Picture a chubby, blonde, blue-eyed 5-year-old spinning in circles in the living room. Wonder Woman is on TV, and that little girl is hoping for a flash of light as she spins. She desperately wants an invisible jet, the ability to talk to animals, and super strength. That hopeful 5-year-old was me, and Wonder Woman was my Princess Di. I was fascinated by her power.

Fast forward 20 years. The IT guy at my new job asks me if I’m into comic books. I immediately think of Wonder Woman, and I’m all, “Yeah, sure.” Soon thereafter, a stack of trade paperbacks — Gail Simone and Ed Benes’ entire Birds of Prey run — appears on my desk. This particular series is the best of the best, chock full of ass-kicking chicks, excellent writing and cheesecake. There is something wildly invigorating about seeing Black Canary drawn to physical perfection, talking cash shit, and serving some baddie his last knuckle sammich. SO. MUCH. FUN. A geek girl is born — or, perhaps, reborn.

Girls aren’t new to this comic book geek game, and the past decade has seen a surge in fangirldom and female creators. I give a lot of credit to my darling Gail Simone. Girls were reading and creating comics before she came along, but Simone changed the game 11 years ago with Women in Refrigerators. Simone (Gail to her fans) made a list of female characters who had been “killed, raped, depowered, crippled, turned evil, maimed, tortured, contracted a disease or had other life-derailing tragedies befall her.” It was a long list. For today’s hardcore fanboys and fangirls, the term Women in Refrigerators (WiR) is classic comics industry shorthand.

For those not yet fully initiated into the pantheon of fanboy/girl status, the term “Women in Refrigerators” is an ode to Green Lantern #54 (1994), written by Ron Marz, in which Kyle Rayner comes home to find that his girlfriend, Alex DeWitt, had been beaten, strangled and then her mutilated and contorted body was stuffed into the fridge by the villain Major Force.

Essentially, Gail’s list revealed the dirty little secret (at least to outsiders) of the comic book world: Misogyny. At the time, Gail was an aspiring writer and fangirl. Now, she’s the baddest mamma jamma at DC Comics. WiR started a long overdue dialogue, one that blew the doors wide open. But as necessary as that dialogue was and still is, it spawned a joyless, self-righteous monster of its own. Today, much of the fangirl fodder in the blogosphere is riddled with matriarchal tyranny and navel-gazing.

I respect WiR and all it’s glory, but I am so over it. As psychologist Carl Rogers put it, “When I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Yeah, it’s kinda Deepak Chopra, but there is a point: I accept that comics tend to portray female characters in a way that appeals to every straight guy’s inner 13-year-old. Sometimes, that means ridiculously large boobs (Power Girl) and teeny weeny costumes. Sometimes it takes a darker turn, and female characters are subjected to storylines that weaken or gratuitously humiliate them. It is indicative of the culture that we live in. Art is imitating life. That doesn’t make it OK. However, I’m annoyed by the knee-jerk bashing of expression, which does nothing to break the cycle. A better strategy? Spend your money on the books that do portray women in a more empowered light. The comic book industry is driven by dollars, just like everything else in this world.

Since discovering Birds of Prey, I’ve broadened my horizons beyond Spandex. But nothing compares to the rush of pure enjoyment I get from reading a story about fierce chicks delivering some super-powered justice. Here on Earth-One, the politics, the economy, the epidemic narcissism – It’s all a bit much. Comic books are an escapist fantasy of what I’d love to be — at least in an alternate universe where physics and law enforcement don’t apply. The fantasy is fun, and I’ve grown weary of the angsty fangirl crashing the party and railing at everyone. Lighten the fuck up! Humans like honey way mo’ better than vinegar, and politicians aren’t exactly flocking to Geoff Johns or Brian Michael Bendis for public policy advice. I’ve got plenty to say about the Star Sapphires’ bullshit stripper uniform (It’s just not functional in space), X-23 being a prostitute (She’s too young), and Black Canary’s plot device of a marriage to Green Arrow (I just threw up a little in my mouth), but those things don’t ruin an entire genre. How can you not be moved by the raw creativity – the combination of writing, illustration, inks and lettering?

The comic book world is one of passionate opinions, and being a part of it is more satisfying than I ever imagined. But I refuse to be ashamed of the comics I love, cheesecake and all. There’s power in that.

Vanessa G is a contributing writer for StimulatedBoredom.com and is the co-creator of Girls Gone Geek.

  • Had never heard of ‘WiR’ before this, thanks Vanessa, excellent article!

    I am curious (with ‘WiR’) did Gail end up taking these characters and re-empowering them through her own art and books? Is this how she made a name for herself? Or was it that ‘WiR’ simply exposed the representation women had in comic books and therefore changed the industry and stronger female characters wore born as a result?

  • Very well said. The comics medium isn't perfect, and sometimes it unwittingly reflects the problems we struggle with in society — sexism, racial ignorance, general nonsense, etc. But there's also some wonderful work being done, and that's worth celebrating. If reading comics becomes a joyless exercise, what's the point?

  • WiR garnered a lot of attention from the industry, some of it hostile. But you know what they say, all press is good press. Shortly thereafter she started writing for CBR (Comic Book Resources). Through there she got offered writing gigs.

    Gail got her hands on some of the characters. She fully redeemed Black Canary's character, and made her amazing; It is because of Gail that Black Canary is my favorite character. Other characters on the list that she's done some justice with include – Oracle (aka Batgirl), Huntress, and Wonder Woman.

