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The lives of six female superheroes and the girlfriends of superheroes. A ferocious riff on women in superhero comics
From the New York Times bestselling author Catherynne Valente comes a series of linked stories from the points of view of the wives and girlfriends of superheroes, female heroes, and anyone who’s ever been “refrigerated”: comic book women who are killed, raped, brainwashed, driven mad, disabled, or had their powers taken so that a male superhero’s storyline will progress.
In an entirely new and original superhero universe, Valente subversively explores these ideas and themes in the superhero genre, treating them with the same love, gravity, and humor as her fairy tales. After all, superheroes are our new fairy tales and these six women have their own stories to share.
Gail Simone’s Women In Refrigerators has spawned, in the years since 1999, one of the most storied and respected careers in superhero comics (that of Simone herself); numerous conversations about feminism and the role of women in superhero narratives; and the very term “fridging“. Now, Catherynne M. Valente has gotten involved in the conversation, with a kind of running together of superhero fridging narratives and Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, The Refrigerator Monologues…
The Refrigerator Monologues is essentially a mosaic novel, made up of a series of characters describing how they came to be in the afterlife; essentially, the stories of fridged women, from their own perspective, rather than centring the men. Valente links the monologues with a broad framing narrative, the Hell Hath Club, of the fridged women sitting in a kind of cafe-bar in the underworld discussing what brought them there in a setting reminiscent of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The frame narrative isn’t much, although it’s quite a fun afterlife – Valente makes a lot of the fact that things don’t exist until they’re extinct, and that the dead exist in the clothes they’re buried in.
What this is really about it the narratives of the different fridged women. The Refrigerator Monologues is set in its own superhero continuity, which shares recognisable similarities with especially the DC universe in terms of what superheroes are present, what villains are around, and what powers look like. Valente brings characters like Mary Jane, neck snapped by Spider-Man trying to save her, and Harley Quinn, lover of the Joker, to life in their own right, and gives them their own stories; The Refrigerator Monologues oddly doesn’t really centre them in their own stories though. These are the same stories we get told in comic books, with more anger and more wit, but still tending towards how the deaths of the women have impact on the men.
They’re good stories, though. Julia Ash’s story, ‘The Heat Death of Julia Ash’, is a kind of intimate retelling of the story of Jean Grey and the Phoenix Force, from her own perspective; it refocuses the story on the unfair way Jean Grey is treated by the X-Men, and the way Professor X disposes of her once she becomes inconvenient. ‘Happy Birthday, Samantha Dane’ is the last monologue in the novel, and arguably the titular one; it ends with Samantha dead, stuffed in a refrigerator, recalling the famous Green Lantern #54 scene which gave the trope being sent up here its name, and looks at the effect of the life of a superhero on those around them. Perhaps the least strong monologue is that of Harley Quinn replacement, Pretty Polly; her whole monologue feels very much like it is based on the worst, most abuse-justifying portrayals of Harley, and never really seems to question those portrayals nearly as much as it needed to, instead of just retelling them.
In the end, The Refrigerator Monologues is a fun, angry little novella; it isn’t perfect, but it is enjoyable, and it’s really very much worth reading for every comics fan out there, if only to spot all the references Valente has dropped in to comics and creators!
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Some while ago, back in January last year, whilst still on my Masters course, I did a module on Classical Receptions. As part of that, we were required, inevitably, to write an essay on some form of reception of the Classical world; and, as this blog demonstrates, I have a strong interest in comics. At the time, Kieron Gillen’s & Ryan Kelly’s Three was just coming to an end (issue #4 came out in January 2014), and was in very explicit and direct conversation with Frank Miller and Lynne Varley’s 300, so I decided that – since I had the opportunity to do so, I would compare the two works in one specific aspect.
The aspect I chose was perhaps not the best; the Spartan rite of passage known as the κρυπτεία (krypteia) is shrouded in mystery, even down to what it actually consisted of or who took part. However, both 300 and Three attempt to show it, and use it for dramatic purposes; and while an essay on their presentation of helotage would have been interesting, in light of the fact that 300 completely ignores it would also have been a rather unbalanced piece.
So, I’m attaching here a piece of work I handed in on January 17th, 2014 to the University of Glasgow, about the comparative presentation of the κρυπτεία in 300 and Three. It’s long, and written in academese, but I hope you enjoy anyway!
She is Batwoman, Gotham City’s newest protector, and battling her at every turn of her still young crimefighting career is a crazed cult called the Religion of Crime. Led by a Lewis Carroll-quoting madwoman known only as Alice, they plan to turn Gotham into a wonderland of carnage.
But Alice has something special in store for the Batwoman – something that will show her everything she thought she knew about her new life as a caped crusader is wrong.
Is this one-woman army fighting a war she can’t win, against an enemy with more power over her than she ever could have guessed?
