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.
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 second half of our conversation; you can find the first here. Our discussion has been edited for clarity and length.
One of the things I thought was really interesting was the series’ take on the culture of reality television. And even more granularly, the idea of ratings vs. engagement, which is a big deal in online publishing. And I was curious how those very technical details of the entertainment industry showed up in the work. Was it research? Was it the kind of thing you get pressure about when writing comics? I was sort of surprised to see something that detailed in a story like this.
Well, you know, it’s science fiction and satire. So, we were kind of looking at exaggerating the ways that, looking at the direction the world is going and taking it too far that way and kind of imagining the ways that can go wrong, and what are the logical extensions, if not the reasonable extensions.
And also, I’ve been thinking a lot about the depiction of violence and sport and the way we consume athletes, and the way we kind of use them up. And the [Steve] Almond book, I think it’s called “Against Football,” it’s a real quick read, it’s very, very good, and it comes from someone who genuinely, genuinely loves the sport, but when he’s very honest with himself about what it is, he comes to the conclusion that he can’t participate anymore, he can’t watch, he can’t support the structure that chews these young men up, really destroys them. And the racial issues there also kind of work nicely with some of the things we wanted to make ourselves look at for our book. He describes the draft and largely white buyers kind of bidding on these largely black bodies. How do you not see echoes of slave auction there?
I was curious about the world you’d built: In some of the chyrons on the TV reports, there are references to auctions for the players. I was curious as to whether the players outside of prison, are they free citizens, or are they owned, but have more autonomy than people who are in prison?
No, they’re free. That was meant to be like a bachelor auction kind of thing, or it could have been a draft, I don’t actually remember at this point. They’re free. They’re not owned. But they’re free as much as any of those young men are free. That’s one that we don’t actually have to exaggerate to see it as problematic.
I was also curious about the use of artificial intelligences and software modules in prison, because this is something we’re seeing more and more in pop culture. I was curious what role these might play going forward. Are they just programs? Do they have actual intelligence? Will their thinking evolve at all?
All of those pink women, those are all a character that we call the Model. And the Model is the ideal compliant woman, and she has many faces. … This ideal woman is a hodgepodge who can’t possibly actually exist. And so she is a character. You’ll see her again and again throughout the book, and then the same way every third issue one of our character gets the spotlight, the Model will get a spotlight issue as well.
I wanted to ask about another character, [prison guard] Miss Whitney. Because it’s always fascinating to see women who are participants in, or even champions of, systems that oppress other women. I was curious where she came from, having this sort of Southern belle who is tough enough to meet with the inmates without a mask for protection. I was curious about where she came from, and where you see her going.
You’re going to love issue seven. Whitney came from the idea that there are certainly, I think it’s in most of us, honestly, this good girl thing, to want to. “I know what the rules are, so I can win!”…Our literal patriarchy is such a patronizing patriarchy, “We’re not anti-women! We’re trying to help you. We want you to be happy. Why won’t you let us help you? Try to see this from our eyes.” Whitney’s, [saying] “Our fathers are not trying to hurt us. They want us to excel in the things that we’re naturally good at. They just want us to be happy! We get unhappy when we fight our nature. I don’t hate Whitney. I kind of hate Whitney. I don’t hate Whitney. I don’t hate Whitney. I kind of identify with Whitney. I get deciding that you can just work three times harder than anybody else.
I wanted to ask about the role of prison privatization. It’s not totally clear whether these prisons are run privately. … In the United States today, prison labor is really obscured. We do not see the connection between things we buy, things we eat and the labor that produces them in jail. Part of what’s interesting about “Bitch Planet” is all of a sudden you have the economics of the prison being brought into the mainstream economy in a really visual way [because a prison team will be competing against professionals]. I was curious whether that was meant to be a point about the role that prisons play in our present economy, or the connection between prison economics and reality TV economics.
Very much all of those things! And if you read the news scrolls in the backgrounds, I think it might be in the background of [issue] five, you’ll see reports of private police as well. In this world, everything has been corporatized. So if corporations are people, and corporations have all the rights and sometimes more of the rights than people, then corporations also have the rights to self-defense, and gun ownership, and the right to have a militia. … Let me specifically point out to you that on the back of issue five, I don’t know how much it’s obscured, I don’t know how much you can read it, but there is a public notice about changes to the election law. And I will say that there are changes to the election laws, and that our next arc is called “President Bitch.”
