Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Women in refrigerators have identity crises too you know!

So following on yesterday’s post, here’s another problem with Identity Crisis, the fridging of Sue Dibney.

Back in the days when Gail Simone was a comics fan rather than a comics writer she coined the phrase “women in refrigerators” to refer to the way female characters are often abused, brutalized or murdered. In many cases their suffering isn’t even part of their own story. When Major Force kills Kyle Rainer’s girlfriend Alex and stuffs her corpse in a refrigerator it’s not because Alex matters to him. It’s a way of attacking Kyle. What’s important isn’t Alex’s tragic end but the effect it has on Kyle, inspiring him as Green Lantern.

A particularly infuriating example was when James Owsley (now Christopher Priest) had Star Sapphire murder Katma Tui during Owsley’s god-awful run writing Green Lantern (I still can’t believe Owsley ever turned out anything as good as Black Panther). Not because Katma’s a former Green Lantern but purely as a way to get back at John Stewart and Hal Jordan. Alex, I’m sure, was conceived only to die, but Katma was an established character, one I (and a lot of people) liked. Not that popular characters don’t die often in comics, but having her hacked to death presented as primarily a tragedy for John Stewart? That’s fridging.

And so is Sue Dibney’s death. Firestorm dies heroically in the course of Identity Crisis (though quite illogically — he doesn’t explode if you cut him), fighting the bad guys. Sue gets a couple of pages preparing for Ralph to come home, then she’s dead. What follows isn’t about her, it’s about Ralph’s manpain in the wake of her death (and the discovery she was pregnant — someone killed his child!) and the pain of his teammates. By contrast Tim Drake’s dad goes down fighting and we get several scenes of him and Tim interacting earlier in the series. Sue just dies.

Then there’s the flashback to the rape scene. Morales’ depiction really demonstrates Sue’s pain and suffering when Dr. Light assaults her … after which, once again, we focus on Ralph and the League. Nothing about Sue’s trauma and recovery except what we hear second hand; she’s out of the story until Jean kills her. Her rape doesn’t matter in itself; it matters because it’s necessary for the plot, to give the JLA a reason to reprogram Dr. Light’s mind. That would be the part of this crossover that had ramifications in other books: Barry Allen, for example, had Zatanna try the same mindwarp spell on the Top, turning him first good, then insane. Sue’s suffering is a McGuffin, a convenient device to set the plot in motion.

She deserved better.

#SFWApro. Cover by Darryl Banks (top) and Michael Turner (bottom)


  1. Jeff Nettleton

    This is where I tossed away the comic, in disgust. It’s bad enough that Meltzer kills Sue as a plot convenience, to launch his story; but that there is little to no thought to her, as a character. She is just Ralph’s devoted wife, cooking him dinner, waiting for him to come home from the “office,” like a good little nuclear housewife. Nothing about the fact that she’s a damn good detective and a partner to Ralph on his adventures; no, she is just a housewife, sitting around waiting for hubby to tell her about his day.

    Meltzer and Morales try to give some emotional resonance by using Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke as physical models for Sue and Ralph, thereby imprinting the relationship of Rob & Laura Petrie onto the characters, to make up for a complete lack of their history being explored. The problem is, Sue wasn’t Laura Petrie; she was Nora Charles, out there with her Nick, catching the bad guys with brain power. She wasn’t at home baking a beef wellington and helping Millie hem a dress. The visual metaphor really doesn’t work if the reader wasn’t old enough to see the Dick Van Dyke Show in syndication or even Nick at Night.

    The murder is bad enough; but, the retroactive rape, to make Dr Light more sinister, is beyond revolting. As you say, no thought to Sue’s suffering and aftermath, just Light getting mindwiped. hell, why stop there? Why not have Ralph strangle him to death from across the room? Might as well, if we are turning this into Death Wish Justice League.

    Comics have rightfully been accused of being a boys club and you can see why. Women are portrayed for their sex appeal, while men get to be strong and noble. Women suffer, while men seek revenge. Women are subordinate to male characters.

    DC, at this point in time, was guilty of a lot of these sins, especially this work and especially under Dan Didio’s watch. This kind of stuff just further pushed me into mostly reading non-superhero stuff and completely away from DC books. Not that Marvel was much better; but, at least Ed Brubaker wasn’t having HYDRA gang bang Sharon Carter.

    1. A good point about Sue not being domestic.
      One of my favorite moments with Sue is when Sonar’s kidnapped her and she gives Wally her massive diamond wedding ring, to tell Ralph that Sonar’s the better man and she’s staying with him. Ralph’s completely shell-shocked until he sees the ring and realizes Sue is playing Sonar — “That’s just some jewelry I got her for our anniversary. The wedding ring was cubic zirconium.”
      52 turning them into ghost detectives wasn’t a bad idea (given the circumstances) but of course it never went anywhere.

  2. jccalhoun

    I hated Identity Crisis when it came out. To make the murder of Sue worse, of course she has just discovered she is pregnant. Ugh. Such a cliche. And then I remember the scene with Wonder Woman going to interrogate someone and it is just a close up of her holding the lasso of truth– in front of her boobs.

    As the previous post touches on, the story itself is crap. The murder of Sue is just an excuse to have the mindwipe thing which ends up having nothing to do with the actual murder. So meltzer just wanted to have a story where a villain raped someone and heros wiped the memory of villains and then came up with a reason for it.

    Let’s ignore the fact that back in the silver age Superman would erase Lois’ memory all the time to make her forget he was Clark Kent…

    And Deathstroke taking out the JLA was just as dumb. He can move his sword so fast that someone who can move at the speed of light can’t get out of the way? ugh.

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