Monday, April 25, 2016

Send In the Clowns - Batman: Mad Love

The Batman Adventures: Mad Love (February 1994)
"Mad Love"
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.


Redartz said...

Doug- thanks for the terrific feature on this story today! On the cover of the tpb "Mad Love and Other Stories" (an excellent collection, btw) Frank Miller calls Mad Love "...the best Batman story of the decade." He's not wrong; I'd call it one of the best Batman stories of any decade.

As you pointed out, the violence and sexual content is definitely adult level, all the more jarring as depicted in Bruce Timm's cartoony style. Which, actually, makes it work all the better. Doug, you mentioned that some may find the art style off-putting. Not this reader; I enthusiastically love Timm's style. It's expressive, lively, and comic in all the ways that make the term "comic book" a good thing. One of the big strengths of comics as a medium: the room for so many visual styles, from Neal Adams to Will Eisner to Art Speigelman to Bruce Timm to Alex Ross infinitum.

Must also give high praise to Paul Dini, a top notch writer by any definition. He and Timm together make one of the great collaborative teams in comics.

So many great touches in this story; yes, the ending is perfect. Love Batman's "puddin" jibe at 'Mr.J'. The startled look on Batman's face when he sees the fury in Harleen Quinzel's eyes upon the Joker being returned to Arkham (left beaten convincingly by the Batman). This is one great story, and well worth anyone's effort to read and enjoy it...

david_b said...

I have 'some copy' of Mad Love, looks like the original printing of it, not sure.

Agreed with Redartz, it has all the zany, tense, action-filled elements to make it a timeless Batman/Joker classic. Does it define the Joker as well as 'Killing Joke'..? Dunno, but it's an easy read; not quite reaching the 'guilty pleasure' status for the more hardcore Joker fanbase, it's just a fun, engaging romp for all involved.

As mentioned, a tad too adolescent/blatant to be set along side the rich innuendo camp-fest of the Dozer TV days, but the story doesn't seem to suffer from it at all.

Arguably, this put Harley on the map for all the THOUSANDS of cosplayers we see saturating the comic-cons out there.., so much for originality.

I echo Redartz's comments on Dini and Timm: Mad Love's a deceptively clever concept which worked very very well on multiple levels.

Anonymous said...

As a self-professed Batman The Animated Series junkie “Mad Love” is hands down my favorite printed Batman story ever. So, thanks for the awesome review Doug.

I have a couple of copies of the original graphic novel. (I believe the cover you show above is from the second printing). I also have the story reprinted in a very awesome hardcover edition “Mad Love and Other Stories” which collects all of the BTAS comic-book work by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. It also includes some stuff by John Byrne, and other artists as well. I highly recommend it. You can also pick it up in TPB form as well.

I absolutely love Bruce Timm’s art in the animated series and in the comics as well. It harkens back to the Silver and/or Bronze Age. That’s the kind of comic art I like. I’ve always loved the idea of a serious story paired with cartoony art. The 90’s was a great time for me in that respect as that “animated” style became very popular in the comics because of BTAS. There were all sorts of books coming out that utilized that style. I really miss it.

Surprisingly “Mad Love” was also adapted for the New Batman Adventures TV show. I remember wondering how they were going to pull that off on a Saturday morning cartoon, but they did it quite well and didn’t really cut out any of the “sex” or violence. That episode is a real gem from the show. I only wish they’d done it in the style of the original Batman The Animated Series instead of the New Adventures look. But that is a very minor nit. Otherwise the show was spot on.

Speaking of which Doug, you owe it to yourself to pick up the DVDs of the entire series. There are 4 volumes in total and I believe they can be had relatively cheap these days. Definitely my favorite ever version of Batman. In fact, it was that show that really turned me into a huge Bat-Fan!

- William (I'm away from my home computer so I didn't want to sign into my Google account and I just couldn't resist commenting on this one).

Martinex1 said...

After reading Doug's and Redartz' and David's comments I am going to have to look this up. I missed the animated series' wave so this was never on my radar at the time. I'm actually curious how the cartoony art and the more serious adult tone work in juxtaposition to each other. It is interesting when that conflict creates something better.

Ha, I guess this is yet another example of great comics from the 90's! An unexplored frontier...

Doug said...

Thanks for the kind words and enthusiasm so far, friends! This is a story I've come back to a few times -- you know, when you feel like reading a certain character and need a good one-off for your fix? This is one of those types of stories.

William, the copy I own is prestige format (squarebound, cardstock covers). I think the first printing was on standard paper with slick covers? And it also had different cover art.

I want to get some of The Batman Adventures trades, especially the second volume as I've never read Harley Quinn's official comic book introduction.


Anonymous said...

I always wondered how she got that degree!

Edo Bosnar said...

Doug, man, I have to apologize, as I didn't do my homework for this week's assignment. I had every intention of reading this beforehand (I have the Mad Love tpb William mentioned), but I have been surfing on the crest of a veritable tsunami of work for the past few weeks and just couldn't squeeze in the time to get to this.
However, it's something I really, really look forward to reading, especially after reading your (excellent, as usual, post) and the comments above. Like others here, I love Timm's art, and I am in fact quite curious about the various Batman comics produced in the 1990s that were based on the various animated series. I've heard nothing but good things about them from most comic fans.

William said...

Edo, those books are all great, IMO. In fact, some of the only single issue comics that I still own are all of my Batman and Superman Adventures (animated style) books. There was also a short lived series called Adventures in the DC Universe, which featured animated style adventures from all corners of the DCU (from Blue Beetle and Booster Gold, to Captain Marvel, to B'Wana Beast). I still have complete runs of all Batman, Superman, and the other various DC Universe animated style comics.

I actually almost sold them off when I was liquidating most of the rest of my collection, but for some reason I couldn't part with those. And it turned out to be a fortuitous decision as Batman Adventures #12 (I believe) is now going for several hundred dollars because it features the very first ever comic book appearance of Harley Quinn. You could have knocked me down with a feather when I found that out. I figured it wouldn't count because it was not in mainstream DC continuity, but I guess a first appearance is a first appearance.

Also I must say that those comics were really good reads. On the surface they look like kiddie books because of the cartoon style art, but once you get into them you realize that they read more like classic Bronze-Age Batman (and Superman) stories. In case you couldn't guess, I highly recommend checking them out.

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