In Assata Shakur's essay "Women In Prison: How It Is With Us," written while serving a life sentence in Rikers, the author opens with these sentences: "We sit in the bull pen. We are all black. All restless."
She goes on to describe the women who are in Rikers with her: overwhelmingly black and Puerto Rican, poor, drug addicts, survivors of abuse, survivors of a system that has marginalized and brutalized them.
For many the cells are not much different from the tenements, the shooting galleries and the welfare hotels they live in on the street. Sick call is no different from the clinic or the hospital emergency room. The fights are the same except they are less dangerous. The police are the same. The poverty is the same. The alienation is the same. The racism is the same. The sexism is the same. The drugs are the same and the system is the same.
Little has changed for women in prison since Shakur wrote her essay, except their numbers: from 13,258 in 1980 to 113,605 in 2012.
Shakur published her essay in 1978, in the heyday of the women-in-prison exploitation trope. That decade saw the release of films with titles like Escape from Women's Prison, The Big Bird Cage, Caged Heat, The Big Doll House, Women in Cages, The Women In Cellblock 9, and The Hotbox. The trailers feature rape, whippings, shower scenes, mud fights, and tough girls breaking out of the prisons only to die in a hail of bullets. We're invited to watch YOUNG GIRLS IN CHAINS! BRUTALIZED! SEE WHAT THEY DO FOR THRILLS! SEE THEM IN ACTION!
Within this kind of context—the exploitative fantasy and the grinding reality—Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro have to tread a damned fine line in their new collaboration: Bitch Planet, an updated, feminist sci-fi riff on the women-in-prison trope, officially described as "Margaret Atwood meets Inglorious Basterds."
With no offense to Tarantino, Bitch Planet is a lot more socially aware of itself than Basterds, and the reality behind the tropes it's playing with. This is a comic for people who hate that they love action movies that have never heard of the Bechdel Test, or genre fiction that erases people of color. I'll cop to binge-watching a lot of Supernatural, even when its treatment of women and dismissal of queer relationships made me want to stick a shotgun full of rock salt into my TV and pull the trigger.
DeConnick seems to be in the same boat. In a press release from Image Comics, Bitch Planet's publisher, she states, "I have a profound and abiding love for exploitation films, but as a feminist, I also find many (if not most) of them deeply problematic. These are two WILDLY mixed feelings. And I love mixed feelings. It happens that mixed feelings are the perfect soil composition for fiction.”
This is DeConnick's second story with Image, a publisher that's built its name on publishing creator-owned and -driven comics and graphic novels. Her first, Pretty Deadly, was a Weird West retribution tale about Death and his daughter. DeConnick has also had successful runs with Marvel titles like Avengers Assemble and Captain Marvel.
Bitch Planet's first issue focuses on introducing its world, with a lot of help from its background detail. In the first page, a woman runs through streets on her way to her job; around her, we see billboards with slogans like BUY THIS IT WILL FIX YOU and EAT LESS POOP MORE and WE GET BY WHEN WE COMPLY. Aside from the advertising, there's little overt evidence that this is a dystopia, and that's perhaps one of the more disturbing features of this comic: this is a world that's only slightly tweaked from our own.
The rest of the issue is split between Earth and the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, AKA Bitch Planet. We have our first introduction to The Model, a hologram with the kind of body that Barbie would envy, a cross between Barbarella and Joan Rivers, who serves as a matron for the inmates. We're also introduced, albeit briefly, to our cast of characters, one of whom immediately stands out: Penelope Rolle, a black, tall, fat, and completely unapologetic ass-kicker, with a tattoo on her bicep of two elephants accompanied by the words "Born Big."
This is one of the first ways in which Bitch Planet distinguishes itself from its exploitative predecessors: it showcases all kinds of women, of different races and body types and ages. During the intake for a batch of fresh prisoners, we're shown bodies that have rolls, scars, hair, and wrinkles. They're starkly contrasted with The Model, who towers over them: pale, wasp-waisted, and grinning cruelly. DeConnick and De Landro demonstrate the actual demographics of women's prisons, a place where women of color are disproportionately represented among the incarcerated population.
Many women in prison films focus on a single (inevitably white) innocent woman, who's corrupted by her jailers and fellow prisoners over the course of the movie. During the same intake scene—which devolves into a riot after two minutes—one of the few white women in the group, Marian Collins, starts screaming that she's innocent. "I don't deserve this," she cries, implying that the other women do. She's set up to be the innocent whose naiveté will be slowly eroded by the cruel guards and crueler inmates, until she's ultimately saved or killed.
Spoiler: she's killed by the end of the issue. To make things more interesting, she's assassinated by one of the other inmates, though we don't know who.
Bitch Planet utilizes this trope to fake out its audience, to lull them into a sort of complacency before slapping them out of it. Killing off Marian sets us up for a much more interesting story and an equally fascinating heroine: Kamau Kogo, who's remained mostly in the background until she tries and fails to save Marian. At this early stage, all we know about Kamau is that she can fight—she holds her own against four prison guards, with a fighting style that seems like a blend of kung fu and capoeira—and that she has intervened when her fellow inmates were attacked. Kamau is the spiritual successor of Pam Grier, with some extra martial arts skills and—I hope—a more revolutionary outcome than Grier's roles ever allowed for.
Bitch Planet tackles an overtly sexist cliché, as well as a grim reality for many women, and doesn't flinch. De Landro's art plays with campy elements of both exploitation films and sci-fi blockbusters, utilising bright splashes of color and layouts that hearken back to the story's cinematic roots. And while the characters are larger-than-life, as befitting something entitled Bitch Planet, De Landro draws them as imperfect and real. They're hard women; they're bitches. They're not beautiful or delicate, and that makes them thrilling to look at.
While it's hard to judge a comic by its first issue, Bitch Planet sold me on its premise—prison gladiators in space!—and on its slowly germinating plot and characters. It's difficult to write about exploitation without being exploitative, but DeConnick and De Landro have shown themselves, thus far, to be up to the task.
Nino Cipri is a queer and genderqueer writer living in Chicago. A graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop, Nino's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Tor.com, Fireside Fiction, Betwixt, Daily Science Fiction, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, In The Fray, Autostraddle, and Gozamos. One time, an angry person called Nino a verbal terrorist, which has since made a great T-shirt slogan.