The DC Comics non-guide to responding to controversy

by  in Comic News Comment
The DC Comics non-guide to responding to controversy

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.