For the past few weeks, my friend Ashley has been trying to get me to read Bitch Planet, the new comic written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and illustrated by Valentine De Landro. Sometime around then, I’d also read a review on the comic which basically criticized it for not being everything to everyone, for not exploring this or that enough, and for being mildly disappointing – standard fare when examining a new comic written by women, aimed at women, and about women and their issues. The review didn’t necessarily put me off Bitch Planet – quite the contrary – but I was still wary of it.
You see, periodically people will laud some girl-centric comic as the Best Thing Ever for Female Readers and full of Awesome Female Role Models and demand that I read it or risk losing my Chick Card. Three examples that I can think of are Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Wiebe and illustrated by Roc Upchurch (until recently, anyway), X-Men: Primer by Brian Wood and penciled by Olivier Coipel, and Lumberjanes by Grace Ellis and Noelle Stevenson and illustrated by Brooke Allen (for the most part).
The problem is that I don’t much care for any of these comics and am suspicious of comics made by men that only pay lip service to women. With the exception of Lumberjanes, the above comics are predominantly by male creators. They work too hard to appeal to female readers, making sure that every character is a Strong Female Character who talks dirty, gets into shit, fights a lot, and has no problem having sex and broadcasting it. But those are mere ciphers, one-dimensional characters with no backstory, no depth, no agency, and nothing unique about them. They inevitably have sex within the first volume (or the first page), get into lots of fights, verbal or physical, bicker amongst themselves about who the real leader is, and talk a lot of shit that they can’t always back up. They’re the kind of characters you make up when you’re first starting to create original characters – the Mary Sue, the Incongruous One, the Too-Cool One, the Fixer, and the Angst-Ridden One. They’re solely created to get female readers while not alienating male readers. That’s why you’ll have a “bookish,” “socially awkward” girl in the most skin-tight and revealing costume – “It shows depth!” the creators cry. “It shows that she has facets to her personality!” Really? Because people that are socially awkward or really into reading or live in their heads a lot generally either don’t care about their wardrobe or want to cover up as much as possible. It’s not about being a prude, either – it’s about creating a safe zone for themselves or a buffer against other people or feeling something soft and comforting against their skin. Anything else falls under the archetype of Sexy Librarian (That or they’re in a safe zone – which generally isn’t the public.).
Happily, Lumberjanes doesn’t fall prey to such blatant reader bait, but it’s not necessarily fun for all ages. I made it three or four issues in before I realized that it wasn’t age appropriate for me, and, worst of all, it wasn’t interesting for me. It has lots of cool aspects like Ms. Allen’s great art and Rosie’s weirdness and subverting archetypes with Mal and April, but the pacing is off, the editing is off, and the writing lacks maturity. It’s part of a trend Boom! and other companies seem to be pursuing where they’re so eager to capitalize on already successful female artists that they fast-track their projects. A more skilled editor who was willing to wait for better writing could have made something really engaging out of the story. This is a problem that seems to be plaguing another recent Boom! release – Help Us! Great Warrior by Madeleine Flores, which was witty, puerile, mature, and low-brow all at once when she was uploading it on Tumblr but which hasn’t translated at all in the published version. But, unfortunately, female readers are so starved for work by, for, and about women and girls that they’re basically required to like these pieces or be labeled women-haters and thereby responsible for the failure of these projects and a continued dearth of female creators. It’s a heavy burden to put on a reader that just wants something good.
Fortunately, there’s Kelly Sue DeConnick and Bitch Planet. I absolutely love Ms. DeConnick, and I’m absolutely going to talk about why in another post, but right now I want to focus on Bitch Planet. Bitch Planet is basically about a futuristic dystopian world where women are labeled “Non-Compliant” and sent to another planet, the “Auxiliary Compliance Outpost,” (aka “Bitch Planet”) whenever they refuse to or just don’t conform to society’s expectations. Infractions can include being violent or physically aggressive, being fat, your husband shipping you off because he wants a newer model, and, apparently, not being white (This list may be a little off as I’ve only read the first issue, but it seems spot-on.). There seems to be some sort of re-education that Non-Compliants can undergo, but they also aren’t ever supposed to leave the planet. There’s a lot I’m honestly confused by at the moment such as how this society started, what’s the point of a prison planet if none of them can leave, why there are guards if they’re all just stuck there, and why a prisoner had to be killed if she was stuck there for life, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for a while.
