The Batman Adventures: Mad Love
Writers: Paul Dini and Bruce Timm
Artist: Bruce Timm
By Michael David Sims
Mad Love is the greatest episode of Batman: The Animated Series never made. Or, at least that's what they were saying when DC published the origin of Harley Quinn in 1994. (Since then, however, it has been made into one of the greatest episodes of the animated series.) Not only is it one of the single greatest one-shots ever (winning both the Eisner and Harvey awards), Mad Love is the sickest. Granted, Arkham Asylum dug into parts of Batman's psyche never before revealed — unmasking the truly twisted nature of the man. And Batman: Venom forced us to watch as he struggled with an addiction to the steroid that would later fuel Bane. But the issue at hand in Mad Love is physical and emotional abuse — spousal abuse, for all intents and purposes. Which is something rarely seen in comic books, especially a Batman book — especially one treated as an episode of Batman: The Animated Series.
What starts out as an ordinary Batman story (the Joker attacking Commissioner Gordon), quickly transitions into the then untold beginnings of Harleen Quinzel — a bright, ambitious, and curvaceous psychology student. Her drive to become the next pop psychologist — with "her own line of self-help books" as Alfred remarks — is unbridled. However, she has little interest in actually studying. Instead — and there's no easy way to put this — she blows her professors. What was once a thesis hardly worthy of a D- is now A+ material. And with that, Miss Quinzel has her much sought-after degree.
Jump ahead some years and we find Harley prancing about in a skimpy red nighty as the Joker scribbles down his next murderous plan. No matter how hard she tries — and she tries ("Don't ya wanna rev up on your Harley? Vrroooom vrroooom!") — Harley just can't grab the attention of her puddin'. He's become so obsessed with killing Batman once and for all, that not even the lustful, bouncy, clown-faced Harley can distract him. The one plan with the best shot for bloody results won't work because piranhas can't smile — even after they're treated with his Joker-toxin. When Harley dares lend her advise (and continues to unsuccessfully seduce Mr. J), she's dragged by the nose and thrown face first into a pile of shit.
On the surface it might elicit a laugh, but when one actually bothers to examine what's going on here, it becomes a sad tale that's all too common. And, instead of leaving her lover or blaming him for the pain she's suffering, Harley points the finger at one man — Batman.
While she plots a scheme to rid Batman of his life, we take another trip down memory lane — this time, from Harley's perspective. As an intern at Arkham Asylum, she instantly falls crazy for the Joker. Little does she know how he's using her. Like any abusive lover (though he was neither abusive nor her lover at the time), the Joker feeds her lies, telling her what she wants to hear — mostly tales of an abusive father. To him, Harley is a plaything. Just another toy to amuse him until his next escape attempt — which comes quickly, and, as always, is short-lived thanks to Batman. What no one expected, however, was Harley's transition from seemingly sane Harleen Quinzel to the completely bonkers Harley Quinn — and her part in breaking the Joker out that very night.
She knows who and what he is and she knows how unprofessional it is to fall in love with a patient, especially him, but she allows herself to fall anyway. Like any manipulator worth his salt, the Joker never asks or demands Harley to aid him — she just does it. She follows and helps because she seeks his approval and unconditional love. It rings so true and will fly over the heads of younger readers, but adults will fully grasp the situation and shake their heads with the knowledge that this is so damn true to form.
After musing over Batman's death for some time, Harley stumbles upon the plan the Joker tossed aside. What she sees that he didn't is a way to make it work. If piranhas can't smile, then why not hang the victim upside down? A brilliantly simple solution — as most are. So she sets about, manipulating Batman to meet her on a pier, and easily captures him. Secure in knowing that his legs and arms are doubled-chained and that he's sans Utility Belt, Harley reveals her plan to the groggy Batman. And he laughs in her face. Seriously laughs. When Mad Love was finally produced for TV, Dini and Timm excelled at capturing their comic — especially this scene. It's not often we see or hear Batman laugh, and it's creepy and dark as Harley notes. Batman calls her a fool, and means it. In his own abusive way, he's attempting to show her the light (as well as save himself). Again, true to the role of victim, Harley doesn't want to hear the harsh truth that Batman reveals. She's content to live behind the wall of lies she's built-up over the years, and hide her bruises and black eyes with another coat of makeup.
Once the Joker arrives, he punishes Harley for usurping his plan — with a slap and a punch. Of course Batman lives and the Joker seemingly dies, but those are secondary to what's really going on. Having survived her encounter with Batman and her fate at the hands of her lover, Harley is ironically placed inside Arkham Asylum and asked, "How did it feel to be so dependant on a man, that you'd give up everything for him, gaining nothing in return?" Her answer — is not for me to tell.
I loathe the mindset that most people harbor concerning comic books. That they're for kids is an antiquated idea that needs to be washed away if the industry is to gain, regain and retain readership. What Mad Love does, despite its colorful interiors and identical look to Batman: The Animated Series, is shun the notion and treat a dreadful topic with an injection of harsh reality. Harley is beaten, slapped, shoved aside, screamed at, and defenestrated. Despite that, like the good little victim she is, she comes back for more. Worse yet, she longs for the Joker's approval — because she truly believes she can change him, get him to settle down to make a family even.
As I said before, most of what's going on will be transparent to younger readers, but one can hope that the message within will lodge itself somewhere inside their brain so when they are old enough to understand the themes, they won't repeat them — as victim or abuser.