Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Refrigerator Monologues

Deadtown isn't so bad. Forgotten songs, books, and art are all available for its inhabitants. The Hell Hath Club meets all the time, comprised of the abused, condemned, and brushed aside women of comic book fame. They each share their stories and bare their souls for each other, always welcoming new members to their ranks. Catherynne Valente skillfully created a whole new comic book world that has familiar characters by different names. The Marvel and DC universes are blended seamlessly into one with Justice League, X-Men, and the like with different names and slightly different abilites. Valente gives some easter egg type clues as to what existing characters are being referenced. It works surprisingly well and makes all the characters make sense and some appear in others' stories.

The first one is Gwen Stacy, known here as Paige Embry. Despite all of her own accomplishments such as being an excellent scholar and scientist, she's known as the girl who died in order to give her boyfriend hero pain. His current girlfriend is satsisfied sitting at home, cooking his meals, and generally being subservient, but Paige wasn't. The creation of Kid Mercury (Spiderman) and his archenemesis were her fault because she improved the mercurial substance by a small margin. She tried to do the right thing and get rid of it so it wouldn't be abused, but she died. She fought with no superpowers with a bravery and a passion exceeding Kid Mercury's, but she's only known for one thing. Now her ex-boyfriend gets to get his hollow revenge and Paige leads the Hell Hath Club in Deadtown.

The second is Jean Grey or Julia Ash. The Dark Phoenix saga is one of the most popular X-Men story lines and it's been done to death. Here, Julia blinks in and out of Deadtown because of how often her character is resurrected only to die again. The story reason is a character named Retcon who constantly changes her reality, but the real reason is her popularity in comics. She was the only founding woman on the X-Men team and fought alongside her fellow mutants (or mockingbirds). As Julia gained power rivalling others on the team, her male counterparts started looking at her with fear, judgment, and suspicion. Even though others were similar in power level, they didn't like her showing them up, not needing their help, or showing how much power she really has.  Now, she can't even make eggs because of Retcon's power that keeps her bouncing in between realities wher she's the Dark Phoenix, an abused housewife, and others that amount to a footnote in someone else's story. Every day, at a specific time, she blissfully holds still.

The third is Harley Quinn or Pauline Ketch AKA the Polly to Mr. Punch. I love the Joker's new name because it says so much about how he treats her. He calls her Polly, the one Mr. Punch loves in the play but he treats her like Judy. This was my favorite chapter because her voice and point of view is so different from the others. Her story is linear, but felt chaotic. She jumps into her own fractured musings about her past, Mr. Punch, and his nemesis Grimdark in between the main plot.Throughout their relationship, Polly is convinced that she deftly manipulates Mr. Punch by posing as a psychologist in jail and withholding Grimdark's real identity in order to lengthen their time together. The whole time, he played her by faking being zombified by drugs and later convincing her that he had feelings for her. Through it all, she's convinced her love will come to find her in Deadtown despite all the abuse he doled out.

The fourth is Bayou or Mera, Queen of Atlantis who is quick to say the sea isn't the pristine blue water we picture. Despite her royal obligations, she opted to live independently, play in a punk band, and focus on partying. Children were far from her mind. During a journey to the surface (to get drunk on air), she's "saved" from drowning by John Heron (Aquaman). Her nonchalance at his accomplishments immediately annoys him (because she can do all of the same things) and she reveals that he is half Altantean. Whirlwind romance happens and Bayou unexpectedly becomes pregnant. When her son dies in a fight to save Atlantis, she's understandably devastated. John gets to callously tout his dead son as motivation to fight enemies while Bayou is branded as unstable and insufferable for expressing her loss in any way. I found Bayou's story the most heartbreaking.

The fifth is Daisy Green or Daredevil's Karen Page, another woman tormented by her relationship with a superhero. At first, she was a successful actress with a lot of potential. Then, the Insomniac came into her life and she lives in constant fear of his archnemesis. When she distances herself from the Insomniac, her life returns to normal, but she can't find work. She turns to prostitution to support herself, framing it as acting for an audience of one, leading to a job as a porn star. I loved the comparison of the trajectory of a porn star and superhero career where people love you in beginning and all is wonderful, but as time goes on, people want more, get resentful, and force the hero/porn star to become darker and grittier to keep their attention until they spiral out of control.

The sixth and last is the literal woman in a refrigerator, Samantha Dane or Alexandra DeWitt. Her relationship with this world's version of the Green Lantern puts her in danger. At first, they were both artists in their own right; she was a photographer while he was a graffiti artist. After he finds a pin that imbues him with powers, his values suddenly change. He treats her as inferior even though she solely brings in the money they need to survive. Samantha has to give up her dreams to make her boyfriend's a reality while he goes back on all of the ideologies they agreed on. Through all of this, his nemesis targets her and stuffs her in a refrigerator, effectively reducing her to just another reason why that hero fights and further hates his nemesis and nothing more. The newest member of the Hell Hath Club arrives in Deadtown and she is welcomed with open arms to the people who understand her most.

The Refrigerator Monologues is an amazing story that frames these comic book characters in more realistic situations and shows how life is from their perspective. All of them are treated terribly and only have value in how they relate to the men in their lives when so many of them have numerous merits on their own. Catherynne Valente creates this shared universe with subtle clues as to their real identity, thematic threads, overlapping characters, and fleshed out characters all around. This is a must read for feminist fans of comic books who are frustrated at women characters being killed, raped, pushed aside, suppressed, and otherwise dismissed in favor of the "superhuman" man in their lives.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

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