I can’t say anything about love that someone else hasn’t said. Love is wonderful, yes, and it is terrible. It is profound, and it is stupid. But this isn’t anything new – a cursory listen to any pop record offers a myriad of clumsy attempts to parse love. Love causes a great deal of pain to a great many people, and popular films and fiction like to cast love and tragedy as comfortable bedfellows. Tragedy, the popular thinking goes, gives love some extra poignancy – an ordinary romance is turned timeless if cut short through terminal illness, shipwreck or family feuds. That’s all very sad, sure, but none of those stories touch upon the most tragic iteration of love: hopeless and unending love for someone who is very, very bad.
Though Batman himself has a long list of failed romances, none of his dalliances match the tragedy of Mad Love. Subtitled “Psychotic, Mass-Murdering Clowns and the Women Who Love Them,” Mad Love is the story of Harley Quinn’s unwaveringly optimistic affection for the Joker. Written by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, this book has just about as many layers and facets as the topic of love itself, all in a slim 64 pages and written and drawn in the style of a children’s cartoon.
Dini and Timm are the co-conspirators responsible for Batman: The Animated Series, which is undoubtedly the definitive version of these characters in my view. It was my introduction to Batman, but even if I could manage any sort of objectivity stripped of nostalgia, I’m still pretty sure that I would declare The Animated Series to be the perfect distillation of the characters one could ask for. Thus, such a definitive creative team demanded a definitive craft brewery, and Beer & Batman favourite Beau’s All Natural Brewing Co. was the obvious choice. But their Le Couer Noir Black IPA is the perfect pairing with Mad Love for more reason than one. First, the aesthetics: the label for Le Couer Noir is, in a simple graphic style, a black heart on a red field, bearing a strong resemblance to the black-and-red motif of Harley Quinn’s costume. Then, consider the style: a black IPA. Considering that the “P” in “IPA” stands for “pale,” this beer style has a bafflingly oxymoronic name. But, of course, we’re talking about love – mad love, moreover – so some contradictions will have to be obliged. Of course, what that style really indicates is that it’s a beer which has the same dark colour of a stout or porter, but all the hoppiness of an IPA. It’s a style that defies expectation, delivering an altogether different flavour than one would think after seeing the beer poured in a glass. Mad Love is a little like that, as well – as mentioned, it is done in the style of The Animated Series, but the story it delivers is something far more adult than its style would betray.
Which is not to say that Mad Love isn’t as fun as the cartoonish style would indicate; it is. It has puns, visual gags, absurd death traps – everything you might want in your Saturday morning cartoon. It is a wicked amount of fun to read, and Bruce Timm’s simple graphic style, dynamic figures, and expressive faces tell the story in a clear and animated manner. His layouts, too, are deceptively simple, usually playing with variations of a clean nine-panel grid. Which is appropriate, as the story itself is quite simple: Batman foils the Joker and Harley Quinn’s dentistry-themed attack upon Commissioner Gordon; the Joker is infuriated by the failure, and Harley Quinn takes it upon herself to cheer up her puddin’ by catching and killing Batman herself.
Throughout, though, we learn how Dr. Harleen Quinzel became Harley Quinn, and it is goddamn heartbreaking. Because Harley never fell into a vat of chemicals, like the Joker did. She wasn’t disfigured, and she wasn’t tormented or abused. No, the secret origin of Harley Quinn is much worse than all that: Harleen Quinzel fell in love. After that, she is prepared to follow the Joker anywhere, and do anything for him, no matter how horribly he treats her. Because the Joker does treat her horribly in Mad Love, striking her, insulting her and neglecting her. She isn’t crazy, really, and neither is she stupid – actually, the book shows her as exceedingly clever and resourceful, even though the Joker never credits her for it. Harley always finds a way to rationalize his bad behavior, clinging to an adorable fantasy of a happily-ever-after. Her relentless optimism and naivete toward the Joker make it impossible not to sympathize with her. As Paul Dini observes in his foreword to the book:
We’ve all done it. We’ve all selected the wrong partners, all gotten hurt, and hopefully all moved on wiser for the experience. But there are those who, even in the face of constant disappointment, continue to believe that the intensity of their desire will be rewarded by a jackpot of affection.
Love is a heady brew, and so is Le Coeur Noir. At an ABV of 7.1%, it’s a beer that you start to feel before you reach the bottom of your glass. While it heartily delivers upon the hops promised by the “IPA” tag, it does offer some balance, countering the intense piney and bitter hops with a surprisingly toasty malt background. I detected even a hint of smokiness – paired with the black hue of the beer, it would seem almost like an aggressively hopped porter, though it lacks the body associated with that style. It’s the hops that linger, though, long after the first sip – an assertive and lasting bitterness, almost reminiscent of dark chocolate.
Some bitterness remains after the conclusion of Mad Love, as well, as Harley promises herself that she is done with the Joker forever, only to be drawn right back in with a carefully timed delivery of flowers and a card. It’s a heartbreakingly honest look at how abusive relationships perpetuate themselves, ending with a perfectly chosen quote from one of the more disturbing pop songs about love, the Crystals’ 1962 single, “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss).” This is why Mad Love is a greater tragedy than any Hollywood tearjerker about love: sure, it’s tragic when a good love is ended, but it’s a far worse thing for a bad love to keep going.