WARNING: The images and content discussed below are for mature readers only.
Earlier this year, a well-known comics writer took the stage at Image Expo and announced her next creator-owned series. "It's called 'Bitch Planet,'" she said with a small smile, as the most beautiful drawing ever rendered of a middle finger flipping off a penal space colony filled the screen behind her. The writer went on to describe her fascination with '70s era exploitation films, specifically featuring women in prison, and how she saw a different world these marginalized characters could live in. What if women were sent to a reformative prison on a different planet? And what if their crimes were simply defying the expectations of society? The premise did bring with it a question, however: can anyone write an exploitation story without exploiting the characters? The answer was yes -- there is exactly one person that can write the story, and that person is Kelly Sue DeConnick.
The first issue is fiery, fast-paced and hypnotizing. DeConnick confidently ushers readers into a dystopian world with the stunning artwork of Valentine De Landro painting pictures of oppressed women and the men that decide their futures. But "Bitch Planet" goes so far beyond a women-in-prison story, and even after just one issue it was clear that DeConnick and De Landro have the power to make a huge impact with this book. "Bitch Planet" is confrontational and, like its incarcerated characters, doesn't care about being compliant. It's not here to make anyone feel better; it's here to make readers ask questions. And if early buzz is any indication, it could be here for a long, long time.
With the series debuting today, CBR News spoke with DeConnick about how it's developed since her first announcement, the deep love she has for the women in the series and what you can expect when you pick up a book called "Bitch Planet."
CBR News: Kelly Sue, I'm so excited to talk with you about "Bitch Planet" which I read and am already feeling obsessed with. As it's now coming out this week, how do you feel?
Kelly Sue DeConnick: Really nervous. I think Val is doing the work of his career and I want that to be recognized. I don't want any ugly feelings that people may have about what they view as my agenda to overshadow the incredible work he's doing. That's a thing I worry about, but on the other hand -- if you know anything about me and you're picking up a book called "Bitch Planet," you should probably know what you're in for.
Does he have those concerns?
Val is very brave. Every time I have given him the option to play things safe or not, he has not only said no, but 'hell no.' It's not unjust that I feel protective of my collaborators, but on the other hand, Val is a big boy and a smart dude and he's been very excited about this project all the way. From the beginning, whenever we talked about which direction we could go in, he was always down for throwing in big.
You've spoken in the past, specifically with "Pretty Deadly" about how your collaboration with the artist transforms your work in really lovely ways. Thinking back to how you described "Bitch Planet" a year ago at Image Expo, and now having read the first issue, I see that power again -- what has that been like?
I can't seem to write the book I mean to write! It's hilarious. I thought "Bitch Planet" was going to be campier. I had every intention that it would be. But when it came to putting it on the page, there's nothing less funny than trying to be funny. I still see humor in it, but the broader, campier humor just felt forced on the page. I had all these gags I wanted to use that I couldn't make work that felt right.
You have to intuit some of this stuff, and some things just didn't feel right. The example I've been giving is these translation devices I wanted the women to wear that would translate from their natural speech to Compliant English, which means that everything would be phrased in the form of a question with random apologies inserted here and there. While I think that's a really funny idea, and I think it says something about the way women are conditioned to apologize for our opinions and suggestions, it never transcended the gag. It was never any more interesting or better than what I just said to you. I try to make everything on the page tell you something you have to know about character or moves the plot forward, and it did neither of those things. Ultimately it was just a gag, and I abandoned it.
I've been beating my head against something I've been trying to make work in the third issue for the last week. I ended up re-writing a scene four times and then just cutting bait on the idea all together. In the end, I think the book is better for it; it's a much more solid issue. But you get married to those ideas, you know? And it's hard to let go.
Was there a particular moment or instance in the past year when it became clear that the book had changed and your intentions with it had grown?
I think it was probably a conversation I had with Danielle Henderson, who was the book's original editor. Danielle had to leave for scheduling reasons but we remain friends and she remains one of my favorite humans. We ran an essay by her in the back of the first issue.
This started as "women in prison in space" and that's not an idea, that's practically a genre. I was turning that over in my head and trying to think about my take, how I could play with exploitation tropes and revenge tropes from movies I loved when I was younger and make them work -- like, could I do exploitation without being exploitative? I don't know. Probably not, but let's try. Val was down for all of that.
And I was thinking a lot about the white default -- this notion we seem to have that everyone is white unless you specify otherwise. I decided I wanted to reverse that. I asked Val to do a thing in the script where unless I specify someone is white, they're not. But we're doing a prison book, so I got scared. Are we working against our goals? Yeah, a cast largely of color... in prison. How progressive. I was being really skittish about it. I wanted the cookie for having a diverse cast but I didn't want to really put my neck on the line. I was talking about this with Danielle and she very sweetly called me out on my bullshit. Black women are incarcerated at three times the rate of white women. We shouldn't run away from that truth; we should confront it head on, and ask why. If that wasn't something we were thinking about or talking about in a story about women in prison, then we're not fulfilling the promise of the premise. To do anything else would be cowardice.
