In The Refrigerator Monologues, Catherynne M. Valente is joined by illustrator Annie Wu to tell the stories of six women whose lives were upturned by their associations with famous male superheroes. From the Hell Hath Club in Deadtown, the deceased sidekicks, girlfriends, and wives tell their sides of the story. Valente and Wu create a mini-superhero universe filled with original creations, each a sharp, satirical take on a character from comic book history who was given iffy treatment by the medium’s largely male writers.
The women who have come for open mic night at the Hell Hath Club are so well drawn, studying up on the characters who inspired them is hardly necessary—the book is profoundly moving even without that additional context—but readers may not truly appreciate how skillful a book it is without a bit of background. Here, as best we can surmise, is the history behind the book’s primary inspirations.
Gwen Stacy, the Inspiration for Paige Embry
Valente reasonably starts off with the comics’ über-tragic girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. A Stan Lee/Steve Ditko creation way back in 1965, Stacy was introduced as a primary love interest for Peter Parker, then a college student at Empire State University. The creative team introduced neighbor Mary Jane Watson around the same time as, essentially, a flirty complication on Peter’s path to true love with Gwen. That presumption is probably what got Gwen killed: after a few years, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the status of a relationship that, by the static nature of superhero storytelling, could never really go anywhere. (Peter did marry MJ years later, and the powers that be immediately began trying to figure out how to undo it.) Thus came 1973’s The Amazing Spider-Man #s 121 and 122, collectively called “The Night Gwen Stacy Died.”
That title is no fake-out: after a climactic battle with his arch-nemesis the Green Goblin (actually Peter’s best friend Harry Osborn), the Goblin hurls Gwen off of the one of New York’s fabled bridges. In a particularly gruesome turn, especially for the time, Spider-Man catches her with a bit of webbing only to discover that the abrupt halt broke her neck. Killing off a major supporting character in a mainstream comic just wasn’t done at the time, so the moment became an iconic bit of Spider-Man lore, and heralded the start of a less innocent age in superhero storytelling. Gwen shows up frequently in movies and cartoons, often dying, and she has generally stayed dead in the comics. (Clones and alternate-universe versions have occasionally come calling, the most prominent and capable being the Spider-Woman of Earth-65, aka Spider-Gwen, an immediately popular, eminently cosplay-able character who was given her own series.)
Gwen’s violent death is generally seen as a key moment for Spider-Man and superhero comics in general. Which is to say that these days, she’s best known for having died. Secondary characters and sidekicks always exist to further the main character’s story; that’s nothing new. But women, and particularly girlfriends, often do so simply by dying horribly. The trope can’t be laid solely on Gwen’s shoulders, but it’s possible the comic writers impacted by it took the wrong lessons from her untimely death.
Jean Grey, the Inspiration for Julia Ash
Jean is one of the most powerful mutants—actually one of the most powerful superheroes, full stop—in the Marvel Universe. Her powers have been described as “Omega-level,” meaning, basically, she can mess you up. But not just you: the world, the galaxy, maybe the universe. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963 as a semi-generic girl in the original X-Men lineup, her telepathic and telekinetic powers developed over time until she took on the powers of the Phoenix Force in 1980’s Dark Phoenix Saga.
It’s one of the most beloved storylines in superhero storytelling, an 11-issue epic that saw…well, a whole lot of stuff happen. But ultimately, a villain named Mastermind messes with Jean’s mind until she finally snaps, all of the barriers on her power falling away. In a frenzy, she becomes the “Dark Phoenix” and flees to a neighboring galaxy, devouring a star to recharge herself. That, in turn, kills all the people of a nearby planet. She’s pursued by the Shi’ar (aliens with whom the X-Men occasionally chill), but easily destroys their ship. With help from Professor X, she is eventually able to reassert some control, but not in time to stop the Shi’ar from invoking a plan that would destroy the entire solar system solely to ensure that the Phoenix can’t return. In the end, she takes suicidal action to stop the Shi’ar from following through. She didn’t stay dead forever, but came back only to die once again saving the world from Magneto. A time-displaced younger version is on the scene these days.
There’s a fair bit of ambiguity over Jean’s culpability for her actions as Dark Phoenix, and Valente toys with that through the character of Julia Ash. In some interpretations, Jean is almost fully culpable, undone by her inability to control her own powers. In others, the “Phoenix Force” is an outside entity that has possessed Jean from time to time, a being of immeasurable power that exists beyond good and evil. In one version, she gives into her own violent impulses and emotions to deadly effect; in another she’s almost entirely a victim. In either case, she had to die (twice, at least) for her sins. Neither interpretation is entirely satisfying. There’s a school of thought that points out that Jean’s powers developed just as the women’s movement was kicking into gear in America, which would be more inspiring if her end hadn’t been so tragic.
Harley Quinn, the Inspiration for Pauline Ketch
Harley Quinn is the rare comic book character to have made a big enough splash in another medium that she crossed over onto the printed page. She first showed up on the rightfully beloved Batman: The Animated Series in 1992, a creation of producers Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, and voiced by Arleen Sorkin. The character wasn’t really intended as more than a cameo, but very quickly became a breakout and found her way into the comics within a year or so. Her origin goes something like this: Dr. Harleen Quinzel, PhD was a psychologist at Arkham Asylum assigned to work with the infamous Joker. His charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and facility for terror won her heart, inspiring her to take up a life of crime and gymnastics, and also to go more than a wee bit crazy. (Does mental illness work like that? I’m not a doctor.) When the two escape from the least secure prison in literary history, she dons her iconic harlequin suit and takes on a role akin to the Batman’s Robin, except that she’s also her puddin’s lover (setting aside assertions the relationship might not be that different from that of Batman and his first Robin). Since then, she’s earned a place in Batman’s rogues gallery alongside some of the best and most iconic villains in comics.
