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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, October 29, 2011


"All that said, I can tell you Alex was a character destined to die from the moment she was first introduced in GL #48. I created her with the intention of having her be murdered at the hands of Major Force. I took a lot of care in building her as a character, because I wanted her to be liked and her death to mean something to the readers. I wanted readers to be horrified at the crime, and to empathize with Kyle's loss. Her death was meant to bring brutal realization to Kyle that being GL wasn't fun and games. It was also meant to sever his links with his old life, paving the way for his move to New York. And ultimately I wanted her death to be memorable and illustrate just how truly heinous Major Force was. Thus the fridge."-- Ron Marz, justifying the GREEN LANTERN incident that inspired the title WOMEN IN REFRIGERATORS, from the WIP site.
"Naturally, this formula [of men beating women] is not popular with girls. Granting all the masochistic excitement of terror, it is difficult to identify yourself with a corpse."-- Gershon Legman, LOVE AND DEATH (1949), P. 47.

In the comments section for Part 3 of THE MYSTERY OF MASTERY, Curt Purcell commented thusly:

I certainly wouldn't say there's any encouragement to identify with the villains in the movies I discussed, if only because they tended to be repellently nonhuman--sometimes little more than a writhing mass of tentacles. How does one identify with that?

In that specific case, I can't say with certainty whether or not the particular audience for this particular type of thing does or doesn't regularly identify with something like a "writhing mass of tentacles."  But I can venture a way in which they *might* do so, in keeping with one of the key essays on this site, my take on how Schopenhauer's theory of the will applies to literature:

Was Schopenhauer was right about “Will” inhering in every aspect of our reality? We do not know. However, we CAN be sure that “Will” inheres in every aspect of the various LITERARY realities we as humans create, for we KNOW for a fact that they are all “willed” into existence by their creators (and sometimes, however indirectly, by audiences as well).

Identification need not always connote one's sense of participation in a given character's bodily reality, although when speaking of erotica, that would be the natural assumption.  It's equally possible to identify with a nonhuman creature, or even an inanimate phenomenon, by identifying it as an expression of a particular will to do something within the sphere of a narrative.

The other night I happened to rescreen Sam Raimi's 1981 THE EVIL DEAD.  As many horrorphiles will know, the film's about as simple as a splatterpunk flick can get: five young people camp out in a remote cabin and come under attack by murderous Sumerian demons.  Raimi's film shows particular influence by the "stalker vision" element, where the camera seems to assume the viewpoint of a murderous force stalking its prey-- a narrative element that inspired righteous condemnation from the team of Siskel and Ebert back in the day.  The film-pundits were wrong, though, in thinking that the audience necessarily identified with the violence-happy desires of the murderous stalker. What's more probable is that the audience did identify with the *WILL* expressed by the stalker, be it a deformed human being like Jason Voorhees or an invisible discarnate force such as the demons in EVIL DEAD.  To the extent that I as audience-member want to see the EVIL DEAD demons do demonic things, then I have (whether it gives me a particular fetishy thrill or not) identified with a thing I can't even see on-camera-- certainly a proposition no harder to credence than identifying with a malign mass of tentacles.

The same thing can even apply to phenomena that don't really have benign or malign intent, just some nature that comes into conflict with human agents.  In AGAIN SUPERHEROIC VISIONS: RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE, I stipulated that the focus of a given story could be an insubstantial phenomenon, such as the titular force of Rene Clair's THE CRAZY RAY, or even a place, such as The Center of the Earth to which Jules Verne's protagonists journey. 

Now the reason I titled this essay "Negative I.D."  is twofold.  I stated the law of identification earlier:

Therefore, neither a foolish child nor a discriminating adult is in any way wrong to say "I'm Daredevil," as long as either of them has actually identified with the character.
I do deem such identifications to be phenomenologically real within the sphere of literature and literary response.  However, it should go without saying (which is the reason why I didn't explicit say it) that such moments of identification are fleeting.  One moment the reader may identify with the slayer, and then in another, with the slain: with Captain America one moment and the Red Skull the next.  The nature of the human imagination inclines toward such identificatory pluralism, proceeding from "flower to flower to flower" as per the monarch's advice to the bee in THE KING AND I.

So identification can be positive one moment, and negative the next, where "negative" simply meaning that the reader has ceased to identify with a given subject.  Pundits such as Siskel, Ebert, and the above-quoted Gershon Legman understand identification only in terms of the aforementioned "bodily reality." For this reason Legman thinks he's been clever in claiming that "it's difficult to identify yourself with a corpse."  But dozens of horror-stories written from the viewpoints of corpses-- whether said corpses are walking around or are just lying there mulling over their sad fates-- indicate that readers can indeed identify with what corpses symbolize in narrative terms: the extinguishment of a character's ability to participate in the world of living, willing activity.  It's possible, of course, that a poorly executed story of anything-- be it a talking corpse or a discarnate spirit-- may also fail to inspire identification because a reader finds it stupid or tedious.  In DAREDEVIL THE MAN W/O IDENTITY I noted that this was my own non-identificatory response to Clowes' DAVID BORING.

However, some readers reject identification for reasons extrinsic to the story's dynamics (or lack of dynamics.  This is the second form of "negative I.D."

In PART 2 of MASTERY I refuted views expressed by both Heidi MacDonald and the "Women in Refrigerators" site.  Of the two, however, Gail Simone's 1999-created site has had the greater influence over opinions in comic-book fandom. The tone of Simone's initial address on the site is quite measured:

This is a list I made when it occurred to me that it's not that healthy to be a female character in comics. I'm curious to find out if this list seems somewhat disproportionate, and if so, what it means, really.

These are superheroines who have been either depowered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator. I know I missed a bunch. Some have been revived, even improved -- although the question remains as to why they were thrown in the wood chipper in the first place.

