Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Bitch Planet was, from the moment of its announcement, a contentious title; in name, of course, but also because it followed fresh on the heels of Alex de Campi’s incredible Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight issues three and four (published exactly a year ago), which contained the “Prison Ship Antares” storyline that riffed on similar exploitation themes, and was also set in space. And yet, over the next few weeks, you will see comic book creators and commentators celebrating Bitch Planet as a wholly original opus of feminism, and a credit to the sequential art medium. But don’t be fooled, while it is an okay book with pretty great art, it’s not at all to the level at which people are championing it. Much of its praise, I believe, will be thanks less to its quality and more to DeConnick’s name being attached.
Unfortunately for creators like DeConnick, their reputation has become something of a gilded albatross. Yes, it comes with a much-needed and long-overdue discourse on equality in an industry and creative process largely bereft of it, while bringing in a new and existing readership (myself included) hungry for same.
But it also makes their work immediately typecast, such that DeConnick’s admirably rabid fanbase will oversell what it adds to both comic book storytelling and the feminist dialectic. In the end, whether you will praise Bitch Planet unequivocally or just think it’s a mid-card moneymaker will unfortunately depend on one thing: Do you demand more, or are you compliant?
DeConnick’s writing in Bitch Planet #1 isn’t bad, but it’s far from perfect. Overall, she works well with De Landro to set up a future world that turns a harsh spotlight on our own patriarchal society, in a way that nods to Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, but much more convolutedly and in a less engaging way. The issue starts out in a poetic flourish, which immediately got me excited, but the dialogue quickly becomes inorganic and stilted, giving the whole a poorly-paced feel, without the sense of flow with which it was introduced.
This is especially true during the scenes on the titular prison planet. While it’s got a great riot sequence, it also suffers from a neglected repartee, comprised of soulless hiccups of conversation that don’t do anything to flesh out the characters any further than stereotypical facade. Ironically, the only ones who benefit from any appreciable development are the men and [SPOILER] this issue’s ostensibly main, but actually red-herring protagonist. I’m sure DeConnick will focus on each character in subsequent issues, but there isn’t much to go from here in terms of characterization.
Another problem I had was in the jibe-rife conversation between the guards, who, acting as a chorus with a thinly-veiled subtext, blame violence on the victim. This was clearly intended to stand as relevant commentary on both race and gender relations (and the breakdown thereof), but it felt rushed, muddied and glossed over in a literal whirlwind of speech bubble exposition, almost like it was added as an afterthought to the scene to drive home the book’s theme.
The interwoven story patched together from the conversations of an inmate and her ex-husband is also a success, one which I hold to be the thematic crux of the story. But even this leads to an empty and confusing “payoff.” To be more specific, does the scene at the vague government installation take place on Earth or Bitch Planet? In either case, was this Dawn woman standing there the whole time? It’s not readily apparent - which is both the fault of the art and writing - and came off like a poorly-conceived backstage segment on WWE, dripping with greased-up ego (the men) and convenience (Dawn).
The issue ends with a legitimately intriguing swerve, but is softened by an incomplete and, because her characterization was ignored, uninteresting introduction. Scattered scenes like the above made Bitch Planet #1 feel like some of the pages were out of order, that the publisher forgot to include a few, or that editing was foregone altogether.
Artistically, this isn’t De Landro’s best work, but it is the best thing about the issue. He pulls off some great tricks both aesthetically and thematically here, working in a parsed down, thickly-lined pop style, which stands well against colorist Christ Peter’s Warholian palette. At the same time, he successfully casts the grit of future prison (though not even flirting most times with backgrounds), as well as the realism of femininity against Bitch Planet’s “ideal female” holographic avatar; an important visual cue. I would have liked a less dense canopy of shadow in some areas, just because I think his artwork is better than that, and the visuals do sometimes feel rushed and unfinished in parts. Then again, that does sync up well with the book’s style-over-substance approach.
My biggest problem with Bitch Planet #1 is that neither the art nor the writing feels sequential, but more like shuffled snapshots thrown together with only a modicum of forethought, and a ton of Presence. It’s clear that DeConnick and De Landro are excited to send their message, but the actual storytelling suffers because of it. Every platform needs the strength of a foundation on which to stand, and the purpose of Bitch Planet - to become a rallying icon of feminism - is far too weighty for its narrative structure to support effectively. Honestly, I blame the fanbase. That’s right, come at me, #CarolCorps! (Just kidding, you guys scare me.)
See, to me, it feels like DeConnick - as she has expressed in interviews during the run-up to this title’s release - has a great love of exploitation films, and that she wanted to write a book based on that old trope, much like de Campi did to great success before her. But unfortunately, her underlying message in Bitch Planet feels like obligation, and the response to it thus far, like sycophantic pandering and not thoughtful review.
Bitch Planet’s backmatter is the real point of this book, including as it does a thought-provoking but loaded afterword by author and critic, Danielle Henderson. Everything before that point - i.e., the story - feels like filler by comparison, since this outright states what the creators want from their narrative, but fail to achieve effectively in its telling. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with everything Henderson says as regards sexual inequality, but did we really need that last hard-sell to tell us that we read a feminist comic book, just in case you missed it? Altogether, this essay, the hashtag call-to-arms and the “Non-Compliant” temporary tattoos are pure marketing gold; clever, but incongruous.
I agree with the sentiment behind an early review, which stated that, “Bitch Planet #1 aims to be the comic anthem of feminism,” but I think that’s the problem. Instead of writing a good story about feminism, this became a feminist treatise with a story in there somewhere, because “comics.” There are some worthy ideas here, absolutely, and I’ll still follow along to see how it develops, but this introductory issue is mostly buried beneath a shedding of narrative integrity in favor of a mad dash toward a hard pitch. Unfortunately in this case, the ends just don’t justify the means.
Does this book deserve the praise that will be levied upon it in the coming weeks? Not really. It was okay; jumpy in parts and half-finished in others, but generally okay. Is it, as the review called it - and many more hence undoubtedly will - “the comic anthem of feminism?” No; at least not yet, but we all owe it more time to develop before any of us can make that call. Including the creators. Look, in the end, some folks will treat this like “The Second Coming” of feminist comics, and they’ll be right! But only because it didn’t come first.
Writer: Kelly Sue DeConnick Artist: Valentine De Landro Colors: Christ Peter Publisher: Image Comics Price: $3.50 Release Date: 12/10/14 Format: Print/Digital