16 Controversial Instances of Supporting Characters in Superhero Comics Falling Victim to Women in Refrigerators Syndrome
(Warning: Here there be spoilers.)
1. Alex DeWitt
In 1999, sharp-eyed writer and comics commentator Gail Simone coined the term “women in refrigerators syndrome” to describe the disturbing regularity with which female characters in superhero comics are killed, maimed or depowered — far more often, proportionately speaking, than the men. While comic creators and fans debated the issues raised by the list (and even criticized Simone’s motives for constructing such a list), Simone maintained her point was simply this: if comic publishers are serious about reaching out to girls as an audience (which they should be, what with them being half the population and all), then they have to recognize that girls won’t read comics if the writers keep destroying the characters the girls will most likely relate to. The term itself comes from an infamous incident involving Alex DeWitt, girlfriend of one Kyle Rayner when he is chosen to become Earth’s new Green Lantern. Debuting in Green Lantern #48 (01/94), DeWitt is brutally dispatched just a few issues later when a super-villain searching for Rayner finds DeWitt instead, and uses her to leave a message for our hero (see image). Writer Ron Marz, in a written response to the WiR site, decried the industry’s lack of sensitivity to women and was quick to assure fans that DeWitt’s fate was sealed from the start, as her death was intended to “bring brutal realization to Kyle that being GL wasn’t fun and games.” If so, then mission accomplished, though one could argue the swift introduction and removal of a supporting character just to insert a little extra angst seemed a bit of a cheat, storytelling-wise. DeWitt’s death didn’t generate nearly the same amount of debate among fans as Marz’s, um, other infamous act while working as a Green Lantern scribe, but a number of fans, online and in the letters column, made it quite clear they were not pleased with the manner and speed with which Alex was dispatched to the great beyond.
2. Gwen Stacy
Had Simone never coined the “WiR” phrase, it might well have been called “Women Hurled Off Bridges Syndrome” by someone else. To say the least, the death of Spider-Man’s girlfriend in Amazing Spider-Man #121 (06/73) had an enormous impact on comic fans, who had never before seen a superhero fail so spectacularly at saving a loved one from a super-villain’s evil schemes (Stacy died after the Green Goblin, having discovered Parker’s identity, throws Stacy off the top of the George Washington Bridge; Spider-Man’s webbing catches her by the leg, but the sudden stop snaps her neck). The letters column ran letters from outraged readers for months, and some comic historians even peg that issue as the exact moment the Silver Age of comics ended. Writer Gerry Conway later explained that Stacy was killed off because she and Parker were turning out to be the perfect couple and there was nowhere else for the writers to go with their relationship other than marriage, and that was a direction the writers thought would “betray everything that Spider-Man was about” — i.e., angst, anguish, personal tragedy, etc. Killing Stacy, he said, got rid of a character that wasn’t working anymore and reinforced the personal tragedy that was the essence of Spider-Man’s character. Regardless of the motives involved, the issue’s impact would be felt for decades to follow, with some fans still debating whether her death was justified.
3. Lian Harper
Single fathers are rare in the superhero business, but Roy Harper — a.k.a. Arsenal, a.k.a. Red Arrow, a.k.a. Speedy, Green Arrow’s ex-junkie sidekick — was one of them, balancing a busy superhero lifestyle with his responsibilities raising his five-year-old daughter, Lian (her mother was a super-villain assassin and longtime Teen Titans foe; long story there). That is, until she became one of the thousands of civilians killed by a super-villain’s bomb during DC’s 2010 Cry for Justice mini-series. Let me emphasize: DC killed off a five-year-old girl merely to add an extra dramatic moment to a Justice League story and to add an extra wrinkle of tragedy to the backstory of a third-tier superhero. There’s character development and there are actions that are simply beyond the pale, and blogger Christopher Bird of mightygodking.com perhaps said it best: “They avoid killing children in slasher movies because they think that it’s tasteless. That’s what Cry for Justice is: it’s the comic book for people who think that slasher flicks aren’t edgy enough.”
4-5. Terry and Robert Long
When Simone’s list first went up, some comic fans and creators argued that women in comics aren’t necessarily targeted for death/abuse because they’re women; it’s more an issue of supporting characters vs. headlining characters. And since the headliners tend to be male, the death/abuse of a loved one comes in handy when a hero occasionally needs extra motivation to take down a particular super-villain. The “it’s not a gender issue” logic appears to hold up when looking at the case of Donna “Wonder Girl” Troy, whose ex-husband and baby son were killed in a car accident in an issue of Wonder Woman, during a period when Donna was temporarily de-powered and dating Kyle Rayner (who was on the rebound after DeWitt’s demise). But the fact that Troy and Rayner broke up immediately after her hearing of her family’s death — and the fact she regained her powers shortly thereafter — made the accident seem more than a little convenient for plotting purposes, and invited accusations that comic writers have no better ideas for dealing with supporting characters, male or female, that have outlived their usefulness. The fact that Troy hasn’t appeared to suffer too much angst over losing her infant child in a car crash hasn’t helped, either. Then again, she’s been reinvented and updated so many times it’s hard to tell what she’s supposed to feel. (And if that weren’t bad enough, someone actually thought it was a good idea, during the 2009 Blackest Night crossover, to devote an entire Titans tie-in issue to images of a partially decomposed zombie baby reaching for his mother for his mommy. Sick. Sick. Sick.)
