappointed DC hasn’t seen fit to collect any of these tie-in animated series comic books. This is the twentieth anniversary of the DC animated universe, and it did feature any number of iconic creators like Mark Millar and Dan Slott on various tie-in books. It seems strange that DC wouldn’t seek to capitalise more on that name recognition.
Anyway, Dini and Timm have an innate understanding of the world of Batman, as you might expect after writing the character for so long. Harley makes the same mistake as so many of Batman’s villains, offered a chance at an epiphany and a shot at redemption. Kicked out by the Joker, she seems on the cusp of realising how toxic the relationship actually is. “At what point did my life go Looney Tunes? How did it happen? Who’s to blame?” And, like most of Batman’s villains, she projects her own faults on to the costumed hero instead. “Batman, that’s who! Batman! It’s always been Batman!”
Dini and Timm parody this self-righteous justification to hell and back, leading to one singularly awesome panel after the Joker escapes. Harley muses to herself, “The poor thing was out on the run, alone and frightened. I was so worried!” What makes it so brutally hilarious is the fact that Harley is holding a paper headlined, “Joker Still At Large, Body Count Rises.”It’s a wonderful illustration of just how blinkered her affection is, but also how blinkered most of Batman’s pool of villains must be.
That’s what I think really works about Mad Love, and also about the Batman Adventures Annual #1. While it remains relatively sympathetic to most of Batman’s villains, producing oddly moving stories featuring Harley and the Scarecrow and the Ventriloquist, it never uses that sympathy to make excuses for their violence or their horrible actions. I think what gives Batman’s rogues’ gallery such depth is the fact that so many members are deeply tragic, but Dini and Timm are careful to maintain the distinction between hero and villain.
It’s also worth briefly mentioning Dini and Timm’s Batman. The central character is, understandably, frequently presented as a very dark character. However, the wonderful thing about the Animated Series, and it translates here, is that Batman is still a sympathetic character, one capable of compassion as well as anger. “It seems none of your more colourful adversaries have been capable of walking the straight and narrow for very long,” Alfred muses at one point. Bruce offers a cautiously optimistic response, “Though a few have come close.”Batman is presented somewhat caring, albeit no-nonsense, figure. He wants his villains to reform, even if he’s willing to come down hard on them if they don’t.
Even after all Harley has done, Batman is still willing to give her the benefit of the doubt when she claims she wants to come in. “If this message reaches Batman,” her message states, “I hope it’s not too late for you to help me.” When he tries to protect her from machine-gun fire, he shields her with his body – something she uses to get close enough to tranquilise him. Dini and Timm’s Batman is too trusting, a far cry from the borderline paranoid “Batjerk” that was so popular in the comics of the nineties. I think that’s part of the reason that the Animated Series worked so well.
The rest of the work collected here is similarly fun, if a little bit less essential or insightful. Dini writes a great Batman story, and Timm illustrates a great Batman story. There’s a lot of fun to be had in the back-up material here, including a noir-ish story featuring Two-Face or a tale of the Joker’s night on the run. Artists like Klaus Jansen and John Byrne actually doe a wonderful job sticking to the template established by the Animated Series, homaging Timm’s iconic style.
A personal favourite is a story featuring the Demon Etrigan and the Demon’s Head Ra’s Al Ghul. It’s just such a delightful combination that it’s really hard not to enjoy. The fact that Timm is affectionately mimicking Jack Kirby, complete with Kirby-esque monster and strange women with circles on their clothes, just makes it a delight to read. It’s disappointing that the collection is so short, but it’s still one to treasure.
Mad Love & Other Stories is essentially a celebration of the work of Bruce Timm and Paul Dini on a character that they defined for a generation of young viewers. I genuinely believe that the pair are two of the best craftsmen of Batman stories ever to work in the industry, and so it’s impossible to resist the charm of this delightful collection. It’s an accessible illustration of the sort of thing that comics should be – fun and open and clever, but without confusing cynicism for depth. It’s a classic.