Bitch Planet is a comic that uses the language of exploitation, visual and verbal, to discuss the topic of exploitation. And it’s definitely well-informed on that subject. Kelly Sue DeConnick’s script is full of metaphors about patriarchy, organized religion, the use of mass media and sports to manufacture consent, and the concept of exploitation in all senses of the word. After four issues, the book has only begun to gather some narrative forward momentum, allowing itself space to tell side-stories and engage in colourful and dynamic world building.
The first thing to understand about this comic is that it’s a deep homage to 1970s science fiction, sports movies and exploitation pornography. Artist Valentine De Landro uses the visual language of films like 1974’s Caged Heat, but also evokes that pink-shifted printed look of 1970s exploitation comics, often deliberately fading portions of the image to suggest a well-worn book. But the main tool is in the backgrounds of the panels, which simulate an old-fashioned comics’ dappled colour printing, often slightly and charmingly incorrectly pin-registered. But De Landro’s style is quite diverse, pulling in extreme contrasts in style between pages and panels. Colourist Cris Peter and letterer Clayton Cowles also shine in their contributions to the overall feeling of a hard-edged exploitation comic.
But Bitch Planet isn’t simply a “women’s prison” book: it’s fairly rigorous “hard” science fiction, with a cogent and well-thought-out vision of a future society, tweaking aspects of our present-day culture to make sociological points. This is obviously a very well-established way to use the genre, but it adds a great deal to the already impressive richness of the book.
In this future society, the ruling class is almost exclusively male, and uses the media to keep themselves in power (a thought that’s not particularly science fiction, or even fiction for that matter). Women who step out of line for one reason or another, committing crimes that run the gamut from minor offenses to murder, are placed in a penal colony known informally as “Bitch Planet”. Meanwhile, back on earth, the political status quo is maintained not by the constant give-and-take of international politics, but by a brutal sport known as “Megaton”. The President even says the words, “Let the games begin,” in issue #2, which is as on-the-nose as it needs to be: this is the decadent, corrupt late Roman Empire.
On Bitch Planet itself, we are introduced to a colourful variety of inmates, including the large black woman, the tough black woman (Kamau Kogo, a central character) and other well-worn women’s prison tropes. The first issue, in fact, plays a great deal like Orange is the New Black in space, giving us a middle-class white woman’s perspective on this den on inequity. Issue #3, focusing almost entirely on the back story of the gigantic Penny Rolle, also brings up thoughts of Jenji Kohan’s series in its structure and thematic content.
But this is a very self-aware book: everyone involved seems to embrace the tropes rather than run from them. In issue #4, for example, the creators actually literally title a sequence, “The Obligatory Shower Scene”, involving sexual activity, lots of nudity and a peep hole, which doesn’t exactly work out the same way as in Porky’s. But that shower scene, like the other exploitation conventions, is used to advance the developing plot through-line, featuring Kamau’s attempt to recruit from within the women’s prison to form a Megaton team (the first such team to feature female players) in order to save her family. Kamau herself is being exploited, and this exploitation is presented via another form of exploitation, involving voyeurism and literally a male gaze, but the added layer is that these women are actually consciously putting on a show for the peeping Tom, and using that power to conceal their true agenda. Kamau becomes the character who breaks the pattern, however, refusing to submit to some forms of exploitation and determined to assert her power and her individuality in an environment that specializes in removing them both.
In four issues, Bitch Planet has established a compelling setting and style, but it seems to lack a strong, sympathetic central character. Kamau is growing into that role, and her motivations are being uncovered, but a “revenge” plot is always going to be problematic, even if it is revenge in the interests of saving a family member. That sort of story has been told many times before, and it tends to end on notes that are either saccharine (hugs and kisses, we saved the day, etc) or extremely nihilistic, neither of which makes for the most compelling drama. As the series goes on, because we must note again that it feels as if the plot is only truly snapping into motion in issue #4, it will be interesting to see if the creators can negotiate an original path through this dense, self-referential and genre-blending setting and style.
There’s undoubtedly a great deal of talent and creativity in Bitch Planet, and a compelling feminist awareness of exploitation. Let’s hope, as we head into the pivotal Megaton competition set up for issues 5 and beyond, that it can also find a strong emotional core to ground all of the satire and commentary.