In a science-fiction version of our world, the government has outsourced prisons to other planets. Women who are convicted of crimes are placed in tubes and rocketed out of the stratosphere, their movements monitored by robots and strictly controlled by guards who are quick to reach for weapons. Welcome to Bitch Planet, a new Image comics series from writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Valentine De Landro that follows the stories of women doomed to spend the rest of their lives on a planet euphemistically known as an “Auxiliary Compliance Outpost.”
Kelly Sue DeConnick is well-known among feminist comic book fans for writing complex, realistic heroines who star in series like Pretty Deadly and Captain Marvel. There is a lot of acerbic satire of our current prison system in the first issue of Bitch Planet, which came out this week. In addition to the central idea that the country wants to make incarceration so invisible to society that we’ll ship prisons off to other planets, Bitch Planet makes clear that the system is far more interested in insuring “compliance” than in making sure people in prison have their human rights respected. But current headlines aren’t the only inspiration for Bitch Planet, explained DeConnick when I talked with her recently—she was interested in using the comic to update 1970’s pulpy women-in-prison films with a modern feminist bent.
The first issue mostly centers on the story of a white, rich lady named Marian Collins who seems to be innocent; she’s in prison thanks to her vengeful husband. But a twist at the end of the first issue makes it clear that Marian’s not actually the main character of the series after all—it feels like future issues will focus on numerous interesting women of color who are resisting the guards of the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost as best they can.
Kelly Sue DeConnick, signing a copy of her comic Pretty Deadly. Photo by Jason Doctor (Creative Commons).
Tell me about Bitch Planet and how you got started writing it. What was the idea behind the series?
I have a really warm place in my heart for women-of-vengeance films and the pinky violence of the 1970s. The women-in-prison films are sort a sub-genre there. I particularly love this one Japanese film called Female Convict #701 Scorpion, which totally rolls off the tongue. If you go back and watch those films, they’re deeply problematic from a feminist perspective. It was a challenge to myself to see if there was a way that I could play with some of these tropes that I so enjoyed—the angry woman revenge tale—without some of the parts of it that make my skin crawl. There’s a thing that we do a lot in comics that’s done in those films, too, with no apology or subtlety whatsoever: to set up salacious, demoralizing situations for these women where we’re forced to identify with their tormenters. We set it up in a way that’s deliberately salacious or provocative, then on the page-turn, figure out a way to wag our fingers at it. That is exploitation. That is the very core of hypocrisy. It’s gross.
What from those old films did you want to recreate in Bitch Planet and what did you want to leave behind or spoof?
I’m always trying to write that moment when the woman wipes the blood off of her lip, stands up, and kicks his ass. You know, that moment where she’s down and beaten and she gets up and wins—or he gets up and wins, this is not a moment in popular culture that’s limited to women, certainly. But that is the moment I keep trying to write over and over, for some reason it’s a cathartic experience for me.
The “badass underdog moment of triumph.”
Yeah! The rising above! I wanted to write that. I wanted to write the little guys winning, but then I wanted to play with some of the more exploitative tropes and see if there was a way where I could use them self-consciously, that serves the story but doesn’t demean the women.
How do you see that coming across in the first issue?
One of the things is all the nudity in the first issue. For some reason in these movies, there’s always a shower scene and there’s always a de-lousing scene where all the women have to be stripped. And frequently they’re wet, as well, if possible. In Bitch Planet, they are transported to this auxiliary detainment facility in these liquid tubes. We’re playing a lot with the idea of women in boxes, visually, throughout the book. And then they’re presented nude, but they’re presented in a way that’s not salacious. Their bodies are presented as bodies. They’re various sizes. They’re saggy, they’re not-saggy, all different colors, dimpled and not-dimpled. They’re very, very naked, very in your face, but they’re not posed provocatively. It’s meant to make the reader feel uncomfortable, this nudity.
Part of the shower scene from the first issue of Bitch Planet.
Yeah, I didn’t see that scene as sexy at all. It’s more sad and scary. It makes it feel like everything has been taken away from them and they’re vulnerable in a way that you don’t feel at all in sexy prison shower scenes.
And then there’s a stupid female armor trope.
You mean like the tiny bikini chainmail thing?
Yeah, because you know, when I’m going to get into a fight, I’m really into wearing my panties and thigh-boots. That’s a good idea. So [in Bitch Planet], there’s a sport component that you’ll learn about as the series progresses. I figured out a way to work “stupid female armor” in in a way that actually makes sense. There’s a reason why it would that way, that wouldn’t be for titillation. I was inordinately proud of myself for that.
Can you explain what the armor is?
If I tell you the whole reason, it’s a huge spoiler. But there’s a suit of armor that through the progression of this game, if you are scored against, the suit is diminished. You have less and less protection as the game proceeds. There’s a reason behind that which isn’t sexual that has to do with the larger plot of the book.
So the inspiration for this book came from watching old prison and sexploitation films. Were you thinking about current prison politics at all while writing the story?
It is not a documentary. It’s peculiar, but I am deliberately not watching Orange is the New Black. I’m afraid of being paralyzed by it. If I have the same idea or something that’s similar, I won’t do it. I know that my take will be different, because I’m writing an entirely different book and I’m not writing from my personal experience of jail or anything, I’m writing science-fiction, but I’m scared of being paralyzed by that. I want to write the story I want to write.
