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  • Writer's pictureLiv Tanaka-Kekai

Girl Online

Updated: Apr 14, 2023

This piece, in whole with the referenced citations and appendices, is in a file at the end of the article.


TW: This piece contains extensive discussions of violence towards women and sexual assault and includes descriptions of primary source content that graphically depict violence, domestic abuse, emotional and mental abuse, and sexual assault.


Drenched in the humidity of late-August heat, fear erupted in the university community of Gainesville, Florida. In the summer of 1990, the town was plunged into horror by a serial killer who was terrorizing students. The killing spree began when 17-year-old roommates Sonja Larson and Christina Powell were brutally murdered in their apartment (Rolling v. State 1997). Larson was killed first, her screams stifled by the hands of her killer as she was repeatedly stabbed (Rolling v. State 1997). Powell succumbed to the same fate: her mouth was taped shut, she was stabbed, and then she was “posed” in a so-called “provocative position” with Larson (Rolling v. State 1997). Just a day later, Christa Hoyt’s house was broken into while she wasn’t there (Rolling v. State 1997). The killer laid in wait and upon Hoyt’s return, he choked her, duct-taped her mouth, and stabbed her (Rolling v. State 1997). Students in the area began to change their routines and sleep in groups as fear of being the next victim of the serial killer gripped the community (DeLong 2021). Two more would die before the murder spree ended: Tracy Paules and her roommate (and only male victim) Manny Taboada (Rolling v. State 1997).

While authorities investigated the murders, 19-year-old high school janitor Mike Diana lived just a short drive away in Largo, Florida (Greenberg 2012). In his spare time, Diana pursued his creative passion as an artist (Barnett 2016). He became fascinated by pushing the limits of creativity and started making zines[1] that begged the question of just how explicit art could be before losing artistic merit (Barnett 2016). He used the school’s copiers to print issues of his comics and was subsequently fired after the materials were discovered by school officials (Henenlotter 2019). Diana didn’t let his termination spoil his artistic spirit, however, and he continued making zines. Eventually, he published a comic series, Boiled Angel, that gained a small but committed following (Greenberg 2012). In releases of no more than 300 copies at a time, Diana distributed issues to his subscribers through the mail (Greenberg 2012). Imagine Diana’s surprise when, after the release and distribution of Boiled Angel #6, the FBI knocked on his door: Mike Diana was a suspect in the Gainesville student murders (Greenberg 2012).

The similarities between the content of Diana’s comics and the manner of the homicides were striking. For one, the grisly murders in both fiction and reality were blocked like the scenes of a play (Rolling v. State 1997; Henenlotter 2019). The “Gainesville Ripper” posed his victims after he stabbed them as if he were staging a dramatic production for his own pleasure; similarly, Diana’s comics had a theatrical nature to the way that they were drawn, with dynamic and elaborate environments and a high degree of attention to the focal point of panels (Rolling v. State 1997; Greenberg 2012). Additionally, Boiled Angel #6 contained a scene that matched one of the distinctly disgusting ways that the Ripper defiled his first victim, Sonja Larson (Rolling v. State 1997; Greenberg 2012). Although it remains unclear exactly how it played out, Boiled Angel #6 “found its way into the hands of” a law enforcement officer in California (Greenberg 2012). This event spelled out Diana’s fate; the California officer, reminded of the murders, contacted authorities in Florida about Diana (Greenberg 2012). Once they informed Diana that he was a person of interest, the FBI requested samples of his DNA (Greenberg 2012).

In the end, Diana’s DNA exonerated him. The actual killer, Daniel Rolling, went on to be arrested, convicted, and executed for his crimes (Rolling v. State 1997). One issue, however, remained: Diana might not have been a serial killer, but the content of his comics was crude and violent, alarming the officers who viewed them (Greenberg 2012). Since he couldn’t be tried for violating obscenity laws for Boiled Angel #6–its use in the homicide case meant that it was inadmissible as means for another arrest–Diana kept creating once absolved of culpability for the serial murders (Henenlotter 2019). As such, the content of Boiled Angel #7 and #8 would eventually lead to him being the first artist convicted of and jailed for the violation of obscenity laws in the United States (Greenberg 2012). Interestingly, while Diana is representative of an underground sect of the larger comic book fan community that created and consumed particularly subversive and violent content, this kind of violence towards women is common across all kinds of comics irrespective of genre.

For as long as ‘modern’ pop culture has existed, there have been debates about whether media of any genre or medium can cause violent, delinquent behavior. This debate was central to the case of Mike Diana. While some parties fought on behalf of the First Amendment and the freedom of artistic speech, those opposed to Diana’s work sought to prove that it could inspire violence (Greenberg 2012). The battle wasn’t restricted to the courtroom. Around the same time that Diana’s trial was taking place, comic fan Gail Simone started a blog called Women in Refrigerators to act as a digital reservoir of all the terrible things that were happening to women on the pages of comic books. Simone believed that although all media had the capacity to influence behavior, there were particularly toxic gender dynamics at play in the realm of comic books (Simone 1999).

One contributing factor to this toxicity was the gender makeup of fans. Comic book fans, while not a monolith, were stereotyped as a community that was overwhelmingly made up of white, cisgender, heterosexual men in their young adulthood. As Lopes (2009) describes it, the “fanboy stereotype was of an asocial young male who pays little attention to his personal appearance.” For most of its history, this community has been an insular one that has existed at the fringes of society at fan conventions and on Internet forums (Lopes 2009). The community was a niche one based on a form of media that they were often mocked for as they “have always carried a certain stigma because of their commitment to comic books” (Lopes 2009). This has led to the proliferation of violence in comic books due to comics allowing for men who have been labeled as nerds by more masculine men and rejected by women a way to allow their rage to play out vicariously on the pages of comic books. There was also another massive disruption to the social standing of nerds during this period of the late nineties: comics got popular.

