Fatal femmes

The following is a list of women who have been raped, mutilated, tortured, enslaved, crippled, or murdered--and quite often, all of the above. In some cases, these women have also suffered miscarriages, been rendered infertile, contracted horrific diseases, and gone insane. Some of them have even been killed twice, perhaps because theirs was not a gruesome enough death the first time around. Why simply gun down a woman when you can tear her head off and stick it on the end of a pole? It's just so much...well, sexier? Right, fellas?

This morbid roll call includes the likes of Aquagirl (dead), Batgirl (bound to a wheelchair), Black Canary (tortured, made infertile, depowered), Hawkwoman (rendered powerless), the New Guardians' Jet (died in battle after contracting HIV), Power Girl (depowered, magically impregnated, and made vulnerable to unprocessed natural materials such as sharp sticks), Storm (depowered, repowered, periodically crazy to one degree or another), and Supergirl (killed, then resurrected, only to become powerless). There are more than 100 other women on this list, which can be found on writer Gail Simone's Web site Women in Refrigerators (www.the-pantheon.net/wir). And it grows all the time.

"Sad list, isn't it?" writes John Byrne, the writer-artist who relaunched Superman in 1986, on the site. "Further proof of what I have always said: Too many (male) writers seem able to think of only two things to do with female characters--rape 'em or knock 'em up."

Oh, yeah. It's easy to snicker at such a list: They're just comic book characters, fer God's sake, just ink-and-paper fabrications. They're not real. Get over it, right?

And it comes as no revelation to anyone who has picked one up in the last 30 years that comic books are the last bastion of rampant sexism--a place where women are not only the victims of graphic, callous violence, but are portrayed as enormous-breasted, tiny-waisted caricatures who think clothes are something other people wear. That comics are misogynistic is probably the biggest no-shit statement in the world; it's to be expected in an industry in which emotionally stunted men tell the stories, draw the pictures, and buy the books. The Simpsons' comics-shop owner isn't fiction at all. He's straight out of a documentary, an amalgam of every fat, forlorn Spider-Man T-shirt-wearing dude who ever trudged through a convention in search of a mint-condition issue of Detective Comics No. 228. He and his brothers live in their own Fortress of Solitude--no girls allowed. And if you think this is crass generalization, then you haven't been in a comics shop lately.

A recent survey of comics readership estimates that women don't even bother to buy comics anymore. They account for less than six percent of all books sold. The industry has long since written off its female readership--even though one of the two major comics companies, DC, has been run by a woman for more than two decades.

No matter that comics are perceived as literature for geeks by the mainstream; no matter that the industry is mired in the most severe slump it has ever suffered. Just because comic books have been relegated to the fringe of the fringes doesn't mean the violence and indignities suffered by two-dimensional women are any less relevant. As Trina Robbins, the most revered figure in the battle for comic-book equal rights, points out, imagine the furor that would exist if the issue were racism in comic books.

"I had a small letter exchange in the Comic Buyers Guide with [The Dark Knight Returns author] Frank Miller, where he was so insulting and patronizing and called me 'babe,'" says Robbins. "He said, 'If you don't like it, babe, don't buy it.' And he accused me of being a censor. They don't understand the difference between criticism and censorship. These guys, they do not have a clue. I wrote a letter that said, 'Let's pretend I am a black male and I object to comics that show lynching as amusing and show big black men eating watermelons.' Would you then say, 'Babe, if you don't like it, don't buy it?' He didn't respond."

Robbins has written such books as The Great Women Superheroes and From Girls to Grrrlz, in addition to dozens of comics herself, dating back to 1970. She's also a board member of a 6-year-old organization called Friends of Lulu, which was formed by several female comics writers and illustrators after a comics convention in Oakland. There, organizers were holding a lookalike contest based on a scantily clad character called Cherry Pop Tart, who was then screwing her way through her own graphic, X-rated comic book. That, as Robbins recalls, "was the last straw."

But it wasn't so long ago that female-oriented titles were the norm in the industry. Robbins points out there were once titles featuring characters such as Katy Keene, Little Dot, even Josie and the Pussycats; there were once books called Young Romance (with art by revered icons such as Joe Simon and Jack Kirby), True Love, and Girl Comics. Then, of course, there were Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Miss Fury, Miss America, and Spider Queen--female superheroes who could take (and give) a punch as well as any of their male counterparts. (Though Wonder Woman, in a recent incarnation, is powerless and wears an outfit no bigger than her magic lariat--ah, such progress.)

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky