So begins every issue of Bitch Planet, a comic series that takes place in a dystopic future where Earth is run by “The Fathers,” and women who don’t fit the patriarchal vision of a “woman” (read: white, cis, thin, subservient, sexual playthings) are deemed Non-Compliant and shipped off to a prison planet called “Bitch Planet.” There, they are policed by violent, abusive guards and indoctrinated with societal expectations from giant hyper-sexualized nun holograms. But these NCs (non-compliant women) aren’t going down without a fight.
The cast of confident, ass-kicking women includes lead characters who are women of color, each with her own unique back story, and showcases a range of body types. Basically, Bitch Planet is a feminist sci-fi nerd’s Holy Grail. Adding to what is already a stacked lineup of feminist fist-pump-worthy moments, the end of each issue includes a feminist guest essay and the back page is filled with retro-style ads for humorous and ironic mail-order merchandise (that you can actually order!) My favorites include NC temporary tattoos for girls who want “that sexy, his-blood-in-a-bottle-around-your-neck CRAZY CHICK mystique…PUT IT ON YOUR FACE” and X-Ray Specs to see through a man’s intentions.
Only four issues in, it’s no surprise that Bitch Planet has received rave reviews and is backed by a vocal and dedicated fandom. The series is skillfully written, fluidly combining a complex narrative that deals with intersectional identity politics with a striking graphic style (by artist Valentine De Landro) that is dynamic and thrilling to read. It does all this while attempting to deconstruct the “women in prison” sub-genre with a feminist perspective.
The Ms. Blog recently spoke with writer/co-creator of Bitch Planet and 2014 Eisner Award nominee for Best Writer Kelly Sue Deconnick about writing, the inspiration behind Bitch Planet, and what it’s like to be a woman in the comic book world. The Portland, Oregon-based writer has worked on a number of well-known series and books prior to Bitch Planet, including the new Captain Marvel in 2012 as well as her ongoing series for Image Comics with artist Emma Rios, Pretty Deadly, nominated for an Eisner Award in 2014. She also runs the company Milkfed Criminal Masterminds, Inc. with her husband, Matt Fraction.
I’ve read that part of your inspiration for Bitch Planet came from an interest in the exploitation genre. What was your process of deconstructing and reinterpreting a genre that is traditionally extremely sexist?
I think gray spaces or mixed emotions are really fertile soil for fiction. So, in this case it was the mixed feelings I have about [the exploitation genre]. I live for that moment when the tables get turned and she picks herself up off the ground with her bloody lip and you [think], “Ooohh, she’s gonna get ugly now!” I love that. But at the same time those films [often] include a lot of sexualized violence. The worst possible thing that can be imagined as happening to a women is rape, because her sexuality defines her. So if someone attacks her in that way then she’s sullied, and how do you come back from that? Rape is a horrible thing that can happen to a human being anywhere on the gender spectrum, but it doesn’t define anybody, it isn’t their identity. It is reductive and comes from such a marginalizing perspective. And it’s so deeply ingrained in [the exploitation genre] that they make sexual violence salacious.
I’ve been rewatching a bunch of stuff to try to do research for [Bitch Planet] and there’s one [film] called The Arena that I actually had to turn off because the ’70s romantic get-down music that was playing under the rape scene was like, yeah, no, I can not do this. So Bitch Planet was my [way of] trying to figure out if I can write in this genre that I so love. Can I have my cake and eat it too? Can you do exploitation that isn’t exploitative? And I don’t know! And it’s really not even for me to decide, it’s for someone else to decide. But my solution was to try to deconstruct a little bit and kind of use the story to look at the tropes.
It seems like one of the tropes that you play on in Bitch Planet is voyeurism, especially with regards to the violent sport played by prisoners of color for the amusement of white correctional officers. What inspired that sport?
Steve Almond’s book [Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto] hit me really hard. It’s tough because I enjoy football, but his point about the price being too high—he’s not wrong, you know? He points out [that] it is impossible not to see these young black bodies in the draft being essentially bid on by wealthy white men and not have that make you think of a slave auction. I don’t want to diminish the players or dismiss their agency or suggest that they are slaves or without choice, but boy, the price that they pay in their health… Again it’s not simple, it’s not easy, it’s not black and white. And for that reason it’s an interesting thing to explore in fiction.
You’ve gotten incredible praise for writing strong women leads in the past and are certainly continuing to do so in Bitch Planet. What do you feel is the role of the writer in creating honest characters?
Empathy and imagination are probably the most important. Certainly research. But it’s an interesting cultural phenomenon that I am frequently asked for advice for how to write strong female characters but no one has ever asked me how to write men. I think it’s a thing that culturally, even you and I, even women, we are so ingrained with this idea that the default human being is male. Even in English its encoded into our language, “he” is what we use as the default. It makes women “other,” it makes women something mysterious that needs to be understood. I mean, my snarky answer when I’m asked is “pretend they’re people.” It’s rude and it tends to shock the (usually young gentlemen) who will ask me. I’ve been chided for that, like they’re trying to do better and I’m embarrassing them or something. But I think the shock factor in that answer is helpful because it is important to understand that there’s no code to writing women. Women are as different as the number of women there are—just as there’s no code to writing a man. We are so much more than our gender identity…I don’t think with my womb you know? My husband and I are in the same industry but my husband has never been asked how to write men, nor has he ever been asked how he balances work and being a father.
The trick as a writer, for whomever you’re writing—male, female, anywhere along the gender identity spectrum, alien, whatever the hell human being or articulate entity you wanna write—is to know them. Let them bounce around in your head until you have a sense of what they want and what they like and what their passions are and what they don’t like and what their fears are and what their aversions are. Write that person.
I always have that [idea] that, well maybe I’m not a real writer, I’m a fraud because I don’t wake up with this burning desire to sit down and work. I will clean every inch of my house, file every email, anything I can do to avoid the hard work of writing. I think it’s important to know that that’s pretty normal. Because writing is hard work. It requires a kind of honesty and a kind of courage that is uncomfortable and you have to get OK with being uncomfortable. That’s hard!
Which comics would you recommend for new readers who are turned off by the comic industry’s sexist reputation?
Online there are so many really fantastic, very supportive people in fandom tags on tumblr. If you say, “I’m interested in starting to read Marvel comics or Image Comics,” they will fall all over themselves to help you, give you reading lists and links to find particular things. Imagecomics.com is our publisher for Pretty Deadly, Bitch Planet, Sex Criminals, Satellite Sound and ODY-C. You can also go to comicshoplocator.com and find your nearest local comic shop. There should be someone there who will help you enter the hobby if this is new to you.
There’s also this group called The Valkyries. They’re are an organization of women who own or work in comic book stores all over the world and their purpose is to support one another and to help women and girls get into comics. If you go to bewarethevalkyries.com I believe you can find a Valkyrie store and I guarantee you that those women will hold your hand and find out what you’re interested in and help you get started. They are really, really special. On Twitter they are @LCSValkyries. So if you tell them, “I’m interested in Black Widow” or “I’m interested in action-adventure” or “I’m interested in finding something that my 10-year old would like,” whatever it is that you’re interested in, tweet to the Valkyries and I guarantee you that they will help you find a shop and they will help you build a reading list.
Find Bitch Planet comics here.
Find Deconnick’s catalog for Image Comics here.