The role of comics in the pop-cultural mythos of the West has expanded massively, even within the last decade. Once relegated to merely ‘nerd media,’ superhero comics took hold within the general population around the 1980s. Movie review channel Mr. Sunday Movies cites the 1989 film Batman–directed by Tim Burton, starring Michael Keaton in the titular role, and featuring music composed by Danny Elfman and Prince–as a distinct moment when it became obvious, perhaps for the first time, that comic book movies could be popular with everyone. Burton’s Batman is an early and shining example of two characteristics that have defined the modern comic book movie industry. One, films could be made in a way that stayed faithful to the source material without seeming cartoonish. More demonstrative of the impact these movies have had on pop culture at large is the second fact: they sold tickets. Against a budget of $48 million, Batman made $411.6 million at the box office (Griffin 1997; IMDbPro).

Though meager in comparison to the money superhero movies make today– five out of ten of the highest-grossing films of the last decade have been Marvel films[2], all of which have made over a billion dollars–it was the beginning of a new era in both the comic book and film industry. Suddenly, everyone was clamoring to see the likes of Blade and Superman on the silver screen. It’s become exceedingly clear that superhero comics have a role in popular culture beyond being the content that nerds love; at this point, they’ve seeped into nearly every form of media. The itch for media portraying superheroes saving us normal humans from the threats of corrupt governments and extraterrestrials can finally be scratched. As a new century dawned, the world was becoming a scary place. However, comics had portrayed a scary world for women long before. More often than not, the treatment of women in the comic book industry was used to wage battles against censorship; many creators begged the question of why they shouldn’t be able to portray whatever they wanted however they wanted. Female fans were concerned given that this often manifested as gendered violence and became typical of comic books. Those who are fans of just the movies may be surprised at the long history of battles–both legal and informal–that have been waged over the content of comics in all their fantastical and escapist (but often violent, self-indulgent, and gory) glory.

Mike Diana’s trial took place in 1992 and Simone’s blog was created in 1999. However, to trace a true history of how violence towards comic book women developed, analysis of the issue must begin almost four decades earlier. In the 1950s, the push-and-pull between mainstream and counter-cultural ideals touched what seemed like every aspect of life, including comic books. A contemporary perspective on the problem of extreme, explicit violence is a paradox. The war over comics began all the way back in 1954 with one man who wanted to rid the youth of America of the corrupting influence of comics. He sought to do this by introducing a strict code of censorship that would crack down on depictions of violence, homosexuality, and anti-establishment thought (Greenberg 2012; Lopes 2009) This man was the anti-comic pop-sociologist Dr. Fredric Wertham (Greenberg 2012).

Congress and the Comics Code Authority

In 1953, the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency was created. While the original scope of the committee was broadly focused on the bad behavior of children, in 1954 Dr. Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent and ignited a conversation about the corrupting impact comic books were having on America’s children. In the words of Paul Lopes, a sociology professor at Colgate University, the objection to the content of comic books became “a permanent, grassroots, citizen’s crusade… their elimination [became] the cause célèbre of women’s clubs, church groups, and community action organizations” (Lopes 2009). The popularity of Wertham’s work–a book in which he accuses Wonder Woman of being so “overpowered” that she would terrify young boys–led the committee to focus specifically on comics in 1954 (Greenberg 2012). Wertham (1954) asserted that the “most subtle and pervading effect of comics” on children, the primary reader base at the time, was “best summarized by a single phrase: moral disarmament.” To Wertham, the pervading and detrimental impact of comics was obvious. Wertham cited, for example, the description of Wonder Woman by her creator, Dr. William Moulton Martson, as a form of “psychological propaganda” (Greenberg 2012). Having taken hold within the general population and garnered the interest of the Senate, Wertham’s statement was clear: comics caused juvenile delinquency because the values they espoused, such as the empowerment of women, were amoral.

Despite agreeing with Wertham and acknowledging that something needed to be done, the Senate didn’t see it as their responsibility to monitor the content of comic books. Instead, the Comics Code Authority (“CCA”)–a self-regulatory body created by the Comics Magazine Association of America–would put a literal stamp of approval on comics (Greenberg 2012). Though there were no laws that required any specific regulation, cultural ideas about what was and wasn’t acceptable for children guided what the CCA considered acceptable to publish (Greenberg 2012). In lieu of legislation, many advertisers and retailers looked to the Code to avoid the past “leniency toward what adults sell to children” (Wertham 1954). Though the Code is long and archaic, it can be separated into a few essential principles: no sex, no horror, and no gore[3]. The CCA system functioned by way of an administrator who oversaw “an expansive team of childcare professionals” (de Dauw 2021). Comics were sent to the CCA for review, which was a timely and expensive process (de Dauw 2021). As a result, comics including any of the aforementioned features faced significant difficulty in sales, especially as costs went up due to the changes in how they were produced (de Dauw 2021; Lopes 2009). As such, a new period of comic book history was ushered in as the media that people had enjoyed for many years had significantly changed.

Eras of Comic Book History

Both the implementation of the Code and its eventual dissolution offer benchmarks by which to divide the different eras of comic book history. Wertham made a variety of claims about comic books: that the relationship between Batman and Robin was homoerotic, that relying on pictures for narrative was impacting the literacy of children, and that the sexual development of children was being guided by “sadomasochistic fantasies that mixed sexuality with cruelty” (Lopes 2009). Even with the CCA prompting creators to self-censor, there still existed a general fear of letting young people read comics. Prior to 1954, around 93% of children read comic books, but after the events of the Senate hearing, the publication of Seduction of the Innocent in 1954, and the shrinking pool of content, readership declined (Lopes 2009).

Readership was so low, in fact, that it threatened the entire industry (Lopes 2009). Combined with an upending of a laborious social hierarchy that governed an inefficient method of comic production, the limitations placed upon content resulted in fewer people reading comics than ever before. Wertham’s crusade was a successful one, and as a result, comics were fundamentally changed. However, this decline in readership and genre restriction incited a revolution in the concept of what a comic book “should” be. Apart from Archie Comics, the two industry giants active at this point had a particular focus on the superhero genre: Marvel and DC. The Silver Age had officially arrived, defined by the prominence of superhero comics and figures like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Interest in superhero comics was reawakened because romance and horror comics wouldn’t be able to get the CCA’s seal of approval (Lopes 2009).

