Kyle Garret: The creativity and engaging story would be enough to make Bitch Planet a great comic. And, perhaps for some people that’s all this is, which is fine. But Bitch Planet, like a lot of great genre fiction, is more than just an interesting sci-fi exploration. It’s a very real reflection of our culture. It’s doing something that was almost a requirement for genre stories back in the day, something that’s faded away as sci-fi, fantasy, and horror have become more accepted by mainstream audiences. It’s what makes Bitch Planet‘s fellow Image comic Lazarus so good, too.
If the first issue of this series was establishing the anti-woman reality by playing it big, and the second issue developed the main character and central plot, the third issue gives us a wonderfully small story, yet one that emblematic of the series. There are a lot of great moments in this issue, but none set the tone like the second page and the list of charges leveled against Penny Rolle, the last of which is “wanton obesity,” a crime so heinous that the man reading the charges has to follow it with “good god, woman.” And then we pull back to see the committee of men who are reviewing Penny’s case, the “fathers” as they’re called.
Jason Sacks: And those “fathers” show a rather terrifying lack of diversity: truly leadership by a group of old white men; none of them show any ethnic bias, or a double chin, all dressed formally as they show themselves to be members of the overclass and overgender, the few and privileged who assert their leadership and supposed wisdom by forcing everybody into own very specific boxes; laughter at body image outside the norm, shame for those who don’t join sports, exile for those who commit adultery.
KG: I wonder how this comic goes over with the menfolk. I would imagine some of them probably reacted badly to it, as men are generally portrayed a certain way, which is unusual for us, as it’s usually the women who are portrayed a certain way. This is the first time, I think, that we get a clear kind of indictment from this comic. This committee isn’t known as “fathers” for nothing. There’s a lot to be said for a father’s role in perpetuating or fighting sexism and misogyny. Bitch Planet is just that influence taken further — not to the extreme, because it’s honestly not that extreme, not compared with what’s going on now. In some ways, Bitch Planet is the present without obfuscation.
I mean, Jesus Christ, look at the scene at the muffin place. Not a single thing that is said in that scene isn’t currently being said somewhere in this country. It’s actually kind of chilling, because you see the groundwork being laid for the future that’s depicted in this comic, yet that groundwork is our present. Kelly Sue DeConnick didn’t just take a few germs of an idea and blow them up into something unrecognizable. This comic is speaking truth, and it’s a disturbing one at that.
JS: I know Penny Rolle; heck, I think she may have served me a pumpkin muffin at the Specialty’s near work on Friday.
Katy Rex: So here’s the really wonderful thing about speculative fiction, and this is something that Margaret Atwood has spoken about at some length regarding her similarly-themed novel A Handmaid’s Tale (and in her not-so-similarly-themed MaddAddam series): the most compellingly constructed future is one that takes something about our present and blows it up. This is sf at its finest; it has taken some of the most disturbing and harmful parts of our present and turned them on us, shown us what it will look like if they’re allowed to take hold. This is something that fiction does powerfully: it tells the truth. This world isn’t unrecognizable, it’s characterized by its uncanny resemblance to our own.
JS: Yes, and that’s what makes this series so heady for me. This is fiction as social satire, mixed with smart characterization and outstanding art. Like Atwood does in her fantastic literature, the world as we know it is examined through a prism that illuminates our world. While I don’t agree with Kyle that Bitch Planet is uncanny in its resemblance to our own (I haven’t seen many stormtroopers charging middle class houses), I do see it as an extrapolation of many of the trends that we see developing in our world, mainly shown in the general Conservative backlash against the progress that has been battled for by women over the last four decades.
It’s not for nothing that the symbol on the title page is an extended middle finger, after all.
KG: Penny Rolle’s story is great and is informed not just by being a woman in this reality, but by not being white. While the “fathers” minimize her for being a woman, the Mother Siebertling attacks her for being black, but, of course, without actually saying that. There’s also a really nice bit involving Penny’s father that’s just subtle enough to miss the first time through if you’re not paying attention (which I wasn’t, the first time through).
