Two years ago, comic book creator Kelly Sue DeConnick said something that burned itself into my brain.
"I am willing to make other people uncomfortable, so my daughter won't have to," she said.
The people she was referring to belong to the storied old boys' club of comic books. And since DeConnick unleashed those searing words, I've been tracing her work — the words she uses in Captain Marvel, the stories she pursued in Avengers Assemble, and her steering of the stylish brutality in Pretty Deadly — for those moments of empowerment, and glimmers of the sorts of "difficult" women who make people uncomfortable.
DeConnick's latest comic, Bitch Planet, is her most exciting and most "uncomfortable" yet. Like Captain Marvel, she once again plays with the cosmos and space, but instead of space representing a thrilling dream, as it does in Captain Marvel, it now represents a prison for women who don't fit the mold set by society. Those women are deemed "non-compliant" and are sent to a penitentiary made specifically for them.
It's one hell of an opening issue. Here are a few reasons I'm hooked:
What a dreaded world we've created
The beauty of comic books is that their creators don't have to abide by the rules of reality. Men can fly, women can control the weather, and aliens can become American heroes. You can literally do anything you want in a comic book.
But there's a wicked beauty when someone takes those limits and turns them inside out. When someone takes all that possibility and shows you the depths that humans can reach in how they treat one another.
DeConnick does that in Bitch Planet, where the patriarchy has been given a dose of steroids and treats "non-compliant" women like garbage. Further, this definition of "non-compliance" is ultimately amorphous, undefined, loose, and dangerous. Being seen as "non-compliant" is something that women aren't in control of — men scheme and game the system to get rid of troublesome women.
DeConnick's comic leaks anger from its gutters, and it's brilliantly effective at showing a heightened, yet believable, version of our own reality.
It's brutally violent
In comic books, you can tell a lot about a person by where they draw the line at violence. Batman doesn't use guns, Storm doesn't kill, the X-Force members kill but do it in secret, and so on and so forth.
The violence in Bitch Planet is brutal, visceral, and consequential. It's a way for women — many of whom aren't white — to assert their power, to find agency in the non-compliance that has been forced upon them. But it's also a way to show the cowardice of men, who let the system inflict violence on their behalf.
The art is stunning, beautiful, and scary
Bitch Planet, as DeConnick has stated, is a subversive twist on exploitation films. It makes sense, then, that the insidiously talented and pop art-influenced Valentine de Landro is providing the art for the book.
de Landro's art evokes the era of grindhouse films— loud, brash, cheesy— with a patina spirited away from the world of Lichtenstein and Warhol. But don't let the slapdash influence fool you— de Landro is in on the joke.
There's plenty of thoughtfulness that surfaces through de Landro's framing, the way he mixes in negative space, and the way he cleaves his panels. You don't need DeConnick's sharp words to convey the emotions going on in each scene.
And Cris Peter's colors — pops of neon pinks and greens — sync beautifully with de Landro and DeConnick's storytelling.
DeConnick is hilarious
Make no mistake, DeConnick is smuggling in giant themes and massive ideas about women, gender, and race in the pages of this comic. It's great stuff. But what makes Bitch Planet come to life is that DeConnick knows how to be funny and how to elegantly slide humor into the darkest of moments.
It's sharp without being mean (unless she wants to be). And the humor doesn't come at the expense of her protagonists. The panel above, with Penelope (Penny), could have easily devolved into a crass joke about fatness. But DeConnick has a way of turning that on its head, giving her characters agency, and letting them have the last laugh.
DeConnick has always been funny, but she gets to tap into something different at Image, the company that publishes Bitch Planet, compared to how she writes in her Marvel books. Certainly there's more freedom in a prison exploitation comic than a superhero book, and you can definitely tell that DeConnick is having fun with it.
There's plenty of mystery on Bitch Planet
Not unlike the first few episodes of Orange Is the New Black, we don't exactly know who's who in this interplanetary rogues gallery. We know that there are a lot of women in this facility unfairly, and seeing backstories — possibly of women who are here fair and square — could really create more fun in the issues to come.
Bitch Planet will be released on December 10th.
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