Success, however, was short-lived: by the early 70s, readership would once again wane. One analysis of the situation attributes the decline to a combination of production issues and socioeconomic factors; the “changes in America’s cultural landscape” spurred by the counterculture movements of the 1960s and 70s defined by “disillusionment with American power and authority” meant that “the CCA’s insistence on a respectful depiction of authority was outdated” (de Dauw 2021). As previously mentioned, there were also structural issues in the production of comic books according to CCA standards. Prior to the 1970s, the production model of comic books bore more resemblance to a Ford factory than an artistic studio (Lopes 2009). Duties were separated to the extent that it was uncommon for artists to have any significant impact on stories, let alone inkers, pencilers, or letterers (Lopes 2009). Additionally, comic books were expensive to produce because of the time-intensive process that it took to review them (de Dauw 2021). Given that it had become “increasingly clear that the stories fans wanted to read could not be published in the CCA’s controlled market,” it became prohibitively expensive to maintain the status quo of the CCA (de Dauw 2021). And thus, a modernized Code was introduced in 1971 that loosened the rope of creative freedom in terms of “violence, official authority, romance, and female images” (Lopes 2009).

The change in the Code reflected a shift in the periodization of comic book history. Two events also aid in differentiating this era from its predecessors: the death of Gwen Stacy and the emergence of a direct market for comic books (Lopes 2009). The first offers a clear line of demarcation between the Silver Age and the Bronze Age. In 1973, narrative convention was upturned by the “snap heard ‘round the world” (Leeper 2014). There’s no happy ending to this story. The hero lost due to the very powers that define him (Conway 1973). A mainstay of Spider-Man comics to this point, Gwen Stacy was a beloved romantic interest of Peter Parker. In 1973, she died a gruesome death: she falls, and Spider-Man shoots a web to catch her, but the recoil of the string causes her neck to snap (Conway). Spider-Man was, at least partially, responsible for the death of his girlfriend and he continued to carry the weight of that tragedy for decades to come (Conway 1973; Leeper 2014). This death was far more visceral than what had been seen before in Spider-Man–or really any–comics and marked the beginning of a “mature” turn in the industry, otherwise known as the Bronze Age.

Gwen Stacy’s death may mark the beginning of the Bronze Age, but it’s hardly completely definitive of the era. The Bronze Age also witnessed the increased interaction between creators and fans, as well as a boom in the emerging direct market for mainstream comic books (Lopes 2009). The direct market meant that there were fewer stages between production and consumption and breaking into that market became more feasible for creators of all backgrounds (in terms of formal training, for example). These two factors, combined with the previously mentioned problematic nature of assembly-line style production, led to the development of a new kind of comic book creator defined by the marriage of the different stages of comic book formation. This new creator was, generally speaking, someone who grew up on the Silver Age comics of years past and utilized a new style of narrative development: the writer/artists. Writer/artists were, first and foremost, deeply committed to and passionate about the characters and storylines that they worked on before they even had the chance to dictate them (Lopes 2009).

Having come of age reading superhero comics as they declined in popularity due to CCA constraints, “the first impact of the new generation of mostly fan-artists was a revitalization of mainstream comic books” (Lopes 2009). Due to being reared on comics that were limited in scope and content, these artists also saw themselves as “mavericks” who had manifested the ability to impact the “wave of socially relevant and later more mature comic books of this period” (Lopes 2009). The approach creators of this era took to the maturation of these comics was fundamentally based on the group identity that comic book fans held. The code was loosened, and the characters the writer/artists had been reared could be put into situations that they never had before. Writer/artists took advantage of the relaxed code to include gore, sex, and violence among other mature themes. In other words, the ideas that these fans-turned-writer/artists had led to “the increasing hypermasculinity of this genre and the less female- and child-friendly nature of the comics industry, comic shops, and conventions” (Lopes 2009). This all hinged on the reversal of a previously held notion that there was a clear line between creator and consumer; creators were active and consumers “the passive endpoints of economic activity” (Griffin 2015). Writer/artists proved the second stipulation of that statement false as their incorporation into the process of producing comics changed the market significantly. Instead, writer/artists were actively contributing to new narrative approaches, more sophisticated art styles, and increasingly intricate storylines: and these comics sold (Lopes 2009).

Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, and Alan Moore indisputably defined this era. It should be noted that all three of these men have achieved significant recognition outside of the comic book industry. Frank Miller, for one, produced the film adaptations of his graphic novels Sin City and 300, both of which have received numerous accolades for many aspects of their production, particularly their distinct visual style which is directly connected to Miller’s graphic art (IMDb 2005; IMDb 2006). Neil Gaiman was an executive producer for the Emmy-nominated television adaptation of his novel American Gods and his stage adaptation of his 2013 novel The Ocean At The End Of The Lane–that year’s winner of the British National Book Awards’ Book of the Year–which was noted by many as “theatre at its best” (IMDb 2017; National Theatre 2022). Alan Moore, in stark contrast, is famous outside of the realm of comic books because of his staunch opposition to his work being adapted. Those who attempt to do, such as the Wachowskis when they tried to write a faithful adaptation of V for Vendetta in 2005, face his surly personality and general animosity towards creators like them (Itzkoff 2006). This has only increased his status as a cultural icon rather than causing him to fade into the shadows.

However, Gaiman, Miller, and Moore were industry giants in the comic book market before they eclipsed it for mainstream popularity. Not only were they writing stories unlike anything published before, but they were all also responsible for making remarkable changes to how visual narratives were portrayed and aesthetic choices were made (Lopes 2009; Young 2016). Neil Gaiman is known for his “graphic novels” that elevated comic books to a new level of maturity and sophistication, playing with shade and color in dramatic ways (Prescott 2012). His work is also notable for his use of literary allusions to highlight philosophical ideas (Prescott 2012). Frank Miller’s run as the writer, and eventual artist, of Daredevil innovated the formal properties of comic art. He also significantly elaborated on the mythology of the character and rooted the series thematically in explorations of religion and morality (Young 2016). For example, his Daredevil comics are notable for how the titular character–a blind man with an increased radar sense who perceives space differently, if not more accurately, than normal humans–seems to burst through the panels of a page and explore negative space (Young 2016). He also introduced new characters to foil Daredevil and heavily focused on the character’s background as a Catholic, often exploring themes of repentance and guilt (Young 2006). Alan Moore is perhaps the most prolific, having brought back the “pre-Code” horror genre that had long been abandoned with titles such as Swamp Thing (Lopes 2009). Some of the most well-known comics of the 1980s were created by him (Lopes 2009). The preeminent example is Batman: The Killing Joke which was famously a source of inspiration for both the director of The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan, as well as Heath Ledger who played the Joker. The Joker sought to drive the commissioner of police and frequent ally of Batman, Jim Gordon, insane via his daughter Barbara. Moore utilized this plot to explore how Batman and Joker are merely men set on different paths (Moore 1988). This title serves as a grim retcon of the Joker’s origin story in which his shooting, paralyzing, and torture of Barbara Gordon is a pivotal plot point (Moore 1988). The creators mentioned above, as well as a litany of others, popularized the “anti-hero” within comic book universes and centered the grey morality that existed within the heroes who were made to be paragons of cheerful humanitarian ideals. Superheroes were no longer just representative of the best of society; the shift indicated an interest in exploring how even those who could evade death and travel cosmically were flawed and fundamentally human.