    As for the effect on the industry as a whole, like I said … it really got the discussion going. Several story arcs have referenced WiR. Grant Morrison especially likes to throw it into the mix. In his Seven Soldiers of Victory he had two female characters fighting – throwing refrigerators at each other. Supposedly, WiR made its way into pop culture discussions as well.

    While it's changed perception, and perhaps altered the path of some comic writers, WiR is still prevalent. In 2004, Identity Crisis (a major DC event) revolved around Sue Dibney getting raped then murdered.
    With the rise of the female fandom, I think there will be a rise in stronger female characters, especially if a female is writing it. But you just don't see a lot of female writers on the big name books. There are a select few male writers that do regard women well. Recently, Paul Dini's Zatanna #1 looked promising. Greg Rucka is the king of awesome female characters – Kate Kane, Renee Montoya, and Wonder Woman. Unfortunately many other male writers just don't get it. The comics industry is comprised of predominantly male creators.

  • What would you guys say to someone who would like to get into comic books, but they feel like they would be jumping in too far into a storyline / series to get caught up (i.e. like jumping in during the last season of ‘Lost’ and trying to figure out what has happened in previous seasons)?

    Is it better to just find something that you dig and jump in? Are characters divided by series, storylines, particular artists who take over a franchise and start over etc?

    Any good “must have” graphic novels?

    For Batman fans, I’ll start:

    Batman: Year One
    The Dark Knight Returns
    The Killing Joke
    Arkham Asylum
    The Long Halloween

    Where do babies come from?

    (Wow, that’s a lot of questions for 1 comment)

  • Vanessa – Fantastic article! Without a doubt Gail Simone is one of the best comic writers working in the industry. Whether you are focused on WiR issues or simply looking for good comics, she's a guaranteed win.

    I sincerely appreciate your point-of-view about enjoying comics. More people need to say that. If you are paying for these fantasy stories, then you should enjoy them. If you're not enjoying them, stop reading them and stop griping about them! I have the occasional gripe myself (DC raising their price to $3.99 on regular-length comics, I'm looking at you!), but overall I'm still enjoying the genre. These are wondrous stories that are written for enjoyment. Love them, breathe them in, and enjoy them. If you find yourself more disenfranchised than happy after reading a comic, then walk away from it. Life's too short.

    In regard to cheesecake… what about the beefcake? How many superhero male characters are out there that look like the typical male comic reader? You mentioned large boobs and small costumes on women. The men have large muscles and super-tight costumes. Hmmm… That's a whole untapped issue, the physical portrayal of superhero males in comics.

    Again, great article!

    The Irredeemable Shag

  • Dana – I say just jump in. That's what I did with Crisis on Infinite Earths. Part of the fun was trying to figure it all out. The chase for information was nearly as much fun as the comics.

    As for recommendations, I wrote something up on DC recommendations a while back. Here are my DC recommendations:

    The Irredeemable Shag

  • I think Wikipedia is maintained solely by comic book geeks because it has tons of continuity. When I first started reading, I would look up a character's back story. As you continue to read, you learn about past events and such. Although, I don't think that it's imperative to know the continuity because every writer writes different, and writers change ALL THE TIME on books.

    So I say find something that is aesthetically pleasing to you, on a character that you like and dig in. You will eventually learn the writers that move you. I am to the point now where I follow writers and artists.

    For those looking to get into comics, here are my favorites that I know are available in collected editions:

    Greg Rucka's run on Wonder Woman (5 trades collecting 195-226)
    Gail Simone's run on Birds of Prey (7 trades collecting 56-108)
    Gail Simone's Secret Six – has trades & is ongoing
    The Question: Five Books of Blood & Final Crisis: Revelations by Rucka
    Batwoman: Elegy (collects Detective Comics 854-860) – BEST ART EVER
    Green Lantern & Green Lantern Corps – Sinestro Corps War
    X-Men: Messiah Complex (1 Volume collects several different titles)
    Justice League: The New Frontier
    Black Adam: The Dark Age

    For the non-spandex:

    Fables – collected in trades & is ongoing
    Chew – new series, first trade just came out

    There is tons of stuff I am leaving out, but those are definitely some of my favorites.

  • Kiyama

    I should probably get into Birds of Prey immediately..

  • Stopped by a comic store on the way home from work and made a few purchases:

    ACME Super Comic Store

    (That image is maybe 20% of the entire store)

    And I plan to talk about which items I chose on the show. I am recording tonight, so the segment will be available later this weekend!

    Took some of your suggestions and plan to go back for more! Tune in, as I plan to discuss this article / thread. 🙂

    Geeks Rule.

  • Stephen

    I have some comic suggestion. Scott Pilgrim books are fantastic. The Walking Dead, Death the High Cost of Living, Sandman, and Frank Miller's Daredevil run is one of the best things ever. Some one should write a comic where someone in the DC Universe is going around killing and msiming and raping some of the side male characters as revenge for all the wrongs that have been done to the women in the DC world. It could start with Steve Trevor being stuffed into a fridge.

  • Thanks for the recommendations Steve. I am planning to stop of at ACME again on Tuesday to pull a few more trades from the ones that I like so far, in addition to those suggested by others (present company included).

    Here is what I pulled on Friday:

    Kingdom Come
    The Authority
    The Walking Dead
    Ex Machina
    Wolverine: Old Man Logan
    The New Avengers (needed a classic 'tights & cape' issue)

    Thanks to all for helping a 'newbie' get started!

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