Robot 6

The DC Comics non-guide to responding to controversy

harley quinn

Harley Quinn #0

Apparently, it takes three respected organizations to reiterate what fans had been saying for a week in order for DC Comics to admit: Maybe the fans have a point.

As we reported Friday, the publisher apologized to anyone offended by the talent search tryout page that asked artists to depict Harley Quinn naked in a bathtub, seemingly about to commit suicide. While the apology is welcome news, the entire rundown of the event reveals an unfortunate approach to handling controversy. Let’s take a look at the timeline of the Harley Quinn suicide debacle:

• Thursday, Sept. 5: DC launches the contest with a script excerpt of four panels that culminate in an apparent suicide scene. Fans on Tumblr, Twitter and elsewhere begin to react.

• Saturday, Sept. 7: Co-Publisher Jim Lee posts a series of tweets explaining context and attempting to clarify the intent of the story.

• Tuesday, Sept. 10: Co-writer Jimmy Palmiotti posts an apology on his Facebook page, and clarifies the controversial panel is part of a surreal dream sequence. “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,” he writes. “I also hope that they can all stop blaming DC Comics for this since it was my screw up.”

• Thursday, Sept. 12: During National Suicide Prevention Week, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, American Psychiatric Association and National Alliance on Mental Illness issue a joint statement (PDF download from the APA) explaining why they are “not amused” by the contest. It reads, in part, “We know from research that graphic and sensational depictions of suicide can contribute to contagion.” Late that afternoon, USA Today and The Huffington Post obtain a response from DC Comics, which reiterates the intended tone of the story and includes the apology: “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.” As of this writing, the apology doesn’t appear on DC Comics’ website, and the contest continues unaltered after nearly two weeks.

• Monday, Sept. 16: The National Alliance on Mental Illness posts an update, stating that by the end of last week, DC Comics “initiated a dialogue with AFSP, NAMI and APA” in response to the organizations’ offer of assistance. “We’ll now have to see what the first issue of the book presents in the four panels when it is published in November. There are no promises, but they at least have been sensitized.”

It’s nice to see a somewhat-happy ending, but it could’ve happened much sooner.

I’m not taking DC fully to task for releasing the excerpt to begin with; I hope there was some discussion, but in the end it was a judgement call. I’d like to think that if I were in the DC offices, I’d have suggested more context, or going with a different page all together. But maybe not: Harley Quinn is a disturbed but popular character, and Jimmy Palmiotti and co-writer Amanda Conner are pros. I might’ve felt the other panel descriptions showed enough of the intended absurdity of the sequence. We can’t get it right all the time, but it’s how we act after we get it wrong that counts.

After two days of fans asking “WTF?”, the initial response was a series of tweets from Lee providing a condescending tutorial on the significance of context and sequence in comics — as if everyone who read that script suddenly could no longer understand how comics work. What he failed to acknowledge is that a script excerpt provided without context still delivers information, even if that information turns out to be incomplete. That’s pretty introductory-level communication theory stuff; Marshall McLuhan probably realized this at age 5. Whatever the audience receives has information inherent to it, whether the sender likes it or not. Telling readers there’s more information they’re not seeing doesn’t remove any perceived messages from what was released.

Needless to say, responding to criticism with “no, you’re wrong, this is how you read comics” didn’t really satisfy people, so the questions and complaints kept coming. Then Palmiotti responded, and finally it was clear someone was listening. He acknowledged he thought their intention was clear but “learned it was not.” A message was still being sent, even if it wasn’t the intended one. He also fell on the sword somewhat, asking people to “stop blaming DC Comics for this since it was my screw up.” While it was gracious of him to take responsibility, it was DC’s decision to release that script page. Regardless, five days later, someone finally stood up to acknowledge what was being said. It’s a shame it took a freelancer to try to tackle the public-relations problem.

Two days later, with pressure from three large health organizations and the mainstream press, DC followed Palmiotti’s lead. The downside is that because the contest remains, the apology amounts to “Sorry you feel that way, but we’re going to keep doing what we were doing before.” Perhaps, like NAMI hopes, the end result will be different.

This isn’t the worst disaster to ever happen, but it’s just embarrassing and could’ve been dealt with on at least four or five occasions before the it attracted the attention of the mainstream press. Instead, even USA Today and The Huffington Post are starting to realize DC has some problems dealing with sensitive issues.

