As I have stated many times—but will reiterate here for the new visitors—I rarely write about comics in the now. As someone who freelances for the Big Two (not DC, hint hint) I know any recommendations regarding the company that pays me or harsh reviews of the company that does not can be viewed as inherently biased. I get it. I think I am capable of not being biased, but I understand it.
However, there are moments when one must put aside one’s own guidelines. And that time is Sexy Suicide! (patent pending).
For the official take on the Break into comics with Harley Quinn initiative, please do check the full description at DC Comics. To summarize for those who link clicking phobic, the rules instruct people to render, on a single page, four panels of Harley courting death in wildly creative ways: gripping a cell phone tower in an electrical storm, adorned in a raw chicken suit surrounded by gators (I presume bathing suit, not San Diego Chicken suit, but I am open to the idea that I might be misinterpreting that), sitting in a whale’s mouth tickling the mammoth mammal’s (ALLITERATION!) tongue, and, finally, naked in a bathtub surrounded by electrical appliances soon to plunge into the drink around her.
(Brief aside: why does Harley seem so driven to die by either being devoured or electrocuted? Odd, yes? Freud would have a field day.)
So…where to begin?
I suppose I must start with two important disclaimers, just to be honest and open.
First, in fairness, this is an isolated part of the script. It is entirely possible that, in full, there is some context that makes this actually funny or adds an appropriate level of tragedy to the circumstances. Granted I cannot conceive of one that does not involve being rejected by the Joker—problematic in its own way—but Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Connors are professional comic book creators and have been for years so I do think it is important to concede the possibility that these four panels, incorporated into a complete product, would not seem quite so…stomach churning.
Second, I will admit that suicide is a hot point for me. I lost a friend and classmate to it when I was 16. I listened to another classmate repeatedly threaten to do it over unreturned love a year later. I have held a man’s bleeding neck from a self-inflicted wound while I waited for an ambulance to arrive to save his life. I have dealt with suicidal ideation, the aftermaths of completed and thwarted attempts, and parasuicidal gestures throughout my trek towards being a psychologist. I have been trained and trained others in two different anti-suicide initiatives. I take this sort of thing very seriously. I simply might not be the best audience for this “joke.”
That said, I still laugh when Bill Murray repeatedly ends his life in Groundhog Day so, who knows? Maybe I am a hypocrite. Maybe this contest is a bad idea.
To begin with, as pointed out on Twitter by Josué Cardona, this month is Suicide Prevention Month. I just want to drive this point home. DC chose Suicide Prevention Month to launch a contest that revolving around hilarious and sexy suicide. There is bad taste and then there is just paying no damn attention. I would argue this is not a great contest choice regardless of timing, but the timing certainly adds an extra layer of “Who the hell is in charge of this show?” to the proceedings.
For one, it does not feel like Harley Quinn, even new edition new 52 Harley. Regardless of her fashion choices, a key part of personality was left relatively unaltered in the move to the new DCU. She has always been mentally ill, it is true, but she delights in it. She loves the way her brain works and that it is so drastically different than almost anyone else’s. She is not hopeless, she is utterly thrilled ninety percent of the time. However, I get that “this character is mischaracterized” is the most often used argument for anything comic fans dislike about comics and that characters can withstand a multitude of interpretations and still be “themselves” so I will table that.
In fact let’s just focus on one panel. The last one. Harley Quinn. Naked. (And yes, the description calls this out specifically). In a bathtub. Resigned to her impending suicide by household appliance. Comics have long been called out for the sometimes queasy juxtaposition between sex and violence it can drench its female characters in. This is the next stage in that evolution. Harley is the victim and perpetrator of her own exploitation and victimization. There is no need for male gaze or male fists to put her in this position, she can do it all herself, thanks. It is a bizarre inversion of the ideal of the independent female; here’s a woman who can sexualize and brutalize herself in a single panel. Viva Feminism!
I should be clear here. I do not think this thing is malicious. I do not think DC actually intends to sexualize suicide or to use this popular character as the artist of her own reduction. And then, in some ways, is the worst of it. I want to believe some random individual did this all on his or her own because otherwise DC had a series of people who looked at it and did not pause at a.) suicide, b.) humor from suicide, c.) sexualization of suicide. The idea that it ran up chain of command and no one at any point blanched at it loudly or strongly enough to get everyone else to notice is...well, it is just too damn galling. If DC was monstrous, a shadowy group doing this with forethought and intent, at least we would know they were thinking it all through, that they noticed and cackled to themselves in delight about it. Instead, it reads as an act of colossal and callous cluelessness.
UPDATED: Jimmy Palmiotti just wrote on his Facebook wall regarding the contest, apologizing, assuming the blame (not DC's fault, our fault kind of thing), and explaining that it is a dream sequence with Looney Tunes overtones.
The context is appreciated, but I still find it fascinatingly bizarre that this sequence, of all others, would be the one they would choose. Again, I just cannot understand how it tripped no one's sense of "oh, this might not go over well."
Also, while I'm sure Palmiotti's being honest about the contest being born of his ideas, it is not like he hacked DC's site and forced the article announcing the ad onto it. DC is aware of it, vetted it, and signed off on it. They're culpable to, insofar as anyone is. It is, after all, signed by Jim and Dan. Even if the Jim in question is Palmiotti, not Lee, the Dan is undoubtedly Didio, DC's co-publisher.