The Refrigerator Monologues Gives the Scorned Women of Superhero Stories a Turn on the Mic

The Refrigerator Monologues

Catherynne M. Valente (author), Annie Wu (illustrator)
Saga Press
June 6, 2017

Women are no strangers to superheroes. In recent years, there’s been an increase in drift between notable writers of genre fiction and the mainstream comics industry, which has brought us such exciting books as Genevieve Valentine’s Catwoman, Chelsea Cain’s Mockingbird, and Nnedi Okorafor’s new work in the sandbox of Wakanda. These queens of sci-fi, fantasy, action, and young adult fiction are here now, and they’re doing their part to change comics for the better, but let’s face it, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Catherynne M. Valente (author), Annie Wu (illustrator), Saga Books, 2017

That brings us to Catherynne M. Valente and her novella-cum-short story collection The Refrigerator Monologues. Unlike her peers listed above, Valente isn’t looking to shake up comics on the Big Two’s terms; she’s sticking with the medium she knows, and boy, does she know it. With the added boon of gorgeous comic-styled illustrations by the incomparable Annie Wu and a nice blurb from superstar comic creator Kelly Sue Deconnick to round it all out, The Refrigerator Monologues is a masterpiece from start to finish.

Even before the stories get going, Valente decisively establishes her credibility and awareness as a participant in the culture of cape comics with a dedication to Gail Simone, initiator of the years-running discussion surrounding the issue of “Women in Refrigerators” and amazing writer-matriarch of all the best things about comics (Birds of Prey, anyone?). This is the context from which Valente is coming. She has been informed by feminist comic critics and creators alike, and now she has something to say.

Valente does clarify in the acknowledgments at the end of the book that she has great respect for the artists that came before her, but that doesn’t mean she’s pulling her punches now. And what a punch she packs! If you like superheroes, chances are that you love a good scuffle with some solid quips to cackle at, and this book reads like Valente’s turn in one of those epic action sequences—her words against decades of stifled stories and painful writing decisions. It’s fun, exhilarating, shocking, and brutal all at the same time.

The frame story that pulls all of Valente’s beautiful pieces together is set in the afterlife—here called “Deadtown”—and centers on the aptly named “Hell Hath Club,” a group of women who have been ravaged, savaged, and damaged in service of the development of the male supers in their lives. And now, in the moments spent together at the Lethe Café, between the unpredictable retcons and resurrections that might at any moment drag them back to the mercy of the man’s world of the living, they have some serious tea to spill.

Each of the ladies featured is a clear analogue to a comic book character who endured similar abuses and injustices for the sake of Marvel and DC’s historic plotlines—such as the story of Mera, Queen of Atlantis and wife of Aquaman, whose oft-condemned rage and grief over the devastating loss of her child is reexamined in The Refrigerator Monologues through a likewise bereaved and vilified mer-mother in “The Ballad of Blue Bayou”—but Valente still manages to make every story her own. The Refrigerator Monologues is transformative work at its best. In the hands of a less apt writer, this conceit might look like a lazy paint job over the costumed figures that we’ve see flexing beside explosions on glossy posters in every cinema since 2008. Under Valente’s care, these doppelgangers become intriguing and original characters on their own merits. But, even as interesting as she makes her supermen, they don’t come close to touching the depth and texture of the women whose lives they’ve stolen. For once, the men are the plot devices, and though you know when each new tale begins that they’re just setting the stage for another tragedy, Valente’s conscientious weaving of this web is nonetheless a thrilling process to behold.

Comic book fans with a craving for some fresh feminist flavor will devour these reimaginings (which are garnished so thoughtfully by Valente with assorted little Easter eggs from the iconic stories that inspired her), but even the most casual superhero fans will probably recognize the skeletons that Valente is outfitting with new flesh and dragging out of the closet. After all, most of them have been thrown out with a top hat and cane to dance for movie audiences by now anyway. And even if you’ve somehow come through the last ten years without learning a lick of trivia about superheroes, you can still read and enjoy this book for the tireless world-building, the fascinating plots, the delicate craftsmanship, the forceful emotional beats, the dynamic character voices, and the ecstasy of screaming out the gagged-and-buried stories that Valente has channeled into every word of this compendium.

Valente’s work here is both poignant and pointed, and she packages it with the quick wit and eloquence that has echoed in her deft use of language all throughout her writing career. Annie Wu’s bold black-and-white images capture the energy and emotion of each piece in visual character studies that give gorgeous form to the women of the Hell Hath Club and enhance the prose without distracting from it. The illustrations are postcards that the readers can take away with them from Deadtown, little mementos to make these stories unforgettable.

This a brave book, a powerful book, and a book that it is probably safe to say at this point is long overdue. But then again, if The Refrigerator Monologues teaches us anything, it’s that in the world of superheroes, the whole concept of “safe” died with innocence and puppy love alongside Gwen Stacey—err, I mean, alongside Paige Embry.