What's wrong with a nation-wide search for an artist, you might ask, especially in an industry as apparently insular as comics? Well, the page that aspiring artists have to draw is a context-free series of panels involving everyone's favorite hench-lady -- Harley Quinn -- in precarious, downright suicidal (and potentially sexualized) positions. So, to make a huge understatment, this contest was maybe not the most well thought-out idea in the world.
There's been a lot of justified outrage about it, too. Many inflamed headlines, much important commentary about the purpose of narrative art. Not to mention the fact that today is World Suicide Prevention Day. The whole contest is tone-deaf about the real world, as well as offensive to people's sensitivities. I myself find it appalling, despite the fact that I love the creators on the upcoming Harley Quinn series, Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner (Palmiotti has taken responsibility for the fiasco). This page is the punchline to a terrible joke no one heard, and given women's history as refrigerator stuffing in comic books, the defense of said black humor holds no water with me or many of the people I know who are now boycotting DC Comics. Because, at the end of the day, would an artist ever be asked to try out for Batman by drawing him naked in a bathtub with electrical appliances hanging overheard? Of course not! Because Batman is given agency in a way that Harley Quinn's rarely afforded in mainstream DC Comics.
How did we get to this cannon fodder-fueled point, anyway? Let's look back at Harley's history. She was created in 1992 by Paul Dini for the acclaimed "Batman: The Animated Series." Voiced by the incomparable Arleen Sorkin, and initially intended to be only a walk-on role in an early Joker episode, Harley proved popular enough with fans and Dini to remain the Joker's girlfriend throughout the series. She was almost a Looney Tunes character come to life, with a daffy sense of humor that cut through yet supported the Joker's homicidal tendencies. Whenever there needed to be levity in what was disguised as a children's show, Harley was there with her plucky attitude and a whoopee cushion.
But don't let her buffoon act fool you. Dini and collaborator Bruce Timm understood the true nature of her relationship with the Joker; they spotlighted the abuser-abused dynamic tons of times on the actual show, and even made the subtext into actual text for their award-winning Mad Love graphic novel. Harley is a woman who achieved much before meeting the Joker. She was a capable psychiatrist, until he manipulated her into his plaything, then repeatedly insulted, threatened, and abused her in the name of maintaining power over his sidekick creation. Harley becomes aware of this dynamic over the course of Mad Love, momentarily breaks things off with the Joker, and then sadly falls back into the same dependent pattern. It is horrifying to read and completely heartbreaking to see this same cycle repeat itself throughout the "Batman: Animated Series" comics line.
Unfortunately, Harley proved so popular that DC decided to take her out of the "Animated Series" comics, where creators understood both the charade she participated in, and the brighter tone necessary to punching the audience in the gut later. DC moved her into the mainstream universe, where Harley changed from a fully-clothed, emotionally stunted but resourceful woman to this. And this. Before, she had often been viewed as attractive and intelligent enough to move past her love for the Joker. Now she's completely insane, and just waiting for the immature male reader to fantasize about her.
Look, I'm not saying that Dini and Timm and company don't enjoy and male-gaze the female body. They always have. However, they were also willing to give Harley moments of clarity, as well as a strong female friendship with Poison Ivy. Most importantly, they gave her AGENCY. Their Harley would never sit around, bemused by her impending doom. Their Harley got active, she tried to reform, she helped Batman once or twice, even as she kept her sick sense of humor. Case in point, this crazy distraction song from the BTAS episode entitled "Harlequinade:"
If you are upset about this contest, or any of DC's other depictions of women, or any of the editorial mandates that have been spouted off over the last week, please let DC know! Go to the company's Twitter or Facebook page; write them on their feedback form. Register your discomfort via a letter, which can be sent to: 1700 Broadway New York, NY 10019. Use your agency, let them know your feelings. It's the only way anything can ever change. I have told them about my boycott. I hope if enough voices make themselves heard, DC will listen. Though the best thing to do is stay far, far away from the corporation's abusive tactics.
The Batman Adventures' Mad Love: Paul Dini & Bruce Timm, Writers; Bruce Timm & Glen Murakami, Pencils; Bruce Timm, Inks; Tim Harkins, Letters; Bruce Timm & Rick Taylor, Colors.
UPDATE: DC has apologized, sort of, for this contest. Sort of, but not really. Sighs abound again.