Well, one big conversation about Orange is the New Black is about how the cast is pretty diverse racially, but the main character is a pretty, white woman. That’s kind of the same thing in the first issue of Bitch Planet: There’s a super diverse cast, but the story centers on a middle-class white woman who maintains her innocence. I think my favorite moment from the first issue is there’s a scene where there’s lots of violence happening and this guard who thinks she’s innocent says, “She doesn’t deserve this.” And then another guard says, “No one deserves this.” So I wanted to ask about the decision to frame the story around a middle-class white lady versus the rest of the cast, which includes lots of people of color.
Right. In our real prison system, there are huge inequities. Women of color are three times more likely to be incarcerated. That is culturally ingrained in our prisons. We have a sickness around race in this country. That kind of marginalization and disproportionate incarceration isn’t symptomatic of a healthy society. With all the news about the tragedy in Ferguson right now, the country is being forced to have a conversation that a lot of people don’t want to have. And probably the thing I’m most afraid of with the book coming out is that I don’t want to present myself as speaking for women of color. With that said, we have a very diverse cast and it is not immediately apparent in the first issue—until the end—who our lead will be. Our main cast will be entirely women of color. That was nerve-racking to me because I don’t want to present myself as speaking for someone who is not my experience. At the same time, I get asked a lot by young male writers about writing female characters. I have a snarky reply, “Pretend they’re people.” It’s rude and it’s jarring, but I think it shocks people into realizing we are not so different. If you can use your imagination to write an alien, you can certainly use your imagination to think about what it’s like to experience the world as a woman. I don’t think anyone has ever asked me how to write realistic men. We’re not a monolith. You’re not writing a type, you’re writing an individual. Get to know that individual. If you’re afraid that that has not been your experience of the world, do your fucking research. I think it’s very dangerous to get into this aphorism, “Write what you know.” That’s a fine place to start, but if you spend your life writing what you know, we’re going to end up with a library of narcissists. Get out of your house! Experience human beings! Employ empathy! You don’t have to have lived an experience to create a person who’s convincing and real. The point of fiction is to connect us to our humanity, right? So do that.
What kind of work and research did you do to build these characters realistically?
It’s an absurd story, but I tried to find the truth in each one of these characters. You haven’t seen much of Penny yet, she’s the really big woman. There’s a lot of her defiance that feels very real to me. I went to a panel at Geek Girl Con called something like “Fatness and Fandom” and it was a really glorious group of pissed-off women who were annoyed at what little representation they saw and how people with their body types tend to be used as punch lines. I really responded to the kind of defiant energy that was there. That seemed to me to have a place in this book. I don’t think there’s a woman alive who hasn’t had some issue with body-policing. The cultural tendency to police women’s bodies annoys the shit out of me. So, yeah, Penny comes out of that.
Penny, known in the prison system as Number 48-1230.
Bitch Planet is in line with a lot of the work you’ve done, but it does feel like we don’t see comics like this very often. How do you feel like the work you do is different or unique in the world of comics?
I don’t tend to structure my books in the way that is classic comic book structure. I know that can be jarring for readers. It’s funny, but new comic book readers have less of a problem with it than experienced readers. Pretty Deadly has a very challenging structure—it’s a disorienting story to read, we don’t tip our cards at all until the third issue of the five-issue arc. People who really enjoy puzzling things out really enjoy it, but if you just want a chill comic to relax with—probably not your jam. Also, are certainly feminist themes that I return to over and over. Female friendships are really important to me. That’s something that pisses me off—we are so limited in the ways [female friendships] are portrayed in popular media. Men are able to compete and make each other better and stay friends. When women are portrayed as competing, it’s super nasty and it’s usually over a man and it’s like this ugly, petty, eye-scratching thing. That’s just not my experience with female friendships. I have friends who I compete with and we make each other better. I have important men in my life, too, but I do not spend the entirety of my being thinking about them. You know? That lack of any semblance of reality annoys the shit out of me, it diminishes us.
So all these unrealistic portrayals and general lack of portrayals that piss you off—how do you try to counter that with your work?
I try to write what feels true to me, I can write the experiences I have with women and female friendships. I write things that just feel real to me. Which sounds absurd—I write a character who shoots beams out of her hands. But we’re talking about capital “T” Truth here. Whether or not she shoots beams out of her hands, the friendships that she has are very real.
Do you feel like there have been good conversations in comics recently about the lack of women in comics? Or do you feel like the conversation is going nowhere?
There are definitely some huge changes happening. Progress is being made. But I don’t think anyone is going to stop referring to me as a “female writer” anytime soon. Which is sad—I look forward to that day. You know, I write a lot of female leads and I got asked in an interview once if I was ever afraid that I would get pigeonholed. At the time, I was writing a supernatural western, a superhero team book, a superhero solo book, and a ghost story about a woman journalist—all wildly different books that happened to feature female leads. No one writing male leads would ask if they’ll be pigeonholed for writing too many men. It’s evidence that we think of a woman and a person of color as a variation from the norm which much be justified. Which is bullshit, there’s no default human. [When starting Bitch Planet], I wrote a note to my artist—my co-creator and artist on the book is named Valentine De Landro, he’s been tremendous—I wrote to him and I said, “I want to make a deal with you. I want to flip the assumption of the white default. So unless I specify that a character is white, they are not.” We talked about the fact that we’re choosing to do this in a book that’s about prison, so what’s the message here? Are we working against what we’re trying to do? [My editor] Danielle was particularly adamant that people of color are marginalized and criminalized more often than white people. Her point was that rather than trying to pretend this isn’t the case, let’s look at it. Let’s stare it down and look at some of the social and economic reasons behind that. I think that there’s a wisdom to that: you’re going to be worried about what people will say, but you ultimately can’t let that stop you.
Related Reading: A Brief History of Batgirl.
Sarah Mirk is Bitch Media’s online editor and a lifelong comics fan.