Review: Mad Love & Other Stories

Mad Love & Other Stories by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm

I’ve been living inside of King Hereafter for a week, which is practically decades in book time for me. So I took a quick break to read Mad Love & Other Stories, which I bought from my favorite comic book shop in December.

Mad Love and Other Stories is a collection of comics done by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm for The New Batman Adventures, a comic book series set in the universe of their Batman: The Animated Series. The centerpiece is the titular Mad Love, the Eisner-winning story of how Harley Quinn went from ambitious Arkham intern to Joker’s girl, and the other stories include appearances from most of Batman’s rogue gallery from Batman: The Animated Series. These stories, while good, pale in comparison to Mad Love.

I love Harley Quinn as a fictional character, which I’ve mentioned on this blog before. She is a genuinely cheerful villainess who enjoys her line of work, which can feel rare in comics, and she’s never presented as an innocent or wayward girl. Some people have scoffed at Harley’s popularity, since she’s often the victim of abuse from her man. But Harley’s much more complex than all that, and Timm goes out of his way during the introduction to mention that these days in comics, she’s more of an equal, works on her own, and gives back as good as she gets. Mad Love kick-started Harley’s evolution into this more complex character from the one-off she was originally meant to be. It’s certainly tragicomic, being the tale of a woman madly in love with a man who hates the fact that she makes him feel.

Timm makes no secret about his love for drawing pretty girls, but they’re not just scenery. They’re fairly interesting characters in themselves. The collection, surprisingly, focuses more on the women of Batman. The trinity of Batman villainesses–Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, and Catwoman–all take the stage, and even the good ladies of Gotham get starring turns. Batgirl saves Christmas and the mostly unknown Roxy Rocket, the side of good’s response to Harley Quinn, torments and then helps Batman. Even the stories that are focused on male characters have ladies at the heart of it–a story about demons duking it out ends with Batman lamenting the fact he abused a lover’s trust to save Gotham, and Two-Face’s story involves a brilliant lady doctor. The only male-centric story is a short comic about the Joker out on the town. While, obviously, “Mad Love” is Harley’s time to shine, I really wasn’t expecting to such a large female presence. (I’m starting to think I have some sort of homing mechanism for female-dominated spaces that only sees male-dominated mediums, like comics or Star Trek fandom, as a challenge. Useful!)

Bruce Timm’s style is immediately distinctive. It lends itself to humor, action, and darkness quite readily, and there’s a certain roundness to his art that imitators can’t quite seem to match. Occasionally, Harley’s work shoes seem to vanish in Mad Love, but I can forgive that–if it’s intentional, there’s a certain charm to Harley being so worried about the Joker that she doesn’t bother to put on her shoes to rush to his side, and if it’s not, I can chalk it up to Harley never being drawn in heels before, as she doesn’t wear them in costume. (You hear me, Gotham City Sirens? May the comic gods help you if I find that gymnast in heels.)

The funniest piece in the book is a short comic entitled “24 Hours”, showing Harley’s cycle of reform and relapse. It’s drawn by Don DeCarlo, of Archie fame, and Timm’s style merges well with it. (Timm admits to barely inking over DeCarlo’s marvelous drawings.) The rest of the humor balances out with the darkness of the animated Batman universe. Catwoman carelessly threatens murder with a one-liner, Harley and the Joker argue over the hilarity of deadly gags, and Poison Ivy casually offs Bruce Wayne. (Don’t worry, it’s a ploy.)

I’m awfully fond of how action is dealt with in this collection, especially in Mad Love. When Harley raids a costume shop to make her Harley Quinn costume, we’re given three panels. We see Harley dashing into a store, a close-up of Harley clutching all her gear with desperation in her face, and then a repeat of that first panel- with the wounded owner smashed through the window. It’s extremely effective and economical, although it did seem to fade out towards the end of Mad Love. I was also a little surprised to see how the comic book series got away with more adult material, ranging from the suggestion that Harley chain smokes when she’s worried sick over the Joker to fairly suggestive lingerie. It’s never gratuitous or over the top, and certainly meshes with the 1950s Art Deco world of Batman: The Animated Series.

Bottom line: Mad Love is required reading for anyone who enjoyed Batman: The Animated Series. It’s tragicomic, appropriate for everyone despite dealing with fairly mature issues, and fearlessly turns Harley Quinn from hench-wench to a complex character in her own right. The rest of the stories collected are a good and varied representation of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s impeccable work together, showcasing what great storytellers they are–but they pale in comparison to Mad Love.

I bought this book at my local comic book store.

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