6. Betty Banner
Good grief, what hasn’t been done to the poor woman who has stood by Bruce Banner all these years? Raised by a distant, disapproving father, Betty Ross took a liking to the meek physicist who would later become the Incredible Hulk. When his transformations made it impossible for them to have a normal life together, she married another man (a military man, like her father) who died while trying to stop the Hulk. Later, a super-villain twisted her mind and body to turn her into an insane, harpy-like creature, and then another super-villain poisoned her with his own gamma-irradiated blood. Oh, and did I mention the multiple miscarriages? She’s listed as deceased as of this writing, but her presence at her father’s funeral during 2010’s “Fall of the Hulks” storyline would seem to contradict that, so… stay tuned, folks, because it seems the writers may not be done messing with her yet. Hard to top the harpy thing, though. Seriously, what was up with that?
At least there’s some question of whether Betty is back; neither Jarella nor Caiera — as of this writing, anyway — has been granted any such reprieve. Jarella, a green-skinned princess from a sub-atomic world, first showed up in Incredible Hulk #140 (06/71), where she emerged as a love interest for ol’ Green-Genes (in her world, Banner was able to retain his intelligence while in Hulk form). Caiera debuted some time later, in Incredible Hulk (Vol. 3) #92 (04/2006), an issue during the “Planet Hulk” storyline in which the banished brute finds himself on an alien planet of barbarians. The Hulk fell in love with and married both ladies, but Jarella died saving a child from a collapsing wall (coughclichécough) and Caiera was one of the victims of a devastating explosion that sparked 2008’s “World War Hulk” storyline. While it makes sense that a happily domesticated Hulk is also an unprofitable Hulk… truly, sirs, how many more times must we go down this same well in search of a reason to make the Hulk go smash something?
9. Candy Southern
Few modern-day X-Men fans will likely recognize this name, and with good reason; it’s been a while since she’s been mentioned in the X-verse. But she earns a special place on this list for getting stuffed in the fridge not once, but twice.
Introduced back in 1967, Southern was a childhood friend of X-Man Warren “Angel” Worthington III who learned of his superhero identity when the two started to date. Years later, she was kidnapped and tortured by a mutant-hating zealot who left her on life support just long enough to pull the plug when Angel arrived to rescue his lady love. It wasn’t the brightest of moves, as our hero ensured the villain swiftly followed Southern into the great beyond. A year (in comic book time) after her death, Southern showed up at Warren’s home seemingly unharmed; the whys and hows are of interest only to extreme X-fans, so suffice to say her posthumous re-appearance was her killer’s final act of revenge against Angel. Realizing her new lease on life meant giving life to her killer as well, Southern literally rips herself apart to prevent him from coming back. Harsh, but at least this time she got to make a deathbed profession of love before closing her eyes, so fans of hoary death-scene clichés were dutifully serviced.
10. Jean DeWolff
With a title like “The Death of Jean DeWolff,” it’s pretty obvious what happens during the story arc that runs through Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #107-110 (10/85-01/86). DeWolff was introduced some nine years earlier as a New York City police captain and occasional Spider-Man ally with a smoking habit and a retro style of fashion. Her violent — and completely untelegraphed — death at the hands of a homicidal vigilante sparked one of the more memorable Spider-Man storylines of the mid-’80s, but writer Peter David later admitted mixed emotions about his first professional comic book assignment, writing in a 1990 column that he was unnerved by the stream of fan mail demanding he bring her back. To his credit, he didn’t back down — comic-book superhero resurrections are silly enough without subjecting the supporting characters to the same folderol — but it’s hard to think of a comparable character in the Spider-Man universe who has become what she was: a tough, no-nonsense female authority figure who wasn’t defined by a one-sided relationship with a man in his undies.
11. Vanessa Kapatelis
While this young woman has not yet (as far as I know) been snuffed by a bloodthirsty writer, her story is no less tragic than the others on this page. Vanessa first showed up in the third issue of Wonder Woman’s relaunched title in 1987, where she was the daughter of the professor who first introduces Wonder Woman to “Man’s World.” Dealing with the usual problems that many teenaged girls face (including the suicide of a close friend), she also found herself the target of super-villains who tried to strike at Wonder Woman through her; an evil telepath, for example, gave her nightmares and manipulated events to make it appear as if both Vanessa’s mother and Wonder Woman abandoned her in her time of need. Her growing mental instability made her the perfect target for yet another villain, who twisted her mind and transformed her into the Silver Swan, a flying, shrieking killing machine with a bone to pick with Wonder Woman and the then-new Wonder Girl, whom Vanessa considered a usurper of her “rightful” role. This young woman’s journey from supporting character to insane, super-powered terrorist is (sadly) not unique in the superhero business, but it’s all the more aggravating when you consider the only reason she went through all this was to give Wonder Woman someone to save… and, later, a reason to feel guilt-ridden when she had to stop her former friend from causing more harm.