Rucka’s run on Batwoman, which became Williams’ run with the New52 relaunch, is notable for a number of things. The one most pertinent here is that Kate Kane, Batwoman, is a lesbian who left West Point because she refused to lie about her sexual orientation on questioning about it; Kane’s homosexuality becomes a secondary, and at times primary, theme in the series from the word go. In the first issue we meet Anna, Kane’s girlfriend – although only briefly; Anna dumps Kane because she thinks Kane is having an affair (arguably true, if Batwoman is driven the way Batman is). We also see Kane meeting – and breaking things off with – Renee Montoya, and starting the relationship with Maggie Sawyer that, at the end of Williams’ time on the comic, turns into a proposal. At no point in this is Kane shamed for her homosexuality; at no point is she seen as damaged or wrong for it, and the only person who judges her, her senior officer at West Point, is shown definitively to be in the wrong in driving her out in an incredible and emotional series of panels that drive home the damage Article 125 of the Uniform Code did. Rucka’s work shows both the hardship of homosexuality – Montoya is in the closet at GCPD – but also the everyday ordinariness of homosexual relationships; and the lack of comment on Batwoman’s sexuality does more to normalise it than any amount of discussion ever could.
Of course, that is all in the background of Elegy. Rather, Elegy deals with the arrival of Alice, the new High Madame of the Religion of Crime, into Gotham; after previous run-ins, Batwoman thinks the Religion of Crime is obsessed with her, and arguably it is. She therefore goes off to find out what she can, running into the Batman himself once, and the emotional and action arcs of the comic draw together as the identity of Alice is revealed and as Batwoman’s actions and alliances increasingly come to force her hand. The plot is, naturally, fast moving and in some ways typically comicsy; but at the same time it has a degree of emotional truth, and a weight of emotional heft, that is rare in any medium, let alone the superhero comic. Rucka handles the plot as one would expect a novellist to, and keeps it controlled, showcasing and introducing characters rapidly and making sure the reader is carried along; if at times things seem left at a loose end, it’s worth noting that this is no more a self-contained work than the first book in a trilogy is.
The most striking thing about Elegy, however, is J. H. Williams III’s artwork. Dave McKean aside, and even then it’s a close call, I’ve never seen art so beautiful, so expressive, so brazenly non-naturalistic, so expressionist but also so clear; this is, arguably, what the artwork for Morrison’s utterly stunning Arkham Asylum should have been. The number of different artistic styles on display in different issues, the way art is used to not only show the action and set tone but also draw connections that are not clear in the writing, the way it shapes the action (Williams on a number of occasions eschews square frames in favour of using the Batwoman logo as a framing device, among other shapes) is controlled and masterful in a way few other things are; Elegy and indeed the whole Batwoman run following it is certainly one of the best drawn ongoing or limited series there are.
This isn’t, naturally, perfect – the loose ends and coincidences that are the stock in trade of superhero comics abound as much here as in any other book – but Rucka does do a good job of telling a brilliant and emotionally true story, and Williams’ art adds so much to that. If you’re wondering where to start with superhero comics, Batwoman: Elegy might not be the perfect place to start, but it’s certainly a damn good one.
I’ve not read manga for some years, at least half a decade in fact; and then, it was Full Metal Alchemist, which I binged on for a short period, and the first few volumes of Battle Royale until the exploitation of young girls for sexual titilation frustrated me too much. Manga is as wide and varied a field as comics, though, and on the persuasion of my girlfriend, I decided to give it another shot, with Deathnote (on her explicit recommendation) and Bleach (on the basis of being one of the longest running series there is). Half of that proved to be a good decision…
To start with the art styles of each, they’re both superficially similar, the black-and-white relatively clean-line images in the same kind of style; it’s a hallmark of most of the manga I’ve read in fact. However, Bleach is distinctly messier, artistically, than Deathnote; between motionlines that obscure rather than clarify the events of the comic, excessive use of shading and chaotic use of space contrast poorly with Deathnote, which is illustrated with a surer hand that combines well with the story, in terms of facial expression, variety of description and more; it’s a fantastic piece of artwork and writing both.
The plots of each are reasonably equivalent in their execution; Deathnote is a combination of a story of a vigilante turning into a villain, a brilliant character study of the degeneration of Light Yagami from high-minded crusader to megalomaniac self-preservationist locked into battle with the equally, albeit differently, competitive and megalomaniac elusive detective L. In fact it’s partially that competition, that need to escape, that drives the degeneration of Light; and it’s a beautifully executed piece of characterwork, especially as Ryuk – the Shinigami whom only Light can see – impartially observes and comments on the events of the plot, and by doing so changes it. The way the different parts of the plot and groups of cast integrate is fantastic, and the consistent tone – serious, philosophical, but not without a significant degree of leavening humour – is brilliant. This is in stark contrast to Bleach, which can’t decide what it wants to be; a bizarre comedy, a sitcom with a difference, a relationship drama, a high school drama, or a sort of urban fantasy ghost story. The plot can’t quite decide what it’s focused on; the integration into humanity of Rukia, the way Ichigo is coming into his powers, the high school drama or the bizarre, exaggerated, impossible home life of Ichigo. These elements don’t really hang together or add to each other, making the story chaotic and confused.
