A Seething Hell Of Steel And Stone And Women Behind Bars: ‘Bitch Planet’ #1 [Review]
Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro's Bitch Planet has the single best comic book title of the year. It's the kind of title where I stopped in my tracks when the book was announced months ago, and just from hearing those two words, thought "that's perfect" -- and that's before I heard that the premise backing it up was a modern feminist sci-fi take on women-in-prison flicks. From the moment I heard about it, I knew this comic was going to be amazing. Until I actually sat down and read it, though, I had no idea just how amazing it was going to be.
That's the thing about the first issue of Bitch Planet. It doesn't hit the ground running; it kicks off by blasting you into space and setting up a story of a world where the penalty for not knowing your place is a life sentence in a violent, neon-pink hell, juggling multiple points of view for a story of just how cruel that world can be. On sale now, it's thrilling, it's violent, and it's one of the best first issues of the year.
I was already hooked from the title, but to be honest, what made me even more interested was finding out that DeConnick was working in what has traditionally been one of the most exploitative genres of exploitation cinema.
I grew up fascinated by VHS box art and the chopped up TV edits of USA Up All Night, and I have an affection for exploitation cinema that definitely extends to your Caged Heat and Lust For Freedom -- the latter of which gave us the single greatest movie theme song since Iron Eagle. I'm always interested in seeing how those themes are used in media that builds off and reacts to both what those movies meant to do and what they actually did.
At the same time, I'm aware that even if you're using the elements of exploitative media as a commentary, you're still using elements of exploitative media, and that can create a very difficult balance for a creator. It's almost always interesting to see, if only to try and figure out where intentions and reality come crashing into each other and whether it can all work.
With Bitch Planet, though, there was an indication right from the start in every interview and piece of news about the book that DeConnick and De Landro were going into it with their eyes open, fully aware of what they were working with. So for me at least, it was never a matter of wondering if they could pull it off. I just wanted to see how.
And it probably won't come as a surprise to anyone that they pull it off with a level of beauty and brutality that's made it one of my favorite comics of the year.
I think my favorite thing about the comic is that the title sums it up perfectly. It's set in a future where women -- and from what we can tell in the first issue, only women -- are subject to arrest for "non-compliance," a vague and nebulous term that has criminalized pretty much everything. In an incredibly economical sequence, we see that "non-compliance" refers to everything from actual crimes like murder to the dystopian standard of disobedience to authority figures, and all the way down to weight.
Anything that a woman can do that doesn't fit this society's definition of what a woman should do is classified as non-compliance and, as you might expect, is punishable by a one-way trip to a space prison, colloquially known as Bitch Planet.
And they're not just incarcerated there, either, although the standard women-in-prison tropes of nightstick-happy guards with varying degrees of corruption, voyeuristic wardens and large amounts of nudity are all thrown in for good measure. The real trick, and one that's pulled off with an elegance that makes it seem effortless, is that everything about Bitch Planet itself is meant to remind the inmates that it's their fault that they're here.
There's not even a veneer of sympathy, to the point where there's a recording played to the NCs on their journey that reminds them in no uncertain terms that they are not only sinners, but are a cancer on society, and that their removal from Earth isn't just a punishment, it's necessary for the survival of humanity. And once they get there, they're lorded over by their "warden," a towering hot pink hologram of Barbiesque proportions, complete with a cinched waist, massive breasts, and a suitably religious demeanor; the ideal of compliance that's everything they're not.
The whole thing's about as subtle as a brick to the eyeball, but in a book called Bitch Planet, subtlety was never really going to be the point. This is a book that rejects subtlety not just from page one, but from the cover; a book that grabs you by the shirt and yells in your face for 24 pages; and that's awesome. Everything in this first issue is built like that, and everything works exactly the way that it's supposed to.
In a single issue, you know everything you need to know about this messed-up society, who to hate, and why you're going to want to see this story play out to its traditional exploitation-movie conclusion, in which the women who have been locked up will break out and tear everything down in as violent a way as they possibly can.
Even if you know that that's exactly what you're getting -- and to be honest, given the twist that DeConnick and De Landro pull off with the structure of this first issue, even that's not quite the safe assumption that it might appear to be -- the book still has suspense and still manages to be effective, because you want to see it. You want to see how far things will get before it all comes crashing down.
That's the masterstroke of this issue, because that's exactly why you watch an exploitation flick to begin with. It's all about pushing things further, and Bitch Planet is already starting at ten.