The Batman Adventures: Mad Love (February 1994)
Paul Dini-Bruce Timm
Doug: No, we're not trying to milk any traffic from the Suicide Squad flick that releases toward the end of the summer. Shoot - I'm not even going to see it (I can't speak for Karen, though). Rather, we're here today because this is one of those Batman stories that often turns up on Bat-fans' favorite stories lists. I'd say it rests within my list, which has never been formerly compiled, I should add. But this is a good one, and for those among our readers who hold Batman: The Animated Series in high regard, it will be a trip down memory lane. Paul Dini has been praised on this space before for his collaborations with Alex Ross on the oversized DC storybooks of the 1990s; Bruce Timm provided the art on the very-fun Avengers 1 1/2 that many enjoyed. But these guys made their "claim to fame" by crafting the Batman cartoon, one of the very high points of comics-related material in that decade. Today's comic, if you've never read it, is a PG-13 story from Earth-BTAS.
Doug: Back in the early 1990s I had a recurring recording set on the VCR for Batman: The Animated Series. When our first son was an infant and on into his toddler years, it was a little easier to find time to watch my tapes. I'm pretty certain that I've seen every episode from the show's first few seasons. But when it evolved to The Adventures of Batman and Robin and beyond, it became more difficult to make the time. I really can't think of any clunkers in the inventory -- BTAS was consistently great. So later on I gave the four-color The Batman Adventures a try, and found it to be one of the best Batman books available at the time. Collecting the trade paperbacks from that series is on my "to do" list, primarily due to the timelessness of the stories told without the weight of continuity and "trendiness". To the book at hand, I don't believe I'd heard any publicity ahead of the release; but when I saw this square-bound beauty on the shelf at my LCS, I knew it was going home with me. Shall we check out a 100-Word Review of the plot?
Batman barely saves Commissioner Gordon from death in the dentist chair at the hands of the Joker and Harley Quinn. But in the melee the Joker finds out that Harley had left a joke as a clue; he neither found it funny nor appropriate that he hadn’t been the one to make it. Woven among vignettes of Harley’s origin, we watch her scheme against the Batman in an effort to win the Joker’s heart. We learn that she has truly given herself to the notion of being “Mrs. Joker”. Of course the plot fails and the Joker di-… does he?
The Good: Right from the beginning, the tagline atop the cover of this book just cracks me up: "Psychotic Mass-Murdering Clowns and the Women Who Love Them". And while that would make for a clunky title as compared to "Mad Love", it truly is the gist of the story. Sure, Batman and the Joker are the main attractions here, but this is really a tale of Harley's "mad love" for the Clown Prince of Crime. And what a Joker this is. Many have felt that the Joker of "Hunt the Dark Knight", Arkham Asylum or The Killing Joke is the most over-the-top DC has presented. I'd argue that despite being presented in the animated style, this Joker is as maniacal and unpredictable as Heath Ledger's turn in the film The Dark Knight. I recall feeling very uneasy whenever the Joker was on screen during that movie. Although not the same sense here due to the different medium, in retrospect this Joker is every bit as impulsive, violent, egocentric, etc., etc. as anything Ledger showed us.
The plot and script of this story are very well done. The pacing is perfect, and every scene either fills in some backstory (in the case of Harley's origin) or moves the "present" along toward the climax. Nothing is wasted in terms of page count or my time as a resource. I mentioned above that this is a bit racier than the stories we'd find in the regular four-color series about the animated world. The violence is ramped up, as is the sexual tension. Harley spends a fare amount of page time in nothing but a red teddy; however, it is inferred that although she chases the Joker for physical love he seems disinterested. As to the violence, as one might assume a fair degree of explosions, gunplay, and so on. You'd be right. There are also a few scenes that would definitely qualify as domestic violence, the whimsical style of the art aside. I thought about shifting that aspect of the plot down to "The Bad", but as it's important to the characterization of both the Joker and Harley I left it here. It fits.
While the themes are adult, the story is still told like a cartoon. Yes, it's violence is off the charts, but even that is so ridiculous that you really do feel like you're watching an old Looney Tunes. It's not good at all when the Joker knocks Harley out a 5th-floor window, and her landing is hard... but to the point where you expected to see an exaggerated "Splaaaat!!" Tastefully, it isn't that.
Lastly, it was nice to see a Batman story where he is a) solo and b) heroic. There is no line-crossing here, no gray area. This is the Batman we grew up with. Sure, he's slightly darker due to the tone of the story -- even here you can feel the impact of the works of Frank Miller and Tim Burton. But it's done better, taking the good aspects of the latter-day Batman mythos and combining it with the Bronze Age Batman of O'Neil, Adams, Englehart, Rogers, etc. And the ending is just right.
The Bad: As I said, the domestic violence aspect is something to be wary of. But then again, the overall violence level in this story would make me keep it out of the hands of a child. This isn't a "roll it in your back pocket and get on your bike" sort of comic book.
The Ugly: I guess I am hesitant to review comics where I'd really fill up this section. I find myself often leaving this blank. In fact, I'm basically typing this text so it won't be blank! But truly, there were no plot points that irked me, no blatant mischaracterizations, or anything overtly offensive about this book. You couldn't say it was "good, clean fun", but you could say it was fun.
"Mad Love" has been reprinted a few times, so it's not too difficult to find a copy if you've not previously read it. Again, like the Batman Adventures series, if you're a fan of classic Batman stories you will not be disappointed. If for some reason you're put off by the art style, I believe you'll put that behind you very shortly -- the stories are that good.