By Tara Bennett
For those who can’t wait for the Friday premiere of Orange is the New Black’s third season, have I got the comic for you. Say hello to Image Comics’ ongoing series Bitch Planet.
Described as a “feminist, sci-fi exploitation riff,” Bitch Planet pulls no punches and is as entertaining as it is confronting. The story is set in a dystopian future where “non-compliant” women are sent to an off-world prison known as the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost (a.k.a. Bitch Planet). How is one categorized as a “non-compliant?” It doesn’t take much. One could commit murder, or one could just be two sizes too big. Anything that breaks the mold of a “perfect” male-dominated society. The story switches between portraying the lives of the inmates and the people orchestrating their existence back on Earth.
One of Bitch Planet’s most impressive feats is that it manages to make a satirical look at exploitation completely non-exploitative. This is in no doubt thanks to the writing of Kelly Sue DeConnick (Captain Marvel) and pop artist Valentine Delandro’s character illustration. It’s particularly evident in the first and fourth issues where, despite a large portion of sequences featuring full-frontal nudity, the reader’s gaze never feels lecherous. In fact, the only overtly sexualized images come directly from the A.C.O.’s own idea of the feminine form, inhabited in the digital projection known as The Catholic. Depicted as a highly-fetishized nun, this corseted construct effortlessly switches between merciful confidant and torturous interrogator, manipulating inmates and establishing order. A walking incarnation of the Madonna/Whore complex if there ever was one.
The Catholic isn’t the only tool in the A.C.O’s terrifying arsenal. It wouldn’t be an exploitation parody without some seriously sadistic content, and Bitch Planet makes the Hunger Games look like child’s play. The harrowingly violent reality of life as a non-compliant is flawlessly rendered by Delandro, but is not measured by blood spilled or lives taken. Instead, it comes from the character’s guttural reactions to the events around them. Pain, fear, anger—every emotion imaginable—is etched on the inmates’ faces, made only more disturbing by the eerie passiveness of their masked guards. And while the violent acts may at times be so over-the-top that they verge on the bizarre, the realistic depictions of human suffering ensures that Bitch Planet remains firmly grounded. The violence in Bitch Planet is brutal, visceral, and consequential. It’s a way for women—many of whom aren’t white—to assert their power, to find agency in the non-compliance that has been forced upon them.
While the first two issues primarily focus on establishing plot and world building, the glimpses we are given of Bitch Planet’s inhabitants are both intriguing and promising. I was pleased to see a wide range of genuinely diverse characters. After reading the first two issues, I was chomping at the bit for more in-depth characterization, so I was thrilled to discover that every third issue will focus on one character’s backstory. It’s an interesting approach, and one I think will pay off, effectively balancing out the Tarantino levels of excess in the regular issues without disrupting the narrative flow.
The overall look of the comic features a delightfully retro vibe, paying homage to ‘60s/’70s styles, while playing up the pulpy feel of its contents with pops of pink and neon green. It feels old-school yet modern at the same time. The back covers are an adorable bonus, modelled after the kitschy comic ads of yesteryear, which feature tongue-in-cheek products you can actually buy.
Four issues in, you know everything you need to know about the messed up society, who to hate, and who to root for as Bitch Planet plays out to its inevitable conclusion where the women break free and tear asunder everything in their path.