The aforementioned creators shaped the immediate context that compelled Gail Simone to create her blog. However, there had been a long history of the mistreatment of women in comics–both narratively and literally–since the days of the Comics Code Authority. In the 1950s, women in comics were restricted by traditional gender roles and a general lack of representation. Though the CCA was in part established to prevent graphic violence from being depicted in comics, it set into motion a series of events that would lead to the violence described above 40-some years later. Likely without realizing the full scope of the situation, Simone went up against decades of history and the comic book industry as a whole with the creation of Women in Refrigerators. In cataloging the brutalization of the very characters she grew up loving, Simone shook the very foundation of the comic book industry to its core. She took on a massive project that would become much bigger than just a list of the bad things that happen to comic women and her work would go on to define a generation of internet discourse about feminism, gendered violence, and representation in media.

An Unlikely Heroine

Gail Simone was up against a nearly insurmountable problem: a lifelong fan of comics, this theatre-major-turned-hairdresser took issue with the way women were treated in comics (Danika18 2016). Up until the early 1990s, there were very few women reading, writing, discussing, or starring in comic books (de Dauw 2021). These, of course, were the comics that Simone had grown up reading and the reason that she was so passionate about them in her adulthood (Danika18 2016). Unfortunately, being a female fan of comics meant being subjected to pages and pages of colorful depictions of explicit, graphic gendered violence. When she began her project, she had no way of knowing that it would lead to her becoming one of the most prolific comic book creators of the 21st century (Danika18 2016). However, that wouldn’t happen until after Simone laid down humble roots in the early days of the internet with her blog, Women in Refrigerators (Curtis and Cardo 2018). The issue, as Simone (1999) saw it, was that the violence on the pages of comic books started to manifest in the real world, and she was far from the only one who thought so. For one, the Internet was becoming an increasingly dangerous place for women, and “outside of these safe spaces… the larger scene was known for its frequent misogyny” (Galvan 2015). These safe spaces included things like private, secretive email lists that were dedicated solely to female members of fandoms to be able to avoid harassment that was guaranteed to come their way within general online fandom communities (Horbinski 2018).

Spaces for comic book fandoms were not the only dangerous ones for women; in fact, the infrastructure of the internet supported a “gendered topdown structural discrimination [that has defined] the shape of the modern computing industry” (Horbinski 2018). This reality within the industry was reflected when computers became a medium of social interaction; participation on the early Internet required “a certain amount of insider knowledge and capital” (Horbinski 2018). The Internet in the 1990s was nowhere near as easy to use as it is today, so being online was relegated to those in the fields that used the Internet and computers often. It just so happened that those fields, such as data processing and military sciences, were almost entirely composed of men. Given that women were outnumbered so significantly by men in the computational sciences (i.e., programming and hardware engineering), the lack of women exploring the jungle of the early Internet should not be particularly surprising. Just as women were generally shut out of the Internet, male media fans often lacked the requisite means, such as transportation or capital, to attend the primary forum for fandom communities at the time: fan conventions. As such, the logical move was to appropriate a form of technology never meant to be social to construct social spaces where geography and money, for the most part, didn’t matter. However, the early Internet necessitated gatekeeping: forums and email lists were not open access and even once on them, adherence to a delicate system of social norms was important (Horbinski 2018).

But what exactly was it in comic books that made navigating the choppy waters of the Internet worth it for Simone? To put it one way, “outside of comic books specifically written for women, female characters… have a pretty tough time of it. And by ‘tough time of it’… horrible, horrible things happen to them” (Griffin 2015). The context of Simone’s creation of Women in Refrigerators was the reintegration of “pulp storytelling” to elevate comics to the status of a serious art form that had been long gone (Lopes 2009). The term “pulp storytelling” owes its name to the roots of comic books in the pre-Code early 20th-century pulp fiction; prior to the implementation of the Code, these inexpensive stories covered genres from horror to romance to action (Lopes 2009). As such, the movement towards a more serious form of storytelling incited the main publishing houses of Marvel and DC to drop the Code and harken back to the days of pulp fiction to publish “dark, violent, and sexual” comics that were “almost exclusively male-oriented” (Lopes 2009).

The same shift also marked a change in the narrative approach that creators took towards the role of female characters in comics. The method that many creators used to mature their stories was turning women into channels through which stories gained “moral, political, and social” themes (Lopes 2009). Female characters in the Bronze Age were more often than not merely treated like narrative functions rather than independent subjects with their own agency. This often took the form of emphasizing something about a male character’s morality (or lack thereof), his beliefs, his decisions, or his life. On one hand, it’s reflective of already established ideas about female bodies within Western cultural politics in general. On the other hand, comics had a particularly effective way of rendering these destructive gender dynamics.

