Bitch Planet Vol 1: Extraordinary Machine
Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick
Art by Valentine De Landro
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
I heard about Bitch Planet before I actually got the chance to read it. Heard about it a lot.
Don’t wanna actually go looking for all the links but it was all stuff like: “OMG! Finally the Feminist Comic We’ve Been Searching For!” “This is the Book to Take Down the #Patriarchy” “The Most Dangerous Series of the 21st Century” – you know – stuff like that. I think I even saw something (on Twitter most probably) about how people were getting tattoos that said NC “Non-Compliant” (oh actually here we go I found that one: Why Bitch Planet Is Inspiring Women to Get Badass Feminist Tattoos).
But yeah. I’m not really the type to go out and actually buy a comic. At the risk of sounding too on brand: if you wait a while your local library will go and buy a copy and you can go and borrow it for free.
Would it surprise you to learn that when I actually got around to reading it I was disappointed?
I was chatting with a friend a few weeks ago and she said something that stuck in my head: something like – she only really likes art that agrees with what she thinks. Like: I don’t know if this is a stretch and maybe she’s in a minority of one but this kinda struck me as almost the new critical default. That the best way to evaluate and understand a comic or a movie or a tv show or piece of music is just to check to see how closely it matches the things you already believe… If it matches it closely then that means it’s good and if it believes something totally different that must mean that it’s racist nazis and that means it’s bad bad very bad.
Examples: reading reviews of stand up sets and all the funny jokes are the ones that are ideologically on point and all the bad ones are the ones that say things that you aren’t supposed to say and/or are socially unacceptable. I mean of course (do you really need me to say this?) it’s much easier to be funnier if you’re already on side and there is a propensity for some to hide behind a banner of “I’m just telling it how it is” to be boring and boorish (see: Gervais, Ricky) – but for me part of the excitement of good interesting things are to make you feel uncomfortable and leave you feeling unsure what to think – no? Like Donald Glover’s new This is America video – I mean: it seems as if the rest of the world is hailing it as somesort of god-given genius but all I can see is someone playing towards all of the things that everyone already believes: which yeah ok – of course I know it’s nice to have a piece of art that makes you feel that you’re not alone but isn’t there a way to mix it into things that also take you out of your comfort zone?
I say all this because I feel like Bitch Planet is actually a perfect exemplar of this way of seeing the world. I mean – I’m a little nervous to stick my head above the parapet like this – but I’d like it think of myself as being a feminist (altho by the lights of this article I’m more into social feminism than radical feminism which maybe makes me a bad guy? I dunno). And the prospect of a comic that was set on a prison planet where women who refused to be compliant sounded like an incredibly cool concept. I mean – taking the unspoken assumptions of the organisation of society and making them explicit with a kinda 70s prison movie tinge? That sounds like something that would be really interesting plus fun to read: its Win/Win.
Only well yeah: I got the first volume and barely managed to make it to the end (sorry DeConnick!). I mean: I very much dug the way that the first issue kinda seemed like it was setting up a kinda OITNB Piper Chapman type as the main character – only to have it undercut on the last page (I am remembering that right – right?). But the further I waded in the more I couldn’t escape the feeling that the whole book was nothing more than the message. I mean – Issue 3 was the most blatant example of this in a way that I’m not sure I’m going to be able to sum up properly but let me try… It’s the one with Penelope Leona Rolle who is charged with “Insubordination, assault, assault, assault, repeated citations of aesthetic offenses, capillary disfigurement and wanton obesity.” She brought up before a video panel of corporate-looking middle aged men who take it in turns to judge her and do a series of Lost-style flashbacks. They’re going to do an experiment and plug her into a “Cerebral Action-Potential Integration and Extrapolation Matrix” which basically takes a bunch of your brain readings and projects your ideal self on to a screen in front of you… And omg even before I’ve got to the end I knew what the big shocking twist was going to be (because of course of course). And while yeah: the message of it is a good one that I agree with (of course be happy with yourself): the underlying mechanics of it are all so incredibly flimsy. I mean – didn’t all the evil white guys realise that this was going to be a possibility? And wouldn’t it have just been much easier just to get someone to Photoshop her? Like: these are questions that they kinda could have gone into and explored and maybe made the thing more interesting – but the overwhelming feeling I got was that it doesn’t really matter – all that’s important is the uplift and Penny’s laughter of triumph at the end (“I ain’t broke. And you bastards ain’t never going break me.”). And so all that’s left is the kinda shallow emotions as an advert for soap or something similar. And I dunno – like: all it would have taken to make it feel a little bit more real is just maybe working on Penny’s character a little bit more so that the final revelation made a kinda psychological sense (maybe that was there but I didn’t see it / feel it). And maybe if there was a reason for the Cerebral Action-Potential Integration and Extrapolation Matrix to exist apart from just being such an obvious set-up. (Here’s an idea: maybe the evil white guys re-purposed it from the consumer market? Like: maybe it’s public use was a kinda “Get Fit” motivator for gyms and stuff. You get the thingies on your brain and then you get a sense of what you’re aiming towards. Or something like that. I dunno).