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Comments

46 Comments

If DC were run by grown ups they would have done what JImmy Palmiotti did. It was offensive to some people. so acknowledge that maybe you made a mistake and be the bigger person for admitting it, instead of fanning the flames of bad press. Is DC so desperate for press they need to do this? And you’re going to argue with suicide experts about outcome? And Jim Lee giving the comic book audience a lesson, very pathetically I might add, and I am a huge Jim Lee fan on twitter . . . if you can’t explain context in a sentence you should take to a blog . . .

This was mishandled and for all those people calling it a non-troversy, ‘Do you read news about comics?” Because DC has repeatedly been accused of being indifferent to women, gays, and people of color in their fandom . . . and this is just the latest in a long and systematically offensive editorial response to reader outrage.

I respect that you don’t find it a non-issue, but those people who do find it an issue should have their opinions responded too respectfully. This isn’t the 6 billionth time someone’s asked for Wally West back, its about a response that repeatedly seems to get thrown, an attitude of disdain towards certain segments of the fan base. Don’t ignore it, reply to it respectfully.

*ahem*

Won’t somebody— SOMEBODY— please step up and defend a defenseless Corporation from all the slings and arrows of this yet-another attack on the DiDio DC regime??

On the bright side, if USA Today and HuffPo are saying out loud that DC Comics has serious problems with dumbassery, maybe Time-Warner will finally realize that DC is mismanaging their properties and fire the current management…

“Fans on Tumblr, Twitter and elsewhere begin to react.”

You misspelled OVERreact.

DC has covered controversially issues in their comics before, and I for one would love to see them explore a suicide-themed storyline. Quite frankly, Harley Quinn is the perfect character for such a story. I just wish they would stop bungling around like amateurs when it comes to introducing things like this to the world.

I thought DC folded about 2 years ago?

Bottom-line. DC needs a PR person.

Perhaps Jimmy Palmiotti should be getting a staff editorial position.

Exactly which editorial posting is something to be debated.

So….i wonder if people still believe that CBR does a “fair and balanced” coverage of DC….

Congrats to DC. Faux internet controvery made obscure contest nationwide news.

Yeah another post again about this comic, that isn’t even it yet. Just read it first, appeal to emotion fallacy much cbr? Shame is all I feel for being a member of such a pathetic race.

Have DC fallen out with CBR? Shurely, shome mishtake ;)

>> Perhaps Jimmy Palmiotti should be getting a staff editorial position. >>

What did Jimmy ever do to deserve being punished like that?

kdb

*I* am offended that apologies have to be vomited out every time any special interest group cries and moans because THEY were offended. Face it, we have become a culture of hypersensitive, politically correct sheep walking on eggshells to appease the vocal minority.

“So….i wonder if people still believe that CBR does a “fair and balanced” coverage of DC….”

Robot 6 is not “CBR.”

The real outrage is the bullcrap being spewed in defense of DC’s stupidity. Glamorizing suicide, even semi-unintentionally, is vile and crass. Viler yet are those who cry “political correctness” when the flaw is pointed out. Ignorance doesn’t deserve respect. If the point is too elusive, there is always a truck pull on CMT that you can watch instead of taxing your brain on the internet.

It came from the fridge

September 18, 2013 at 6:57 pm

DC have done tasteful, well thought out stories that cover suicide before. a Wonder Woman story comes to mind, in which a young girl attempts it, at school. Of course, that was long before the current regime, when appealing to the teen crowd actually meant more than “teens like comics with Starfire’ s boobs everywhere”.

Anyone remember super baby in a microwave?

Look this is bollox. A FICTIONAL character (who dresses like a clown fer fecks sake) contemplates suicide.

If you’re going to say this may encourage people to commit suicide, screw it let ‘em because if the’re that messed up the’re taking their cues from comics (or indeed any media) then this is natural selection.

You see this debate all the time, games cause violent behaviour, horror films turn people nuts and remember the fifties in this very industry?

So no, it wasn’t insensitive of DC it was OVER sensitive of a bunch of people who say things like:

“graphic and sensational depictions of suicide can contribute to contagion” wtf does that mean?

OH and while were at it why is suicide awareness only getting a week? I wasn’t aware it ran to an annual schedule.

