This column is part one of a two-part analysis of women in comics. This article will look at women in instances of violence and their treatment as plot objects. The second will then analyze the sexual objectification of female characters.
In Green Lantern #54, released in 1994, superhero Kyle Rayner came home to his apartment. Introduced only six issues earlier, Kyle Rayner was to be DC’s replacement for longtime Lantern, Hal Jordan. In the comics, Rayner’s character was rather unsold on his new duties as the Green Lantern, so naturally, writer Ron Marz needed to create motivation for Rayner. Upon entering his apartment, Rayner receives a note from his girlfriend, Alex DeWitt, which reads, “Surprise for you in the fridge. Love, A”. Rayner opens the refrigerator to find DeWitt’s stuffed corpse. Comic writers had again used a woman’s suffering as a plot device for a male character’s story arc, without any clear reasoning for the choice. Is a woman’s suffering the only force able to drive men? For some female writers, DeWitt’s “refrigerator death” was enough.
In response to the gross overuse of “female death as plot device” in comics, writer Gail Simone formed the aptly named Women in Refrigerators blog in 1999. Her blog notoriously tracked the woman in comics who had been “killed, raped, depowered, crippled, turned evil, maimed, tortured, contracted a disease or had other life-derailing tragedies befall her.” At present, Simone’s blog includes the names of 111 women, and it’s likely that this leaves a significant number unreported. This leads us to ask why superhero comics so often rely on female endangerment as a plot device.
Perhaps the best and worst reasons for the trope can be found in one of comicdom’s most famous stories: “The Night Gwen Stacy Died.” In Amazing Spider-Man #121, released June 1973, Marvel Comics killed off Gwen Stacy, a milestone of sorts. Up until this point in comics, major characters simply did not die, but after Gwen Stacy’s death, the trend became commonplace. Superheroes always won; it could take up to five issues for them to do it, but they inevitably would emerge victorious. In this case, Marvel’s flagship hero was unable to save his girlfriend from the clutches of his arch-nemesis, the Green Goblin. In fact, Spider-Man’s recklessness in battle indirectly caused Gwen’s death, snapping her neck with his web (notice the “snap” next to Gwen’s neck in the image). Gwen’s death is legendary in the Spider-Man mythos, almost as indelible to his identity as the spider-bite itself.
Writer Gerry Conway scripted Gwen’s death for no greater reason than writer’s block. He and other Marvel writers had simply run out of ideas for Gwen’s role. She and Peter couldn’t be married for a couple of reasons, one being that marriage would have aged the character. The second issue was his more compelling love interest with Mary Jane Watson. It didn’t make sense for a down-on-his-luck type of guy to be walking around with two beautiful women on his arm. So, the all-male writing staff killed off Gwen, setting a dangerous trend. It seemed that a break up or divorce would not bring about sufficient emotional devastation for the main character. So, his female love interest simply had to be thrown off of a building.
Even lifelong comic fans often do not realize the hardship that female characters have had to endure. When writer-artist Frank Miller wished to put superhero Daredevil through an emotional wringer, he transformed his girlfriend, Karen, into a heroin-addicted porn star. Such laughably bad plot threads thrived in a male-dominated readership and defined the comic-reading population as “old, weird, white males” [this group will be discussed in the next column] even more. Gail Simone summarized the problem well in saying, “If you demolish most of the characters girls like, then girls won’t read comics. That’s it!”
Luckily, female creators have taken up the call and amped the industry with new life. Popular female characters such as Storm, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Woman now have their own books. However, the treatment of minor character women as plot objects is far from over. When their bodies are not flayed or thrown off buildings, women are often used as sex objects. Remember Alex DeWitt? In her first appearance in the Green Lantern comics, Alex looked like this, and in her last appearance, she was dead in a refrigerator. When a skimpy bikini and a corpse bookend a woman’s character arc, we as readers should probably be scratching our heads in concern. The dual usage of women as objects and torture victims to motivate male heroes is troubling, to say the least), and will further be explored in two weeks, as we tackle the sexual objectification of women in comics.