Bitch Planet is the best kind of fucked-up: a comic that entertains, breaks hearts and wields the power to change the way you look at the world around you.
Kelly Sue DeConnick writes something incredibly cruel in the first issue of Bitch Planet. There’s a scene in the comic—written by DeConnick, with art and design by Valentine De Landro, Cris Peters, Clayton Cowles, Rian Hughes, and Lauren McCubbin—where a remorseful older man demands his wife back after sending her to a prison planet. See, Bitch Planet happens in a near-future sci-fi society where men can ship women off the entire fuckin’ planet for “non-compliance.” Non-compliance essentially boils down to not doing what men want and, in Mr. Collins’ case, it involved not getting enough sex and arguing about the ensuing affair. But, after having had his wife shipped off on a spaceship to the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost (ACO), he had regrets and implores a middle-manager to bring her back home. And he does. Maybe these men aren’t so bad, the reader thinks. Maybe this isn’t so much of a dystopia, then.
But the Mrs. Collins who got snatched up is the cheating man’s second wife, the woman he’s starting a new marriage with. The first wife, Marian? She stays incarcerated on a distant planet. The husband who cheated on her isn’t going to ask for her back. She doesn’t get a happy ending. Wait... she does die at the hands of the inhumane guards on Bitch Planet, which is the closest thing to peaceful resolution a woman can get there. If you stay alive, you’re screwed.
When her survivors get listed, only Marian’s son is mentioned by name. She has a sister, too, but her name doesn’t matter. She’s a footnote. The woman above being braced by the prison’s condescending AI is Kamau Kogo, a former athlete framed for Marian’s murder. The prison powers-that-be are trying to blackmail Kamau into assembling a team to participate in reality-TV bloodsport called either Duemila or Megaton.
It’s bread-and-circuses fare meant to divert humanity’s tribal combat urges away from any desire to upend the status quo. Megaton has been dudes-vs.-dudes thus far, but worried executives think that a battle-of-the-sexes match might be just the thing to goose flagging ratings.
The way that the creative team has imagined the book’s primary characters manages to make them complicated individuals and cautionary symbols of the way that women are undervalued in modern society. So, while Kamau is smart enough to be deeply skeptical of the deal being offered, the system she’s caught up in controls every aspect of her life. One way or another, she has to play along. There’s also a prison-escape subplot spooling out in Bitch Planet’s chapters and these moments tease readers with the instances where Kam pushes back against the strictures that bind her and the other women.
Everyone’s trying to stay in the good graces of The Council of Fathers, the moneyed white men that rule the New Protectorate. So, yes, other women are complicit in the degradation of non-compliants (or NCs), as are black men. When patriarchal social norms fool folks into believing they’re better off than others, that’s just another way the system dehumanizes everyone. When one woman privileges her own position vis-a-vis another—like prison guard Meg—she’s not thinking about the larger constraints that limit them all, which lets the terrible machinery chug along uncontested.
In Bitch Planet, the men who rule can be dumb...
...but they’re still allowed to be in charge. Males aren’t the main characters of the book but DeConnick still peppers in scenes that show them aggravated by the stress of trying to meet the macho-bro metrics of success.
So far, there’ve been five issues of Bitch Planet, which furthers the legacy of science-fiction that comments on humanity’s foibles and failings. The series succeeds because it’s ornery and sharp-edged, instead of being mournful or elegiac. DeConnick and crew quickly establish a premise built off of women-in-prison grindhouse films and slowly reveal elements of Bitch Planet’s characters and the world that the book happens in.
Take Penny Rolle, the giant who gets a solo spotlight in issue #3. In a world where women are prized for being skinny, light-skinned, straight-haired accessories for men, Penny didn’t fit into a mainstream ideal. But she doesn’t want to. When she lashes out against those pressures, she gets shipped off to the ACO.
If you’re deemed too much of a problem, you stop being a person. In fact, you don’t even have to be a problem to have your personhood revoked. Society could just not want to look at you anymore—like if you’re “wantonly obese” like Penny Rolle—and, boom, you’re shuttled off to an existence that amounts to a living death.
But, as stacked as the odds are against them, Bitch Planet’s main characters refuse to submit or conform, because that too is another kind of non-existence. Not being allowed to live how you want, as you as are is its own sort of prison. Reading Bitch Planet can be a revelation that too many women are in this sort of solitary confinement. It doesn’t comfort with imaginary victories or easy-to-swallow platitudes and goes a long way to illustrating why women might want to burn down a system that confines them.