Defrosting the DCnU (or Not)
|January 28, 2012||Posted by Jess under Comics|
This week, Women Write About Comics kicked off their first blogging carnival, starting with the theme “Women in Refrigerators, 13 Years Later.” If you’re here, you probably already know this, but short explanation: Women in Refrigerators, or “fridging,” is a term coined by Gail Simone in 1999 to describe the disproportionate number of female comic book characters who are killed, raped, assaulted, depowered, mind-controlled, or otherwise abused, often to create angst for the male hero. It takes its name from Alex DeWitt, who in Green Lantern v3 #54 was killed, dismembered, and left in her fridge for her boyfriend, Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, to find. The original WiR site has a by-no-means exhaustive list of female characters who have been subjected to various traumas that was controversial in 1999 and remains so today.While I was trying to figure out what I had to say on the subject, BFF Becky asked me, “Hey, didn’t you say something in a Dimestore post about Lian or someone being fridged, and then erased in the reboot? You could talk about that.” And since Becky is smart, I will!
You probably already know this too, but this past September, DC canceled their entire line of titles and (conditionally) rebooted their universe with 52 brand-new series. I won’t get into the reasons or my very loud opinions on the reboot generally, because we’ll be here all day. But here’s the thing about the reboot and WiR: every single one of DC’s many past fridgings could have been undone. When you rewrite your entire universe, there’s no reason to keep any past deaths in continuity. Instead, with one exception, DC not only hasn’t undone their fridgings, they’ve removed the characters entirely.
Let’s start with the example Becky mentioned. Lian Harper was the daughter of hero Roy Harper, a.k.a. Speedy I/Arsenal/Red Arrow, and villain Jade Nguyen, a.k.a. Cheshire. Here’s what I said about it when I wrote about her for Dimestore Dames:
Here’s the thing about Roy: I like him a lot, but as a horndog archer and mopey former sidekick, he’s kind of the poor man’s Oliver Queen (Roy’s mentor and horndog archer par excellence) or the poor man’s Dick Grayson (you will never meet a mopier former sidekick), depending on the writer. Lian made him interesting, as a very young single father struggling to push aside the demons of his past in order to raise his daughter. And though Roy’s gotten a big push in the DCnU, costarring in Red Hood and the Outlaws, Lian is nowhere to be seen, even though she could add a more interesting dynamic to the book than Jason Todd and Roy talking about how much they totally banged Starfire.
Lian was used as cannon fodder in the 2010 miniseries Cry for Justice, when she was crushed in the destruction of Star City in order to set both Roy and her “Grandpa” Ollie on angsty antiheroic paths. The completely gratuitous death of an innocent five-year-old infuriated fans, so DC decided to solve this in the DCnU by having Lian retconned out of continuity. DC kind of misses the point sometimes.
Because the solution to killing a five-year-old girl is to make it so she never existed, right? I mean, you know how if you take a toy from an infant and hide it behind something they won’t look for it because they don’t understand that the toy exists, even when they can’t see it? I’m pretty sure that’s how DC thinks its female fans’ brains work. If they hide Lian, we’ll forget all about her cheap, pointless death.
Or how about Sue Dibny? Sue was married to Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man, a perennial C-list favorite. He was one of the first heroes to get married or go public with his identity, and for the majority of their career, the Dibnys were a sweet, funny couple who everyone liked.
Then Sue was doubly fridged in the 2004 miniseries Identity Crisis. She was murdered in the first issue, and it was subsequently revealed that she had been raped years ago by the villain Dr. Light. The rape, however, merely served as a red herring to make the heroes think Dr. Light was the murderer, and none of the characters were ever seen emotionally processing it, least of all Sue herself. The murder also had absolutely nothing to do with Sue – she was killed by her friend Jean Loring, the Atom’s ex-wife, who was trying to make the Atom love her again, because Jean was suddenly extremely unrealistically crazy and no one had ever noticed, I guess. Narratively the whole thing made the Atom extremely sad, Batman extremely distrustful, and the rest of the Justice League look like jerks, so it was ALL WORTH IT. Oh, wait.(P.S. Ralph died a couple years later and joined Sue as mystery-solving ghosts (omg so cute!), but they were turned into zombies in Blackest Night and killed a couple of their buddies before being destroyed forever.)
DC is being deliberately cagey about whether Identity Crisis is still in continuity, because on the one hand, as much as it pains me to say it, it’s probably the most influential superhero book of the past decade – but on the other hand, it makes no damn sense to have a book about the dark past of the Justice League in the DCnU, where the League is a new concept. Right now the official stance seems to be that the Dibnys are still dead. Because it’s more important to hold fast to a story that no longer works than characters who could have hundreds more stories in them.
Nearly every DC franchise I can think of has a fridged woman or two whose very existence is in question in this new DCU. Aquaman’s getting an even bigger push than Roy, with superstar writer Geoff Johns on board – but what about Tula, the original Aquagirl, or Dolphin, who was killed as recently as Blackest Night? Did they ever exist? Or how about Hawkman, who also has a starring book, because everyone wants to read about a million-year-old shirtless Republican waving a mace at things? I have no idea what the hell the deal is with the various Hawkpeople, but from what I can tell, the Hawkgirl/Hawkwoman roles were held by at least three major characters (Shiera, Shayera, and Kendra), all of whom were dead before September, and none of whom are in the DCnU book.