I asked Val about how he felt about doing a largely black cast of criminals and he never flinched.
â€¨And they're not all exactly criminals for reasons we recognize as illegal...
No, not in the conventional sense. You will learn that a lot of these women committed crimes that would be considered crimes in our reality as well. I've come to love all of them very much.I had this fear about being a white lady writing this book, you know? I've taken some critique in the past for my snarky responses to things, particularly when generally well-meaning male writers ask me for tips about how to write female characters. My response is always "pretend that they're people." It's not a particularly gentle response -- I mean it to be shocking -- but as a writer I think you have to depend upon your empathy to see through the eyes of others. You need to be able to create characters with experiences that are not your own. If you can't do that sitting in your house, you need to get out and observe the world. We get a very dangerous lesson from the aphorism "write what you know." That's not a bad place to start, but if you spend your life writing what you know, then we have a library full of Narcissises. More importantly, I think you need to know what you're writing and that means doing your research. You must develop your empathy. I can't give someone a couple of quick tips to tell them how to make a woman -- go be a writer. Make her a human being. Get inside her head. Make her want something. No one has ever asked me how to write a man. I don't think anyone has ever asked anyone how to write a convincing man because we assume that to be the base experience. There's something deeply wrong with that perspective. I know their intentions are good and my intentions are good when I give them the snarky answer. It's not for lack of love.
â€¨Anyway, if I give that answer a young man, then chicken out of writing a cast of color, then that's some seriously hypocritical bullshit. If I'm going to tell someone else to know what they write, then I have to live it, too.â€¨â€¨
To a large extent, "Bitch Planet" is so much less sci-fi and so much more a twist on current events. Women are frequently in some sort of prison. We're told how to look, how not to look, how to be, how to act and you have very publically acknowledged those moments. Just this last year in the comics and gaming industry alone, we have seen women attacked just for saying the "wrong" thing. That's exactly what's happening in your book, and you're writing from a place of experience.
Yeah, I don't think you need to look like anyone in the book to be able to relate to them. I relate deeply to Penny. She's amazing and I'm madly in love with her. I don't look even a little bit like her. I am not even a little bit like Penny. She is so much stronger and braver than I am, but I adore her and relate deeply to her rage. I've just finished the third issue, which is her backstory. Every third issue we're going to learn the history of one of the characters and how they made it into the prison. That information feeds into the main plot. You learn where Penny comes from and what her background is and she's great. I knew I had to start with her.
When you were speaking earlier about the translator, I was thinking about Penny and how she doesn't apologize for taking up space. I love her already, and I love how you and Val curated a group of women with a variety of bodies. That's sorely missing in comics, and everywhere else, honestly. Where did Penny come from?
I was thinking about this idea of women in tubes. I was thinking about the traditional shower scenes in women in prison exploitation films, and how their nudity is done provocatively. It's a salacious, voyeuristic nudity. I wanted this to be different. I wanted their bodies to be presented as bodies. I had some conversations with Val about the women having different shapes, sizes and characteristics -- muscles, sagging, cellulite. We wanted it to feel like flesh. I started this women-in-tubes thing. It's a science fiction trope that is remarkably common if you just Google it. It was fascinating to me. I had this notion that one of these bodies would be so large that it would press up against the glass and that was the beginning of Penny. I wanted one woman to be very big and unapologetic and I wanted her to be adamant that she would take up space and it was not her job to conform to your idea of beautiful.
When Val drew her, he gave her this crazy lock of hair, and I was like, how did she get that? Â That was my way in, oddly enough.
Thinking about some of your other prominent female characters, if they inhabited this world, would they be sent to Bitch Planet for non-compliance? I was specifically thinking of Carol Danvers and Ginny from "Pretty Deadly."
â€¨â€¨Oh, what a great question! Well, nobody sends Ginny anywhere, so good luck with that. Carol, for all of her powers, is a rule follower. She would end up there. Carol believes in justice but she's a bit of a pleaser. For all of her bad-assery, and I love Carol so don't misunderstand, but in her heart of hearts she's still trying to prove to her father that she's worthwhile. Even though she could avoid going anywhere she didn't want to go, if she was sentenced, she'd take it and she'd fight from within the system.
Those two very opposite sides are exactly what I think of about you and your writing -- on one hand, you can't and won't do what you're told, and then you put out a book like "Bitch Planet" from within a system that creates its own instances of oppression.
They're all us, right? I don't think I'm unique in this respect, but I know myself, and the older I get the more confident I am. But as soon as I say something definitively about myself, it's like trying to pin down mercury. I will immediately think of an instance when it's not true. I am a rule follower, definitely. Carol and I don't have a tremendous amount in common -- she's much braver and far more competitive. I'm content to lose. I have empathy, I can imagine what it's like, but that part of Carol, having to win, I don't get. But then as soon as I say something like that, I think of screaming arguments I've got into with people where I just couldn't back down, even after I didn't want to talk anymore. I just couldn't back down.â€¨â€¨We all contain multitudes. That's the beauty of it. We don't have to be one thing, ever.
"Bitch Planet" #1 is on sale now from Image Comics.