Thursday, October 22, 2015

Review: Bitch Planet vol 1: Extraordinary Machine by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro

Cover of Bitch Planet vol 1, featuring the off-white silhouette of a woman with the middle fingers of each hand raised to the sky. The purple-tilted background features a montage of women fighting in a ring, wearing space suits, or seated in executive-style chairs with their legs crossed. Captions reads 'Are you WOMAN enough to survive BITCH PLANET? Girl gangs... caged and enraged!'
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

If you’ve spent time on even the very fringes of comics fandom, you’ve surely heart about Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s BITCH PLANET. It made a huge splash on Twitter as soon as it was announced, and the first issue was barely out before I started seeing non-compliant tattoos. Everyone was abuzz about the third issue. And people like me, who don’t have room in their budget for single issues, chaffed to get our hands on the trade.

The wait is over! The first volume, EXTRAORDINARY MACHINE [Amazon | The Book Depository | comiXology], is now available digitally or from your favourite purveyor of print books. Go forth and purchase, friends! (Or ask your library to handle the purchasing so everyone in your town or city can benefit.) You want this book.

Female compliance is totes the most important thing in the world of the future. Not calm enough? Not pretty enough? Unwilling to accommodate the men in your life in every little way? You’re a prime candidate for removal to the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, better known as Bitch Planet, where your rehabilitation is the patriarchy’s priority.

Kamau Kogo used to be a professional athlete, but she has no more status than any other prisoner on Bitch Planet until the board lights on a new idea to increase revenue at the expense of the women they’ve taken in hand. They want Kam to form an all-prisoner Megaton team to feed demand for the world’s most popular, and most violent, sport. And hey, if one or more of the women should happen to die on live TV, that’s just the way things roll.

Kam may not have many options, but she won’t stand by and let her jailers call all the shots. With the help of her new teammates, she sets out to subvert the system--unless the powers that be get to her first.

BITCH PLANET draws on what I understand to be a decades-old tradition of films in which men do terrible things to female prisoners for the audience’s enjoyment. I’m not familiar with the cinematic roots my own self, but I can assure you you don’t need to know everything writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Valentine De Landro reference in order to connect with BITCH PLANET. All you require is a working knowledge of what women live with in contemporary society, though a bone-deep anger at the patriarchy won’t hurt.

De Connick and De Landro have crafted an absolutely terrifying future. A council called the Fathers dictates policy. Women are forever referred to as Mrs [Husband’s Name] at the expense of their individual identities. They have few options unless they’re conventionally attractive--read, skinny and white--and submissive. Anyone who fails to fit this mould comes under constant ridicule, with the added threat of deportation to Bitch Planet if a man or a “proper” woman files a complaint against them.

Some of these complaints involve potentially legitimate issues, like assault. (Though even there, we have to consider both the conditions under which these women live and the power differential between accuser and accused.) Others are for “infractions” like patrilinial dishonour, seduction and disappointment, or having Down syndrome.

And unsurprisingly, people with power abuse the hell out of the system. One of the first characters we meet is deported to Bitch Planet because her ex-husband wants her well out of his life lest she cast a pall over his new marriage. A couple of other characters are designated as “unpermitted births” and shipped off planet at their family’s request.

The Fathers are happy to accommodate such requests because they truly want what’s best for society. They believe women can become good people: thin, attractive, and obedient to their husband or father’s--or Fathers'--wishes. Where better to promote compliance than at the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, well removed from earthly temptations?

You’re a right-thinking person, so I know you’re recoiling in horror at the very suggestion.

The women DeConnick and De Landro introduce us to on Bitch Planet are all there because they refuse to be what other people want. They’ve mouthed off. They’ve fought back. They’ve clung to their own personal style in the face of enormous pressure to cave, and they’re not about to back down now they’ve been exiled.

Kam, who appears to be the central character (though nothing is certain in this brutal world), is competent, talented, and a force to be reckoned with in a fight. She recognizes the need to work within the system sometimes, but that doesn’t mean she accepts it. Rather, she searches for ways to exploit Bitch Plant’s particular social structures to keep herself and her team as safe as they can reasonably be in such a high-threat environment.

She also has a definite mission that looks set to stretch over multiple volumes: find her sister and ensure she stays safe. Textual evidence indicates Kam’s sister is trans, something that fills me with terror for Kam and her family alike. Because if her sister isn’t on Bitch Planet, it’s probably because she’s been misgendered and sent to the male equivalent. And there’s nothing un-scary about that possibility.

The only other character we’ve explored in any depth so far is Penny Rolle, a very large black woman in whom the Fathers have taken a particular interest. Why has Penny done this to herself? Doesn’t she realize the pain her obesity inflicts on her own psyche, not to mention society as a whole? Penny’s backstory comes out during an issue-length interrogation/therapy session, and it’s a doozy; as are Penny's reflections on her past, and her ultimate response to the Fathers' plan for her.

I dearly hope we see similar issue-length examinations of each of the other women Kam gathers around her; or who Kam’s successor gathers, should DeConnick and De Landro shake things up in that particular way. As of the end of this first volume, it’s clear nothing in BITCH PLANET is guaranteed, from one character’s motive to another’s survival.

I can’t wait to learn more about these women and see where things go from here. This opening volume sets the stage for an epic shitstorm packed with gender issues and meditations on power. I want more of it in the worst possible way.


  1. Gaaah why did I not request this when I had the chance! This sounds great and I will be DEMANDING that my library buy it.

  2. Is -- I don't want to sound like a poophead, because I'm obvs into this message qua message -- is it super messagey? Or nah? That's been my only reservation about reading it.

    1. I didn't find it messagey, but I think I probably have a tendency to ignore messageyness when I agree with the message so keep that in mind.

  3. Oh my gosh, this is in trade now? Off to monitor my library system until it comes out and then is acquired…