I know I missed a bunch -- I just don't know my comics deaths the way I should. I'm not editorializing -- I'm just curious to find out what you guys think it means, if anything.

However, her criteria for inclusion on this list is horribly skewed, showing a tendency to negatively characterize any violence inflicted on a female character, no matter what justification the violence had within the context of the story.  I attacked one example of this skewing tendency on a recent CBR board:
I do think it's historically valuable that WIR at least encapsulates an attitude characteristic of the time. And perhaps it does record some of the dominant cliches used by comics-creators during that period.

But one of the most objectionable things about the WIR list is that it doesn't provide context. For instance, it might be arguable that if one reads that a starring heroine like Amethyst gets put through the ringer:

"Amethyst (blinded, merged with Gemworld, destroyed in LSH; became a power-hungry witch in Book of Fate)"

That *might* be indicative of a tendency to downgrade or persecute heroines.

But the same can't be said of some other characters on the list:

"Carol Ferris/Star Sapphire (turned into a villain by the Zamarons, possessed by the Predator)"

That's not a fair representation. Star Sapphire was always, if not actively villainous, a somewhat ruthless figure depending on the writer handling her. That was the whole dramatic point of having her be the "Miss Hyde" to Carol's "Lady Doctor Jekyll." It wasn't something radically added at the time she transforms into the Predator, as the above line implies. Englehart's idea was simply an extrapolation of the original concept, regardless as to whether one thinks it was well executed. It didn't belong on a list devoted to female marginalization.

And it's certainly not the only ill-considered example on the list.

 Even more damning is Ron Marz's response, in which he states that he developed the character of Alex (the victim killed and stuffed in a fridge) with the express intention of killing her.  His response too is quite measured, and worth reading in full.  I can't say that the original GREEN LANTERN story achieved its ends of making me "empathize with Kyle's loss;" I failed to experience any identification with the hero or his dead girlfriend, which I define as the first kind of "negativity."  However, Simone rejected the trope of the "dead girlfriend" in terms of the second type of negativity: that it was emblematic of a questionable tendency in comics-crafting.  Here's her summing-up from the WIR site following assorted reactions (no year date given):

I still think women are pretty unevenly portrayed in comics, but so are men, really. Ultimately, we speak most loudly with the choices we make at the cash register. And to future creators - we ARE out there reading. Please don't barbecue all the characters we like!

I have no problem with Simone-- whom I respect as a comics-creator-- questioning a given tendency.  I do have a problem (as did others, whose responses are recorded on the site) with her lack of context.  This lack expresses to me a deeper problem seen also in Ebert, Siskel, and Legman: the tendency to reject a creator's use of sex and/or violence against any figure perceived as "unevenly portrayed."

I didn't like Marz's "Alex in the fridge" story.  However, I support his right to come up with a story in which a supporting cast-member is horribly killed simply to advance a particular plotline, just as I support the notion of the Marquis de Sade having his heroes torture and kill dozens of identical victims to advance his particular brand of narrative.  I've certainly seen my share of poorly-executed executions (*cough* Gerry Conway *cough*).  But one must distinguish between the artistic potential of a controversial trope like girlfriend-killing, and any particular negative example of same.


AT-ST Pilot said...

Great essay. Made me think about the current debate going around DC's Starfire character.

I actually don't read current superhero comics, but this essay on the subject in ComicsAlliance was interesting.

Will it be necessary for female superhero readers to relate exclusively to male characters since the female characters are meant to appeal to men?

Carl Walker said...

I do sorta see your point that Alex doesn't really belong on a list of "our favorite" characters" who were unwisely "degraded (a better GL example here would be Katma Tui), but I think the "woman who only exists to die to motivate the hero" (Alex) is perhaps a separate phenomenon that irritates Simone and people her just as much. Maybe her error was in using an example of the latter as the inspiration for a site that catalogs examples of the former?

Gene Phillips said...

Thanks for your comments, guys. This was a long and rather involved essay, so I'm glad of the responses.

I didn't yet read the Starfire story, though I did read Lobdell's "defense." I doubt I'd find much to defend about the story, any more than I do in Ron Marz's fridge-tale.

I vehemently disagree with the ComicsAlliance essay on the subject of CATWOMAN #1, though. The sex-scene therein isn't so much "fan-fictiony" as a "desperation fuck." Catwoman jumps Batman not because it's something the writer wants to have happen to please fanboys (which would seem to be the only rationale of the Starfire story). She does so as a logical reaction to the extreme depression the character's shown to feel up to that point in the story. I can't for the life of me figure out why the essay's author is ticked off by it, but I did read at least one other female fan who was not, whom I may cite in another essay.

Early in November Sequart should print my essay defending Catwoman and the "New 52" in general terms, entitled "The New 52 and the New Adult Pulp."

Carl, I agree that many support-characters deaths can be clumsily executed (hence my citing of Gerry Conway). I also wasn't overly fond of the story in which Katma Tui was killed, but for me, that's much of the risk any support-character, male or female, incurs just by existing. Elsewhere on the blog I made a minor defense of the idea of killing the Asian Atom, in that once he was a hero with no feature, he became potential cannon-fodder.

On the WIR site, Marz made a pertinent observation: that since the majority of superhero books are built around male characters, it's almost inevitable that many female characters get it in the neck, just because they're in a narrative position to be killed, unlike the main hero. That shouldn't be a rationalization for bad stories in and of themselves, but it does constitute a partial defense of the narrative usefulness of killing off support-characters of either sex-- which, incidentally, occurs in most forms of the adventure-genre. How often did private shamuses like Mike Hammer encounter some old buddy at the start of a story, only to head down the vengeance trail when that old buddy was summarily knocked off?