12-13. Lori and Judith Grimes
Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, a series about ordinary people trying to survive in a zombie-filled America, is not for the faint of heart, what with its intense depictions of violence, bodily mutilation and decaying flesh — to say nothing of the fact that no one in the series (save maybe its protagonist, former small-town cop Rick Grimes, and even that’s not a lock) is guaranteed to make it to the end. Let’s face it, when you’re dealing with a story in which kids are killing each other because they’ve lost the ability to tell the difference between life and death… well, you’re on a whole different planet in terms of auctorial rules. That said, one of the few rays of hope was the birth of Judith, a sure sign that humanity had a chance of surviving whatever it was that caused the zombie outbreak. But the prison that the Grimes family and others had taken over was besieged by survivors from a nearby town, who wanted the safety of the prison fences for themselves… and in the ensuing battle, Rick could only look on helplessly as both Lori and his baby daughter were shot to death (as depicted in a no-holds-barred, full-page panel, so be warned) while trying to escape. While it can’t be argued their deaths came out of nowhere — it happened during a vicious firefight in the middle of a zombie feeding frenzy, for heaven’s sake — it was still a shock to see it happen, and as of this writing it remains to be seen what greater purpose, if any, their deaths will serve in the series.
14. Karen Page
If female comic characters were real-life people paid to appear in superhero stories, then chances are they’d think twice about signing on with a Frank Miller project. While justly acclaimed for his work on Daredevil, Sin City, and other similarly hard-boiled titles, Miller’s WiR body count is well established (though to be fair, the men in his stories see their share of pain as well). Introduced way back in 1964’s Daredevil #1, Karen Page played the standard “girl” role so common in the books of that time: young, pretty, a little on the naive side, pining for the masked hero while never realizing he was the other man in her life. After a tussle in which her super-villain father dies in front of her (long story), Page finally realizes Matt Murdock and Daredevil are the same person, and she leaves him to pursue an acting career in California when he refuses to give up his dangerous sideline. So far, so good. Fast forward a few years later, when Miller re-introduces Page into Daredevil’s life as a heroin-addicted porn star who sells his secret identity to a drug dealer for the price of a fix. Barely surviving that storyline, she cleans up her act to become a radio talk-show host and even starts dating Murdock again, only to have one super-villain convince her she’s HIV-positive as part of his eeeee-vil scheme and another murder her during a no-holds-barred brawl with Daredevil.
15. Mariko Yashida
It’s pretty much a given that any woman who finds herself romantically involved with Wolverine is going to end up in a file titled “Supporting Characters, Deceased” sooner or later. The kind of comic fan that agrees with the Wizard list that placed Wolverine at No. 1 on the magazine’s 200 Greatest Characters List simply has no place in his life for a healthy, well-adjusted superhero in a loving, stable relationship (the phrase “for obvious reasons” is implied here). Mariko Yashida, daughter of a Japanese crimelord, met Logan when the team saved Japan from a mutant terrorist; she made it as far as the wedding altar with Logan, but a villain’s mental machinations cut their wedding plans short. Later, she was poisoned by an assassin and begged Logan to give her a quick and painless death. Granted, there’s a certain class of superhero where the violent death of a loved one is an integral part of how they become who they are — the Batmen and Punishers of the world come to mind here — and in those cases, you have to accept someone had to die to start the hero on his journey. But snuffing Yashida served no larger literary purpose in the Wolverine mythos (Logan left her just as messed up as when he found her), and while there was no huge fan uprising over her death… heck, is it so wrong to leave Wolverine at least one old flame to call up on a rainy day?
16. Sue Dibny
While the original WiR website now exists as an archive, the term “Women in Refrigerators” continues to pop up in discussions about comic book culture. It experienced a sharp resurgence in online discussions in 2004 thanks to DC’s Identity Crisis, a murder mystery that focused on the death of Sue Dibny, wife and sleuthing partner of the Elongated Man. Both she and her husband were longtime supporting characters in The Flash before moving on to Justice League of America and other JL-related titles; Sue even worked as the League’s office administrator for a stretch of time. Theirs was a rare thing in superhero comics: a healthy, loving marriage of equals despite whatever Ralph’s superhero career threw at them. Writer Brad Meltzer threw that 40 years of marital bliss under a bus by murdering Sue, having her murderer burn the body to hide the evidence, and flashing back during the ensuing investigation to a years-earlier rape scene onboard the JLA satellite involving Sue and a Grade-Z super-villain (and let’s not even get into how the League was turned into a group of fascists to deal with that heinous act). Oh, and did we mention she was about to tell Ralph she was pregnant when she was killed? The storyline tossed a formerly carefree Ralph squarely into the 21st-century era of shirt-rending sturm und drang that’s apparently popular among the fans today, so her death was certainly a catalyst for driving Ralph’s character development. But you have to wonder: is any superhero allowed to just be happy anymore?