At the same time as comics took a mature turn, there was a short-sighted success in that female representation in comics increased in the late-20th century. Women became superheroes and appeared on the pages of comic books, albeit in a very different way than their male counterparts. That is, “female superheroes [could] be powerful, but only if they are sex objects and conform to ‘traditionally feminine’ characteristics, preferably in service to a male character’s storyline or the male character’s gaze” (de Dauw 2021). So, even with more female characters incorporated into stories, the stories that they were a part of were not their own. Comics, as a medium, were important distinctly because of the “juxtaposition of text and image” that allowed creators to “more viscerally realize” the ideas that they hoped to promote (Galvan 2015). There is perhaps no better example of the narrative importance of the sexualized and brutalized woman than in Neil Gaiman’s Calliope. In the story, a woman–the titular Calliope–is repeatedly abused sexually, physically, and mentally by two male authors. Because of the abuse they inflict on her, they become more successful than they had ever dreamed possible. But her status as a narrative device is explicitly rendered in the story, as the inherent misogyny of the character is quite literally Barthesian in nature: “Erasmus Fry commits suicide after he can no longer publish without Calliope and idea-frenzied Madoc is writing himself to death” (Prescott 2012). Calliope existed as the reason authors could write and once they couldn’t inflict pain and suffering on her, their identity staked on their ability as writers was endangered.

Calliope is by no means a spectacular, special example of the gross misogyny present in Bronze Age comics. Simone (1999) herself put it best in the introduction to her blog, writing that, “if a female character showed up in a comic, chances were she was going to stick around for a while before dying or be nothing more than an object that helps the male protagonist prove his masculinity and romantic prowess, win against evil, or learn how to define himself.” The issue wasn’t just that there was gratuitous violence, but that Simone saw herself reflected both in the minority of young women reading comics and in the women being brutalized on the pages of the stories she loved. She created the blog upon the realization that it’s “not that healthy to be a female character in comics” and this treatment of women as passive objects had an impact on readers (Simone 1999). Cultural commentator Jia Tolentino (2020a) puts it best, writing that a girl who grows up “imagining [her] life through literature… [goes] from innocence in childhood to sadness in adolescence to bitterness in adulthood–at which point, if you hadn’t killed yourself already, you would simply disappear.” Simone and Tolentino’s ideas, as well as the ideas of many feminists, hinge on a concept that had been detailed by a much earlier figure in the theory of how the social affect of women impacted self-concept: French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir.

It would be remiss to neglect to mention the correlation between the themes of Simone de Beauvoir’s work and the plight of women who read comics. In the section of her seminal work Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex) entitled “Childhood,” de Beauvoir discusses how young girls are conditioned to view themselves and the world around them with terror from impossibly young ages. The girl, in de Beauvoir’s opinion, is “led to identify her whole person and to regard this as an inert given object,” rather than a whole, complete being with agency. The aforementioned Calliope by Neil Gaiman serves as an example of this passivity that is rooted in emphasizing the impact on the male character, as the narrator “focuses on Madoc rather than Calliope, offering an adverb that emphasizes his emotional state during his action, and adjectives that focus on the mundane aspects of the scene of the crime. The details are extrinsic to Calliope herself” (Prescott 2012). This lack of agency was the result of how the girl was presented to herself and would inevitably “inspire horror in the adolescent girl… because she feels defenseless before a dull fatality that condemns her to unimaginable trials” (de Beauvoir 1949). While de Beauvoir set this section in the context of adolescence and uses the analogy of a doll in 1949, female comic book characters presented a similar metaphysical terror to female readers during the Bronze Age of Comics. Not only were women being taught to regard themselves as objects devoid of independence from men, but male readers were learning the very same thing.

Women in Refrigerators

Gail Simone (1999) welcomed visitors to her site with a letter: “I’m curious to find out if this list seems somewhat disproportionate, and if so, what that means, really.” Simone was called to action in 1994 upon reading Green Lantern #54. In the comic, Alex DeWitt (the eponymous Green Lantern’s girlfriend) is brutally murdered and stuffed in a fridge. Just as Eve bit into the forbidden fruit and unleashed a legion of sin upon the world, Gail Simone’s distinctly feminine awareness of DeWitt’s plight began her reckoning with how women were treated in the world of comics. Although she has since updated the site, Women in Refrigerators is still a virtual time capsule. Though it seems basic by 2022 standards, it was a marvel in the early days of the Internet.

Before the content of the site can even be discussed, it should be noted that female representation increased in comic books to a certain extent (de Dauw 2021). Despite this, more female characters didn’t necessarily mean that the narratives they were in communicated any kind of meaningful feminist ideology to readers (Griffin 2015). The discrepancy between the seemingly “feminist” inclusion of more female characters and the reality that the vast majority of them were tortured or killed is termed by de Dauw as “ludonarrative dissonance” (de Dauw 2021). Consumers of any form of media imbue the work with their own personal, social, and political contexts (Griffin 2015). Male nerds brought the context of being scorned by women, while female readers read comics understanding that if they wanted to see women, they were going to have to accept violence. The “ludonarrative dissonance” in this case is the same plight that many underrepresented groups face: having more characters that represent any given group doesn’t ensure that they’ll be represented well.

Male fans argued that not only was the inclusion of female characters an “invasion” by feminists but that “violently killing women was not a sexist trend because characters usually come back from the dead” (de Dauw 2021). Simone (1999) prefaced the list rather simply: “Not every woman in comics has been killed, raped, depowered, crippled, turned evil, maimed, tortured, contracted a disease or had other life-derailing tragedies befall her, but given the following list, it’s hard to think of exceptions.” What followed is a list of 121 female characters–seemingly a small number, but within the context of how few female characters there still were, this is a large proportion of them–with their various plights, such as “abused, changed into a harpy, multiple miscarriages, dead,” “kidnapped and raised by demons, aged, de-aged, dead,” “addicted to drugs, made porn films, infected with HIV, dead,” “mind-controlled, impregnated by rape, powers and memories stolen, cosmic-powered and then depowered, alcoholic,” and “children ‘die’/vanish/are lost because they are figments of her imagination,” added behind their names[4] in parentheses (Simone 1999). The five plights listed above are representative of all the uniquely terrible ways that women were treated in mainstream comics. While it was beyond the limits of creators to include more women with their own plotlines in stories, they seemingly had no shortage of ideas when it came to the pain that they could inflict on them. And in the case of whether the violent murder and torture of these women was indeed sexist, editor and contributor to Women in Refrigerators John Bartol points out that “characters returning from the dead are usually male” (de Dauw 2021). Female characters were not afforded the impermeability of male superheroes; they couldn’t be knocked down time and time again and still get back up. In a way, inclusion was merely a way for male creators to placate their small community of female readers as if to say, “this should be enough for you, does it really matter what happens?”

