The first thing that leaps out in a conversation with Kami Garcia, author of the wildly successful YA Teen Titans graphic novels, and the extremely not middle grade Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity, is how much fun she’s having. “Before I took on the Joker project…I was really considering doing a serial killer prose novel,” she tells us in an interview. “And then I kind of thought to myself, well it will be way more fun to do it with Joker because he’s the ultimate serial killer. [Now] sometimes I’ll send my agent colored pages that I like and look gorgeous, but I always have to remember to say ‘do not view while having lunch’ and stuff.”
But knowing that she’s one of the organizers of Creators 4 Comics, the social media auctions of comics memorabilia, original art pages, and experiences to benefit the BINC Foundation, makes that less surprising. You don’t suddenly throw together a fundraiser that raises nearly $500,000 for comic shops in need without understanding the joy that the medium has brought her on a fundamental level. “Obviously the stores are like the lifeblood for all of us,” she tells us. “For a lot of people who discover comics when they’re younger, comic shops and indie bookstores are the place where you go and you finally feel like you belong. You find your tribe, and just the idea that anything could happen to them is just terrifying to me. They cannot disappear.”
That passion and love for the medium appears to be the reason for Criminal Sanity’s storytelling success. Normally when a comics creator pitches a book as “It’s like the comic, only if it happened in the real world!” the end product is the same as it was before, but with extra gore. Not so with Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity. That starts by working with Dr. Edward Kurz, a forensic psychiatrist working with Garcia to build a more realistic take on the Joker and Harley Quinn. He works in real Arkham,” she jokes before clarifying “in Florida and [consults] all over the country. So I wanted to take [Harley] and have somebody with that skill set that she’s actually trained for, and see where that would take her.” That depth of thoughtfulness and attention to process helps move the admittedly much more realistically violent comic from something shocking to a fascinating character study.
Criminal Sanity book flips the traditional Joker/Harley relationship around a bit. Kurz and Garcia built a real criminal profile for Joker, then set up Harley as a realistic criminal psychiatric professional – consulting with police, rather than parking herself in Gotham’s haunted asylum, and now chasing master serial killer Joker with Gotham PD. The book jumps back and forth between chasing Joker and Harley’s past, where we see the abuse she suffered not at the hands of her psychotic romantic partner, but her mom.
Despite these changes, at her core, Harley is still the same that we’ve always known. “She is a survivor, and she is someone who can reinvent herself. Having the violence and the manipulation [by her mother] in her past was really important,” Garcia says. That is what carries Harley through all the different interpretations, from the zany Looney Tunes character of her regular ongoing comic, the self-aware industry commentator in the cartoon, or the burgeoning feminist icon of the movies. “She’s just like a snake shedding her skin,” Garcia says. “She can put on new makeup, new clothes and just reinvent herself constantly. I think a lot of [people], especially women, who are survivors…really identify with her.”
Artists Jason Badower, Mike Mayhew, and Mico Suayan are all solid fits for the tone of the book. Suayan handles the present day in the book, grisly crime scenes and all. “I was looking at Mico for knowing that he could draw this kind of dark, gritty stuff and then, now that he and I are friends, I actually found out he’s a horror fan,” Garcia says. “He loves Hannibal and Mindhunter and a lot of the things I love so I knew that he would be the perfect fit for that,” Garcia says. Badower and Mayhew draw Harley’s past in flashback, and their shared talent for photorealism make her childhood scenes more vivid. Adding Badower to the book came with an extra bonus: colorist Annette Kwok. Mayhew colors his own work, but Kwok joined the team to color Badower’s pages, and Garcia says she’s amazing. “She’s literally painting them and it’s so gorgeous.”
But the real joy of Criminal Sanity for Garcia is the chase. “I love having these moments where you see [Harley] as more predatory. You watch her really hunting [Joker] and understanding how his mind works,” she says. “…four is my favorite issue so far. I’ve really been waiting for four to come out because it has so many plot points, and it’s really the point where things start to very quickly, just the momentum is really building.”
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