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Bitch Planet is Kelly Sue DeConnick’s comic book love letter to non-compliant women

Kelly Sue DeConnick
Kelly Sue DeConnick
Ed Peterson
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Kelly Sue DeConnick is a non-compliant woman.

She's confident. She fights for the underdog. She's not afraid to make people uncomfortable. She's one of the brightest talents in the comic book industry.

And according to the rules in her comic book Bitch Planet, she'd be sent to interplanetary jail, with all the other non-compliant women of the world.

DeConnick says Bitch Planet, which debuted late last year, is her take on the exploitation films she loved as a kid. The sci-fi prison saga is confident, slick, and hilarious on multiple levels. But it also vibrates with frustration over the sexism still alive today and the impatience in wanting to eliminate it.

I caught up with DeConnick to ask her what we can expect from Bitch Planet's second issue, what she wants to do with the series as whole, and what battles she has left.

Alex Abad-Santos: A couple years ago, I heard you speak at the Women of Marvel panel at New York Comic Con. You said something along the lines of, "I will make people uncomfortable, so my daughter won't have to." Has anything changed since then?

Kelly Sue DeConnick: There is undeniably a conversation happening. In past years, that panel would have one or two people from what are called the "creative positions" — artists, writers, colorists, letterers. The distinction is silly. They're all creative positions from editorial to the bullpen. But it's those four positions that tend to get the most press, so watching the evolution of representation there is an important bellwether.

And the fact is, we're much better represented now. Where in the past, there were one or two of us [at the Women of Marvel panel], this year, there were so many I had to sit on the floor! And next year, I might not even be there. And that's a good thing — it's time for new voices.

I think something is afoot, yes. There is change a-coming. Whether it sticks — that'll depend on how financially successful we [women in these positions] are.

AAS: What can you tell me about the second issue of Bitch Planet?

Bitch Planet #2 (Valentine de Landro/Image)

KSD: In the series solicitation we said "think Margaret Atwood meets Inglourious Basterds" right? Well, the first issue set up the Margaret Atwood part. The second issue sets up the Inglorious Basterds of it all. In number two, it's more like "Oh this is where they're going." And in issue three, and every third issue, we'll have a guest artist. We'll focus on the backstory of one of the inmates, and we'll reveal bits and pieces of what has happened in the world to get us where we're at now, and that information dovetails into the larger narrative.

AAS: So it'll work with flashbacks primarily.

KSD: Yes. The first one is Penny Rolle. It starts with the judgment session where they make the decision to sentence her to the outpost. And then you see Penny as a kid.

AAS: What are you getting to tap into with Bitch Planet that you don't get to in Captain Marvel?

KSD: I mean, there are certainly themes that run across my books. And believe it or not, that's not a conscious decision. [Brian Michael] Bendis says we all have things that we're working on, and we work them out in our books. I don't want to think it's that simple, for some reason.

I want to think I'm above all that, more disciplined than to put my baggage on the page, but nonetheless, if you point it out to me, I can see it. So in this book — and in Captain Marvel and in Pretty Deadly, for that matter— I can see threads of common themes. Identity issues, largely. I also seem to be obsessed with that moment when our hero picks herself off the ground. She's bloodied and battered, but she's not done yet. It's like I'm always writing to get to that moment.

But at the same time, Bitch Planet isn't just me. I make comics in a collaborative process. Captain Marvel right now is me and David Lopez. It's a different book than it was when it was me and Filipe Andrade, follow? And Bitch Planet began because I wanted to work with Valentine De Landro. Valentine and I wanted to see if we could play with some of the tropes in exploitation films that I had enjoyed when I was younger, but that I now find to be … well, let's say "problematic."

Could we make exploitation without being exploitative? A lot of those films are transgressive, not so much progressive. And I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. I'd rather blow it than not try.

AAS: Well, It seems like you're having a ton of fun.

KSD: In the actual making of the book, it's a lot of fun. When it goes out into the world, it's really stressful. Bitch Planet #1, it's pretty universally well-reviewed. So of course my reaction was, "Oh good, I can't wait to disappoint people with issue two."

