Cover: Bitch Planet #1, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro. Image Comics, 2014.
In the slough of excited tweets, glowing reviews, and general fervor surrounding the premier issue of Bitch Planet, written by 2014 Best Writer Eisner Award nominee Kelly Sue DeConnick and drawn by Valentine De Landro, I encountered but one naysayer. Let’s call him comics expert white dude. Aforementioned dude said something like this: Bitch Planet is ok, but we’ve seen it all before. His opinion is not without merit, but here’s the deal. The reason we’ve seen this all before is because whether we know it or not, we are already living on Bitch Planet.*
Set in the near future, Bitch Planet tells the stories of women serving life sentences on a prison planet for their crimes against society, and for being non-compliant (the blanket term used to categorize deviant women). Women are sentenced to life on this “auxiliary compliance outpost” for crimes such as murder, and lesser, but equally offensive infractions, such as being non-compliant to one’s husband. The reader is introduced to the Bitch Planet penitentiary along with a fresh batch of inmates, including Kamau Kogo, the potential new star of the prison’s gladiatorial reality TV show. This deceptively simple premise is a promising backdrop for a complex narrative contending with the treatment and perception of women in contemporary culture.
The first issue screams George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and 70s exploitation flicks. The art echoes the aesthetic of blaxploitation film posters, without feeling antiquated or racist. De Landro expertly renders each character, from smug male officials to the scores of naked inmates. Each character feels unapologetically real, down to the last pube. And yet, the inclusion of droves of naked women is neither distracting, or sexualised; it simply is, in all of its intentionally exploitative glory, and the art drives the story beautifully. This title has got it all, but with a brutal twist. Just when you think DeConnick is giving you Orange is the New Black in space, shit gets real.
Yes, comics have been there done that when it comes to prison planets and reality TV gladiator shows. Mojo World of the X-Men and the Battle Nexus of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are two prominent examples that come to mind. But DeConnick and De Landro retool this trope with a fierce cast of women predominantly featuring characters of color. What once was a “man’s world” is reframed by this shift, making space in mainstream comics to address that in a world run by men, women must fight to survive. Just when you think this title might fall into the contemptible trope of white people imagining the subjugation of white people, Bitch Planet twists the knife again, only to leave you wanting more.
When you crack open the first issue of Bitch Planet, it lulls you into a familiar world within its pages. It’s almost comforting how familiar it is, this world we almost know. This world we have grown to love and fear in every work of dystopian fiction we’ve ever consumed; this world that’s not unlike our own. The greatest difference is the retribution for being a woman in a patriarchal society is literal, not figurative. Bitch Planet exaggerates our misogynistic behavior to absurd proportions to drive it all home. It’s ridiculous, it’s raw, and it’s right on the fucking money.
Therein lies the power of Bitch Planet, and the potential of science fiction itself. Because the most powerful thing about science fiction is not the imagining of what could be, but incisive commentary on what is.
Bitch Planet is everything I hoped it would be, and more. I eagerly await the second issue.
* This sentiment is directly derived from Danielle Henderson’s accompanying essay to Bitch Planet #1. The issue is worth buying for this essay alone.