Review: Bitch Planet #3

I want to like Bitch Planet so much. I want to see in it what other folks do. But as important as it is to have a comic book that addresses antiestablishmentarianism through a feminist lens, I can’t help but see it as a watered-down, hyped-up oversell. Unfortunately, I also have to admit that its hype is tainting my reviews, and I really don’t want to be that one Debbie Downer who feels the need to “call out” the series every time a new issue drops. Nobody wants that. Being reactionary sucks. I’d rather focus on the stuff I do love and leave others to do the same, even if I disagree with them. So this will be my last review of Bitch Planet: a book I had high (if wary) hopes for, but continues to disappoint with an inability to convey its message through too thickly-spread, but ultimately ineffective pretense.

In its third issue, Bitch Planet offers a transformative look at Penny Rolle, from an “orphaned” girl who enjoys the simple fun of playful muffin fights with her grandmother; to a high school student beset by a society that demands she change everything from her “defensive” attitude to the texture of her hair (and, thereby, the shade of her skin); to a business owner who can no longer accept the world’s pervasive sexist and racist attitudes, and finally snaps against them.

In so doing, we see how much Penny has had to endure as a woman of color in this world, and how she eventually bites back against the boot of The Patriarchy. And while I’m not discounting that struggle, the way it’s presented here lacks the deft skill or nuance rightly associated with DeConnick’s name value. It’s over-the-top, aggressively cartoonish; and while that could be forgivable in a comic book using exploitation films as its thematic base, Bitch Planet is simultaneously being propped up as something more, and I feel compelled to review it as such. Unfortunately, it once again fails, both in meeting the expectations levied upon it, and in being what could be a great comic book.

The first problem I had with Bitch Planet #3 was Penny’s characterization. To me, this doesn’t seem like the secret origins of a woman who would later demand to know where to “put her other tit,” or jump headlong into a fracas with well-armed prison guards. This is an educated, entrepreneurial woman who has made her bread by baking muffins. That, in itself, is fine, but the mostly passive way she is presented makes a once badass Amazonian feel weak, even neutered; the rough and sharp edges so integral to her character unfortunately dulled by a forced sense of relatability. The transition from Muffin Penny to Badass Penny feels too divergent, with way too stark a contrast and not enough believable narrative breadth, or depth.

It’s something I feel of the writing as a whole in this issue (and as a series-wide problem); especially because, as a creator, DeConnick is capable of so much more. The so-intended heartfelt scenes in issue three come off as maudlin, unearned or saccharine, with dialogue that is passable at best. The villainous grandstanding of its evil characters reminds me of the baddies in Captain Planet, embodying very real sentiment, but making their justifications so over-the-top and absurd, it actually hurts the book’s point (something I’ll talk more about later).

Then there’s the big reveal, which you can see coming from the moment the bad guys wheel in the by-now cliché “true-self mirror” plot device, and culminates in a final line that, in any other book, would be panned as trite, cheesy or disingenuous. Will this scene empower female readers? Not being one, I am ill-equipped to even venture a guess. Maybe? But I think it will do so in a way similar to adults who learn life lessons about friendship from cartoon ponies, or tips about true love from Facebook quizzes.

Bitch-Planet-#3-2-18-15Once again, the saving grace of Bitch Planet comes by way of its visuals; in this case, from guest artist, Robert Wilson IV. His work is much simpler than De Landro’s, and is perhaps less powerful or expressive because of it. But there’s an inescapable and endearing charm here, as well. This is especially true of the scenes that flashback to Penny’s life, in which he employs a very Lichtenstein pop aesthetic. Of course, as much as I enjoy these moments, I do wonder about the choice in using them.

Given the existence of Dragon Ball Z-like scouters (for when sexism levels reach OVER 9,000!!!), this story takes place in the future, right? In that case, Wilson’s 60s-era veneer feels like an anachronism. Sure, it looks great and technically works in the context of an exploitation film theme - and could have done well as a visual cue throughout the series - but here, it feels like an untimely afterthought.

In general, that exploitative cinematic approach so rarely rears its head in Bitch Planet that it has become a pale, forgettable device, existing almost entirely on its front and back covers. That, and the series’ generally lopsided voice - awkwardly juggling over-sincerity and attempts at humor (a la, “Boom. Mind blown.”) - makes the whole feel improperly planned; like a partially-conceived way to push an applaudable, but transparent agenda that is better expressed outrightly in the backmatter essays. If Bitch Planet is the spoonful of sugar the comic book world needs to make the feminism go down, we’re all in a lot of trouble.

In fact, the biggest problem I have with the series - and this issue specifically - is that its tone and story preach to a very specific choir: one that already knows how misogyny infects society and (ironically) one that doesn’t need over-exaggeration to appreciate its finer points. On the other hand, those readers who could use some convincing will pick this book up and automatically dismiss it, bleating the MRA rhetoric of, “Well, that kind of racism/sexism doesn’t ACTUALLY happen. Nobody talks that way to women in the ‘real world!’ Young girls don’t REALLY ingest parasites to stay thin; that’s ridiculous!” Which, of course, is missing the fucking point - but I wonder if painting the world with too phosphorescent a sound and fury will devalue its message as a “trending topic” (or worse) to those who really need to hear it.

I should again qualify that this review comes from a white male perspective, so my perception regarding the sincerity of the happenings in the issue are less-informed or even tainted thereby. However, through that admittedly damning viewpoint, I think Bitch Planet’s presentation of isms is actually kind of dangerous, because it makes them seem so...well...“comic booky.” It feels like an old after-school special that we watch and make fun of on YouTube today; one that teaches kids (or the otherwise misinformed) not to do drugs because they’ll melt you into quivering technicolored puddles, rather than showing the damage such terminal reliance does in reality.

This issue does a similar thing, eschewing craft and relying on a cheap, feel-good ending to make the kids “pop,” but without providing anything of substance. It feels easy, undercooked and unfulfilling, especially when measured against its supposed purpose. If you legitimately enjoy Bitch Planet and honestly get something from it as a reader, right on and more power to you! But I, for one, think we deserve better from something many would call a comic book feminist anthem.

Score: 2/5

Writer: Kelly Sue DeConnick Artist: Robert Wilson IV Publisher: Image Comics Price: $3.50 Release Date: 2/18/15 Format: Ongoing; Print/Digital