AAS: Can we talk about the Valentine de Landro's art? What is the collaboration process like?

KSD: Bitch Planet is as much Val's baby as it is mine.

AAS: There seems to be a lot of trust between the two of you.

Bitch Planet #2 (Valentine de Landro/Image)

KSD: There's a double-page spread in issue two that's got this one character in it I couldn't stop looking at. I kept staring at her body type — she's pear-shaped in a way that struck me as incredibly real. And it's a body type you just don't see in comics, and I never really noticed that until he drew her.

You know what it reminded me of? When I first read Mary McCarthy's The Company She Keeps, I was struck that I'd never read a character like Margaret Sargent before. I think that's her name — it's been years since I read it.

She seemed so real to me. And it struck me that I had a thirst for that kind of complex female character that I hadn't even noticed I was missing until she was there. Val makes all these women individuals. Every background character — there's so much care that goes into them. When we have a scene of them, and they're all nude, there's nothing salacious or provocative about it. They're just so human. He just gets across the vulnerability.

When I met Val, it was a gut decision that I liked him and I wanted to work with him. Then I opened his portfolio, and I was so enamored of his work — in particular of the acting and how he used the negative spaces.

AAS: What do you think he does really well?

KSD: I love his sense of humor. There is a scene in issue two — there's something that's happening in the foreground. And there's something going on in the background. Then there's another layer in far background that he added. A third narrative layer that is hilarious and not in the script. I love that.

Plus, he always pushes me to take things further. Emma [Rios]'s the same way on Pretty Deadly. The artists I work with are all braver than I am.

AAS: I think we're just getting to know some of the characters of Bitch Planet. I was wondering if you were going to explore the lives of LGBT women.

Bitch Planet #2 (Valentine de Landro/Image)

KSD: It's a little bit of a spoiler, but yes. I also knew I wanted to include transgender women. But I was stumped as to how the hell I was going to do it. Within the logic of that world, trans women wouldn't be given respect enough to be identified as women. So they wouldn't be imprisoned in a women's prison.

This was a puzzle I was trying to work out when I was asked the same question at DragonCon, and we talked about it a little bit at one of the academic panels I was on. After the panel, I met a gentleman whose husband is transgender, and he gave me something that eventually led to my figuring it out. He suggested that if the high status position is cisgender male, then everyone is who is not high status — transgender women, for instance — would be defined by their NOT-cisgender male status.

I don't want to get into it too much because spoilers — but yes... yes, we will meet some LGBT characters. There is one trans woman in particular who is a very important character. But [her being a transgender women] that's not what is important about her. What's important about her is about who she is.

You'll meet her, but not for a few issues yet.

AAS: You've also mentioned that quote, "my feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit." How important is representation to you?

KSD: I have a tendency to just not be so interested in who my characters are dating, and so I don't often ask myself what their sexual orientation is. During the first run of Captain Marvel, a fan approached me about this. It was an eye-opening moment for me.

"You don't have to get into who they're dating," she said "just to let us knowthat a character identifies as not straight. A remark about her girlfriend, maybe? It could be done without making it front and center."

She was right. And representation matters. The trick is making the remark part of natural exposition from an authentic character and not an awkward box-checking exercise.

AAS: In Bitch Planet, "non-compliant" women are sent to a space prison. Who are some of the most important non-compliant women in history?

KSD: Now I sound like that bumper sticker: "Well-behaved women seldom make history." But that's not entirely, true is it? Sally Ride for instance, is a hero of mine. She was an amazing woman, an overachiever, and she did it in the system. Who else? Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor Roosevelt. Gloria Steinem. God, my list is so obvious! I need to work on this.

I actually got a note from Gloria Steinem.

AAS: What was that like?

KSD: We have a friend that knows her. Matt had gotten me, for our anniversary, the original Wonder Woman art from the most recent anniversary of Ms. magazine, and a copy of the first issue, also featuring Wonder Woman. He was going to arrange [through a friend named Alyson] to have Ms. Steinem sign them for me. It didn't end up being able to happen. Alyson had Ms. Steinem write a note to me and my daughter.

