Exclusive Excerpt: Female Comics Characters Get a Voice in Catherynne M. Valente's The Refrigerator Monologues

Books Features Catherynne M. Valente
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Exclusive Excerpt: Female Comics Characters Get a Voice in Catherynne M. Valente's <i>The Refrigerator Monologues</i>

“It’s not healthy to be a female character in comics,” Gail Simone wrote on the website Women in Refrigerators in 1999. Founded by Simone and other comics fans, the website was named after a scene in Green Lantern #54 in which the hero finds his girlfriend’s corpse stuffed in a fridge. The site features a list of women in comics who have been “killed, raped, depowered, crippled, turned evil, maimed, tortured, contracted a disease or had other life-derailing tragedies befall [them]” to further male characters’ stories.

This week, Catherynne M. Valente expands upon the “refrigerated woman” concept in her new book, The Refrigerator Monologues. Delivering six linked short stories from the points of view of the “wives and girlfriends of superheroes, female heroes and anyone who’s ever been ‘refrigerated,’” the collection subverts the traditional superhero genre tropes.

Valente set her stories in an original universe, and we’re thrilled to share an exclusive excerpt (and an accompanying illustration by Annie Wu) following a new character nicknamed “Bayou.” The Refrigerator Monologues is available now from Saga Press.

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All eyes turn to the lady in green. She swirls a spoon around her coffee cup. It doesn’t make any noise. Thank the tiny baby Jesus, down here in Deadtown we are spared the constant tinkle of silverware against porcelain that plagues the restaurant industry. A long, long red curl slides out of the black pearl comb in her hair and lands on the table like a spurt of blood. It hurts to look at it. Like a camera flashing in your eyes. The sides of her head are shaved down to red fuzz, just the one long horsetail left, running up and over and down her spine like a special-edition collect-them-all punk-rock Barbie doll. She doesn’t notice us staring. I love my girl Bayou to a hundred million pieces, but she’s like one of those thorny old fish who hide on the seafloor, totally still and silent, blending in, waiting for something tasty to drift on by.

1refrigeratormonologuescover.jpgOnly she doesn’t blend in. Not for a second. It’s hard to blend in when your skin is covered in green crystal scales. When you look like a torch singer who stayed on stage so long, she chemically bonded with her costume. She never wants to talk. I’ll go tomorrow, she always says, but she never does. I talked yesterday. But she didn’t. Never jam today, that’s Miss B to a T.

Miss B suddenly notices no one’s talking. She blushes, which looks weird on a green girl. Like Christmas lights. “Oh! Can I get anyone another coffee? Tea? I think Neil’s hiding some wine back there under his wings. I saw it. Pinot and Cab and some black dusty stuff with a Greek name.”

Neil shrugs behind the counter. He tucks his lolling gargoyle tongue back behind his fangs the way that classy old guys smooth their neckties or clean their glasses. Reaches under one great big bat-wing and produces a bottle wrapped in black straw. Sidles on over with a tray of glasses, holds the cork for Bayou to sniff. She nods; he pours. Rich emptiness glugs into each of our glasses—the living will never let a decent wine grape go extinct. But the Bordeaux tumbles out for her, thick and red and reeking of fruit and sunlight and dirt and stone. We all stare while she drinks it. We watch her throat move. I’m not saying it’s not creepy. It totally is. But we can’t stop. She’s so bright. I never kissed a girl when I was alive, but death has a way of loosening your inhibitions.

“Your turn, Queen B,” I say. I want to touch her hand but I don’t. She can touch me but I can’t touch her. Them’s the rules here in the strip club of the damned.

“Oh, no, I don’t have anything to say. I’ll go tomorrow. What about Daisy? Or Sam? Please. Don’t worry about me. I’m not . . . It’s not my place. It’s not right. I’m not like you.

“I’m not single.

“I’m not human.

“I’m not dead.

“Deadtown is just my summer home. My Hamptons. My Riviera. Every year, I drive up to the old black house, fire up the boiler, dust the tables and chairs, scrub the windows, stock the larder with apples and cereal and grief, try to find something good on the radio.”

She runs one glittering green finger around the rim of her wineglass. The wine shivers and grows crosshatches like a speaker. A wet crackle shimmies up out of the gargoyle’s personal stash: Welcome to DPR, Deadtown Public Radio, the Voice of the Underworld. This afternoon on All Things Cadaverous: Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper address the issues surrounding piracy and VPN access in the city center . . .

“So, you see, it’s not fair for me to take time from all of you. At the end of the summer, I’ll go home like always. There’s a place down by the docks, a little way along the boardwalk. I’ll walk there and buy an ice cream cone and when I finish it, I’ll dive off the pier and swim down to the bottom of everything, past the rusted bicycles and six-pack rings and anglerfish and oil drums until I find the little golden grate that leads back to the land of the living. It’s been in my family for centuries. My grandfather hired a gargoyle to guard it. He’s all gills and spines and baleen. Still keeps the buttons on his uniform bright, even in the briny deep. I’ll bring him a bottle of whiskey and kiss his cheek as I swim by. Say hello to your family for me, Mort, I’ll whisper. And he’ll bow. And in a year, I’ll do it all over again. Unless I find him this time.”

“Find who?” Hazel asks.

“My son. He has to be here somewhere. He is here. Deadtown is a big place, maybe the biggest place, but I’m actually a very organized person. The city is a grid. I search quadrant by quadrant. And someday I’ll see him, swinging on a tire in a park or peering into the windows of an automat or splashing in a fire hydrant. Maybe he’s living with other dead children in some blackstone with brown ivy over the door. It doesn’t matter where he is. I’ll find him and the world will stop being a terrible place and everything will go back to the way it was when I was young.”