I also wanted to ask you about the sort of theory of organizing in “Bitch Planet,” because you have that great line: “Women lose if they play the way men play.” And you have this debate about whether participating in mainstream culture by forming the team at all or … opting out is the most effective means of making change. These are questions that come up in every radical movement, and I was wondering whether you thought the book had a theory of organizing yet, or whether that will emerge.
There’s definitely a tack that they are going to take, and there will be fractures that reflect real-life fractures as well, particularly between Violet and [team captain] Kam, there will be problems that reflect some problems that we have in our real-world feminist movement, fourth-wave feminism. But as far as whether the book itself, or the art team, champions one theory, I would say no. It’s more that I have strong feelings about things that I can see both sides of being fertile ground for fiction. Gray space is fertile ground for fiction. When I can see both sides of an argument and feel strongly in both directions, then there’s a story there, then I can write real characters that I care about and believe in and champion on both sides.
I wanted to ask about the theology of the world. There’s an obvious cosmology. And I was really curious about building a religious system along with a prison system, and a sports system, and a pop cultural system as well. I think a lot of comics have something quasi-theological. The Watcher plays that role in a lot of Marvel comics, but I was really curious about God and belief and cosmology since clearly it shapes people’s thinking a lot even if it’s not a day-to-day subject of conversation.
The New Protectorate is not actually a religious organization. But they have strong beliefs. It’s not Mother Earth, space is the mother and earth is the father. And there is an emphasis on parenting and that kind of tough-love thing. Because we use Father and the Catholic Church uses Father, and we make reference to the Catholic [Church] when the Model does her punishing of Marion, or her extraction of confession from Marion. But the Protectorate emphasizes free will, they think. From their perspective. But they have this whole thing, I’m trying to figure out how how to articulate it without using the same words over and over again. But it is a literal patriarchy. It is all about the fathers and the leaders treating adults like children. And “You have a choice, but if you make the wrong choice, there are consequences we’re going to impose because we love you.” Which works solidly in your house.
A lot of “Bitch Planet” focuses on what that kind of environment does to women. What about what it does to men?
I tend to react poorly to the “What about the men” question, not from you. I do get a lot of, like “When are we going to see some men that are good guys?”
I’m not interested in that at all. I’m interested in what living in a patriarchy does to men. I’m sure it distorts their relationships with women and puts responsibilities on them that they’re not actually equipped to handle.
I think there are certainly — what is the term these days — toxic masculinity? There are certainly repercussions of those pressures. And we will meet more male characters, mostly along the lines of the sport, will you see how that can both elevate and victimize.
It’s interesting to hear you talk more about the sports angle of this. I don’t know that that’s always gotten as much attention.
I’m slow to build it up. And it’s hard because you see, I’ve seen, we did a double-page spread laying out the rules of the sport and how it gets played. It’s going to be really important going forward. It’s kind of important. It’s the structure on which everything else will hang, so it’s really important that it be made clear. … Japanese sports comics have a great tradition, and I worked on “Slam Dunk” for a really, really long time. I think I did the English adaptations of 16 volumes of “Slam Dunk” at two hundred pages a piece. So I got schooling from some of the best, or one of the best, rather. … I used a consultant, Alex Getchell helped me develop the game, he’s a Brazilian jujitsu fighter and a sporting enthusiast. And he was really fantastic to work with. I kept thinking that it’s not going to be more complicated than Quidditch, and everyone gets Quidditch, right? Quidditch is tricky. It’s going to be simpler than that.
And in fact, it’s really very simple. But the important thing about is each team gets 2,000 pounds rather than a set number of players. So you can distribute those pounds however you want, and it becomes a strategy. Are we going to have fast players who can’t protect themselves? Or are we going to have slow players that you can’t bring down? The ball is weighted, so it’s very hard to pass. There are positions that if you can get the ball over the wall in the corners, it’s higher points because it’s harder to get to the corners. And there are three judges — they are only on one side of the field, so there’s a blind side where the judges can’t see you as well, and the judges have a certain amount. When the ball comes off the field, the judges get the ball, and they may pass it to whomever they choose, so there’s a certain amount of showmanship that can be rewarded.