Frank Miller’s Elektra

The limits of creating an inventory of mistreated female characters are demonstrated by Elektra Natchios’s inclusion on Simone’s list. Elektra Natchios was introduced by Frank Miller in 1980. As previously noted, Miller’s work on Daredevil would define this era of superhero comics. Prior to Miller taking over the series, Daredevil comics had been middling at best (Young 2016). Most of the writers who worked on him didn’t know what to do with a blind, Catholic, mutate who came from Hell’s Kitchen and looked slightly reminiscent of Spider-Man when in costume. Modern readers are probably most familiar with Miller’s version of Daredevil because his iteration eclipsed what had previously been thought possible. The groundwork was all there: Daredevil offered a way to explore themes of law, crime, and punishment; guilt and salvation; and the philosophy behind when to stop pulling punches (Young 2016).

One of the ways that Miller achieved this was via the introduction of the character Elektra: the wealthy daughter of a Greek ambassador who had trained in all forms of martial arts before catching the attention of a shadowy organization for her ruthless nature at the age of 10. She met Matt Murdock, the civilian alias of Daredevil, in college and they had a short but passionate romantic relationship. It ended abruptly when she informed Matt that she found the man who killed his father. Well aware of his physical prowess and training in martial arts at this point, she tried to goad him into killing the man in an act of revenge. She tried to prove a philosophical point about Matt not being able to kill someone, but seemingly being okay with beating them to the brink of death. Matt wouldn’t kill him and went to leave, but before he could, she murdered the man responsible for Matt’s father’s death (Miller 1980).

Elektra is a difficult character, but her complexity has always made her rather sympathetic. Miller alludes to her struggles with mental health from a young age and makes it clear that Elektra is a picture of what Matt could have become given that they both experienced trauma young in life. She exemplifies the Bronze Age trope of the “tough girl”: a female character who “exhibited strength, intelligence, and other positive qualities, but still confronted the opposition of these qualities to being feminine” (Lopes 2009). She is a vision of a “sexually attractive woman skilled with weaponry [and] licensed to kill. [Her] beating up men might rather take the wind out of the sails of the culture in which sex difference seems unalterable” (Peppard 2017). To emphasize the fact that she, despite her cleverness, proficiency in martial arts, and cunning nature, is indeed feminine, Miller portrays Elektra as overtly sexual even in her death. In other words, the overt “sexualization of her body leaves her open to both objectification and ridicule, undermining her power and authority as a superhero. She does not look threatening or powerful” (de Dauw 2021). Elektra could be tough without being a threat and to the male reader, the pleasure was in seeing her bested and beat time and time again.

Paul Young, in a book about Miller’s run as the primary creator behind Daredevil, writes a letter to his comic-book fan younger self. In this letter, he waxes poetic about Elektra’s death by the hand of Bullseye, another complicated anti-hero character meant to foil Daredevil:


Bullseye’s got all the power here. He gets it from stealing all of hers. Figuratively–though it looks awfully literal, doesn’t it?–he’s taking back the phallus from her, taking back his ‘rightful’ position as The Man in this relationship, running her through with her own weapon, mastering her in the ugliest way possible so that she’s left with nothing. He has reduced her to what he was certain she already was: a marionette he can use to act out his sadistic fantasy of mastering Daredevil, too… this is a sensationalist, exploitative image [and] Elektra is less a character at this point than one of Gail Simone’s ‘women in refrigerators’ (Young 2016).


He responds to himself by stating an idea that underlines everything mentioned thus far

in this case, writing that “some unpleasant reader could conceivably enjoy Elektra suffer for being such a man-eater, especially while she’s wearing that skimpy, red ninja thing” (Young 2016). Miller renders her death in excruciatingly slow, explicit detail: “He makes Elektra suffer even more. At the right side of the page, right after Bullseye stabs her, Miller gives us eight horizontal panels showing every awful moment of Elektra’s last steps, as she tries and fails and tries again to stand up” (Young 2016). It’s a voyeuristic depiction of an already cruel death. The positioning of text and image that is definitive of the comic book genre is what allows for such a visceral realization and internalization of the ideas that they depict; that’s to say, the constant portrayal of women as objects of sex, of assault, of violence is the “ethical claim” that comics make by “witnessing trauma” (Galvan 2015; Marshall and Gilmore 2015).

When young men consume a deluge of media that makes the “ethical claim” that women are merely objects of sex or violence, they gain an entitlement to female bodies that is manifested in real life. This is how the boys who grow up reading comics turn into men who think that women deserve vitriolic words and threats of violence for merely criticizing comic books or trying to do the absolute least of including more women in their pages. Femininity in comics is indeed one and the same as “sickness and suffering and death” (de Beauvoir 1949). Comics hinge on a generally accepted dominant cultural narrative that “violence is inherently masculine,” an idea that stems from the patriarchy entrenched in American hegemony (de Dauw 2021). If the context of comic production is prioritized when discussing the impact of comics, the truth that “the production of cultural objects as fundamentally influenced by the power structures within [the given] culture” becomes that much more nefarious (de Dauw 2021). Comics, let alone any media, are not separable from the cultural and political context of their creation. In this case, that context is one of gross acceptance bordering on the promotion of violence towards women.

The dominant narrative of superhero comics can be broadly conceptualized as anti-women because of the way that it hinges on the “pre-existing script for ideal masculinity” that male superheroes provide (de Dauw 2021). This ideal “legitimizes the existence of the patriarchy by providing a rationale for conservative gender roles that consider women to be weaker and more submissive than men” (de Dauw 2021). When Elektra tries to eclipse her station as a woman, she is brutally murdered. The idea is that when women go beyond the strict cultural role that they are confined to, they deserve what comes for them. This is a hypermasculine frame of thought that operates on violence as the basis of masculinity and men as the enforcers of a cultural framework that prioritizes the preservation of the patriarchy over the safety of women.