The women of Bitch Planet are the kind of women we need in comics – they bring up problems that are female-centric (When her uniform is too small, Penny asks, “Where’m I supposed to put my other tit?” and says, “Bitch, I know my size!”), the women immediately bond and talk with each other instead of creating the instant rivalries everyone thinks women get into, the women openly admire other women when they do well, they protect other women, and they are confident in their bodies and abilities, acting instead of taking two pages and twelve panels to talk shit. Also, amazingly, there are women of color in the first issue! In fact, the bulk of the characters are women of color. The opening sequence features a dark-skinned woman running through the crowd. Two of the six women on the second and third pages are identifiably black. An Indian woman is a receptionist in the first main subplot. The first group of women on Bitch Planet has three black women, an Asian woman, and a woman who is probably Mestizo. Look in the background and you will see a variety of skin colors, hair types, features, and body types (though those do tend to be on the skinnier side). The men are similarly diverse, and two of the main authority figures are black.
The overall issue design is similarly well thought-out – playful, detailed, satirical, but eye-catching. The cover features a woman with big hips, a high waist, and thick forearms giving whoever has chained her up the finger. Behind her you see two helmeted, naked women with bodies like Amazons (Wonder Women artists – take note) prepared to fight, a long-legged vixen with perfect Storm Trooper soldiers about to dole out her ruling, and a group of women watching shit go down from their vantage point high above it all. “Are you woman enough to survive… Bitch Planet?” the title asks while the cover promises, “Girl Gangs… Caged and Enraged!” The overall lay-out, coloring, and texturing remind me of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse movies – absolutely intent on doing a good job but ultimately trying to make fun of themselves and the genre. It’s brilliant.
Similarly brilliant is Mr. De Landro’s art inside. Although we meet the Non-Compliants of Bitch Planet naked, they are never sexualized or reduced to their bodies – even when we get an upward crotch shot on the second page. Women cover themselves or don’t as they need, but Mr. De Landro doesn’t waste valuable time focusing in on asses, tits, or crotches or adding unnecessary bounce, jiggle, or shine. He beautifully uses shadow, stance, and angle to introduce us to our characters’ personalities – whether they be Penny’s highly stylized and aesthetically-pleasing tattoo “born BIG,” Kamau Kogo’s sculpted physique and perfect balance, or the hologram’s male gaze-pleasing and surgically-enhanced bust, waist, and crotch. Oddly enough, the point of Mr. De Landro’s art is to tell a story well – not give teenage boys something to wank off to when their parents are working late.
And the back cover with the X-Ray Specs, “The Perfect Way to See Through His Intentions,” or the Non-Compliant temporary tattoo (“PUT IT ON YOUR FACE.”) or the anniversary congratulations (“Every minute before we met was prologue – HALF my age and ALL of my heart!”) – it’s wonderful. It’s funny and tongue-in-cheek, harkening back to the advertisements of the 1930s, 40s, etc but also giving you valuable information on the world of the Patriarchy. Bitch Planet is perfect – literally front to back.
I am intensely excited to keep reading Bitch Planet and am highly tempted to break my own rule of not buying the issues (I prefer the trades.). There’s just so much to figure out – what the hell kind of society they’re living in, who is the awesome Kamau Kogo, what was Marian Collins about to be dragged off to, and what happens when you attack the guards with a knife. Who are the main characters and what’s Ms. DeConnick’s end game? Her work is always so amazingly well written and interesting – I can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen here, and I’m so excited for another comic for, by, and about women. It’s going to be awesome.