Comic - Bitch Planet
2014 was a great year for women in comics. We were introduced to a female Thor, a Muslim-American, shape-shifting teenager revitalised the Ms Marvel franchise, and indie publishers continued to champion female representation with both their characters and creators. All were wonderful steps forward, but none were more unapologetically subversive than the introduction of Image Comics’ new ongoing series Bitch Planet.
Described as a ‘feminist, sci-fi exploitation riff’, Bitch Planet pulls no punches, and is equally as entertaining as it is confronting. Set in a dystopian future where non-compliant women are sent to an off-world prison known as the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost (or colloquially as the eponymous Bitch Planet), the story switches between portraying the lives of the inmates and the people orchestrating their existence back on earth.
One of Bitch Planet’s most impressive feats is that it somehow manages to make a satirical look at exploitation completely non-exploitative, no doubt owing to Kelly Sue DeConnick’s carefully considered prose, and Valentine Delandro’s humanising character illustration. This is particularly evident in the first issue where, despite a large portion of the prison sequences featuring full-frontal nudity, the reader’s gaze never feels lecherous. In fact, the only overtly-sexualised images come directly from the A.C.O.’s own portrayal of the feminine form, none more so than the walking incarnation of the Madonna/Whore complex, a digital projection known only as ‘The Catholic’. Depicted as a highly fetishised nun, this corseted construct effortlessly switches between merciful confidant and torturous interrogator, manipulating inmates and establishing order.
Unsurprisingly, The Catholic isn’t the only tool in the A.C.O’s terrifying arsenal. After all, it just wouldn’t be an exploitation parody without some seriously sadistic content, and believe me when I say that Bitch Planet is brutal. The harrowingly violent reality of life as a non-compliant is flawlessly rendered by Delandro, but is not measured by blood spilled or lives taken. Instead, it comes from the character’s guttural and evocative reactions to the events around them. Pain, fear, anger - every emotion imaginable - is etched on the inmates’ faces, made only more disturbing by the eerie passiveness of their masked guards. And while its violent acts may at times be so over-the-top that they verge on the ridiculous, the realistic depictions of human suffering ensure that Bitch Planet remains firmly grounded.
While the first two issues primarily focus on establishing plot and world building, the glimpses we are given of Bitch Planet’s inhabitants are both intriguing and promising. I can’t think of a more rag-tag bunch of badass women, and am pleased to see the creators including a wide range of genuinely diverse characters. After reading the first two issues, I was champing at the bit for more in-depth characterisation, so I was thrilled to find out that every third issue will be purely character driven, with a guest artist focusing on fleshing out one woman’s backstory. It’s an interesting approach, and one I think will pay off, effectively balancing out the Tarantino-esque excess of the regular issues without disrupting the narrative flow.
The overall look of the comic features a delightfully retro vibe, paying homage to 60s/70s styles, while playing up the (not-so) pulpy feel of its contents. Cris Peter’s colouring is a particular standout, with traditionally feminine colour schemes taking on a harsh and gritty edge, while Rian Hughes’ logos and covers feel paradoxically old-school yet modern at the same time. The back covers are an adorable bonus, modelled after the kitschy backmatter of yesteryear, they feature tongue-in-cheek classifieds and ads for bizarre products you can actually buy (sadly, at this stage they’re only offered to US readers).
Finally, as a continued companion piece to the main comic, Bitch Planet’s backmatter actually matters. Featuring thought provoking yet accessible essays from an impressive roster of feminist writers, it’s something that could only work in a creator-owned property, and is yet another example of Image’s commitment to pushing the boundaries of the comic industry. And while the essays undoubtedly complement the comic, if you decide for whatever reason that you’re just in it for the action and want to stick to the story, you’re still in for a thoroughly enjoyable ride – as DeConnick herself says, no one’s holding a gun to your head. It’s precisely this open and inclusive, take-it-or-leave it attitude that makes Bitch Planet such a refreshing read.