Let me get the obvious out of the way first: I’m a fan of G. Willow Wilson’s work. Her storytelling finesse, and experiences as being at the intersection of several identities speaks to me. I recently saw her in conversation with KUOW’s Jamala Henderson as part of Humanities Washington’s speaker series, talking about identity, the comics industry, and of course, Ms. Marvel. Part of the flyer for the event introduced Willow (the G is silent) thusly: G. Willow Wilson lies at the epicenter of multiple fault lines of American identity.
“I belong in the refrigerator. Because the truth is, I’m just food for a superhero. He’ll eat up my death and get the energy he needs to become a legend.”
–– The Refrigerator Chronicles, pg. 144
If you’re a woman, girl, or other gender-marginalized person who loves comics, you’ve probably heard of “fridging.” Also known as being “refrigerated,” or “women in refrigerators,” fridging is a term coined in 1999 by comic writer Gail Simone, after reading a Green Lantern comic in which Kyle Raynor comes home to find his girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, killed and stuffed into a refrigerator. Since then, the term has spawned a website cataloguing the many ways in which women in comics have so often been treated as disposable plot devices within the broader narratives of male protagonists. Too often the wives and girlfriends of comic heroes, as well as other women comic book characters, are abused, injured, disempowered, or killed in order to provide a catalyst for the heroic actions of their male counterparts.
Drawing on this trope’s long and complicated history––as well as the format and mission of the Eve Ensler-created Vagina Monologues––prolific author and comic book fan Cathrynne M. Valente’s most recent book, The Refrigerator Monologues, began with her own Gail Simone-like call to action. As she describes in an article for The Mary Sue, after Valente saw The Amazing Spider-Man 2, she left the theater in tears, enraged and disappointed by the filmmakers’ treatment of Gwen Stacy. When Valente’s partner told her that, as much as they both might want to, there was nothing they could do to fix Gwen Stacy’s death because “‘she was always going to die. She always dies. It’s kind of a thing,’” Valente responded with redoubled enthusiasm to directly address that very inevitability.
“On Monday, I am Julia Ash. I dye my hair cranberry red and live in a trendy suburb with three cats, two teakettles, and one first edition Jane Eyre on which I have never once spilled ramen broth.
On Tuesday, I eat a star.”
–– The Refrigerator Chronicles, pg. 25
What results is a series of linked, monologic short stories, each centered around a different member of the Hell Hath Club, a tightknit group of “fridged” badasses, relegated to the monotonous obscurity of the underworld while their husbands and boyfriends heedlessly continue their above-ground heroics. Illustrated by amazing artist Annie Wu, the stories are by turns tragic and hilarious, snarky and earnest. Those who are familiar with comics will likely be able to place the inspiration behind Valente’s characters, and part of the fun is identifying the incredibly creative ways that Valente updates the stories of Jean Grey, Gwen Stacy, Alexandra DeWitt, Harley Quinn, and others. By drawing on familiar themes––updated and embellished by propulsive, acrobatic prose and galvanizing anger––Valente is able to honor the importance of comic books while simultaneously drawing attention to the very tropes that can hinder such pure enjoyment for us comics fans who aren’t cis white men.
At the same time, there are certainly limitations to what Valente is able to accomplish in The Refrigerator Monologues. The stories themselves––like those that inspired them––are, with few exceptions, heteronormative narratives involving white, cis men and women. Additionally, while Valente’s characters are given a voice and a spotlight through which to tell their own stories, the fact remains that they are still dead. United by shared experience and empowered by mutual storytelling, these powerful and complex women are not able to enact physical retribution on those who have hurt, oppressed, and used them.
Still, as someone who loves comics and graphic novels, I view Valente’s work as a celebration of the comic book genre precisely because it refuses to ignore the problematic tropes and themes so often contained within it. By putting a spotlight on abuse, misogyny, and the perceived disposability of certain bodies, The Refrigerator Monologues is a book that comes out of a deep love, addressing the anguish that results when that love is betrayed. As a nerd, that’s exactly the kind of representation that I’m looking for.
“The Hell Hath Club walks its newest member out into the Lethe Café, into music and moonlight and steaming cups of nothing that taste like remembering. Her frozen blue skin gleams like the bottles behind the bar. We help her into the booth, hold her hand, slip her a joke or two to make her smile.
What’s the difference between being dead and having a boyfriend? Death sticks around.”
“Stories, whenever they’re told, reflect their era.” – Regina Oglesby
What do Harley Quinn and the Little Mermaid have in common? Can Red Riding Hood’s wolf character be found lurking in a Captain America story?
These were the types of questions asked at my final panel of GGC ’16.
Made of members ofThe Geek Embassy, a learning community for new geeks, the panelists included Rhonda Oglesby, lead ambassador and teacher; Regina McMenomy, Ph.D.; Isabela Oliveria, tech editor, geek writer; and Jennifer Leaver, psychology teacher, expert in fairy tales, and newly into comics.
The focus of the panel was how, and what, fairy tales can teach us about superheroes. The panel opened the topic to the audience right away, asking them “What do you know about fairy tales?” The answers revealed a range of fairy tale knowledge including the notion that these were not tales meant to teach a moral lesson, to the more interesting revisions made by the Brothers Grimm. For instance, did you know that the Brothers’ changed a lot of the mother characters in their versions of tales to step-mothers, as they didn’t like the idea of mothers doing terrible things to their biological children? I sure didn’t.
As with any scholarly pursuit, it’s best to agree to specific conceptual definitions before diving in. After gathering the audience’s first assumptions and knowledge of fairy tales, it was time to bring out the definitions.
