In 2013, DC Comics announced a new Harley Quinn series. They also solicited images of Harley Quinn committing suicide in a sexualised way, which got them some deserved push-back, not least from their own star female writer Gail Simone.
In 2008, Grant Morrison wrote All-Star Superman #10, featuring Superman talking down a female ledge-jumper sympathetically and interestingly.
In 2002… in 2002, Karl Kesel wrote Harley Quinn #14, with Terry & Rachel Dodson doing the art. And, on the 5th of March 2014, that issue was released in the paperback edition Harley Quinn: Welcome to Metropolis.
These facts are, not surprisingly, related. Content under the cut potentially triggering, with significant discussion of suicide and brief discussion of depression.
So, ignoring the 2013 furore, let’s skip back to 2008, and Grant Morrison’s (brilliant – seriously, y’all should read it) All-Star Superman.
Morrison’s writing and Frank Quitely’s art (scanned from the 2011 paperback edition of All-Star Superman) give us a sympathetic and serious rendition of suicide; Regan is clearly depressed, her doctor can’t get to her, and Superman turns up, is there for her, and gives her what she needs. This isn’t played for comic effect, it’s treated as a part of Superman’s self-imposed duty: helping humanity, and being there for them. It’s about his strength, and the different kinds of strength it takes to be a hero. It’s a wonderful page, and – as someone who suffers from depression – incredibly important to me.
Kesel, however, has a very different take on suicide.
Harley and Ivy break into a penthouse apartment, walk in on a suicidally depressed woman… and this is apparently how she reacts. As someone who is depressed, I am rather befuddled, but ok, whilst the depiction of depression is appalling, Harley and Ivy both appear to be shocked by the suicide, and confused by the lack of reaction, so this is all going well, right?
Uh. Not so much.
Nope. Ivy and Harley walk in, visually confirm it’s suicide, watch the (nameless!) woman choking on her noose… and instantly start joking. In seven panels, suicide is called “stupid” and “pathetic”, joked about as the subject of a pun, becomes a background noise, and appears to be used as motivation for Harley… in a plot that is almost instantly forgotten. This visual depiction of suicide, which, I repeat, is made into a joke, comes as a plot device to give Ivy and Harley a base in Metropolis, and as a kind of audiovisual comedy; puns, jokes about “doing it right”, Ivy’s last panel, the fact that Harley and Ivy apparently forget the (still nameless!) victim in their rush to take her “nice place”… now I can only speak for myself, but I’m disturbed that no one in Editorial at DC thought this might be a little problematic. But perhaps they only missed this one page, skimmed over it or something?
Again, we see suicide parlayed into jokes; Jimmy Olsen’s unwitting line about Ms Chance being “at the end of her rope” is played explicitly for laughs by Harley’s rejoinder, all of it simply giving Harley a cover story for how she and Ivy are staying in Ms Chance’s penthouse. In the space of 4 pages we’ve gone from an appalling depiction of a depressed person, to an actual depiction of suicide with jokes and insults of the suicidal, to bad puns about suicide and hanging; this is a topic clearly not being respected. But after the four pages, that should be all, right?
Well… I said earlier that Harley’s plans to hunt down whoever caused Ms Chance to commit suicide was a plot immediately forgotten, and that is true. As a plot point, Harley doesn’t do anything about finding whoever Ms Chance was waiting for. But, in Harley Quinn #18 (collected in the same volume), by complete coincidence… Harley bumps into “the scum”. And immediately turns back to the jokes.
Now, we’re seeing Harley remembering her vow to track down “the scum”… and instantly turning into an opportunity. “Slipped on a rope necklace” as a euphemism for suicide and, whilst I’m far from a fan of the doc’s defence, it’s actually not wholly unreasonable. But Harley using it as a bludgeon, as a way to force the doc to do something? Female suicide as a motivator? Why, I believe Gail Simone invented a word for that kind of thing… fridging. That’s all Ms Chance’s suicide is, a narrative tool, to Kesel; something for jokes and to be saved for later plot-use. And that’s not acceptable.
Harley Quinn (2002) is undeniably a cartoonish comic, but that’s the point; it’s a cartoonish comic. Using suicide as a subject of humour in such a comic is unacceptable and, really, DC should have known better; but instead, they’ve just republished it in 2014, without a second thought.
Perhaps it’s time to persuade them to have a rethink of that decision.