Monday, 9 September 2013

We Got So Angry We Missed the Point - Harley Quinn's Nude Suicide via The Fourth Wall

DC comics blew it this month, and let's be clear: I am far from the only person writing about this.

It started when an editorial team walked off the job. J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman announced last week that they are leaving the staff of DC's Batwoman title, citing editorial interference from their higher-ups when it came to the marriage of Kate Kane (Batwoman) to her lesbian fiancee, police officer Maggie Sawyer. Williams' Twitter feedback on the issue was heartbreaking. "We fought to get them engaged," he wrote, "but were told emphatically no marriage can result." DC rep Dan Didio has made it abundantly clear in the past days that DC is steadfastly opposed to their heroes having anything approaching a normal personal life.

“They are committed to being that person and committed to defending others at the sacrifice of their own personal interests. That’s very important and something we reinforced. People in the Bat family their personal lives basically suck….Bruce Wayne, Tim Drake, Barbara Gordon and Kathy Kane. It’s wonderful that they try to establish personal lives, but it’s equally important that they set them aside. That is our mandate, that is our edict and that is our stand.” (Dan Didio, Baltimore Comicon 2013)
I have a lot of feelings about that edict, and you can read about them in terms a different incident here. There's a ton of baggage that comes with the news that DC vetoed this marriage, including their over-the-top publicity when Green Lantern Alan Scott came out as gay last year and the impending writing run of notorious homophobe Orson Scott Card on the Adventures of Superman title. DC has played with cat-and-mouse with homosexuality in the New 52, and all of it has been blatantly non-committal. This last move crossed the line for a lot of readers, regardless of Mr. Didio's assertions that it is in no way related to the characters' sexual orientation. I, and my fellow perturbed readership, refuse to believe that DC is so wholly ignorant of the social climate into which they are dumping comics. And if they are...well how the hell did that happen??

On the heels of that faux-pas came the announcement of a contest. As a young, aspiring comics illustrator I used to dream of opportunities like this: DC holding open tryouts to have your work published in an upcoming issue. And now it's happened, and the comics community at large is somewhat aghast, while the feminist community is downright outraged. I can't really blame them, at all. The scenario is this: DC set out criteria for four comics panels to be drawn and submitted by participants. They depict the mentally unstable character Harley Quinn repeatedly attempting to kill herself using outrageously creative methods. It is the fourth of these panels that has garnered the bulk of public backlash:
PANEL 4Harley sitting naked in a bathtub with toasters, blow dryers, blenders, appliances all dangling above the bathtub and she has a cord that will release them all. We are watching the moment before the inevitable death. Her expression is one of “oh well, guess that’s it for me” and she has resigned herself to the moment that is going to happen. (

It blew up in DC's face right off the bat. Talk about the depiction of women in comics is hardly new fodder for the online debate machine, and all the old axes were pulled out of the shed, ready to grind. got their hate on. Twitter exploded with accusations of misogyny and the sexualization of suicide, and Jim Lee (bless his heart) stood forth in a "Twitter Essay" to defend DC and their rationale for the contest. To be fair, he made some good points. There is a lot of wiggle-room in the area of creative interpretation to take those guideline and produce something, if not "wholesome", at least comical. Writer and inker Jimmy Palmiotti thinks so, at least. He allegedly claims that the whole contest was meant to have slapstick, Looney-Toons-esque flavour to it. Whoever wrote the contest guidelines forgot to mention that bit of information. And since Harley has been portrayed in her recent comics as increasingly disturbed and hyper-sexual, it is not unreasonable to assume that DC is looking for submissions with a dark, deranged flavour to them. We are talking about the infallibly devoted lover of a man who recently skinned off his own face and left it spiked to the wall of an asylum for the criminally insane. Kiddy-style Saturday morning cartoons aren't exactly the same realm of entertainment. Now, the kicker...

September is Suicide Prevention Month.

Let that sink in, and know that you are wondering the same thing as everyone else: What the f*** were they thinking?