Samantha reaches out for the lady in green but stops short. Her hand hovers over Bayou’s shoulder, squeezing empty air. “Sweetheart, it’s time. You won’t go tomorrow. You didn’t go yesterday. Time to pay your dues to the Hell Hath Club.”

Bayou takes a deep breath and straightens her shoulders. Something comes into her eyes. Something hungry and young and manic. Something a lot less elegant. Something a lot less serene than little Miss Oh-Don’t-Worry-About-Me.

“All right. Okay. How do you start? John used to go to AA. So, I guess I could do the HH version. So, yeah. Okay. My name is Bayou, Trash Queen of Backwater Atlantis, Alligator Princess of the Great Galactic Delta, the Creature from the Rhinestone Lagoon, and I hate my husband.”


I never wanted children. Let’s get that straight up top. All I ever wanted to do was to drink beer, play my horn, and ride mutant armadillos till the end of the world. But you don’t get to hit those high notes when you’re Queen of something. Hard to scream-sing fuck the man authority is deathpuke anarchy in Atlantis when your mom is, like, the entire government.

I know what you’ve heard about Atlantis. But it’s not what you think. There’s no perfect crystal towers, no vending machines packed with enlightenment in a can, no visions of techno-utopian sugarplums dancing in the streets. Atlantis does not have ancient wisdom in every pot or a golden submarine in every garage. It’s just a city that happens to be underwater. Like most cities, it’s got some good neighborhoods, a couple of cool clubs, a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker, and the rest is pretty much a shithole. You think of an underwater city and your brain spins up all these postcards of clean turquoise water and whitecaps and frolicking orcas off a Lisa Frank notebook. But the ocean isn’t like that. It’s full of salt and sewage and tanker oil and mud and dead dolphins and fish poop and about a billion and four jellyfish. We don’t live in Atlantis because it’s a pristine paradise. We live there because we’re weird, gross aliens and Brooklyn’s full. Plus, for us? Breathing air is like knocking back shots of whiskey. The longer we do it, the loopier and punchier and louder and dizzier we get until eventually we pass out in a toilet or die. A fresh summer breeze will get an Atlantean shit-faced drunk.

I told you. I’m not human. I’m not a goddamned mermaid, either, so don’t get any ideas about shell-bras or selling my voice to a sea-witch. That little idiot deserved to die. Never give up your voice for a man, you fucking guppy. Atlanteans are sort of . . . half alligator, half siren, half electric eel. Yes, I know that’s three halves. Don’t get any of your slimy binary brain on me. We came from another planet or another dimension or some woo-woo place. I never could keep it straight. Who cares how we got here? This is where we live now. The Dumbfuck Dimension obviously doesn’t miss us. Even though they should, because we’re gorgeous and we live for ages and we’re all psychic and really kick ass at water polo. Any ecosystem would be lucky to have us.

And among the weird, gross alligator-eel aliens, I’m royalty. It’s not my fault. I didn’t ask to be born to the Fascist Bitch-Queen Delphine Tankerbane the Fourth. If I could’ve picked, I’d have been born like my friend Platypunk—out in the backwater boondocks to a hairdresser and a bartender, living in a trailer park hacked out of a fossilized Portuguese man o’ war, smoking brain coral and being awesome. But nobody picks. I swam off from the palace as soon as possible.

I call it a palace. It’s basically like if you built a Jenga tower out of shipwrecks. Mom’s got a little of all of them in there. Captain’s cabins from the Mary Celeste and the Flying Dutchman and the Lusitania—you would not believe how much crap she lifted off the Titanic before humans started shining searchlights on the thing and diving for rust. Aw, you still don’t get it. Think big. She swiped an entire ballroom for the royal chamber. Her throne is made out of a thousand silver teapots with WHITE STAR LINE stamped on them. It’s all just garbage. Junk. How come I was the only one who could see that? I hightailed it the second Mumsy wasn’t looking. Out into the real city. Into the muck and the noise, down to Squid Row where no one cares who you are, to Soho where everyone’s furious and starving and beautiful, into the East Gillage, swarming with throbbing techno whale song, snarling skinny punks with fishhooks in their ears, angler-headed hipsters burning for the ancient undersea connection to that salty dynamo in the machinery of the deep.

That’s where I met Platypunk. I don’t know what his deal was, taxonomically speaking. He had sleek, soft fur like an otter instead of scales like me, poisonous barbs on his heels, webbed feet, a hot pink mohawk, and claws for days. We started a band. Blowhole? Maybe you’ve heard of us? Platy sang and played the lionfish; I was on drums and conch. I bet you think conches just sort of bleat out one non-note, don’t you? No way. Not when an Atlantean is on the horn. My conch did whatever I told it to. Scream or whisper, whistle nice or empty the room. We played all the hot stages in Atlantis, him and me. Sometimes I close my eyes and pretend we’re still bringing the house down at Sea Bee’s, right at that part in “Anarchy in Atlantis” where Platy just starts quacking like a maniac at the top of his lungs, and then we both jump into the crowd and they carry us away in their arms and everything is good forever.

Point is, I was happy before John Heron came along. I was fine. I was myself. Every story I told was about me. I was better than a punk. I was a protagonist. No kids, no husband, no throne. No problems. No clawing sense of loss the color of the sea’s guts. No dead mother. No dead son. I didn’t even know what it felt like to have a shark chew my leg off! Good times. The best times.

So, this is how it happened. Strap in, because this is about the lamest part of my whole soggy joke of a life. Falling in love is embarrassing. It is not hardcore. It is not part of the scene.

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