40 to Life on Bitch Planet

Bitch Planet Book One: Extraordinary Machine
Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick
Drawn by Valentine De Landro and Robert WIlson IV
Colored by Cris Peter
Lettered by Clayton Clowes
Published by Image Comics

The strong characters in Bitch Planet Book One: Extraordinary Machine are imprisoned because they are strong characters and because they are female characters. In Kate Beaton’s new book Step Aside Pops, there’s a fun sequence that basically shows everything that’s wrong with the idea of “strong female characters.” As Beaton shows off, they’re never really that strong and they’re barely ever characters. The idea of “strong female characters” exists usually in service of trying to create characters that are strong and female without the creator really understanding that if they create characters first, that will lead to things like women characters who are strong. Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro's Bitch Planet Book One is a romp of an exploitation comic that is character driven and turns the idea of an exploitation comic starring "strong female characters" on its head.

The crimes that the inmates of Bitch Planet are guilty of seem ridiculous. They all basically boil down to the idea that these women are not in line with the desires of the patriarchy that rules the world. Like the best science fiction, DeConnick and De Landro's concept sounds absurd on the surface but once you dig beneath that surface, it doesn't seem all that silly in light of the ways our society oppresses almost everyone it doesn't identify as "normal." That's where the idea of noncompliance comes in: these women aren't guilty of a crime like murder or theivery. They’re not what men want them to be and that’s the punishable crime in Bitch Planet.

DeConnick and De Landro’s work in Bitch Planet is inciting in a way that most comics try to avoid being. The creators' attitude pervades the book, infesting the characters with the same fiery spirit that the creators have. DeConnick and De Landro’s characters are unapologetic about who they are. The beautifully large Penny Rolle’s act of non-compliance is not allowing herself to be body shamed into thinking that she should have a petite figure. Penny is the one inmate who we see her act of rebellion and “criminality.” With half her head shaved, she starts out as the comedic relief of this exploitation comic but she becomes the emblem of it, more than any other character. Other characters embody the strength of this comic or the injustice but Penny becomes the rallying spirit because DeConnick, De Landro and Robert Wilson IV (guest artist for a chapter focused on Penny's story) make her the most beautiful soul in it.

De Landro storytelling echoes a lot of David Aja’s work in Hawkeye, only without the narrative acrobats that Aja employed. De Landro’s construction of the page, built around these inmates being used to further a male-dominated agenda, focuses on the gender of these characters with only suggesting the sexuality of them. Within the first few pages, the nudity of these women is apparent but it’s never leering. It’s never about making these characters into sexual objects. De Landro’s drawing makes it about the state of these characters, their flesh and their spirits being laid bare for their wardens and for the audience. Whether it’s Penny or Kam, the rebellious strength of the series, their bodies remain their own through this comic. Even when Kam begins putting on a show for a peeping tom, it momentarily borders on being truly exploitative but DeConnick and De Landro never let this moment get out of the characters control or their own agency.

Even a funeral becomes a statement about gender

The narrative hook of Bitch Planet, female prisoners offered the chance of freedom is they participate in a brutal sport, isn’t anything all that special. It's a staple of the prison story. DeConnick never loses sight of that so her character work becomes the focus of the comic. A much more linear story that her equally intriguing Pretty Deadly (a comic that's much more poetic in form and function,) Bitch Planet plays with expectations and perceptions, but it also carries the writer's temper through her characters. Find a podcast with DeConnick and you hear the passion in her and that carries into Bitch Planet more than almost anything else that she's written. The railing against the powers that be in the comic are an exaggeration but a reflection of the cries for equality and justice that need to be shouted in real life.