When I explained the context of the Non Compliant symbol to my tattoo artist, the one she was going to etch into my skin that day, I used the same elevator pitch I’ve been using since Bitch Planet was announced: “It’s like Orange is the New Black in Space.” Her smile at that description told me I was remiss in not bringing her copies of the four issues published so far.
Mentioning that there are only so many in print, which has been the constant bone of contention among the phenomenon’s skeptics, didn’t seem to phase her at all.
“How can you get a tattoo with only 1, 2, 3, 4 issues out?” the refrain has gone, pushed back another number as each issue makes its way to the stands. Generally speaking, these naysayers are fault-finding male chauvinists who resent the cult-like following that Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine DeLandro have generated at breakneck speed. Instead of being a mark against the fans who have gone under the needle, it ought to be viewed as recognition that DeConnick has never lifted her fingers from the pulse of her readership.
Bitch Planet is, at its heart, a dystopia, and an honest dystopia builds its thesis from the concerns of the present day. George Orwell wrote 1984 against the backdrop of the rise of totalitarian governments in Europe. Battle Royale was written to evoke Japan’s hyper competitive education system and the growing generational divide over it. Bitch Planet hits at both the essentially timeless, blatant, and insidious ways that patriarchy marginalizes and divides women, as well as a more urgent examination of how mass incarceration targets women of colour. Comics have a natural love for the kind of symbolism that dystopias employ, hence the longevity of the mutant metaphor and the pervasiveness of the X-Men logo in merchandise. From that perspective, the much closer proximity of Bitch Planet’s dynamics to reality than the mutant metaphor sets up the Non Compliant logo for natural success.
Perhaps even more so than the content of the comic itself, the time in which it’s arrived is responsible for the explosion of Non Compliant tattoos. The increased visibility of women in geek culture spaces has come with a stupefying backlash of misogyny, and there is perhaps nothing better than a Kelly Sue DeConnick comic to rally around, especially one that was conceived of as a challenge to the misogynist backlash against her Captain Marvel run. Off the comics page DeConnick has been a galvanizing figure for women creators and fans, cultivating a dedicated fanbase as much through her tremendous gift as a ranconteur as for her scripting. Those qualities that go beyond what she presents on the page contribute to making her work, her brand, an ideal environment for women struggling against the misogynist realities of fandom to rally round for mutual support and a sense of community. But clues to the popularity of getting the Non Compliant logo inked lie in tattoo history as well.
My favourite thing about tattoo history is that there is no singular origin or history. As soon as a given people figured out they could poke themselves with a sufficiently sharp and pigmented object, leaving a pretty picture behind, they found a use for it. The popular assumption is that James Cook brought tattooing back from Polynesia, but at least a couple of his crew were tatted up before they left, and tattooing had been around in Europe for a while. (What he actually brought back was the word itself.)
Out of all of those histories, the ones I find most compelling are the parallel and sometimes intertwining uses as expression of resistance and control. It’s easy enough to trace back the Japanese influence in contemporary western tattooing to the near full body work that was at one time compulsory for the Yakuza criminal class, or to recall the tattooing of concentration camp victims in World War II, as examples of how tattooing can be either, but the tattooing tradition of the Russian Vory V Zakone, or Thieves in Law, is a compelling example of how those dynamics can actually be intertwined.
The Vory, perhaps best known for their portrayal in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, originated as a resistance to the purges that Stalin executed to drive collectivization and build a slave labour force through the gulag work camps. They tattooed themselves with intricate symbols that spoke of their family and criminal histories as a means of making themselves known to each other and to project that they would not assimilate into the Soviet Union. As the purges wore on and the gulag population swelled, the Vory transformed into a criminal underclass who could exert a considerable amount of power within a camp.
In the post-Stalin Soviet Union, the Vory gained enough control over the prisons which incarcerated them that they could impose their language of tattoos on even common criminals who weren’t affiliated with their various gangs, marking them according to the crimes that landed them there. Which is a side to the tradition that rarely makes it into foreign constructions of the Vory, whether it’s the scenes of Viggo Mortensen sitting serenely for the tattoos that mark his new new rank in Eastern Promises, or Irvine Welsh singing the praises of the largely fabricated “Siberian Ukras” in Nicolai Lilin’s Siberian Education.