THE ELEMENTS OF FAIRY TALES
After vigorous research, the Geek Embassy team have defined fairy tales as “a genre of storytelling distinct from myth, legend, or nursery rhyme.” The characteristics that define a fairy tale are easy to identify.
Fairy tales, as opposed to their story counterparts, occur out of time. Although any storyteller can place Hansel and Gretel into a specific period in history, the story’s success as a narrative is in no way tied to when it takes place.
Additionally, fairy tales set themselves apart as they are generally flights of fancy, using larger-than-life characters and plots. There is also usually an element of magic involved.
Ann Uland, Emily Willis and Cat Batka are the creative squad behind Cassius, a new comic series that depicts Ancient Rome as a wonderfully diverse place, and with a driving story of political intrigue and loads of strong female characters. We’ve reviewed Issue 1 here, and Issue 2 here. Issue 3 comes out in March 2016.
They took a little time out to have a chat with us at GeekGirlCon about Justin Trudeau, their favorite books, and making their own comic company!
L to R: Ann, Emily, Cat. Photo provided by Emily Willis and Ann Uland
Tell me a little about yourselves and Arbitrary Muse Comics. How did you come up with the idea for making your own publication?
Ann Uland: We first met online because I started drawing things for a story Emily was writing. When we started dating, it was pretty natural for us to start coming up with stories we wanted to tell together and comics is the perfect marriage of writing and art for us.
Emily Willis: Arbitrary Muse evolved as a small comics company to encapsulate what we do when we sell our own self-published work and help to distribute other webcomics in print as well. Cassius is our latest project because Julius Caesar is my favorite Shakespearean play and I wanted to work on something inspired by it.
As a bit of a recap, Cassius is a story from Arbitrary Muse Comics, the collective mind of Ann Uland and Emily Willis, and, while inspired by the Shakespearean play Julius Caesar, it’s clear almost right away that this is probably not the sort of story that Shakespeare imagined. Junia, the protagonist, inherits the mysterious mark of Cassius from her mentor—while on the run from would-be assassins—has to discover the meaning of the mark and what her destiny is.
G. Willow Wilson, creator and writer of the new Ms. Marvel, featuring Kamala Khan (a Muslim Pakistani-American teenage girl living in New Jersey) skipped New York Comic Con this year to join us at GeekGirlCon for the very first time. We were thrilled to have her here in Seattle for a non-compliant discussion of women, diversity, and comics.
Moderator Sabrina Taylor set the tone by telling us, “We are here, as Kelly Sue DeConnick would say, to smash the patriarchy.” (DeConnick is the creator of Bitch Planet, a comic about “non-compliant” women in a dystopian future who are sent to a prison planet for transgressions both major and minor.)
We on staff at GeekGirlCon are thrilled to share that comic book writer and novelist G. Willow Wilson will be joining us as a featured contributor at GeekGirlCon ‘15 – even if she has to miss New York Comic Con to be here!
She’s one of a upcoming cadre of comic book (and other pop culture) creators who engage deeply with their fanbase, who wear their geeky fannish roots on their sleeve. She’s active on Twitter, answering fan questions and squeeing alongside us at fandom news.
I’ve read a lot of comics in my time, but I’ve never really found many that address my non-comic political interests. A possible exception has been Mike Carey and Peter Gross’ The Unwritten series, which discusses things such as metastories and political philosophy, but that’s just one instance. Exceptions are rare.
This is why I was super excited to have the opportunity to review Cassius, which on the face of it, was going to address some of my other interests: I love history, I love Shakespeare, and I love dynamic female characters. Cassius has all of these things in scads, which pleases me immensely.
Written by GeekGirlCon Manager of Editorial Services Winter Downs.
About ten years ago, I made the decision to step outside of my bubble and explore the great wide world of comics. As a child, I’d pored over my dad’s old Silver Age Green Lantern comics. More recently I’d devoured trade paperbacks of The Sandman and Maus and Transmetropolitan borrowed from friends or from the library. I’d read books about what a versatile and challenging artform comics can be, and I wanted to find out more.
I steeled myself and marched off to my local comic store.
As soon as I walked in, the man working there swooped down on me. Maybe it’s hindsight that adds the memory of a glint in his eye at the sight of fresh prey. What was I looking for? he wanted to know. What ongoing series was I following? What had me on tenterhooks, waiting for it to hit the shelves?
“I… I… I like The Sandman?” I asked him.
“Ah,” he said, knowingly. The Sandman’s run had ended nearly a decade before.
When Marvel announced last year that Thor was going to be female, there was some backlash from pockets of comic book fandom saying that the change went against the mythology of the comic, and that Marvel was just pandering to feminists. Of course, given our cultural climate, it’s hardly surprising that an objection would be made on the basis of Thor’s gender. But what’s weirder is that the basis of this objection is that it wouldn’t fit into a universe which, by its definition, was a fictional one, and as such could encompass whatever sort of characters we can imagine.
The vast majority of domains in geekery depend on imagination. Super Mario World, for example, is about an Italian-American plumber, who rides talking dinosaurs, can gain powers to kill everything in sight and fights a giant anthropomorphic turtle. The Avengers are a team of humanoids who fight mostly-humanoid enemies. The crew of the Starship Enterprise, while diverse in race and gender, are humans or humanoid, and they go to planets where the inhabitants are usually also humanoid. But even if we disregard the fact that most of these inhabitants are human (for example, in the case of Star Trek, there are obvious budgetary and practical reasons for casting humans), notice that in most of the characters we encounter in our hypothetical geek worlds are white, cisgender males. Even in our most diverse worlds, our heroes are, more often than not, white dudes.