This has been more indicative of DC’s approach to comics ever since the overhaul. They don’t seem to respect their readers at all, new or old. Or their talent.

If they’re not killing the company on purpose, that’s even worse.

DC seems hell bent at proving all its detractors right. From the blatant misogyny of the new 52 to its bungling of the issue of women in comics, it’s hard to know with their greater crime is: crass sensationalism or the stupidity with which they handled criticism.

Anyone whining about that Harley thing is a Grade A crybaby. Suicide can be as funny as anything else is. Try to take yourself out of your vapid personal experience and look at something abstractly for once. Anything can be funny when applied right.

I’m tired of everyone deciding that they should be protected from anything that may have happened to somebody they know that hurt them personally. Not everything is intended to be bubble wrapped for your comfort. You can always just not read the issue.

There was more than enough context even within the original contest description to indicate the the ludicrously surreal intention of the sequence of panels, which also involved lightning bolts, alligators, and (hello?) HARLEY QUINN, a character whom has always been portrayed as comically disturbed. It was the internet automatic outrage machine which narrowly singled out the “naked in a bathtub” panel, thereby REMOVING the context in which it was initially placed in order to gin up controversy.

Harley Quinn, a villain and hardly a role model in ANY context, does not “glamorize” suicide any more than the Joker is “glamorizes” mass murder or Bane “glamorizes” steroids or Magneto “glamorizes” apartheid. Those who are offended do so because they confuse depiction with promotion.

THANKFULLY, we live in a free and open society that tolerates the artistic expression of Palmiotti, Conner, and their eventual contest winner, even if some people are offended. I’m glad DC has not altered the contest in order to capitulate to the vocally hypersensitive. All those who have been bellowing at DC for compromising creator’s visions and creator’s rights ought to be standing behind Palmiotti and Conner’s script as well.

The contest is a little tone deaf, but this ban on finding a fictional character’s suicide attempt humorous is silly. Have these groups asked Warners to pull Beetlejuice from circulation because of the suicide gags in the afterlife’s waiting room? How about MASH? The title of the theme song is “Suicide is Painless”. In the movie, it has lyrics and is sung during a sequence where the doctor’s go through with a mock suicide to keep the unit dentist from actually killing himself because he’s impotent. I don’t want to dismiss somebody’s concerns about the depiction of suicide; but maybe these groups can take a moment to look at the context of any suicide jokes and the audience its aimed at. Maybe the well being of a fictional character in a medium that is mostly read by older adults isn’t where their energy needs to be used. There must be issues in types of media that reaches more at risk people than a comic book does.

DCs apology is insincere and reeks of damage control.

Glad to know some of you have not had to deal with someone close to commit sucide. As for DC its expected to try some stunt like this, remembering why I stop buying their product since the 52 crap!

Is it too much to ask for a Che Guevera-style coup d’état over in DC’s management?

Won’t someone please think of the children.

Digs at DC are akin to punishing a rabid but crippled dog.

@Acer

You know that Che helped install a worse guy then the one before, right?

@Ya1000

“Glad to know some of you have not had to deal with someone close to commit sucide. ”

Irrelevant. My own personal experiences are my own. If I suffer a tragedy, it doesn’t mean that I should forever be protected from ever seeing such a thing in fiction. Maybe I should just avoid reading something regarding that to avoid being offended, rather than try to destroy whoever does.

There is no right to never be offended. You want that? Go live in a cave in the wilderness.

The only embarrassment is that for all of the actual garbage that DC is responsible for, this absolute nothing of a controversy is the one that gets an apology.

Laurence J Sinclair

September 19, 2013 at 3:02 am

What controversy can their be in the star of a book called SUICIDE SQUAD being shown contemplating suicide? Are any of the organisations aware that DC publishes a monthly book glamorising the subject?

Laurence J Sinclair

September 19, 2013 at 3:04 am

Gah! I of course to type ‘there’ in that previous comment…

Well, looks like CBR (or “Robot 6″, whatever) became the new “The Outhousers”.

I covered this whole situation quite a bit in a recent video/open letter (http://youtu.be/CpF9XsvDWHg) and I’ve officially exhausted myself talking about it, but as to the recent developments, I will say this much.

I like Jimmy Palmiotti. He was one of the first “current” writers I started following back in the post-Infinite Crisis days and I think he has a good future in comics. And I will say that apologising and taking the rap, whether it’s the case or not, earns you certain considerations.

