If the people at DC Comics wanted to give the impression that they own stock in a shovel company, they succeeded brilliantly this weekend, in two different ways. First, after the Batwoman writers quit because of ongoing editorial interference, including being told that Batwoman couldn’t marry her fiancee, Maggie Sawyer, DC Publisher Dan DiDio said that that decision had been made because “Heroes shouldn’t have happy personal lives,” not because of any particular objections to equal marriage rights. That’s fine–though revealing, because of issues I’ll discuss in a moment–but it reinforces the sense that DC doesn’t have the finesse to have anticipated how a company-wide creative approach might have been perceived to a wider audience. And second, the company announced a contest in which they asked readers to submit drawings of Harley Quinn, a supervillainess, preparing and attempting to commit suicide–naked–in exchange for a chance to break in to the industry by working on a Quinn book.
Both of these developments are profoundly depressing. And taken together, they tell us a great deal about about DC’s creative development, and the extent to which it’s stalled out in a particularly adolescent place.
Let’s take the Harley Quinn drawing contest, first. As the rules for the contest explain, entrants have to draw Quinn in four situations: trying to be electrocuted by lightening, “sitting in an alligator pond, on a little island with a suit of raw chicken on,” attempting to be eaten, trying to get a whale to swallow her, and “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.” It’s not entirely unreasonable that someone trying to commit suicide in the bath would be naked. But there’s something unpleasant about the selection of a scenario that could be interpreted as eroticizing a character in a moment of emotional extremis and possible death. Not to mention the fact that, rather than trying out artists by having them draw Quinn doing anything other than trying to destroy herself, DC’s test for new artists is not whether they can draw Quinn being clever, or strong, but whether they can draw her close to death.
If people entering the contest had the option to pick from one of the four scenarios, the requirement might be less distasteful. But as Callie Beusman points out at io9, this isn’t just a content issue, it’s an employment issue. “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,” she writes. 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).
If that’s what they’re looking to do, it’s yet another sign that DC might do well to drop any pretentions that it cares about readers, male and female alike, who care about rich character development for superheroines and supervillainesses. And if it’s an unintentional result of poor contest design, then once again, DC Comics is providing a clinic on their inability to imagine a full range of possibilities in the real world, much less in the fictional ones they manage.
Then, there’s the idea that superheroes can’t have even intermittently pleasant personal lives because, as DiDio put it at Baltimore Comic-Con, “They are committed to being that person and committed to defending others at the sacrifice of their own personal interests. That’s very important and something we reinforced. People in the Bat family their personal lives basically suck….Bruce Wayne, Tim Drake, Barbara Gordon and Kathy Kane. It’s wonderful that they try to establish personal lives, but it’s equally important that they set them aside. That is our mandate, that is our edict and that is our stand.” That’s fine. But it isn’t actually responsive to the idea that DC Comics doesn’t show much awareness of how their creative decisions might reasonably be interpreted in a larger social context, or to the fact that it’s odd that, given those constraints, that the authors would have been allowed to let Kate Kane become engaged in the first place.
And it raises a larger issue that extends beyond the Bat family. DC’s editorial policy is apparently not just to keep characters from getting married, but to roll back characters’ existing marriages. The aversion to marriage seems relatively adolescent: if a man can leap tall buildings at a single bound, is it really a wife who’d make him prosaic? And it’s not as if there’s a shortage of writers out there who can make an ongoing marriage as compelling as a rotating roster of bedmates. If the point of having a big, expansive roster of superheroes is to give them different powers and to use them to tell different stories, there’s something odd about a company-wide aversion to having characters be married. But maybe the point isn’t to tell different kinds of stories, but the same one, over and over again, to the same audience.
More than that, the idea that heroism=misery, even just within the Bat family, is reflective of a creeping tendency that’s afflicted television and superhero films as a genre, and that shows up in the Harley Quinn contest as well. There’s an idea here that darkness and pain are more real, or more serious, or more interesting than happiness, or building something constructive, or the victory of good over evil. Darkness and death infect sex, or become substitutes for it, as is the case with the Harley Quinn contest. They subsume happiness, which, given DiDio’s comments about Kate Kane, suggest that Maggie Sawyer will necessarily meet a bad end in order to slot Kane even more firmly into the Bat family tradition.
In both of these cases, a focus on darkness as the highest value to which an artist or a tradition can aspire suggests a narrowing of the creative window. Maybe this is a reflection of DC’s ambitions. Perhaps it’s unintentional, a result of oversight or a failure to think creatively on the part of DC Comics management. But neither result is encouraging.