Fatal Femmes

Why do women in comics become Women in Refrigerators?

The following is a list of women who have been raped, mutilated, tortured, enslaved, crippled or murdered -- and often, all of the above. In some cases these women have also suffered miscarriages, been rendered infertile, contracted horrific diseases and gone insane. Some of them have even been killed twice, perhaps because theirs was not a gruesome enough death the first time around. Why simply gun down a woman when you can tear her head off and stick it on the end of a pole? It's just so much— well, sexier. Right, fellas?

This morbid roll call includes the likes of Aquagirl (dead), Batgirl (bound to a wheelchair), Black Canary (tortured, made infertile, depowered), Hawkwoman (rendered powerless), the New Guardians' Jet (died in battle after contracting HIV), Power Girl (depowered, magically impregnated and made vulnerable to unprocessed natural materials, such as sharp sticks), Storm (depowered, repowered, periodically crazy to one degree or another) and Supergirl (killed, then resurrected, only to become powerless). There are more than 100 other women on this list, which can be found on writer Gail Simone's Web site Women in Refrigerators (www.the-pantheon.net/wir). And it grows all the time.

"Sad list, isn't it?" writes John Byrne, the writer-artist who relaunched Superman in 1986, on the site. "Further proof of what I have always said: Too many (male) writers seem able to think of only two things to do with female characters -- rape 'em or knock 'em up."

Oh, yeah. It's easy to snicker at such a list: They're just comic book characters, fer God's sake, just ink-and-paper fabrications. They're not real. Get over it, right?

And it comes as no revelation to anyone who has picked one up in the last 30 years that comic books are the last bastion of rampant sexism, a place where women are not only the victims of graphic, callous violence, but are portrayed as enormous-breasted, tiny-waisted caricatures who think clothes are something other people wear. There's probably no bigger no-shit statement in the world; it's to be expected in an industry in which emotionally stunted men tell the stories, draw the pictures and buy the books. The Simpsons' comics-shop owner isn't fictional at all. He's straight out of a documentary, an amalgam of every fat, forlorn Spider-Man T-shirt-wearing dude who ever trudged through a convention in search of a mint-condition issue of Detective Comics No. 228. He and his brothers live in their own Fortress of Solitude -- no girls allowed. And if you think this is a crass generalization, then you haven't been in a comics shop lately.

A recent survey of comics readership estimates that women don't even bother to buy comics anymore. They account for less than 6 percent of all books sold. The industry has long since written off its female readership, even though one of the two major comics companies, DC, has been run by a woman for more than two decades.

No matter that comics are perceived as literature for geeks by the mainstream; no matter that the industry is mired in the most severe slump it has ever suffered. Just because comic books have been relegated to the fringe of the fringes doesn't mean the violence and indignities suffered by two-dimensional women are any less relevant. As Trina Robbins, the most revered figure in the battle for comic-book equal rights, points out, imagine the furor that would exist if the issue were racism in comic books.

"I had a small letter exchange in the Comic Buyers Guide with [The Dark Knight Returns author] Frank Miller, where he was so insulting and patronizing and called me "babe,' " says Robbins. "He said, "If you don't like it, babe, don't buy it.' And he accused me of being a censor. They don't understand the difference between criticism and censorship. These guys, they do not have a clue. I wrote a letter that said, "Let's pretend I am a black male and I object to comics that show lynching as amusing and show big black men eating watermelons.' Would you then say, "Babe, if you don't like it, don't buy it?' He didn't respond."

Robbins has written such books as The Great Women Superheroes and From Girls to Grrrlz, in addition to dozens of comics, dating back to 1970. She's also a board member of a six-year-old organization called Friends of Lulu, which was formed by several female comics writers and illustrators after a comics convention in Oakland. There, organizers were holding a look-alike contest based on a scantily clad character called Cherry Pop Tart, who was then screwing her way through her own graphic X-rated comic book. That, as Robbins recalls, "was the last straw."

But it wasn't so long ago that female-oriented titles were the norm in the industry. Robbins points out there were once titles featuring characters such as Katy Keene, Little Dot, even Josie and the Pussycats; there were once books called Young Romance (with art by revered icons such as Joe Simon and Jack Kirby), True Love and Girl Comics. Then, of course, there were Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Miss Fury, Miss America and Spider Queen -- female superheroes who could take (and give) a punch as well as any of their male counterparts. (Though Wonder Woman, in a recent incarnation, is powerless and wears an outfit no bigger than her magic lariat -- ah, such progress.)

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."

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.

"Superhero comics are based on wish-fulfillment fantasies," Simone says. "Bad things happen to male heroes, but they tend to either survive relatively unscathed or die a heroic death. A lot of heroines just get chopped up in the kitchen. There's no wish fulfillment for girls in that. I wondered if it was the readers who wouldn't put up with their favorite male characters being destroyed, or if it was some subconscious thing on behalf of the creators. A few creators confided to me that they had done some pretty evil things to their female characters after going through a divorce or breakup. Hello, therapy!"

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