For the new three-issue project Harleen, writer/artist Stjepan Šejic is telling a self-reflective story about the character’s life, one he compares to a Greek tragedy.
The book is Šejic’s debut as a writer for DC, combining writing talents he developed on Image Comics projects like Sunstone and Death Vigil with the artistic talent he established in books like Witchblade and Aquaman.
In Harleen, Šejic is hoping to tell a story that allows the reader to understand Harley Quinn, including the development of her relationship with the Joker and her evolution into a villain. The three-issue series, which starts this week with Harleen #1, are what he’s hoping will be the first in a series of three limited series exploring the character, each a different act in a three-act Greek tragedy.
Comparing his approach to the Michael Corleone story in The Godfather films, Šejic said he’s not shying away from Harley as a villain, showing how (just like in Corleone’s story) even the best intentions can go wrong.
Newsarama talked to the artist to find out more about his process as both artist and writer, how he worked to establish chemistry between Joker and Harley, and what readers can expect from his character exploration of one of DC’s most popular villains in Harleen.
Newsarama: Stjepan, I get the sense that this is a passion project for you. Did you pitch it? Did you have this idea for a while?
Stjepan Šejic: The concept of Harleen was developed a long time ago through some personal explorations of the character, and over time, it grew into this idea of retelling her life story by focusing on the fact that she’s a psychiatrist who can identify her own psychosis, but in a way, she’s an addict and can’t really act on that.
With that in mind, I had this idea of telling a life story in three major acts, the first act being the Arkham chapters, which is issues #1-#3. And then, if the sale merits the continuation, the second act would be her time with the Joker, and the third act would be her friendship with Poison Ivy and her splitting away from Joker.
It’s like a Greek tragedy told in three acts. That’s the way I envisioned this whole story.
Nrama: I know you’ve been writing for a while, but this is your first time writing for DC, right?
Šejic: Yes. What it came down to was I pitched a story, and I pitched the artwork, and I pitched a lot of dialogue pages so they got the feeling for the mood I was going in the book. They read it and said they definitely wanted to publish it.
To me, it’s pretty much the same as working on my own creator-owned stuff. Whenever I’m writing and drawing, it’s a very simple process that I’m very used to. So it’s not new ground for me.
But it is a new mood for me, because unlike my personal projects, like Sunstone, which is a romance, and Death Vigil, which is kind of an adventure book, Harleen is a dark thriller mixed with a dark romance. So it’s a very different mood that I’m going for in this book.
Nrama: Between the art and the story, it feels like you’re approaching this in a very realistic way. Did you want to immerse readers in what felt like a real-world story?
Šejic: I wanted people to understand her as a person. That was one of my big things. I don’t want people to relate to her necessarily, as much as feel invested in her story.
I’m presenting it as a very human story about a person who wanted to do a good thing and made all the wrong choices, and then in the end, she has to live with the consequences of those choices.
Harleen is a story about toxic relationships and bad decisions - not just one of them. Many of them. So it’s something that people can relate to depending on their own experiences, but at the end of it all, it is a story about Harleen Quinzel. It is her story. So her experiences are her own, and the way she deals with them is her own way of dealing.
And as we all know, it doesn’t go that well.
Nrama: Can you describe who Harleen as we meet her in #1?
Šejic: When she starts off, she’s a go-getter. She’s a psychiatrist who has this theory, and she wants to help the world. She wants to help Gotham City.
She has this theory that prolonged exposure to a stressful environment can damage a human brain’s empathy center, and that would be one of the reasons why in the war zone of Gotham City, you get so many people who get into these extreme mental illnesses. That’s why Arkham Asylum is such a Gotham-based concept. You don’t have that in Metropolis. You don’t have that in other cities.
So Harleen is focused on getting this research funded, and she succeeds. But unfortunately, in her success lies her great failure.
Nrama: It feels like one of the keys to this is getting that relationship right, between her and the Joker, is to establish some type of chemistry between them, even at the early stage.
Šejic: Oh yeah, yeah. One of the central things for me when writing a relationship - even a relationship that is doomed to fail - is you need to understand why these characters thought it might work.
This is something that I’m also doing in my current book Sunstone, where I’m writing several relationships that are doomed to fail, but I still have to present it as a relationship that, from the characters’ standpoint, you can see why they think it might work.
That’s one of the essential elements to writing this book. I have to sell the chemistry. I have to sell the possibility of Joker’s recovery from his mental state, because she needs to believe in that.
We find out in the story how much of a possibility it really is. But at the core of it all, you need to believe there’s a chemistry between them and something that pulls them together.
Nrama: What’s your process on this book? You work digitally?
Šejic: Absolutely the same as usual. I work digitally. My process of creation basically consists of me writing a basic outline. I do my story arc in very broad strokes, then I decide what will be in each issue. Then I proceed to segment those parts in a separate work file until I’m happy with the pacing of it.
And then I immediately jump into sketching it - drawing it - and it’s at that stage that I usually write most of my dialogues, because dialogues have to fit together. So I tend to write my dialogues as I draw.
Nrama: These are oversized issues. Do you feel like that gives you a little more room to tell the story?
Šejic: Well, it’s basically a six-issue story arc, maybe a little more, that’s being told in three issues. It’s 180 pages all together, and each issue is 60 pages. So it’s a little more than a six-issue story. I’m a writer and an artist - I’m not a mathematician.
Nrama: Is there anything else you want to tell people about the story?
Šejic: My goal is to tell a very intense story. It is a story about a birth of a villain. I have no intentions of pretending that she’s anything but that. But I intend to make a story that is impactful - kind of along the lines of an old Godfather movie. When you watch Godfather, Michael Corleone, at first, doesn’t want to be part of his family’s business. He doesn’t want to be in the mob.
But once his father is shot, his love for his family brings him into it. And once he’s in it, there’s no going out.
It’s kind of along those lines how I structured Harleen. It’s about somebody who had good intentions, but you know what they say - the road to Hell is paved with them.