Or to go back to the source…what about Kyle Rayner’s girlfriends? Now, DC hasn’t rebooted their Green Lantern continuity, mostly because it’s being spearheaded by Geoff Johns, who also happens to be Chief Creative Officer and can do what he wants – which means that they’ve lost the opportunity to reset the deaths of female characters like Alex and Green Lantern Katma Tui, who was also killed in the kitchen, this time to make her husband’s buddy Hal Jordan sad. But Alex is hardly Kyle’s only girlfriend to be killed off: his other long-term girlfriends, Jade and Donna Troy, also had high-profile deaths, though not until after they’d broken up with him. In fact, the high mortality rate of Kyle’s girlfriends is kind of a horrible running joke in some circles; at a Wizard World LA in 2006, a panel of all-male DC writers and editors apparently spent several minutes joking about it, comparing these female characters – two of whom predate Kyle by decades – to Spinal Tap drummers. Because violence against women is hilarious.You probably already know where I’m going with this: Jade and Donna are AWOL in the DCnU, too, even though they were both alive again before September. In fact, Donna’s major contribution – as a founding member of the Teen Titans – has been erased. And Jade, who is the only woman to ever serve as Green Lantern of Earth…well, why would you need her when you have four dudes, right?
When they rebooted their universe, DC had the opportunity to undo a lot of the damage of the past by bringing female characters who had been fridged back to the land of the living, or to rewrite the histories of female characters who had been fridged and subsequently resurrected to remove their exploitative deaths. Instead it’s been an opportunity for DC to give a book to each of their male Lanterns, and B-list dudes like Aquaman and Hawkman, who have repeatedly failed to hold a book.
(In fact, I can only think of one woman who used the reboot to claw her way out of the fridge: the exception mentioned above, formerly-paraplegic and original Batgirl Barbara Gordon, who is walking around the DCnU just fine now. However, since her defridging came at the cost of her many years as Oracle, the DCU’s indispensable supergenius hacker, and of her Batgirl legacy, which included her wonderful successors Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown (the latter of whom was fridged herself, then retconned back to life), you’ll understand that I’m not exactly jumping for joy. Defridging shouldn’t necessitate losing your identity and your legacy.)
Look, I’m not trying to come up with an exhaustive list of women who have or haven’t been fridged and/or included in the DCnU. That’s the problem with the WiR phenomenon: it’s largely subjective and hard to quantify. And there are certainly dudes who didn’t make the cut: men of color (nice knowing you, Connor Hawke), gay men (so long, Obsidian), and even straight white dudes (WALLYYYYYYY).
My point here is more that DC had the chance, with the reboot, to empty the fridge completely and throw it away. No woman’s death or rape or depowering or what have you was set in stone. All of their female characters could, theoretically, have been back in play.
Instead, they padlocked the fridge shut, threw it down the basement stairs, and pretended it no longer existed.
Women in Refrigerators will be relevant as long as women are disproportionately killed in comics – and as long as they’re disproportionately left dead and forgotten. After an outcry sprang up over the lack of female creators involved in the DCnU, DC top brass took to their official blog to assure female readers that they were committed to listening to those readers and improving on their ability to reflect the diversity of the real world. Defrosting some of the beloved characters they’ve got languishing in that too-big fridge of theirs would be a major step towards realizing those goals.
1. It’s a trend that occurs in all media, of course, but it tends to be particularly prevalent and violent in comics.↵
2. I’m footnoting this because it’s a digression from my main post, but the important thing to remember here is the context of the death/assault/what have you. Naysayers like to point out that bad things happen to men all the time in comics, and that’s true, although those bad things very rarely include sexual trauma, which sometimes seems like a prerequisite for female heroism. But they don’t often happen to men to make the women in their lives sad, which is a crucial distinction. Peter Parker doesn’t die to give Gwen Stacey angst. Mike Grell wrote about Black Canary being sexually assaulted, tortured, and depowered in order to drive Green Arrow’s story, and about Green Arrow being raped in order to…also drive Green Arrow’s story. Conversely, I would argue that, say, Ice’s death, though poorly written, was not a fridging, because she died to save the world and not to make Guy Gardner sad. His sadness was a byproduct of her sacrifice, but certainly not the impetus for it.↵
3. Speaking of which, how much am I not looking forward to seeing Emma Stone die in the new Spidey movie? SHE’S TOO CUTE TO DIE.↵
4. For that matter, the non-white members of the Aquafamily seem to be AWOL as well – where’s Lorena Marquez, the most recent and as far as I know not dead Aquagirl? Or Kaldur, the African-American (African-Atlantean?) Aqualad who is starring in the current WB cartoon Young Justice but nowhere to be seen in the comics? (See my first post here for more on DC’s inability to translate animated successes to comic book ones.)↵
5. It also makes interactions between rebooted and non-rebooted characters really weird and awkward; see Justice League International, where the non-rebooted Batman and Guy Gardner don’t seem to know how to interact with the rebooted rest of the team.↵
6. Donna’s death was a semi-fridging – it was used more to cancel Young Justice and Titans and reshuffle those characters into Teen Titans and The Outsiders than to make any one character feel ways about things. Jade’s, however, was a threefer, since it made her superheroic dad, brother, and ex-boyfriend all super sad. Maybe even super duper sad. That’s enough to justify it, right?↵
7. The 1988 book in which she was shot, The Killing Joke, is of course still in continuity, because it is a Very Important Book, and we wouldn’t want to lose sales of glossy hardback reprints because it’s not in continuity anymore, would we? Incidentally, writer Alan Moore was infamously given permission to shoot the Bat-franchise’s most prominent female character via a memo from editor Len Wein that read, “Sure, cripple the bitch.” Comics!↵
8. I tried to come up with some sort of play on words about a brand of fridge for my conclusion, but all I could think of was how “Energy Star” totally sounds like a superhero name. Someone write that comic.↵