Kelly Sue DeConnick Talks “Bitch Planet” and “Pretty Deadly”

Bitch Planet is a comics series set in a disturbing near-future. People who are convicted of “anti-social” behavior are stamped with the label “non-compliant” and shipped through outer space to a prison planet. The story revolves around the women who are incarcerated on this planet, exploring their back stories and their struggles for dignity in the face of corrupt authoritarian power. It comments on current realities of prison and patriarchy, all with a vibe and feel that riffs on 1970s prison exploitation films. Currently on its sixth issue, the series has brought vital critique of incarceration and our justice system to the vibrant pop culture world of comics.  

Bitch Planet is written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, who is also the brains behind several other beloved series, including the surreal western Pretty Deadly. That series, co-created with artist Emma Rios, feels like A Fistful of Dollars meets Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman—it’s got the feel of an old spaghetti western that swirls with mythology and magic. Pretty Deadly centers on the daughter of Death and is woven from storylines that deal with violent duels and stunning moments of compassion. Kelly Sue DeConnick was nominated for an Eisner Award for her work writing the series—that’s a huge deal in the comics industry.  I last talked with DeConnick right before the premiere of the first issue of Bitch Planet, so this month, as the sixth issue debuts, it seemed like a great time to check back in.  

This interview originally aired on our Popaganda podcast episode “Favorite Nerds.” You can listen to the interview or read the whole transcript below. 

SARAH MIRK: Something that is constantly surprising and amazing to me is how many people have tattoos of your work.

KELLY SUE DECONNICK: Yeah! It's not less surprising or amazing when you're me.

Ha! Yeah, so there's this whole phenomenon of people getting tattoos of the little logo from Bitch Planet, an “NC” that stands for “non-compliant.” How does that feel to see that?

Humbling, incredibly humbling. I really try to keep my ego in check by remembering that that isn't about me. That particular thing isn't even really about my work. I mean, look—I'm super happy that people have used the book as an entrée into having this dialogue with themselves, but it's not about the book. My friend Dan Curtis Johnson said, “You don't get that tattoo because you're a fan of the book. You get that tattoo because the book is a fan of something in you.”
 

Two “noncompliant” tattoos. Photos from Found Things and Full of Awesome.

It’s sort of a symbol of saying, “I'm non-compliant in society. I don't fit into society.”

Yeah. “I don't fit in the box that was issued me. I'm too fat, I'm too Black, I'm too brown, I'm too shy, I'm too outgoing, I'm too sexual, I'm too religious.” Women in particular—although it's not exclusive to women, certainly—are asked to conform to these very narrow standards. Like, “Please be one of these six types.” And when you are outside of that in any way, then you're asked to pay a price for that, and I think what that symbol says is, “Yeah, I don't fit in my box, and that's okay. I'm fine with who I am.”

The women who are the main characters, none of them are people you typically see in mainstream comics. A lot of them are queer and just have all different body sizes and really interesting character design that's nothing like the the muscular, strapping, kind of bland people you often see in superhero comics. When you were setting out to write this story about women in prison, was it surprising to you that so many people identify with that? Or does that make sense to you because you're writing about people who are marginalized, and all kinds of people can identify with that?

It was definitely intentional, but I think that the thing that is sort of the underlying truth of the book is this is this absurd world where you get sent to a prison planet for not fitting in your box. But no one is compliant; no one fits in their box. This ideal woman is a myth. So, that's why when you do see the compliant woman, the compliant woman is a hologram. She's always drawn in pink lines.

Three panels of the compliant-woman hologram from Bitch Planet, with art by Valentine De Landro.

But she acts as like a prison guard, enforcer in the prison. She's sort of over-seeing what's happening as the compliant woman.

Yeah, she's a hologram. But you also see her in the world. You also see her on Earth. She's most of the women that you see on television.

This series is interesting because it’s about these women trying to maintain some dignity in the face of authoritarian power structures. But there's also an educational component to it. On the back page of some of the issues, you write out discussions like, “What is intersectional feminism?” I was wondering how much you see this series as trying to introduce people to ideas and feminist theories and how much you want people just to be sucked in by the plot?

Well, I think it's 50/50. I think the plot and the story make up the bulk of our pages, but I think if you ask the people who buy the book why they buy the book, it's as much for the back matter as it is for the story pages. But we wanted it to have the feeling of a zine. We refer to the back pages as “community pages.” And we want it to be a place where people can come together and share not just their frustrations but their successes, and find each other, and find community, and also find the solace that comes from knowing that you're not the only person who feels these things.

The comics industry has not had a great history of including women, especially characters who are women of color. Was it hard to sell this storyline? Did you come up against resistance from comics executives?

Well, that's the beauty of working at Image Comics. I never had that conversation—never. My pitch to [Image Comics Publisher] Eric Stephenson on Bitch Planet was something along the lines of, “Valentine De Landro and I are playing with this idea of a women-in-prison exploitation riff with a gladiatorial kind of sport, and we're tentatively calling it Bitch Planet. But that's just a working title; we could change that.” I think [that] was the entirety of it. I was expecting him to come back and say, “Hmm. Tell me more,” you know? But instead, he came back and said, “I would very much like to publish something called Bitch Planet.” And that was it.

It’s exciting, and also rare, to have that level of trust from a publisher.

