Between DC Universe's zany Harley Quinn animated series and the upcoming blockbuster film Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), audiences don't have to look far for an array of R-rated critiques on Harley Quinn and The Joker's toxic relationship. Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity, the latest maxiseries from Black Label, has quickly established a complicated take on its titular characters, something that proves to be both a blessing and a curse in its second issue. Nearly one-fourth of the way into its narrative, Criminal Sanity continues to build out its bizarre and twisted world in a complicated and interesting fashion, while losing a small amount of steam in the process.
The issue opens on forensic profiler Harley Quinn, who has found the latest macabre crime scene in Gotham City and thinks it has a connection to notorious serial killer The Joker. Investigating the case leads Harley to the case of John Kelly, a young man whose father was Joker's first victim. In the process, readers are given an abridged version of Kelly's tumultuous childhood—culminating in his debut as The Joker.
This broadening in focus was to be expected at some point in the series, which makes the fact that it happens so early both admirable and frustrating. An argument could have been made for withholding The Joker's origin a while longer as one of the most interesting aspects of the first issue was his boogeyman-like ambiguity. Of course, there is the question of whether or not any of what we see of John Kelly's back story is true to reality, or if it's misdirection as several Joker origin stories have done in the past. Without providing spoilers, the Joker scenes in this issue are tragic, but also largely unremarkable. True crime media often runs into a dilemma of how to present a serial killer's point of view, but the way John's life unfolds in this issue neither humanizes him nor makes him a villain that you love to hate, and it will be interesting to see how that continues in future issues.
While Harley takes something of a backseat in this issue, it's abundantly clear that she's the heart of Criminal Sanity and this issue primarily continues to do right by her characterization. It still is a delight seeing Harley's psychoanalysis skills applied in this context, especially in scenes that take her to other corners of Gotham City. Kami Garcia writes Harley as a protagonist that is incredibly easy to root for, especially as her layers of darkness are unveiled.
There's a lot that can be said about the issue's visuals, which are brought to life by the team of Mike Mayhew, Mico Suayan, and Jason Badower. The issue continues the series' photorealistic style in some unexpected ways, from a rather disgusting murder scene to Joker's costume with face paint that comes across as a bad cosplay of Heath Ledger's Joker in all the right ways. The photorealism will definitely divide readers, especially in some of this issue's more grisly sequences, but that arguably works in the series' favor. In a medium that frequently has larger-than-life violence and fight scenes, every bit of body horror and violence in Criminal Sanity is made incredibly painful, like something that could happen in the real world. The color work is stunning throughout the issue, although the shading in a handful of panels comes across as uncanny. The lettering from Richard Starkings is able to convey the darkness of the issue without ever becoming too stoic or cold.
Now that both of the titular players have been introduced, there's no telling exactly how Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity will unfold—which kind of adds to the fun of reading it. While this second issue definitely hits some bumps in the road, you can't help but hope that the story is building to an intriguing showdown between Harley and Joker. This series is definitely adding something interesting to DC Black Label, and we'll just have to wait and see if it sticks the landing.
Published by DC Comics
On January 1, 2020
Written by Kami Garcia
Art by Mike Mayhew, Mico Suayan, and Jason Badower
Letters by Richard Starkings
Cover by Francesco Mattina