Tallulah's [DeConnick's daughter] was sealed.

AAS: What did yours say?

KSD: She thanked me for fighting the good fight.

AAS: That has got to be terrifying. She's a rock star. It's like getting a note from Hendrix saying you play great guitar.

KSD: I was like; "Shit. Shit. Shit." Because I'm all class. [laughs] She's amazing.

Greg Rucka got to meet her once. He said that she was most astounding intellect he's ever been around. I kinda don't want to meet her because I'd be terrified.

AAS: The Eleanors Aquitaine and Roosevelt, Gloria Steinem, and Sally Ride. Who else is on that list?

KSD: My daughter before any of those people. You know, she still has that glorious quality of not giving a fuck if you like her. And sometimes it's a nightmare. We're trying very hard to walk a balance with her and with our son.

But I don't worry with my son the way I worry about her, because the world is not going to beat that out of him the way they will with her. We try to protect that. I tell her, "You don't have to be nice, but you must be kind. In fact, sometimes in order to be kind, you have to not be nice."

Bitch Planet #2 (Valentine de Landro/Image)

AAS: "Women and girls are still raised to prioritize the well-being and comfort of everyone else over themselves" — you said in a recent interview. How did you buck that conditioning?

KSD: It's hard. I was sitting on a plane to Dragon Con. And this man leaning over and looking at stuff on my computer. There was a picture — the picture of Beyoncé in front of the word "feminist"— and it spurned a conversation. And he started to explain not only feminism, but also Ferguson … in small words so that I could understand. And at one point, I wondered "How uncomfortable am I willing to make us both?"

It's four hours in a metal tube next to this guy. How bad am I willing to make this? And, like, am I safe? Am I safe vociferously disagreeing with this man?

And men don't realize that. There's that quote: "Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them." That's a real thing.

I don't think a lot of people know this. Like, no one has ever been complimented by a catcall. She didn't smile because you made her feel good. She smiled because if she's compliant, then she's safe.

AAS: What should we teach young girls then?

KSD: That it's okay to be themselves. That they don't need to see themselves through men's eyes. They don't need to be constantly monitoring how they're affecting the men in their presence. Being authentic with themselves is huge. And that there are more important things in the world than being liked.

If you can get away with both, if you can diplomat your way through it, great. But you can also speak your mind, say what you know to be true, and some people will find that off-putting and their discomfort will make them not like you, and that is not the end of the world.

Historically, women were expected to use manipulation and subterfuge to express themselves and get their needs met. And then, because history is hilarious, they were punished for it.

The message is: "You can't win. So don't play."

AAS: That's, well, depressing.

KSD: I know! I'm sorry. Here — have this: I knew my great grandmother quite well. I knew her when I was an adult. When she was a young woman, we did not have the vote. When Mommy Karr was a teenager, women were chattel. If a woman chose to leave her marriage, she left with nothing but the clothes on her back.

This is to say, there's been a tremendous amount of progress in a short amount of time. But we are impatient. It's fucked up and should be fixed right now. And I am pleased to see a conversation.

Despite many tremendous women and men who fought the good fight, the '70s feminist movement could be seen as a failure. Something happened in the '80s, and this whole idea of a man-hating "feminazi" emerged, and some idiot decided "feminist" was an ugly word.

That's absurd! Feminism is about fairness and giving people — all people — the freedom to be who they are. I have a husband and son who I love more than anything in the world. I'm not a man hater.

There should be nothing particularly controversial about thinking that women should get the same pay for the same work, or that my daughter should be no less safe in the world than my son.

AAS: I'm sure you can't answer this, but your fans will want to know. Is there any interest in working on the Captain Marvel movie?

KSD:That is so sweet, but as it happens, I've never written a major motion picture. I don't think a billion-dollar franchise is where you want to cut your teeth, you know? But I think Marvel has done an outstanding job with their films, and I look forward to seeing what they do with Captain Marvel. I promise you, I'll be the first one in line.

Bitch Planet #2 is available today.