Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet promised space prison, violence, a heck of a lot of ladies of various colors, and a reclamation of the “women in prison” subgenre of exploitation film for the modern audience. Its first issue delivers.
The first installment of any serial narrative is a tricky thing to build. Television drama, our most widespread serial medium at the moment, has attempted to solve this with the two-part premiere, but comics have no such luck. Bitch Planet #1 chooses to favor world building over character exposition, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t leave us with tantalizing hints at its cast of characters.
At the start of the issue we’re promised three killers, two “radicals,” and one “volunteer,” as they enter the maximum security women’s prison planet known officially as an “Auxiliary Compliance Outpost” and by everyone else as Bitch Planet. By the end, however, we’re no closer to figuring out who is who. Of our choices, however, two in particular stand out. First is Penny Rolle, a woman of approximately the same size and shape as the Marvel Universe’s Kingpin whose attitude towards her girth is neatly summed up by her bicep tattoo: a pair of rearing elephants flanking the words “BORN BIG.” The other star of the issue is the righteous Kamau Kogo, who steps out early as the character who’d like to protect the weak and has the fighting skills to back it up. And, of course, if you’re an Orange is the New Black fan who’s just as tired of Piper as everybody else, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to know that both of these women are women of color.
DeConnick has talked about the importance of race in the comic, and her own determination to not shy away from her guns in producing a comic lead by some of media’s most mis-represented and underserved minorities, under a title that you can’t say on the radio. “I’m scared to death,” she told Entertainment Weekly last week.
On every level. I’m scared that I won’t pull it off. I’m scared that I will. I’m scared that people will find it too much, and I’m afraid that they’ll say I haven’t gone far enough. I’m afraid that it’ll be shrill. I’m afraid that it’ll be exploitative…I’m afraid of alienating male readers. And I hate myself for even having that thought. I’m afraid of being a white girl trying to talk about race. I’m afraid. But I feel like that’s my job? It’s my job to go there. And if I don’t, then I’m a fraud.
That fear turned to dedication comes across in the tight packing of social commentary into the details of the setting. Inmates shipped to off-planet maximum security prisons in medical stasis while voice actors read them an accusatory doctrine of self-loathing that characterizes the exile-ordering-Earth as a father, with space and (by association) Bitch Planet serving as the only parent you have left: a mother whose love the non-compliant don’t really deserve.
Non-compliant is the word used by the “Council of Fathers” who appear to control Bitch Planet rather than “prisoner” or “inmate,” one that takes on a certain thematic weight when considered in the full context of the feminist movement. In another universe, non-compliant may have been used instead of “uppity,” “bossy,” or “catty,” and the implication that all women have to do to be exiled from society (whether physically or socially) is to fail to comply with the wishes of a man (as demonstrated chillingly in Bitch Planet #1) rings awfully familiar. Occupying the “warden” role is a “character” best described as a holographic Barbarella, effortlessly swapped between a face for recorded announcements to a menacing “sexy nun” when the situation calls for intimidating the meeker non-compliant, and if you don’t think that there’s thematic richness in men orchestrating the words and gestures of an idealized, sexualized facsimile of femininity to control a group of women, I suggest you think about it a bit more.
De Landro’s art is telling the story crisply as well, with inventive panel layouts that never go so far as to confuse, and a clear understanding of silhouette in character design. And it should go without saying that you’ll have to look far and wide to find another comic on the shelves that imbues the naked female form with as much strength, power, and presence as De Landro does in these pages. And there’s a lot of naked female form, by the way: don’t read this one on the bus unless you’re really giving zero fucks that day.
In conclusion, I’ll paraphrase myself from earlier today. Would you be interested in a bleaker Orange is the New Black, without the lily-white lead, in space? How about a ’70s woman-in-prison exploitation flick with all the exploitation replaced by women being actual characters? Then you should probably hike down to your local comic store (or to your digital comics retailer of choice) and pick up Bitch Planet #1.
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