I resisted reviewing Justice League of America #4 last month, during the height of some rather heated discussion during a major controversy. The subject of "fridging" (i.e. killing off, depowering or otherwise causing bad things to happen to a female character purely to create drama for a male character) had come up and this time the victim was Catwoman - apparently killed in action as she was infiltrating the hideout of the Secret Society of Super-Villains. I say apparently because I suspected from the start that the death would be some kind of fake-out.
Why? Well, I couldn't discuss the clues without spoiling the whole story but there was some cynicism at play as well. You can't kill off a major character well-known to the public without the comic publisher releasing a press release these days and Catwoman's "death" took everyone completely off-guard. If they were really going to kill off Selina Kyle, they would have made a bigger deal about it.
I was also reluctant to review the book because I disagreed with discussing the "death" and labeling it as a fridging, because the larger part of the issue lacked the unsubtle sexism that lies at the heart of every fridging I've ever seen. For the majority of the issue, I thought Catwoman was portrayed as the adaptable badass she should be. She was able to free herself from captivity easily enough and was continuing her mission without needing to be rescued by the team that was coming in after her. She even took down one super-villain by herself before superior numbers proved her undoing.
After being captured, Catwoman tried to play off of the fears of her captors, knowing as well as Batman that criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot. She said that killing her would only bring Batman down upon them like a ton of bricks. To her surprise, this gamble achieved the opposite of what she wanted.. The leader of the villains said that getting Batman's attention was their entire goal just before shooting Catwoman in the head.
I didn't consider this scene to be a fridging by the technical definition. While the bad guys said that killing her was a means toward creating drama for a male character (i.e. kill her to make Batman angry) they had just as much reason to kill Catwoman for what she had done and what she had seen as a result of her actions throughout the issue. Annoying Batman was just a bonus.
Now, I DID find the artwork and layout of the scene to be incredibly exploitative. The final shot of a dead Selina was particularly disturbing, being almost fetishistic in how it was drawn by artist Brett Booth. And yet, I resisted writing a review and condemning the book on that point because it didn't add up. I couldn't believe that Geoff Johns - who is usually so good about avoiding this sort of thing in his writing - would allow the fridging of a major heroine this early in a major storyline. Particularly given that another major subplot of Justice League of America #4 involved Stargirl's rebelling against her assigned role as the team's poster-girl/spokesperson and sneaking along on an actual combat mission.
As you can see from the above scan, Justice League of America #5 rewarded my faith. Stargirl kicks major ass and proves her worth to the team beyond Public Relations. And I shan't spoil how but rest assured that Catwoman is alive and kicking and the rumors of her death have been greatly exaggerated. I'm still not too crazy about how the fake-out was milked but I must admit some honest surprise at the resolution, despite some foreshadowing that was obvious in retrospect.
The back-up story by Matt Kindt, focusing upon the origins of The Martian Manhunter is impressive as well. Kindt has revamped the origin somewhat, changing the specific cause of death for the entire Martian race and giving The Martian Manhunter a new means of traveling to Earth. Issue #4 gives us a look at a Martian culture that is truly alien yet instantly recognizable and sympathetic once it is lost. Issue #5 has him following the trail of the killer to Earth and discovering a malevolent telepath who may prove to be his greatest enemy ever. Issue #4 and Issue #5 have different art teams, but they're both top-notch and incredibly good.
Bottom Line: If you were scared away from Justice League of America because of any fears of sexism, I'd say you should give it a shot. I'm not happy about how the otherwise skillful Brett Booth laid out the aforementioned scene but otherwise I found his art to be quite good. Apart from that one Trigger-Warning worth scene, there's nothing objectionable in this book and between Stargirl, Catwoman, Katana and Amanda Waller there's a lot for lovers of strong female characters to enjoy. Now, if only it had Black Canary too...