We had a proven success with Pretty Deadly. But that's one of the beautiful things when you're in with Image: They don't police you. They don't look over your shoulder. They see the book when you upload it. And, in fact, I called at one point and spoke to Eric because I was concerned about some of the nudity in Pretty Deadly. Female nudity is nothing uncommon in comics, but male nudity is still kind of a thing, and some people won't carry the book. I just wanted to make sure I didn't catch them off guard and get myself in trouble, so I called and said, you know, “Hey, I don't know if you want to see this art ahead of time or what, but we have some frontal male nudity in the second issue of Pretty Deadly, and I just don't want you to run into any distribution problems.”

So you called them up and said, “There's a bunch of dicks in my book. Is that okay?”

Ha! That's exactly it! Just one dick. It's just one dick, but it does appear from a couple of angles, I think. And Stephenson's response was, “Yeah, I published Howard Chaykin. You're not gonna shock me.”

Ha! 

Well, alright! Off we go, then! One part of me is like, “Oh, really! Is that a dare?” So yeah, I mean, they've been amazing.

Another interesting thing about Bitch Planet is who the story centers on. I don't think I'm giving anything away to say that the first issue of Bitch Planet feels like the whole narrative is going to be centered on this one middle class white woman who's innocent but, due to corruption, is incarcerated. But then the narrative shifts, and it turns out the story's not actually about her. That was such a shock to me because usually, as a viewer, even when stories include people of color and queer people, the narrative still centers on that white, straight, middle class, “I'm innocent! I don't belong here!” kind of voice. So it was cool to see that narrative shift.

Yeah. I get why that's done, but I don't like it. I think the message that's inherent in that is that the culture that this white woman—or white man, depending on the story—is our Trojan horse into, is somehow other, you know? That it's, I don't know, less American or—depending on the context of what we're talking about—that it's somehow “not us.” And nope, these are all our stories. You can identify with anyone in this book. They're all human beings. You can find something in them that you relate to, and it shouldn't be so difficult to see that, you know?

An image from Pretty Deadly, with art by Emma Rios.

So let's talk about your other series, Pretty Deadly.  That has a totally different feel from Bitch Planet. While Bitch Planet is more a riff on 1970s prison exploitation [and] women in prison films, Pretty Deadly is sort of, in my mind, a remix of classic westerns with a kind of mythological, magical, surreal bent to it. Can you tell me about wanting to write a western, and why you chose this to be a western, and how you feel about the series now that it's on its sixth issue?

Boy, I love this book. But I love it the way you sort of love a difficult child, you know? This book fights back. It's a really hard book to write. It's a challenging book to read, although I love that part of it. We originally wanted to do a very straightforward Sergio Leone kind of western, and then it never quite felt right—it never really gelled. Like way back in the way back, when it was just notes, this was the story of Jenny, a sharpshooter in a Wild West show. Sissy was the Josie Wales dog that I gave her to spit on, just to give her somebody to talk to, but we really wanted to see if we could do a woman-man with no name, you know?

Mm, kind of a Clint Eastwood character who's a bit of a vigilante.

Yeah, and a cipher—not so much a protagonist as a sort of force of nature around who the rest of the world has to bend, you know? Like a High Plains Drifter or Pale Rider, like that kind of man with no name. And so that was the place we started, but it just never felt right, and it didn't start to feel right until we kind of let the monsters in, until the—

The literal monsters.

Yes. When we found that, then everything else—well, ‘fell into place’ overstates it—but then everything started to feel right. And interestingly, I was a little sad about that because I felt like we had gotten away from our original intentions, even though I loved the book. It's like, “Eh, you know, but we'd wanted to do this Leone thing!” And then Charlie Houston found this quote for me—an amazing, lovely fan did a needlework piece that I have right next to my desk now. It's got this landscape with this giant moon, and it says, “'The myth is everything' —Sergio Leone.” And so, in the end, we felt like we had actually done Leone. We'd circled around to it, but we'd come at it from a direction that we hadn't expected.

So telling a western with a mythological framework to it.

Yeah, which, I mean, when you think about the man with no name, that's very much the case. I just had never put my finger on it.

Mmhmm, yeah. There's a real mythos around that person. They can just be sort of a hero form.

Yeah, he feels like he rode in from nowhere. He's there for justice, you know?

You mentioned that this is also a hard series to write, and it's a hard series to read, a little bit; it's challenging in part because the series is really inventive and doesn't follow a lot of the typical comic book story arc systems, I guess, is the best way to say it. A lot of times, if you just jump into reading the first issue, you can feel overwhelmed, or like, “What's going on? I don't know what's happening here.”

It is not the hero's journey. Like, you cannot map this.

Right. And then, by the end of maybe the first issue or a few along, it just starts to grow on you. If you just roll with the world, you'll eventually pick up what's going on and sort of fall into it.

Yeah, all the pieces are on the table by the third issue, and in the first arc, they've all come together by the last page of the fifth issue. But you know, we always say it rewards a re-read.

I think it kinda feels like coming into a story in the middle, or stepping into a different world where you don't understand the rules exactly, or exactly what's going on. You just have to kind of go with the flow for a while.

Yeah, it's very immersive.

And why is it that you decided to write the story that way?  You're also pushing boundaries in forms of art and character representation. Why be more avant-garde with your approach to the narrative, too? 

You know, it was a tantrum, quite frankly. And [collaborator Emma Rios and I] both come out of years of doing traditional comics work, very corporate comics, and they're great and we love them and we learned a lot there. But, you know, there was a very narrow structure with which you can work, and there are expectations, and clarity trumps all. You are asked to explain everything as you go. What the reader is coming to those books for is not an experiment—and that's fine. Please don't hear that as a judgment. But after a couple of years of that, we were like, “Fuck it! We're gonna do this the way we want to do it. This is our book. We're in charge. We may not get this chance again.”

by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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