Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s “Bitch Planet” comics debuted in December as a violent, melancholy riff on the exploitation and women-in-prison films of the 1970s. It’s set in a dystopian future where women who fail to comply with expectations can be sent to off-world prisons and where the public is obsessed with a game with some similarities to football. “Bitch Planet” has struck a chord with fans — who get “Non-Compliant” tattoos inspired by the comics — and touches on everything from prison labor and reality television to the complicated status of professional athletes. The story follows a group of prisoners who are forced to form a team that will compete against professional players in the game as part of a stunt meant to boost the broadcast ratings for the matches.

(Credit: Image Comics) (Image Comics)

This month saw the release of the first book-length collection of “Bitch Planet” comics, “Bitch Planet, Vol. 1: Extraordinary Machine.” Last week, I spoke to DeConnick about everything from depicting female nudity to designing fictional sports. This is the first half of our conversation; the second will run tomorrow. Our discussion has been edited for clarity and length.

Obviously “Bitch Planet” comes into this long tradition of pop culture about women in prison. And I was curious if there were any stories that you found particularly influential, any tropes you wanted to subvert, any sort of visual language you were eager to play with since the book has such a strong look, but also clearly references a lot of the visual tropes of the genre.

I re-watched a bunch of them. The one that is probably my favorite is a Japanese film called “Female Prisoner #701-Scorpion.” … Oddly enough, it’s actually based on a manga as well, which I have never been able to get my hands on and I’m not sure it exists in English, but certainly should. … But I love that one in particular because it is more beautiful than it has any right to be. It’s actually incredibly well-shot and has some just really wonderful, strange imagery. For the same reason I’m fond of “Chained Heat,” which was Jonathan Demme, oddly enough, very early in his career, one of his first films, if not his first. It has these fantasy, dream sequences for each of the characters — I was going to say each of the inmates — but one of my favorites is actually the warden’s. And the warden’s is like a musical number that takes place in the bathroom. …

The practice that most annoys me, and it’s something that exploitation films do, and I also think it’s something that comics frequently do, is they will set up something to be deliberately salacious, and then pretend to have some ethical structure around it. They only put it here so they can wag their fingers at it. So when I was working on the book “Ghost,” I went back and read for the first time a ton of old “Ghost” stuff. And there were some really fun things with the characters. But there was one page in particular where the character of Ghost is wearing, inexplicably, for no reason that makes any sense whatsoever, apparently when she got turned into a ghost, she was at a rave or something, and she was wearing a naughty nun [outfit]. So “Oh man! Too bad! Now I’m in this corset with my boobs spilling out at the top and this weird nun habit, and my thigh holsters.”…But her sister was, I think, like an adult actress or adult performer or something. But ghost is trying to save her from this horrible life, but in the scene where Ghost is talking to her about how terrible this is, she’s positioned, they’re both a—to-camera. It was sort of like, “Oh, let us save you from this horrible fate that we are enjoying.”

One thing that struck me that I wanted to ask you about was the use of nudity in the book, the obligatory shower scene, the panel arrangement of that information exchange, or the depiction of male nudity.

Everyone on the team is a fan of blaxploitation and exploitation films of the ’70s. So we wanted to see “Can we take the things that we see repeated there, can we take our problematic faves and turn them?” “Can we call attention to what about them that we don’t like and what they’re doing?” And we don’t like the way, the nudity is presented in such a way that the viewer is predatory, if that makes sense. Their vulnerability is sexualized.

It seems like here, nudity is often strategic. [In one storyline, two women let a guard spy on them having sex so they won’t be punished for their relationship, while in another, a woman masturbates in front of Peeping Tom so she can blackmail him.]

We wanted the nudity to be — and [artist Valentine De Landro] has worked so hard on this, he’s really tried to unlearn everything he’d been taught about how to draw women’s bodies, he’s tried to remove the filter and draw women as they are, and I think he’s done a really incredible job of it. There’s a point in what we call the title spread, that big, ridiculous two-page spread that has the “Bitch Planet” logo in the middle of it. In one of those title spreads, there’s a woman to the right who is a very pear-shaped woman, she has sort of pendulous breasts and her hips and thighs are disproportionately larger than the top of her body. And she is a woman I see every day of my life out in the world, and she has her own kind of beauty. But I’ve never seen her in a comic book. That is a body type that does not exist in the world of comics. And when I saw her, I realized I’d never seen her in that context before, and it kind of dropped my jaw a little bit. And he’s worked so hard. We’ve seen things, the nudity, people talk about the nudity making them uncomfortable, and I think it’s because they’re not arranged provocatively for your enjoyment. You’re aware of them as naked more than nude.

It also struck me that in a lot of these storylines, people are behaving the way that women in prison have often been used fictionally, for the titillation of men. But the storylines always go one step beyond that. That titillation has consequences for men like the Peeping Tom. So it sort of turns, rather than keeping the viewer in the same position in the story who’s enjoying being able to consume these women in a voyeuristic way, if you were enjoying that at all for a moment, you see it get turned on the characters, and then it gets turned on you for looking.

There’s two sex scenes in that issue. The first one, what we really wanted to do, we were talking about, there’s this thing you see over and over again in these films, which is the shower scene. The shower scene is always either a fight, or the girls playing in the water, or it’s a sex scene. Or sometimes all three. We wanted to turn the camera on the watcher. And we were trying to figure out how to do that. And it took a lot of tries to figure out how we would do that. In this growing emphasis over the course of those pages where the hole in the wall gradually got larger and larger until it covered up and kind of protected the women. So you could only see the sex scene as it was happening in the gutters [of the page]. And this is the exchange. They get to have their intimate time, this couple, because it’s a lesbian couple, and they are allowed to have this relationship only because they allow that man to watch. And so it is, and Renelle says, “This is all we have.” And we wanted to be respectful of them.

Both visually and in the writing you draw a distinction between what the reader can consume visually vs. what this Peeping Tom can consume visually.

Absolutely. And then the second scene at the end is performative, so … that’s not a real sex scene. That is Kam performing for the viewer, performing for the hole in the wall. … So this is us aping the “We set up a salacious situation so we can then wag our finger at it.” So she has this very salacious, deliberately provocative performance. And then she pulls him out of the wall and beats the s— out of him. Because we are incredibly subtle.