In Deadtown, it’s always autumn—in the middle of the night and even at nine in the morning. Everything is in a thousand shades of black, with some grey if you’re lucky, except for the news which comes in a hue of colors. Life in Deadtown is pleasant. There is no war, no fighting, no suffering; the subway runs on time and everyone has a place to live. There are, of course, a few disadvantages. How you lived, loved, and dressed in the living world follows you to this combination of purgatory, hell, or heaven, depending on who you are, and it remains that way forever. You can’t move on. Living an eternal life on one hand is not that bad, perhaps even entertaining at times, and at other times, a painful reminder of the life you left behind.
In a universe of Catherynne Valente’s own making, The Refrigerator Monologues is a world not unlike ours except the residents range from humans to gargoyles, food trucks sell tyrannosaurus burgers and dodo eggs, and apartment building floors are infinite. For Paige Embry and the rest of the Hell Hath Club, life isn’t bad. You hang a few pictures, you make a few friends, and eventually you create yourself a home.
Except Paige and her friends are angry. Very angry and very bitter. They have landed in Deadtown as “women in refrigerators,” a comic book trope coined by Gail Simone, where women, typically in superhero storylines, were rarely, if ever, fully developed or given their own origin stories. They are B plot add-ons. Mere plot devices. Secondary characters. Their whole point of existence is to die in order to move a male character’s story arc forward. The fridged women, in life, had no origin story, no agency, and most importantly, no voice.
For some of these women, they believe living in Deadtown isn’t an permanent option when “somebody knows a guy, a priest or a wizard or a screenwriter or a guy whose superpower schtick gets really dark sometimes or a scientist with a totally neat revivification ray who just can’t seem to get federal funding, you can go home again.” Except they can never really and truly go home. They think they’ve found an opening back to the living world, and no matter how many times they try to leave, they always find themselves thrown back to Deadtown.
Paige, Julia, Pauline, Bayou, Daisy, and Samantha; each a character who draws inspiration from comic book character we already know, finally have their origin stories. Paige could be Gwen Stacy’s twin sister and Pauline, in her 1920s moll self, is conceivably Harley Quinn’s double. Julia Ash, brilliant mockingbird Julia, could change places with Jean Grey at any time.
Beyond giving them a voice—Valente lets the Hell Hath Club scream.
Their voices are palpable and real. You wince as you read how they died, feel their fury as they tell their stories. Their wrath at the choices their men made that landed the women in Deadtown. Each of the Hell Hath Club claims her autonomy, her story, and her time. Valente staggers their stories as vignettes, each story introduced by Paige, the unofficial president of the club. Paige is sarcastic, sharp, and an astute narrator. She’s the perfect emcee to the Hell Hath Club’s accounts of how they got to Deadtown. Each vignette is connected: the women all know each other from their daily coffee meet-ups at Cafe Lethe, but the vignettes can be read in any order. Each voice is strikingly unique and utterly recognizable—the studious and intellectual Paige, the Kewpie doll Pauline, the despairing Julia.
And let us not forget Annie Wu’s artwork, which is pitch perfect in its black and white rendering. While Wu’s work is sparse—the artwork only graces the beginning pages of each woman’s story where the rest of the story narrative is unillustrated prose—it’s utterly true and perfect and I could not imagine anyone else doing this book justice.
I also would be remiss in not mentioning Valente’s nod to the superhero origin creators themselves by naming the members of Cafe Lethe’s, where the Hell Hath Club meet, house gargoyle rock/jazz/experimental band, Quarter Inch Bleed: Stan (Lee), Jack (Kirby), Alan (Moore), and Gail (Simone).
There is a major minor flaw: each character is presumed white and able bodied, as evident by Wu’s drawings and character descriptions, except for Samantha who is a person of color, again by description and Wu’s interpretation. All of the characters are presumed hetrosexual since they were all thrown in the fridge by their male partners, boyfriends, and husbands. They are all able bodied. Overall, I found the lack of diversity surprising as Valente is known for her masterful worldbuilding, sensitivity to marginalized peoples, as well as fully realized characters with full autonomy. She has even won awards for her work, such as the James Tiptree Jr Literary Award which encourages the exploration and expansion of gender and the Lambda Literary Award which celebrates LGTBQI+ in fiction. I’m not sure what happened here, but The Refrigerator Monologues could have been perfect if it were not for these omissions.
You could argue that the point of the book is to address the lack of women’s autonomy in superhero fiction and I’d buy that but—and this is a big but—this is Valente’s world and she could have subverted that to be more inclusive if she wanted to. Maybe there is a point in making majority of the characters white and able bodied, as Valente is riffing off of established characters. But whatever that point is, as the reader, we are totally missing it.
In the end, I highly recommend The Refrigerator Monologues as a complement to any graphic novel collection as well as a good entry point for Valente’s work. The book is a brilliant and refreshing supplement to an overly male genre, and should be read by graphic novel fans and prose readers alike.
The Refrigerator Monologues
by Catherynne Valente
Art by Annie Wu
Saga Press, 2017