Most people are familiar with the Batman universe's infamous villain, The Joker, if for no other reason than Heath Ledger's fantastic portrayal of him in the recent "Dark Knight" trilogy. The Clown Prince of Crime is crazy and powerful in his own right, but just like the saying goes, behind every great man is a great woman. The femme fatale behind the Joker is Harley Quinn, a psychiatrist-turned-sociopath and the Joker's number one fan girl. Harley is eccentric, clever, agile, and wacky, making her not only the perfect companion to the Joker, but a phenomenal, formidable villainess in her own right. In that spirit, Harley Quinn has ran the jaunt not only as the Joker's ally, but as a stand-alone villainess and protagonist in other story lines. For anyone interested in reading up on the delightful villainess, make sure to check out Harley's Haven, the best resource this writer has found concerning all things Harley Quinn.
Harley's beginnings as a wacky, lovable fan-favorite have undergone some rather drastic changes in more recent years, particularly with the introduction in 2011 of the revamped "Suicide Squad" series. DC has been trying for the past few years to revamp itself and its characters as edgier, grittier, and more urban (with the latest "Dark Knight" trilogy being a prime example.) Harley was unable to escape this wave of re-imagining, and has been given a new origin story, character design, and personality that has caused outraged fans to pour their dismay on to the internet's pages. In general, there's a lot to be criticized when it comes to DC's method of rebooting characters in "grittier" contexts, which typically translates into more violence, less plot, and a lot more un-needed sexualization. Harley has, unfortunately, been at the forefront of this attack, and it seems like DC isn't going to stop any time soon, especially with their newest stunt.
Harley Quinn is set to receive a new series, with work being done by such big names as Amanda Conner, Paul Pope, and even Bruce Timm, a kind of "father" of Harley Quinn's character. This new series is serving as a contest to "break in to comics with Harley Quinn," with DC inviting amateur artists to submit their artwork in a chance to be published in Harley Quinn #0. While this is all well and good, the actual guidelines of the contest become alarming once one reads what panels are being requested. The submission must be a 4-panel comic, with each panel showing her attempting to off herself, whether it be by trying to get eaten by alligators, be swallowed by a whale, or... electrocute herself while being naked in a bath tub...?
The rage over the contest stems mainly from the last panel's guidelines, which ask for the artists to draw, "Harley 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." You read that correctly. DC is looking for artists who will draw Harley Quinn in the midst of a sexualized suicide, all in the hope that they might get to make it with the big shots.
Sexualization is nothing new to comic books. Hell, the sexualization of violence against women is not new to them. Anyone familiar with the
genre is aware of these problems, and there are many people who speak out against it. What is so shocking about this particular instance, however, is that it is encouraging new artists to follow old trends, to "break in" to comics with the same violent, misogynistic ideas as its predecessors. Callie Beusman over at Jezebel has written a very interesting and thought-provoking piece relating to the scandal, saying that, “What’s perhaps most disturbing about this contest — other than the way in which it showcases DC’s blatant disregard for women — is that it essentially prohibits comic artists who are opposed to the eroticization of violence against women from applying for the honor of drawing a strong female character,”
Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress went on to comment further on Beusman's article, saying that, "In a way, DC is weeding out artists who are uncomfortable with the scenarios they’re putting forward, or who have other ideas about what might be interesting about Quinn (or other female characters)."
According to Scott Fraser over at Geek Exchange, the contest is scandalous because it is taken out of context. The following is a statement by Jimmy Palmiotti, the contest's creator, that Fraser references:
"That the tryout Harley Quinn page went out without an overall description of tone and dialogue is all my fault. I should have put it clearly in the description that it was supposed to be a dream sequence with Amanda [Conner] and I talking to Harley and giving her a hard time. I should have also mentioned we were thinking a Mad magazine/Looney Tunes approach was what we were looking for. We thought it was obvious with the whale and chicken suit, and so on, but learned it was not. I am sorry for those who took offense, our intentions were always to make this a fun and silly book that broke the 4th wall, and head into issue 1 with a ongoing story/adventure that is a lot like the past Powergirl series we did. I hope all the people thinking the worst of us can now understand that insulting or making fun of any kind was never our intention.... The idea for the page to find new talent is an amazing one and we hope that can be the positive that comes forward from today on … that we get some new talent working in our field because of this unique opportunity. All I write are strong female characters. Ever. Here is the short list: Painkiller Jane, Powergirl, Tallulah Black, 21 Down, Terra, The Resistance, Ame-Comi girls, Triggergirl 6, Alice in Monolith, The lead in Queen crab, Retrovirus, Misty Knight and Colleen Wing, Beautiful Killer, Gatecrasher, and so on …. For those worried about Harley Quinn."
Obviously, the whole thing is a complete misunderstanding. It is also, apparently, completely okay to sexualize women in violent, demeaning contexts if it is meant in a wacky, "Looney Tunes" style. Obviously, no one has any right to get upset because, jeez, the guy even said he was sorry, why are you all getting to angry, calm down. Obviously.
The weight of this blunder has only further distanced many fans from DC and pushed once great characters in a direction that is tasteless, violent, and oppressive. DC certainly needs to think long and hard about its decisions, past, present, and future, because if they continue to spiral down the "edgy," "gritty," "dark" toilet, they're going to find themselves permanently stuck in the gutters. Comic books are a wonderful medium with a lot of potential in them, not just in terms of artistic pursuits, but in the potential they hold when it comes to changing social norms and the way that people think, particularly young people. Wacky, funny, and "Looney Tune" style is all well and good, but might this writer suggest that you not couple it or, worse, use it as an excuse to further sexualize, demean, and hurt women? Just a thought.
Image courtesy of Harley Quinn's official page on DC Comic's official website.