Mad Love – humanising The Joker for better or for worse?

High praise indeed!

I first found out about Dini and Timm’s Mad Love from listening to cult, Jay-and-Silent-Bob director, Kevin Smith’s FATMAN ON BATMAN podcast. Any of the character should check it out. Anyway, I’m not here to plug Fat Kev’s stuff, but given his love for Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS) is what spurred his show, I thought it worth mentioning as I happen not to go all giddy over it as I know some of you do. A lot of the episodes range from average to poor with only a handful stand-out episodes worthy of praise beyond the confines of ‘it’s a Batman cartoon’. Yeah, I know, shoot me.

Mad Love was been mentioned alongside one of the all-time must-read Batman graphic novels and admittedly not having heard of it before listening to ‘Fat Kev’, I Googled, and yep, the internet seemed to agree; ‘bona fide classic’. And here’s me thinking I’d read them all. So after paying unfortunately well above the odds for a second printing on Ebay the book turns up and lo and behold, even Mr. Dark Knight Returns himself, Frank Miller, is quoted on the back as saying, “Mad Love is the story of the decade.” Praise indeed (if you, of course, factor in that he’s now a far-right psycho who can’t write comics any more and is living off the work he did 30 years ago).

From the very first page I felt uncomfortable. I know Bruce Timm drew BTAS but the style is too vibrant, rounded and cartoony when on a page as opposed to the square, talky-box. It was too bright, too ‘comic’ in both senses of the word. Anyway, I soon adjusted I thought I’d just concentrate on the story-telling itself, which in fact, is nothing short of superb. Paul Dini has told a tale battered wife syndrome within the Batman universe and he’s told it convincingly. Harley Quinn (pictured)’s refusal to accept the man she loves values her no more than thousands of innocents he’s colourfully killed in his crazy life, and blames Batman by proxy is a well-thought-out, intelligent story remaining true to the characters…oh wait, no it doesn’t. There-in lies my problem: nothing about The Joker resembles humanity as we know it. According to the Joker I know and love Harley Quinn would be dead within seconds because it would be too boring not to murder her. He’s The Joker. Not only would he kill her, he’d do it brutally and without care. I realise this attitude is intimated in the book, but the playful nature of the colouring and the sprites don’t cut to the bone as they should do. We are dealing with an incredibly serious, and tragic part of human life. Many women suffer. Many are mis-treated. Perhaps the story ending with her death would have hammered the point home more resoundingly? The indication of any great graphic novel is that the artwork actually matches the story in terms of tone (see my Kingdom Come review), here there is a complete mismatch.

I appreciate the book’s narratve qualities but I don’t think it fits the Batman universe. Comics need more stories like this to be told, but it needs to go all the way. I can’t take Harleen Quinzel seriously because her name is bloody Harleen Quinzel for a start. I’m puzzled every time I read E. Nigma for The Riddler, or get shivers when Victor DeFries’ name is mentioned. It’s jokey, hammy and not the Batman universe I fell in love with. Why do their real names somehow have to be a kind of nominative determinism? Instead of Victor DeFries (pronounced dee freese) being Mr. Freeze’s real name, why can’t it be just any other ordinary name? I’m not 12 years old. Fair enough if you want to keep it within the realms of the BTAS universe but unfortunately these characters have bled over to the comics and have gone some way to removing the ‘detective’ element from the books in favour of yet-another-twisted-genius super-villain with seemingly-super-powers-but-not-really. A wrong turn in my opinion.

Quinn covered in dog filth with slapstick animations and goofy features. It doesn’t just work.

I don’t want Harley Quinn in the comics, I don’t want her there because her character adds nothing and doesn’t fit in with the image of The Joker that’s been portrayed for the best part of 30 years. I don’t want her there because The Joker would never allow anyone to remain in his private sphere for any length of time. I don’t want her there because I start using human psychological terms like “personal sphere” when thinking about The Joker, when the whole essence of the character is that he isn’t human. He may have been, sure – if you class The Killing Joke as cannon – but he isn’t any more. “HA!” You cry, if you cut him, does he not bleed?” “Yes!” I answer, “but that’s as far as it goes.” As soon as The Joker is personified, he loses his edge and that’s why Hamill’s Joker never really resounded with me as it has with others. It’s simply too relatable; too human.

Nothing this hyped could ever live up to my expectations, I know that. I also factor in that BTAS, although the closest cartoon to the DC universe was never as lovingly lauded by me as with, well, just about everyone else. However, The Joker portrayed by Dini is not a choice I would have made and Mad Love fails on that level. The Joker must remain as exclusive as he is elusive; he has no gang, no sidekick, no shoulder-to-cry on (as with Brian Azzarello’s The Joker) and absolutely no place for Harley Quinn.


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