KR: One of my favorite– and by “favorite” I mean “most compelling”– parts, actually, was the subtlety of hair politics. When Penny is with her biological family, her mom refers to her “curls.” When she’s at the group home, her “perfect”-looking skinny blonde mother-substitute (sidenote: her outfit is so weirdly sexy) tells her that her hair just doesn’t fit: “It’s not black or white, good or bad. Folks don’t know what to make of it because they don’t know what it is.” The way that this issue deals with racism is really nuanced. I think it’s incredibly telling that when Penny is running the muffin shop, one of the conversations the reader witnesses refers to her as a “skin,” which is seemingly the new slang for black person, but what’s new is old again, right? The fetishizing aspects of their conversation, the claims that black people “like ’em big like that, it’s in their animal nature– big asses, big lips… like a baboon,” these are sexual stereotypes of black women that have existed for decades and continue to exist today.
JS: And there’s wonderful small moments that illuminate that moment — the knowing looks that the white residents of the group home give each other as Mother Siebertling takes Penny for discipline, or the way she puts on rubber gloves before brushing Penny’s hair, implying that she’s a subhuman brute who can’t be touched directly.
It’s intriguing how DeConnick shows Penny’s personal life in such a delightful and ordinary way as her story starts. As I watched her goofing around with her grandmother, I smiled a broad smile of recognition. This is the sort of thing that happy families do, clean up after, feed the dog and move on. So when the black-masked police move in – nameless, faceless, without any notification — it’s terrifying and arbitrary and legitimately painful to watch.
KG: And juxtaposed beautifully, in no small part because of the wonderful art by Robert Wilson IV. I’ve enjoyed Valentine De Landro’s artwork on the series so far, but if this is the quality we can expect by the fill-in artists, I’m all for it. And while it’s not groundbreaking, the color work on the flashback sequences were a nice touch.
KR: I’m kind of hoping that each one of the guest artist issues is a sort of stand-alone like this; it fleshes out the world, but it doesn’t fuck with the visual consistency of the main story.
KG: I was tempted, for a brief moment, to write “you don’t have to be a feminist to enjoy this comic,” but then I realized that’s bullshit, because there’s no excuse to not be a feminist. Which reminded me of this moment I had at work the other day, involving two members of my team, both of whom are in their early/mid-20s.
Female employee: “Every feminist I know hates men.”
Male employee: “Then they’re not really feminists.”
KR: That’s another thing that this comic addresses beautifully. One of the most toxic things about living in a patriarchy is the way that literally everyone– male, female, feminist, chauvinist– internalizes the constant barrage of messages. The women in the muffin shop are just one example, the woman on your team is another. And the internalized misogyny is why it’s so UNBELIEVABLY powerful that Penny has managed to hold on to a positive self image. The way that so many women, in the comic and in real life, work hard to be “one of the good ones,” it’s just toxic.
JS: You don’t have to be a feminist to enjoy this comic. All you have to be is someone who likes to think, to be confronted with the realities and true horrors of the world in which we live, in ways that will shake you up in ways that you may not ever expect.
KG: Exactly, Jason, because Bitch Planet is just a great comic telling really good stories. This issue is a prime example.
Bitch Planet is for everyone. [caveat from KR: NOT EVERYONE WILL GET THAT, and it’s their loss]
Kind of like feminism.
KR: I liked that as a last line, but I feel like I have to finish just a little differently, and I’m sorry to have to disrupt the impact of a meaningful punchline. What we’re seeing in this comic, from the internalized misogyny to the hair politics, are all things that real women experience in our actual current modern world today. It’s been amplified, of course, at least in part for entertainment purposes. But the amplification also lets us experience it as a fiction, which makes it more palatable for people who don’t knowingly experience these social ills daily– and because these social ills are so ingrained in us, many people of both genders have stopped seeing them.
I love the way that people react to this book. I love seeing women read this book and relate, to say “yes, that happens, and if I were to look in a mirror that portrayed my ideal self, the picture would be formed by a misogynistic society that sets unrealistic beauty standards, especially for women.” Equally, I love seeing men read this book and be appalled. I love the outrage, which sounds mean, but it means that this amplified and fictionalized version of a patriarchal society is helping them see our current reality. And that truth is the most powerful thing that I think this book accomplishes.