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Friday, December 12, 2014

Comics Spotlight Review: Bitch Planet #1

Bitch Planet #1: An Exploitation Masterpiece

What is the purpose of the exploitation genre? We know what the genre is, the external trappings of the thing - naked women, macho men, abuse, and vengeance. Hell, the cover of Bitch Planet #1 sums up the genre in a single sentence: "Girl gangs... caged and enraged!" But why has the genre stuck around? I'd argue that the appeal of the exploitation story can be summed up in a single word: Transgression. From rape-revenge to giallo, from women-in-prison to blaxploitation, these were stories that traded explicitly on ideas of power and privilege, on the way those abuses manifested and the way people fought back against the system, often with a focus on trying to titillate and terrify their audience.

But the most sinister thing about exploitation cinema is the way it turns fighting against the system into part of the system, the way it turns empowerment into a side show in the quest to see some titties. How, then, do you reverse that? Bitch Planet is full to bursting with female nudity and quick, dirty violence - so how do DeConnick and de Landro avoid making this awful world and these terrible circumstances seductive?

It begins before you even open the book. Right from the cover, de Landro sells you on the genre. But not just the genre; the tone. What the book is about. We know the genre from the language, from the three vignettes we see playing out in the background of the cover: The vamp, protected by her masked goons, looking over proceedings; the fight, with two anonymous women on the verge of combat; the attitude, a group of prisoners lounging rebelliously in front of their cells. But DeConnick is interested in rebellion rather than mere transgression, and de Landro sells that idea with its central image, the silhouette of a woman, chained but defiant. There's nothing titillating there, no features to latch onto and turn it into an 'other', just a figure standing tall, middle fingers raised. 

"Are you woman enough to survive... Bitch Planet?"

You're goddamn right she is.

Eat Less Poop More

Kelly Sue DeConnick might just be a bit angry.

I don't think that's going to surprise anyone. You don't make a book as scathingly satirical as Bitch Planet without a little bit of righteous fury running through your veins. But, like an awful lot of great sci-fi, Bitch Planet is built on the bones of today's frustrations and fears, a world that's as recognizable as it is frightening. DeConnick has looked at the world we've built - the world of the Fappening, GamerGate, The Invisible War - and she's literalized all these toxic attitudes jostling for our attention in politics and culture.

The world isn't that different from the one we know today, after all. Technology is a bit more advanced, but billboards still plaster the streets of major cities, it's still a struggle to get to your job on time, and we still hold women to impossible beauty standards, as the backgrounds of the book's bleakly comical first page so amply illustrates. Billboards peppered with slogans like "Eat less poop more," "Less of you to love," and "Perfect is as perfect does," are all crowded on the page, flashing for attention. But while the messages are blunt, they aren't that much exaggerated from many of the images you'll already find in advertising. That's where the sci-fi element comes in. Bitch Planet, known as the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, is a planet where troublesome women are shipped to be imprisoned. When we first meet the book's cast, six new transfers to the prison, we learn that three of them are there for murder and two for 'radicalizing', but as the book goes on, DeConnick and de Landro make clear that any sort of non-compliance can earn you a one-way ticket to Bitch Planet - and 'non-compliance' is a very, very broad term. 

It's a big, bold hook for a story, but DeConnick manages it largely with grace. That first page, for instance - a woman, rushing through the street, eager to get to work before she's fired - is largely exposition free, but does a great job of setting up the world. Not just from de Landro's backgrounds, but from DeConnick's script, which has this harried, hassled woman apologizing profusely to everyone around her. That's how you survive here. 

And that's how Bitch Planet builds its world. The first issue largely follows a woman named Marian Collins, new to Bitch Planet and terrified at the constant violence of prison riots and guard abuse, and her husband back on Earth, trying to find out what has happened to his wife. Through Marian, you learn how Bitch Planet works. Through her husband, you learn how this modern Earth works. It's simple, elegant storytelling, a clever way to introduce us to this world and to what 'compliance' means without having to slow down the book's copious action with exposition. 

Kelly Sue DeConnick is angry. But while Bitch Planet often reads like a rallying cry, like Howard Beale finally breaking down and crying out in Network, Kelly Sue DeConnick's sharp sense of humor always shines through.

Are You Non-Compliant?

In less confident hands, Bitch Planet could be a mess. DeConnick borrows elements of blaxploitation, women in prison films, nunsploitation, old-school sci-fi, and modern social theory to build this world and tell this story, and that's a lot of material to jam into a single issue and still have time for things like 'character' and 'a story' - you know, the part that makes you want to keep reading. Consequently, throughout the first issue, it felt like I was watching a high-wire act, like the smallest misstep would prove catastrophic and I'd watch everything tumble down. But it never happened. Not because the book is flawless; because, despite the scattershot nature of its roots, Bitch Planet thus far is a grounded book.

Every creative choice we see comes from the characters, a group of non-compliant women new to the planet, and the focus on fascinating people, the way the book takes their lives and their bodies seriously, is a huge part of why Bitch Planet avoids the Exploitation Trap. People like Penelope Rolle, a big woman with a hair-trigger temper who gets the issue's biggest laugh lines. People like Marian Collins, whose story highlights how easy to is to see everything go wrong - and how the purpose of the prison is not necessarily punishment, but reeducation, a reinforcement of society's rules. These women aren't all likable. They aren't all good. They aren't all strong. But, as Tasha Robinson so eloquently put it recently at The Dissolve, a 'strong female character' done right is often actually a fatally flawed, ultimately weak one. And what DeConnick nails here is the idea that good or bad doesn't matter, strong or weak isn't important, as long as the characters are alive, as long as they're essential to the story we're seeing. 

Bitch Planet #1 is good. No, dammit, Bitch Planet #1 is great, a stellar debut, bold and brash in a way comics so rarely are. There have been a lot of excellent comics this year and plenty of fantastic debuts: G. Willow Wilson's Ms. Marvel, Charles Soule's She-Hulk, Jen Van Meter's The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage, Warren Ellis' Moon Knight. Add Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine de Landro's Bitch Planet to the list, and get ready for Image's next great series.

Bitch Planet is not a subtle book. When you're this good, you don't have to be.

  Bitch Planet #1 is written by Kelly Sue Deconnick, with a cover and interior art from Valentine de Landro, colors from Cris Peter, and letters from Clayton Cowles. Published by Image Comics, Bitch Planet #1 debuts Wednesday, Dec. 10.

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