Thursday Comics Hangover: Let the women speak

This week I want to talk about a book that isn't actually a comic book, but which wouldn't exist without comics. Catherynne M. Valenti's young adult short story collection The Refrigerator Monologues is an attempt to give voice to the often-neglected women who serve in supporting roles in superhero comics.

Refrigerator is structurally a riff on the Vagina Monologues with a superhero twist, and Valenti clearly knows her source material. The name comes from a superhero comic trope known as "fridging," in which a love interest's grisly death serves no greater purpose than really pissing off a hero, thereby giving him the motivation he needs to defeat the villain of the story. The book examines, satirizes, and deepens the cliches that women must endure in comics.

These are riffs on Spider-Man's first girlfriend Gwen Stacy (thrown off a bridge to her death by the Green Goblin) and Cyclops's girlfriend Phoenix (committed suicide after being tempted to the dark side by a cosmic being) and the Joker's girlfriend Harley Quinn (not dead, but often reduced to a punchline about codependency.) Valenti gets deep into the characters' heads, adding motivations and complex emotional responses to the crude stories mapped out in superhero comics of the past.

The framing story in Refrigerator, a club in the afterlife where wronged women can gather and tell their stories, doesn't quite go anywhere. And the book feels a little slight; it could use one or two more stories. But Valenti definitely ties together a thesis here, and she vindicates a whole rainbow of characters who have only gotten short shrift for the last fifty years. Hopefully next, she'll write a comic that puts these women front and center — without the men around to ruin everything.