But apology or not, I lost respect for Jimmy during this, and I will tell you why. In an op-ed CBR ran last week, I saw a tweet from Jimmy dated Sept 6, the day after the contest was announced and before Jim Lee’s “context” tweets:-

@thejillthompson I know. When did everyone become the morals police…? lol— Jimmy Palmiotti (@jpalmiotti) September 6, 2013

The fact that the potential for this to blow up in DC’s face did not occur to him, or anyone else in the chain of command for that matter, staggers me. Warren Ellis’ Hellblazer issue “Shoot” was spiked after Columbine because it was deemed “inappropriate” and “too soon”. What’s Jimmy’s excuse for not trivialising mental health related suicide?

I don’t blame him for all the stuff that’s wrong with this picture, though – if DC were run by people with an iota of self-awareness, they’d scrap the whole “gritty” new 52 thing they’re so hung up on and just make comics that don’t suck.

Last I checked, Suicide Girls is still a site. DC still publishes Suicide Squad. Boom still publishes Suicide Risk. And Dark Horse still publishes Alien Resident a Suicide Blonde. But sure, let’s make it all about DC.

How Harley Quinn – a psychotic in love with another psychotic that constantly ABUSES her – became the poster child for “She needs protection from DC!” is beyond me.

When DC Comics is finally rid of Didio, Harras, etc., I’m going to throw a big party to celebrate. I may even start buying DC comics again.

They want to fancy themselves the kewl edgy bad boys of mainstream comics (even while being beholden to corporate masters and feeling that their target audience is a tiny subset of 45 year old men) with lots of “this ain’t ya daddy’s DC!” posturing where any press is good press. At least until it blows up in their face completely.

Deep down nobody really wants DC to be the dark and edgy company. 90% of the New 52 changes come from a place of being ashamed of those characters and feeling the need to over-compensate for them with lots darkness, sharp edges, visible seams, and shock driven stunts.

Marvel is a superhero line built on relatable heroes, The real DC is built on aspirational ones so having it become the one-stop grimdark shop is just pathetic as it is point missing. They’d be better off starting up a horror line for all that and go back to letting their superhero comics be superhero comics. Having them accessible to young and old alike. That doesn’t have to mean Batman goes back to being Dick Sprang era but it does mean finding a better way to put the Joker over as a villain than having him saw his own face off and wear it as a hat.

“there is always a truck pull on CMT that you can watch instead of taxing your brain on the internet.”

I think you need to apologize to truck pull fans.

““Fans on Tumblr, Twitter and elsewhere begin to react.”

You misspelled OVERreact.”

LMAO

RegularSyzed Wayne

September 19, 2013 at 8:43 am

I love the ever-popular “we’re sorry you’re offended” non-apology so well-used by politicians, celebrities and corporations.

Passive aggression is the American Way!

RegularSyzed Wayne

September 19, 2013 at 8:52 am

As for the actual kurfuffle, I kind of have trouble identifying with either side of this round of Fans vs. DC.

DC was being dickish and showing a level of insensitivity by asking for cartoon depictions of suicide. Luckily it was just the publishing wing and not the real company. It would have been bad if this happened somewhere where people see it!

Fans are kind of overstating DC’s reach here. Does it really matter if someone writes something offensive if few people will read it? Their reaction gave more coverage of the material in question than it was going to get on its own.

Ultimately I find this hard to get worked up over on either side much like when I’d watch an episode of Jerry Springer. All sides are kind of sad here!

I only see to sides to this issue:
1. Is the business side. As a business, DC has to be very reactive and pro-active towards its own public relations, in order to avoid consumer backlash and negative reactions from said consumers.
2. As artists and creators. Then IT IS A NON ISSUE. Yes, suicide is horrible, and I am glad there are organizations that deal with it, but having a group of artists expected to accommodate cultural sensitivities is not only wrong but counter productive to art and culture.
So the same goes with nudity, treatment of women, abuse, fascism, and any other subtexts or overt meanings people want to read into the work of art produced.
This is an indirect return to the “Seduction of the innocent” of the late 1950’s, a twisted and convoluted way of requesting and demanding that artists bend and fold to our demands.

Kurt: in answer to your question, Palmiotti’s done little wrong here. The editorial appointment isn’t intended to punish him.

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