Girl Online

Women in Refrigerators emerged alongside the Internet. Having been privy to the kind of danger that was coming to define the Internet age, Gail Simone’s mission was to change comics for the benefit of the next generation of young girls who would be reading comics and inhabiting virtual spaces to talk about them. In the 90s, the Internet became a venue for self-publishing which meant that information could be disseminated widely. Given that “prior to the 1990s, such a discussion would have been isolated and read only by those who searched it out,” the way that Women in Refrigerators blew up was unprecedented: it was viral (Dittman 2014). One of the reasons Simone was able to rise to prominence was because of the timing of her blog’s publication. Even just a decade before in the 1980s, the same wide distribution of information wouldn’t have been possible. Although, just as this benefited Simone, the same abilities to spread information and form community without the limit of geography allowed for fan communities to take hold like never before. The Internet digitized social spaces (Lopes 2009). Exploring the explosion of internet culture through Gail Simone provides insight into how virtual spaces can be constructed around anti-feminist ideology and group identity. Comic fandom had been gatekept even during the days when it was purely physical, in the form of comic book shops and fan conventions, by a “royalty system and a focus on high sales of superhero comics and merchandise [that] tended to concentrate the comic fan base” which was interpreted by producers and sellers to be mostly white, heterosexual young men (de Dauw 2021). However, the Internet now allowed men to say whatever they wanted to whomever they wanted without ever revealing their identity.

Before the days of the Internet, even if these ideas may have been held by many male comic fans, they weren’t the basis of a community where communication was so easily accessible. However, the permeation of virtual spaces into non-virtual realities has meant that ideas like those defined above now have a proofing oven where they can grow in an environment that foments ideologies based upon being white, male nerds. Even if they were still in the minority of groups within popular culture, male nerds suddenly had a way to connect in spaces where they were the winners. Gail Simone published her blog just as this was beginning to take shape. She existed in a place defined by (mostly anonymous) individuals on sites like Reddit and 4chan who believe ideas such as:


In real life, people like you for being a girl. They want to fuck you, so they pay attention to you and they pretend what you have to say is interesting, or that you are smart or clever. On the Internet, we don’t have the chance to fuck you. This means the advantage of being a ‘girl’ does not exist. You don’t get a bonus to conversation just because I’d like to put my cock in you. [You can get your unfair social advantage back by posting photos of your tits on the message board, which] is, and should be, degrading for you. The only interesting thing about you is your naked body. tl;dr[5]: tits or GET THE FUCK OUT.’ (Tolentino 2020b)


Tolentino (2020b) continues by writing of the above that any example of women striving to exist in a space defined by its lack of women took on the classification of believers in a “vagina-supremacist witchcraft” and substantiated these online communities by providing a common enemy. She continues that men, “rather than work toward other forms of self-actualization–or attempt to make themselves genuinely desirable, in the same way that women have been socialized to do at great expense and with great sincerity for all time–established a group identity that centered on anti-woman virulence” (Tolentino 2020b). This would be taken a step further as male fan communities began to view women as a threat to their very existence and identity.

The Danger that Fanboys Face

Full of men who based their identities on “corporate fan fiction about ritually rutting with the trademarked icons of their youth,” virtual fan spaces became venues for men to exist in a kind of fantasy world (Berlatsky 2011). However, those icons–some of whom have existed for over 70 years at this point–exist in a world where women are adjacent to voodoo dolls, victimized by street-level criminals and supervillains alike to hurt the superpowered men in their lives. The fantasy that fanboys live in is one where multiculturalism and feminism challenge an “investment on the part of white fanboys in their cherished world of white male fantasy” (Lopes 2009). These spaces–seen as solely reserved for men–function on being able to consider women as “interlopers spoiling male spaces” (de Dauw 2021). This belief has led to the idea that since there are so few women in online fandom communities and nerd spaces, women who are genuine fans must just not exist. While this is seemingly harmless, when combined with the internalization of the ideas about femininity and violence posited by comic books, they become rather nefarious.

If not interlopers, women who attempt to exist in these spaces reveal that it isn’t “the consumption of ‘nerdy’ material that makes nerd culture or nerd masculinity unattractive, but the toxic masculinity hiding within it” (de Dauw 2021). Female nerds upend the idea that male nerds are rejected by women and by society just because of their emotional investment in fictional universes. They clarify the real ideology of being a nerd: real women only have value insofar as they can provide a channel for men to realize fantasies of sex or violence. This begins with the labeling of female fans as “fake” and by claiming that women only pretend to enjoy comics to impress nerd boys. The preoccupation with being a “genuine” or “real” fan “delegitimizes their interest and presence in online communities while implying that women’s primary focus in life is to impress men. It frames nerd boys as the arbiters of ‘genuine’ interest whose nerd masculinity is secured through the rejection of ‘fake’ nerd girls” (de Dauw 2021). Female bodies are currency in these spaces. Fictional women are the gold standard because they have no real opinion and no real agency. Men can project whatever ideas they like onto them and there is no discourse to be had. Real women, in this context, have infinitely less value because they can never live up to the standard of “genuine fandom,” which necessitates being male, or to fictional women who have no actual opinions or ability to revoke consent.

Also contributing to this is the parasocial ownership that fanboys have over comic characters which leads to that identity being defined as inherently anti-feminist because this canon is so overtly anti-woman. Fandom is not merely liking something, but rather an emotional and affective form of consumption that forms part of individual identity (Horbinski 2018). Even if convoluted, the invasion of women into fan spaces forbodes the invasion of women into comic book creation. This, in the mind of a fanboy, precedes their favorite characters being warped into a kind of apparatus of feminism rather than of masculinity. This is what necessitates gatekeeping in these communities; nerd men in these online spaces control the “politics of power and the circulation (and regulation) of knowledge, exclusion, and appropriate behavior” (Griffin 2015). If women are threatening the very fabric of comic books, then online spaces are the one place where men are safe from the threat that women present.

Websites like “Roosh V” and “The Athefist” substantiate this claim as the primary theme of both is that feminism “means the oppression of men instead of gender equality” (de Dauw 2021). The “toxic ideas and constraints of patriarchal hegemonic masculinity” are infectious and result in patterns of diseased thinking that “have always forced men into a state of panic and overcompensation” (de Dauw 2021). It would be false advertising to not include the worst-case examples as well: the Isla Vista massacre was based on a man’s attempt to “exact revenge on women for rejecting him” (Tolentino 2020b). A “manosphere” exists online where a collective of subreddits, 4chan threads, and other websites and blogs exist under the banner of men’s rights and the proliferation of violent misogyny. They range from things like comic book subreddits to more overtly dangerous examples such as the infamous GamerGate 4chan. These groups are not docile and do not just exist as online echo chambers where men scream into the void hoping to be heard by another man plagued by the same problems. Rather, men coalesce around ideas ranging from saying that women should listen to Whoopi Goldberg if “they don’t want to be slapped, backhanded, punched in the mouth, decked, or throttled, keep their stinking hands off of other people. A man hitting you back after you have assaulted him does not make you a victim of domestic violence. It makes you a recipient of justice,”[6] that rape should be legalized on private property[7], and that “women should be terrorized by their men; it’s the only thing that makes them behave better than chimps”[8] (Southern Poverty Law Center 2021).