It’s an interplay of rebellion and social control that sits right at the heart of the Non Compliant tattoo phenomenon, and how the existence of those tattoos in real life interacts with the comic itself. Within the comic, the non compliant tattoos are imposed by the prison system itself, stigmatizing the inmates for life, which has many historical analogues, but also functions as a metaphor for the current realities of mass incarceration in the United States. Decades of coded language embedded in “tough on crime” campaign promises made it easy to create a new form of racial control—generally dubbed The New Jim Crow—by simply switching the language being used to the de-racialized “criminal” while maintaining black criminals as the only working examples. The 1988 Presidential Election campaign’s fixation on Willie Horton being one of the most infamous incidents. This set the stage for ever tightening restrictions on convicted criminals, from mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crime to the denial of access critical elements of the social safety net, including welfare and Section 8 housing. Combined with the fact that there are astronomically more Americans under the control of the criminal justice system outside of prison than within it such as being on parole, probation, under house arrest, or enrolled in work release programs, the stigma of a criminal conviction is one of the worst possible to carry in modern day America.
Thus the act of getting Non Compliant tattoos can be seen as a reclamation of a fictional symbol of oppression—creating community and solidarity out of a fictional representation of shared anxieties and fears of institutional abuses. Relative to the X-Men, whose outgroup metaphor was designed to cast the broadest net possible and requires considerable effort on the part of the reader to project their specific experiences onto, the Non Compliant symbol carries a great deal of weight to a very specific group without drawing on imagery tied up in real world history that could constitute a misappropriation or be too painful to reclaim. It’s practically Borgesian in its metafiction.
Because of the precarious nature of trans women’s presence in any female space, I had a lot of initial reservations about what my place might be in the phenomenon. At first blush—despite never having witnessed this—it seemed like a very specific kind of fan with a specific engagement with DeConnick’s work who got them. I just was never part of that set or interacted with the work in the way that they seemed to. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was silly, as it was informed by the debilitating, internalized (trans) misogyny that affects us all, but it was unfounded. When my commentary on transmisogyny in comics began to take hold and people brought me into their communities, it clarified the fact that I had a place in that space, and in that metaphor, but it would have to be one that I defined myself.
Non Compliance has its own connotation when it comes to the trans community. Not in the word itself, but the connotations that bubble up. Gender Non Conforming is of course a contemporary umbrella term that captures transgender, genderqueer, non binary, and intersex people, so we find ourselves in an existential state of non compliance by default. For many of us who do not “pass” as cisgender, whether by choice or not, a Non Compliant tattoo is almost redundant considering the degree with which our bodies are already stigmatized.
One of the greatest strengths of Bitch Planet is the historical and anthropological backing that DeConnick uses to construct her dystopia, which has invited warm and relevant comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s seminal novel A Handmaid’s Tale, which presents a twofold problem for direct gender non-conforming representation. Trans women never fare well in dystopias, partially because of who dominates their creation, but also because our precarious position in contemporary society means that we would hypothetically be some of the first victims of the regimes that take power in narratives like Bitch Planet or A Handmaid’s Tale.
Nowhere is that more apparent in Brian K Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man, in which a virus wiped out all the men, that is to say it targeted everyone with a Y chromosome. Vaughan did address trans women through dialogue, explaining that they’d been wiped out by the virus and any trans men who presented as male were subject to the depredations of a cult calling themselves Amazons. It was a clear presentation of how sex and gender are discrete entities, but the framework of the story only allowed for an absolutist construction of genetic sex. In that comic, trans people were martyred towards a deliberate construction of second wave feminism informed by Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF for short) ideology, which was presented as appropriately heinous. While DeConnick has expressed plans for specific trans inclusion in Bitch Planet, it’s important to note that feminist dystopias will by their very nature always be far harsher to trans women than they are to cis women, should the former appear at all. (In the interest of full disclosure, since writing the first draft of this essay, I consulted with DeConnick on this topic and am now bound by a Non-Disclosure Agreement, so I cannot comment further at this time.)
So when I designed my Non Compliant tattoo, I placed the transgender pride flag within it to clarify my position within the community as much for myself as anyone else. Like the Vory, the Yakuza, or any other outgroup with their own history in tattooing, the subtleties matter. The designs and connotations of Vory tattoos have not only evolved over time, but mutated across the diaspora of former Soviet states that they hail from. So too should the Non Compliant, and really, any other fandom tattoo. When we see each others’ NC tattoos, they tell only a fragment of a story, and I wanted mine to say more, that I’m two things that are deeply intertwined but also cannot be conflated. The Non Compliant symbol is as much a sign of community as shared pain and anxiety. The transgender pride flag is at once a symbol of a shared identity and a shared stigma. The geometry of it is decidedly Non-Euclidean. Or rather: Non Compliant of Euclidean geometry.