Fatal Femmes

Why do women in comics become Women in Refrigerators?

By the late 1950s comics had fallen into a depression caused, in large part, by the popularity of television. Dozens of smaller comics companies folded, leaving Marvel and DC as the dominant publishing houses. By the mid-1960s DC decided the only way to kick-start the moribund industry was by teaming up its best-known heroes in titles such as Justice League of America. Marvel followed suit with the likes of Fantastic Four and The Avengers, in which women were included, at best, in minor roles. Indeed, the Fantastic Four's Sue Storm symbolized the way women were treated in books: She was Invisible Girl.

For a while, Marvel still issued its teen and girl titles, among them Patsy Walker and Mille the Model, but they disappeared by 1975. DC's final issue of Young Romance was published two years later. But by then, the women's comics movement had long before moved underground. In 1970 Robbins published the first title written and illustrated exclusively by women. It Ain't Me, Babe featured a story in which Daisy Duck, Supergirl and other female characters turn on their chauvinistic boyfriends.

"It has taken 30 years for the comics companies to paint themselves into the corner they're now in," Robbins says from her San Francisco home. "They didn't care that their books didn't sell to women, because they felt they had this never-ending supply of young guys. Now, of course, the industry is falling apart."

Uh, they don't call her Catwoman for nothing. Is she wearing any clothes?
Uh, they don't call her Catwoman for nothing. Is she wearing any clothes?

As a kid growing up in Oregon, Gail Simone was a casual comics fan. She liked the young-romance books, but she preferred Batgirl and Supergirl because they were strong role models for young women. But in 1996 she picked up a copy of a book called Birds of Prey, a one-off featuring Black Canary, only to discover that Barbara "Batgirl" Gordon had been paralyzed as a result of being shot in the back by the Joker. She was now a computer expert trapped in a wheelchair.

"This woman used to be one of my childhood's favorite heroines," Simone says. "She's still a good character, but she's no longer Batgirl. A couple of years later, in a different story, Batman got his back broken. A few months after that, he's up and walking around, and Batgirl is still in a wheelchair. Wha—? Batman's doing batflips and sliding down the batpole, and she's using the special parking spot. Irritating. I know Batman's the cash cow, but a lot of young girls liked Batgirl too. This probably sounds a little melodramatic, and if it were an isolated incident, it would be. But in fact, it suddenly came to me that most of the female characters I'd enjoyed as a child had been crippled, maimed, depowered or killed."

Simone -- who also contributes a column called "You'll All Be Sorry" to the Comic Book Resources Web site (www.comicbookresources.com) and has just signed on to pen stories for Bongo Comics, home of The Simpsons -- then decided to compile her list and post it on the Web. She took the name from an issue of Green Lantern, in which the hero finds his girlfriend chopped up and disposed of in the icebox -- thus setting in motion the most hackneyed of comics plots, in which the clenched-jawed hero takes revenge upon his lover's murderer (usually after letting out a blood-curdling "NOOOOOOO!"). Simone started the site in March 1999 and immediately began getting reaction from industry pros -- mostly male -- whose responses varied from apologetic to defiant.

Though Simone insists she didn't create the site to "convict" male comics creators, many men who have posted to the site claim some responsibility for their actions. Former Marvel Comics editor and current Law & Order writer Gerry Conway owned up to having killed Spider-Man's girlfriend Gwen Stacy and subjecting another character to rape. Batman and JLA writer Steve Englehart explained that "most comics readers are male adolescents — and male adolescents fear strong women." Teen Titans creator Marv Wolfman explains that most comics writers find it easier to kill female heroes because so few of them have their own books -- meaning they're minor figures easily disposed of. Comics execs simply assume no one will ever miss them.

But Mark Waid, who penned the beautifully told Kingdom Come book for DC, offers perhaps the best, if not the most obvious, explanation in his post.

"Most males are fans of or in comics because they're social misanthropes who can't get laid or can't keep girlfriends and they're pissed about it on some level," he writes. "There's the famous -- and true -- anecdote of the Hellcat story that consists mostly of her being beaten to a pulp by a man, a story that BY THE *WILDEST* COINCIDENCE was written by a man in the middle of harsh divorce proceedings. I'm responsible for the death of Ice. My call, my worst mistake in comics, my biggest regret. I remember hearing myself ask the editor, "Who's the JLAer whose death would evoke the most fierce gut reaction from readers?' What a dope. Mea culpa."

But for every dozen thoughtful responses, Simone has been called a bitch and far worse; she has been accused of trying to "ruin the comic-book industry," as though it needed any help getting ruined. But such vitriol is to be expected when sides are chosen and guilt is doled out. Women in Refrigerators makes tangible something you always knew to be there but couldn't quite place your finger on. Simone's list of victims may be symbolic, but it's no less alarming when you consider what it really means: Men who write comics are, for the most part, sick bastards.

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