Conclusion

Gail Simone’s work was groundbreaking and led to her–a lifelong comic book fan–becoming a creator. She’s the longest-running female writer of Wonder Woman, brought DC’s Birds of Prey to prominence, and retconned Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, giving Barbara Gordon power and agency once again. However, feminist change doesn’t happen on the individual level alone. Retconning in and of itself displays the inefficiency of the individual level; change is bigger than a single narrative run and more about dismantling the worldview constructed by comics and passed onto readers. Simone becoming one of the more well-known comic writers despite the overtly feminist themes of her titles doesn’t necessarily mean that the industry experienced any kind of large-scale change.

The difference in the discourse regarding male and female characters has become increasingly evident in the last few days alone: after the release of the latest Marvel film Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. The film features Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch prominently and her earlier Women in Refrigerators byline of “children ‘die’/vanish/are lost because they are figments of her imagination” is adapted near exactly. This, as expected, drives her insane given that a life of tragedy has preceded it: her parents are killed by an American bomb which then creates rubble she is trapped under; she watches another undetonated missile for days on end, unsure if she will die; and her and her brother are captured by a Nazi-associated research group and experimented on before joining the Avengers. It doesn’t end there: joining the Avengers leads to her brother’s brutal death, which she witnesses firsthand; the world erupts in a global debate about whether or not superheroes should be required to register with world governments to prevent tragedies from happening; she is confined to house arrest for her involvement in said tragedies; she has to kill her synthezoid husband by ripping out what is effectively his brain before time is reversed and she has to watch him die again; her dead husband’s body is stolen by a government agency and experimented on; and, the children she creates out of trauma by way of her reality warping powers are stolen from her (Raimi 2022). I would venture to say she has a right to be mad. But look on any Marvel subreddit and you will see a flood of posts equating her to a “crazy bitch.”[9] Even female trauma is delegitimized. Women, both real and fictional, are not only brutalized but robbed of the ability to feel anything about their trauma.

Male fans possess a worldview that is enmeshed with identity and has spurred the violent, hateful attacks that happen to women who dare to disrupt it. Strong female characters and creators criticizing (or even enjoying) comics threaten an identity that is based on the subjugation of women –if they can’t be blank slates on which to impose tragedy, then what are the men imposing it? Who are these beloved male superheroes if they don’t have a victimized female character that reflects their personality and values back to them? The individual and group identity of the fanboy is constructed around the idea that no matter how many women reject them, they can always retreat back into the world of comics where women have very little power if any at all. That ideology has been internalized by male fans of comics for so long that it has dictated how they operate within the world. A powerful reason that this continues to exist is that “men feel no hesitation when sending horrible messages to women [when] they believe they’re operating within a space that accepts it as the norm” (Moosa 2017). To be frank, this is the space that they are operating in.

Every part of my being wants to believe that things have changed in the 23 years since Simone first published Women in Refrigerators. However, female fans like myself face this dilemma what feels like every day; as a member of many subreddits devoted to discussing Marvel comics and their film adaptations, it’s clear that my opinion will not always be appreciated. To that end, I have never personally experienced the heights of what online harassment of “nerd girls” can often reach. The “perceived rise of nerd girls has resulted in an increasingly toxic online environment where male nerds use hostile tactics such as general cyberbullying but also, specifically, doxing and SWATing to bar women from online nerd communities” (de Dauw 2021). “Doxing” refers to the practice of publishing sensitive and private personal information–such as phone numbers, emails, places of employment, home addresses, and even Social Security numbers–online for anyone to see (Home Security Resource Center). “SWATing” is the deliberate and unwarranted calling of emergency responders to someone’s home to threaten them (Cambridge Dictionary). The tactics that are used to silence women and exclude them from virtual spaces go far beyond even the worst forms of cyberbullying and often include legitimate physical danger. It isn’t just threats, it’s the reality that women online live in fear of.

The issue at hand is: where do we–female comic fans–go from here? Do we stop reading them? Do we migrate as feminists did in the 90s to imprints specifically focused on telling female stories (de Dauw 2021)? Do we fight back and risk any of the threats that have been explained in excruciating detail in the last 10,000 words? I, like many other feminists, am at a loss. Every part of me wants to champion the fact that women finally have some agency and positive representation in comics. They are strong, impactful characters who don’t rely on the men in their circles for plotlines. The last decade alone has seen an explosion of not just women, but of true diversity in comics: there are young Pakistani-American girls who have super strength and queer Latinas who can create star-shaped portals into new dimensions gracing the pages of comic books. Simone herself even created the first transgender character to be featured in a mainstream comic. Despite all the representational gains made in the wake of the original publication of Women in Refrigerators, I would argue that the fight for women reading, writing, and loving comics is not over. Even three decades later, headlines like “Female Journalist Gets Rape Threats Over Comic Book Criticism” still exist, and being a girl online is still a dangerous place to be.

[1] See Appendix 2. [2] From highest grossing: Avengers: Endgame, Avengers: Infinity War, The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Black Panther; these films all grossed over $1 billion. [3] See Appendix 1. [4] Betty Banner, Illyana Rasputin, Karen Page, Ms. Marvel I/Warbird, and Scarlet Witch [5] “Too long; didn’t read” [6] Originally from a post by Paul Elam titled “October is the Fifth Annual Bash a Violent Bitch Month.” [7] Originally from a post by Roosh V. titled “How to Stop Rape.” [8] Originally from a post by Matt Forney (under the pseudonym Ferdinand Bardamu) titled “The Necessity of Domestic Violence.” [9] See Appendix 4; the reply tweet referring to her as a “bitch not a witch” has seemingly been deleted.

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