With visual flair and heaps of personality, Harley Quinn has been a fixture of the DC Universe in various forms over the years: several different animated and live-action TV shows, countless comics—including a couple of solo books—and the recent Suicide Squad movie, but her character development has been a bit of a mixed bag. Her bold, fearless, and shameless demeanor make her a wild counterpoint to more traditional depictions of female characters on the page. She’s evolved over the years into more of a zany antihero, functioning perfectly well away from Mr. J and even developing a relationship with Poison Ivy.
On the flip side, her connection to the Joker is inescapable, meaning that she’s perpetually tied to an origin that saw her surrender her life and career to a dude that frequently treats her like garbage. When she was a secondary character, it was easy to accept the Joker would have a lady friend every bit as deranged as himself. As she’s become one of DC’s most prominent characters (even appearing in the main lineup of the kid-focused DC Superhero Girls franchise), that all feels increasingly icky. That’s the bit that Valente seems to want to talk about with her Harley/Joker analogues, Pauline Ketch and Mr. Punch. Whether Harley Quinn’s increasingly skimpy Hot Topic-ready attire and attitude make her a shining example of sex and body-positivity, or one more traditional object for the male gaze, is a subject for debate. When future comics historians look back at gender politics in our era, Harley Quinn is going to be a huge part of the discussion.
Mera, the Inspiration for Blue Bayou
Charting the ups and downs of the life of Mera, Queen of Atlantis, thorough reboots and retcons over a 50-year history, wouldn’t leave time for much else, so we’ll stick with the basics: she first appeared in a 1963 issue of Aquaman, created by Jack Miller and Nick Cardy. As first seen, she was the Queen not of Atlantis (that came later), but of Xebel, a realm in the alternate dimension of Aqua. Rescued from a criminal by Aquaman, she quickly surrenders her throne in favor of marrying the hero. Soon after that, she gives birth to Aquababy (aka Arthur Curry, Jr.). Nemesis Black Manta later kidnaps the child, and Mera’s efforts to save him come too late. The baby dies in yet another one of those mid-’70s moments when superhero comics went very dark. Things get fuzzy from there, depending upon which era you’re looking at, but generally, the death of the child causes a rift between Arthur and Mera and she goes a little insane, bordering, at times, on full-blown evil. Even the most recent version of the character is known for her out-of-control temper. It’s this aspect that Valente comments upon: while her husband gets to use his son’s death as motivation, “Blue Bayou” is treated as a pariah when her devastation at the tragic loss of her only child gets boring. Mary Todd Lincoln could tell you all about it.
(Mera will appear in this year’s Justice League film, played by Amber Heard.)
Karen Page, the Inspiration for Daisy Green
Karen Page is another character with origins in the ’60s, and another created by Stan Lee alongside Bill Everett (Lee envisioned some of the most iconic women in comics; generally is was later writers who killed them off). She began her career as a secretary, an entirely respectable career for a woman of that time, at the law firm of Matt Murdoch, aka Daredevil. In those early days, she’s a romantic interest of both Matt and his partner Foggy Nelson, but takes off shortly after learning of Matt’s double life to become an actress, leaving the hero and the series behind. When she returns, during Frank Miller’s iconic run on the series, she’s not only a heroin addict, but a porn star. Miller’s depiction of women frequently leaves something to be desired, but it can be argued that the character’s shocking turn is humanizing rather than exploitative. Maybe.
Later, under writer Ann Nocenti, Karen got further development, and even helped out Daredevil with a couple of cases. She disappeared from the comics again for a time, before becoming a talk show host and getting killed by Daredevil’s nemesis Bullseye during filmmaker Kevin Smith’s 1999 run on the book. This was after a brief period during which a supervillain tricked her into believing she was HIV positive in order to get at Matt. Rough times. Naturally, Daredevil is initially brought low by her death before finding new strength and inspiration in her memory. Karen’s death was the catalyst for years worth of stories. She appears on the Netflix Daredevil series, played by Deborah Ann Woll.
Alexandra DeWitt, the Inspiration for Samantha Dane
Finally, we come to the woman for whom the term “Women in Refrigerators” was coined: Alexandra DeWitt, represented in The Refrigerator Monologues by Samantha Dane. She first appeared in 1994, created by Ron Marz as the girlfriend of Kyle Rayner. While the semi-sentient power rings chose other Green Lanterns for their essential fearlessness, Kyle was simply in the right place at the right time when the previous Green Lantern of Earth, Hal Jordan, went mad with grief and turned full-on supervillain. He worked out ok, but as introduced, he was a slightly lazy graphic artist being supported by his photographer girlfriend.
Upon learning Kyle’s new secret, Alexandra agrees to help train him to use the power ring. But then he comes home and finds her stuffed inside his refrigerator, murdered by a C-level villain with the on-the-nose moniker Major Force, and, fueled by grief, finds strength to become a hero.
Though her actual death happened “offscreen,” its particularly brutal nature inspired comics journalist and blogger Gail Simone (who has gone on to become an A-list comics writer in her own right) to use it as an example of the casual violence that seems to befall female sidekicks, girlfriends, and wives in order to inspire the good guys. Emphasis on the guys. Readers will certainly argue about the extent to which individual instances of fictional violence against women represent examples of the women in refrigerators phenomenon, but Simone got people talking, starting a conversation that’s still going on. Valente certainly has a lot to say about it.