Characters follow a similar line; Bleach doesn’t have characters so much as caricatures, from the rage-driven and impulsive (redhead, of course) Ichigo to the out-of-touch-with-humanity of Rukia; from Ichigo’s ultraviolent, insane father to the lovestruck Orihime. Every single one of these characters is one-dimensional and simplistic; they’re not interesting, they’re not enjoyable to read, they’re not really people we care about or connect with. Ploughing through that lack of distinctiveness for the ‘wacky hijinks’ of the plot feels like a complete waste of time and effort, because those are themselves unfunny and exaggerated. How much of this is due to a loss in translation is of course an open question, as is the effect of cultural shift, but that Deathnote manages to have an absolutely brilliant plot might undermine that somewhat. The dual plots of Light coming into his own as the user of the deathnote to clear up the world and his contest with ‘L’ to avoid capture by this criminological genius. These two strands converge and mix fantastically, and are built on by a wry sense of humour, a use of nonstandard chronology (going back to reveal both Light’s and ‘L”s plans after they have come to fruition), and philosophical considerations especially around the corrupting effect of power. This writing is beautifully done and smooth to boot; Deathnote really flows as a story.
In the end, Deathnote is a fantastic manga and a fantastic advertisement for the possibilities of what manga can do; however, Bleach – seemingly both longer-running and more popular – is simply a mess, undeserving of the attention it has received.
Once again there’s a title I bought this week – Captain Marvel #2 – that is part of an ongoing series; it’s also the first of a new policy, that I won’t review ongoing series because I don’t want to give spoilers, unless something *changes* significantly in their quality (in this case, nope. Captain Marvel is as awesome as ever). As for the rest, the normal standard alphabetical order (excluding prefixes) applies, so without further ado…
So an ever-shrinking number of weekly buys, especially as the number of new series finally slowly starts to subside again… although this week both DC & Marvel have one. So onwards with the reviews…
Aquaman and the Others #1 (Dan Jurgens, Lan Medina, Allen Martinez)
Aquaman, as a hero, isn’t really my cup of tea; he’s just never really come together for me as a reader. This comic has done nothing, unfortunately, to change that. The broad cast of characters has a lot of potential but it’s never really delivered on in this issue, as they all seem to just fall flat as soon as they’re grouped into one place, and even before that the ways they react to threats are disturbingly identical; indeed, at times dialogue appears to have been simply recycled wholesale. It’s really unfortunate in part because the strong representation of PoC in this comic is great, especially WoC, but with a plot that seems identical to Marvel’s (3-month-old) All New Invaders but less well directed, I’m not sure what the point of continuing to pick this up would be.
Inhuman #1 (Charles Soule, Joe Madureira, Marte Gracia)
The Inhumans are a long-running Marvel franchise, and Marvel’s follow-up to Infinity was the Inhuman-focused Inhumanity, but neither of those facts really plays into this review. What does is that the comic is basically dull; it’s a workmanlike introduction, getting across who is involved, the different factions in play and their different ideologies, but not really any reason for a reader not already invested in the events and characters the comic portrays – difficult, with only one character following through from prior work – there’s absolutely no reason to read this; its “ideological struggle” element is unoriginal, its characters flat, its writing dull. Really not worth your time.
THE FOLLOWING MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
Loki: Agent of Asgard #3 (Al Ewing, Lee Garbett, Nolan Woodard)
This issue of Loki focuses on the Loki who appeared on the scene at the end of Loki: Agent of Asgard #1; the older, evil, original comics Loki. This comic is, rather than being a simple present-day adventure or joyous piece of fun writing as the first two issues were, is instead Loki interacting in the Norse mythology; stealing Gram from Sigurd (who is black – racebending joy!) and tricking Odin. Indeed, this is a very differently written issue, much more heavily narrated, with Ewing showing a certain range not previously clear; I find it rather fascinating as well as, on its own merits, a brilliant piece of writing – and indeed a story one could simply pick up this issue and get, as has been the case with each issue of Loki: Agent of ASgard so far, although reading the series does give more back.
Moon Knight #2 (Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, Jordie Bellaire)
This comic somehow feels more like a Warren Ellis work than #1 did; the combination of political concerns, characterwork, and brilliant approaches to the combination of art and words really feels like the work of a master, and the control of the action on display from Ellis and Shalvey is absolutely stunning. The pallete used by Bellaire emphasises the action fantastically, and the first eight pages are a beautiful slow building, with incredible use of white space; this comic knows how to use blankness as well as colour to create action and mood. This is the best comic, by a distance, I’ve read this week, and I highly recommend it to you all.