It is one thing to refuse marriage rights to LGBTQ characters that are, yes, your creative property, and then argue that the decision is in no way connected to their sexual orientation and feign ignorance at the concern of your readership. It is quite another to be so utterly oblivious to real-world issues that you ask the public to participate in a celebration of violence with the tagline "Breaking into comics was never this fun. ;)", and unleash it on the world during a month when real people are struggling with and coming to terms with these issues. This goes beyond mere ignorance, outside the realm of honest-mistake-driven insensitivity. It's at a point where we, the many critical readers of comic books, are starting to wonder if DC is on a campaign of "deliberate self-sabotage."

It should be pretty clear at this point why people from various public camps are miffed at DC right now. Angry. Furious, even. I myself would describe my response as being twofold.

Baffled and disappointed.

Because I don't understand how a massive corporation driven by the consumption of creative product, which must be running research programs to figure out what will go over well with the fans, could possibly blow it on this scale. I mean, isn't that exactly the reason we haven't seen a Wonder Woman feature film yet? At least that's the online speculation: DC doesn't know how to do a film with a complex female lead without pissing people off, and so...they haven't. But let's go ahead and tell people it's going to be fun to draw an emotionally troubled character killing herself during Suicide Prevention Month. This distresses me because I have for several years now been working on a thesis concerning the social relevance of comics. The medium has a history of tackling socially relevant issues head-on, such as drug abuse in the 70s and the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. So I'm pretty confused. Has comics completely lost touch? Or is this an ass-backwards attempt by DC to touch on Suicide awareness in their own (funny?) way?

Now, something escaping a lot of the critique is the fact that there is a very specific purpose for this contest. The work chosen from the contest submission will be included as a page in an "audition issue", Harley Quinn #0. The character is getting her own title, and the creators have decided to audition a number of artists by having them draw segments of the story and then breaking the Fourth Wall. Harley Quinn herself will be walking through the issue and critiquing each artist's representation of her (in a very Deadpool-like manner, for those of you familiar with Marvel's nefarious character). Jim Lee has weighed in on the intended nature of this exercise, as has Jimmy Palmiotti. If all were to go according to plan, they'd end up with something very similar to the 1953 Looney Toons episode "Duck Amuck". It might, in fact, be a perfect example of what they're looking for. And you know what, good on them. They're thinking outside the box, asking new artists to insert themselves into an artistic tradition in comics that includes Grant Morrison's groundbreaking Animal Man run. It's good to note in all this discussion that Morrison's character Crafty was a "thinly-disguised Wile E. Coyote; even a proponent of comics as influential as Morrison could be seen drawing from Looney Toons as he manipulated fourth-wall precepts. DC clearly had nothing but good intentions, and nobody out there needs any more reminding about the construction work that gets done with good intentions. The wording in the contest guidelines suggests that Harley is conscious but not in control of her actions within this comic (ie "She is looking at us like she cannot believe what she is doing. Beside herself. Not happy.", "...she cannot believe where she has found herself.") With that in mind, I want to re-analyse the request that DC is making of the artists.

The artists are being asked to put a character in self-induced, life-threatening situations, while assuming that said character is unwilling, distressed by these situations, and conscious of what is happening. DC has asked artists to force Harley Quinn into attempted suicide against her will.

Or so it appears on the surface.

Now, I'm a Fine Arts major. There's a lot of philosophy that comes into play at this point regarding Death of the Author, creative intention, and so on. We've pretty much established that DC's intention were pure, albeit grotesquely naive. What is left is fairly simple: what will  be submitted. There are a number of campaigns out there right now to flood the submissions inbox with either inane shit or blatant social commentary, and at the end of all this Jimmy Palmiotti will choose a piece, and some young artist will get a huge break in the world of superhero comics. That choice will say a lot about the effect all this controversy has had on DC's editors and on the artists who chose to still take the contest seriously and put their best foot forward. I myself will walk to my local shop which I love so dearly and buy a copy of Harley Quinn #0, and I'll probably read it with a mug of coffee on a Saturday morning, as is my wont. I want to know exactly who succeeded in breaking down that fourth-wall, because they had some serious nerve.


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