January 2015

Matt Terl


Bitch Planet #1 by Kelly Sue DeConnick, illustrated by Valentine De Landro


One of the wonderful things in comics is watching a creator find the perfect vehicle for their talent. It's a tightrope walk of serialization, with the variability of creators working on corporate properties with varying levels of creative freedom, the weird alchemy between writer and artist and all the other collaborators in comics. When all of those tumblers click into place for a talented creator, it's thrilling.

Sometimes it's the first issue of a new series -- Y The Last Man, Transmetropolitan, and Preacher jump to mind. Sometimes it's the confluence of creator and corporate-owned character: when Walt Simonson took over Thor at Marvel, it was obvious from the first issue that it would be a career-defining run. Same thing with Jim Steranko doing his Nick Fury work years earlier.

But when it happens, it's the kind of thing that's unmistakable. And based on a stellar first issue, Bitch Planet is going to be that kind of exciting-to-watch, career-defining book for writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Valentine DeLandro.

DeConnick is an accomplished comic book writer with a wide range of titles to her credit (as writer, editor, and translator), but it's a list that is largely without a signature title. Currently, she's probably best known as the writer on Marvel's Captain Marvel series; that book (in turn) is probably best known for being one of the depressingly rare Marvel books with a solo female lead character. DeConnick has shepherded Captain Marvel across multiple volumes over two-and-a-half years, and cultivated a devoted fanbase in the process, but on the whole it's been a more notable success from a social media perspective but than from a commercial or even critical one.

Her 2013's creator-owned horror-western series Pretty Deadly also came close to being an iconic, signature book, but it was a complicated, sometimes willfully obscure piece of work that never fully came together for some readers.

Bitch Planet is much more accessible than Pretty Deadly, with a far punchier high concept: it's a 1970s sci-fi women-in-prison movie written from a modern feminist perspective. Which, frankly, is brilliant on its own, and doubly so for DeConnick in particular.

DeConnick is a smart, sharp, proudly feminist voice in the world of mainstream comics -- a world that is still depressingly white-male-centric. Her distinct point of view is one of the things that characterizes her writing; others would probably include clever, snappy dialogue and a keen awareness of pop cultural tropes. In Bitch Planet, she has found a way to perfectly synthesize these strengths.

After just one issue, the plot is still in its formative stages; for better or for worse, DeConnick has elected to forego a gentle overview to the book's world and instead launched immediately into a multi-issue opening arc that counts on the reader to learn on the fly. But the basic premise is already clear: in a near-future world, women can be sent to a prison planet, colloquially called "Bitch Planet," for any number of ill-defined crimes under the umbrella of being "noncompliant." It's also possible (but not yet entirely clear) that there may be some sort of reality show broadcast from the prison.

It's not to say that there's no plot in issue number one -- there is, with a nice bit of series-wide misdirection and a solid in-story twist -- but the overall thrust of the first issue is to set up the larger story DeConnick seems to have in mind.

This first issue follows a batch of six women as they are transferred up to the prison planet and transition into the population there. It's the traditional opening for this kind of story, and the book knows it. DeConnick plays very directly with exploitation-era prison movie tropes filtered through her contemporary sensibilities. For example, there's an extended showering-in sequence -- a sine qua non of the genre. But the nudity is illustrated very, very carefully to be realistic and not titillating. De Landro draws a variety of female body types: there are skinny women and fat women and muscular women and gently ectomorphic women. The only body type not to be found on any of the characters is the pinched-waist-and-gigantic-chest archetype that would populate the scene in the twentieth-century movie version -- or, for that matter, a more mainstream comic book.

It's the kind of touch that reinforces the book's distinct message and worldview without in any way sacrificing entertainment to didacticism. That's a microcosm of possibly DeConnick's greatest success in this script: she never wavers from her intent to tell a directly feminist story, but she wraps it in brisk, accessible pulp.

De Landro's art on this book is a revelation as well. Much of his previous work has been on satellite books in Marvel's sprawling X-Men line, and none of it had indicated the level of craft he demonstrates here. Sci-fi in comics can be tough on artists, as they're expected to visually depict things that are easily ignored or glossed over in prose sci-fi.

Anything that appears on-panel needs to be carefully designed, generally in consultation with the writer (so the casual background item doesn't somehow conflict some as-yet-unmentioned part of the mythology), and must appear to be a natural extension of the rest of the world. De Landro proves up to the task, giving distinct but internally consistent looks to the prison world and the future Earth.

Prison books are also challenging for artists, as they don't have the distinguishing crutches of superhero outfits or even specific clothing choices to help identify characters. It speaks volumes to De Landro's skill that the reader can distinguish between multiple women in nearly identical prison uniforms having a fight in a darkened room.

The book isn't without its flaws, and a tremendous amount will depend on how DeConnick continues to play out her long-term plans for the series; there's a reason that the sort of pulp exploitation films on which this is modeled tend to be short and direct. But at the very least, this represents a thrilling and promising creator-owned debut that sees two veteran creators producing the best work of their careers. Based on this entertaining, smart first issue, it may be that DeConnick and De Landro have even crafted one of those vehicles that can carry them to superstardom.

Bitch Planet #1 by Kelly Sue DeConnick, illustrated by Valentine De Landro
Image Comics
27 pages