“Breaking into comics was never this fun,” said the DC Comics website, inviting readers to draw panels about a villainous character, “the bubbly and psychotic Harley Quinn,” and submit them as contest entries.
Fun is in the eye of the beholder, however. Harley Quinn is not merely psychotic; she is contemplating suicide, according to the contest’s description. Entrants were asked to depict her sitting naked in a bathtub into which a cascade of electrical devices are about to fall, causing her “inevitable death.”
A coalition of three mental health organizations immediately protested that the publishers were making light of suicide.
“There is nothing fun (or funny!) about suicide,” said a statement from APA President Jeffrey Lieberman, M.D.; Robert Gebbia, executive director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention; and Michael Fitzpatrick, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
The statement pointed out that 30,000 people die by suicide every year and that at least 90 percent of them have a treatable mental illness such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or substance abuse.
“We believe that instead of making light of suicide, DC Comics could have used this opportunity to host a contest looking for artists to depict a hopeful message that there is help for those in crisis,” said the three leaders. “This would have been a positive message to send, especially to young readers.”
“Before her descent into madness, Dr. Harleen Quinzel was a promising psychiatrist assigned to Arkham Asylum, Gotham’s home for the criminally insane,” says the character’s webpage. Eventually, she fell in love with Batman’s nemesis, the villainous Joker, and “devoted her life to making him happy and spreading his bloody brand of mayhem.”
This controversy came on the heels of another public-relations misstep for DC Comics—refusing to allow its signature lesbian character, Batwoman, to marry her partner as originally planned by the series’ authors, noted comics expert Charles Hatfield, Ph.D., an assistant professor of English at California State University, Northridge.
“It strikes me as consistent with the cruelly humorous treatment of [Quinn], but not something that should have been made the basis of a public contest,” said Hatfield in an interview with Psychiatric News.
The DC Comics writer responsible for the original post issued an apology. “That the tryout Harley Quinn page went out without an overall description of tone and dialogue is all my fault,” wrote writer Jimmy Palmotti. “I am sorry for those who took offense….”
Palmotti’s employers chimed in as well.
“DC Entertainment sincerely apologizes to anyone who may have found the page synopsis offensive and for not clearly providing the entire context of the scene within the full scope of the story,” said a company representative in a statement.
However, judging by subsequent comments posted on the DC Comics website, many comics fans found the uproar overblown.
“One must consider genre, audience, and character when passing judgments,” said Hatfield. “But I would criticize DC’s appalling insensitivity and editorial clumsiness whenever it ventures outside the narrow straits of comic-book fandom in a bid for wider publicity.” ■