But hey – maybe I’m swimming against the tide here. Maybe the type of thing that does it for me just isn’t in vogue anymore. Maybe the world has already seen too much combative and abrasive artworks and it’s better now that we have things which are more accommodating to people. Not so much art that’s going to change your life and more things that already match with what you already believe and give you an extra boost. Like an energy drink or something.
I just like the things that are a bit more knotty – because I think they get stuck in my mind more. Writing all this down I can’t stop thinking of The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin which I think might be one of my favourite books of all time. And a big part of the reason why I love it is that even tho it starts off as a kinda Capitalism = bad / Socialism = good kinda thing as it goes along it digs down into that and shows how things aren’t quite that simple and gives you a fuller understanding and an appreciation of the complexities.
But yeah: maybe that’s not what it’s all about.
What do you think?
Maybe it’s cos I’m a cynical bitch, but this book feels suuuuuper cynical to me – sure you could do insightful political commentary, but isn’t it easier to dress up The Running Man in feminist clothes, beat up on some strawmen and sell gangbusters? Even down to the carefully designed ‘non-conformist’ logo and hints that wouldn’t it make a cool tat it all feels like a really calculated way to make a quick buck.
Maybe I’m wrong, looking at the singles with their short essays at the end – maybe the idea is more to hook people in with exploitation, then dissect it afterwards? But if you omit the essays from the TPB, that says to me that they can’t be very central to the work.
I suppose the bad guys in the flicks this is mimicking are never more than moustache-twirling villains, but that’s never struck me as a strength, just a shortcut to get to the action as soon as possible, and one that comics are actually really well-placed not to need given the ease of flashbacks, simultaneous threads, and so on.
Talking of getting to the action (slick segue there, you’re welcome) the main thing that struck me about this book was the art – specifically the layout. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading McCloud recently that I’m noticing it more.
This. This is not good design, and it’s not rocket science – you do not put important things in the fold because this happens. What clown looked at that and thought ‘yep, good enough’? That’s the worst offender, but there’s a ton of problems with layout just on that spread:
I’ve put where my eye went on that page, I’m still not sure what route I was planned to read it in. I follow the panel down, then across to the nearby text, but I’ve missed a panel and then it all goes a bit to hell. The art as a whole is ok, I guess, it’s just the design of it that’s so… careless.
I’d really recommend a quick read of this article about panel layouts. In particular, the section on the importance of staggering panels:
“…I started studying Hergé’s work and noticed that he staggered the gutters of his comics. I came to the realization that this was to prevent what designers called “rivers.” A river occurs when there is a gap in information that coincides with a gap below. The danger is that a reader might drop down to the next line of info before completing the first one… “
It’s not like the readers’ eyes will catch fire or something if you don’t follow it, but vertical coloumns can really confuse your layout.
Like this one – reads OK if there’s nothing to confuse it but if you factor in the crease, and the accidental continuity in words (working far more naturally than the actual next balloon imo) and shit gets all confused. Not enough to make it impossible to read, but enough to make me stop and go ‘am I reading this the right way?’, which immediately pulls me out of the story.
Rant over. Apparently I have opinions about panel layouts now, thanks McCloud!
Also, there’s a discussion guide at the back of the book! Should we discuss the stuff on it, or discuss the guide, or just ignore it?
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Oh wow Rat! Nice post. 🙂
I mean this is a good way: but it actually makes me feel a little bit inadequate. Like pretty much all of the time when I talk about comics I’m never really digging down and getting to the root of how the comic actually works. You know: the gritty nuts and bolts of it. The mechanics and etc. I prefer kinda swimming around the place and being a lot more… I don’t know… flopyish? (Is that a real word?). But yeah actually thinking about how the panels are structured and how they move is… good stuff. (I think Amanda is really good at this type of analysis too. In fact: talking with her at the Barbican Comic Forum and at the pub afterwards she’s always been pretty good at talking about how good comics criticism needs to try to be more technical in how it approaches things and not just be like: “This is what the story was. I liked it and thought it was good.” etc.
Yes I know that this next bit is going to be a little ironic considering what I’ve already said but I actually that the panel stuff was one of the few things that Bitch Planet did well (LOL).
Like the opening page of #1 is actually pretty well designed no?
Like the way the woman is running from left to right. Her pink/purple top making her out from the crowd. The buildboards above her head giving us some sense of the world that we’re living in and the guy counting down as each panel goes along… I mean: it’s actually pretty good no? And then the kinda meta-fictional flourish that they’re actually recording the voiceover that kicks the whole thing off / works as the opening monologue of the thing like a 80s action TV show (shades of: “If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them….maybe you can hire The A-Team.”) . I mean yeah shit – I’ll admit it: this all seems like GOOD STUFF. (The only bit that doesn’t make sense is why do they foreground the asthma inhaler? Does that become an important point later on in the series? If not it just kinda feel… superfluous.
And then when you get to Bitch…. sorry… the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost and you have those two guys in the green who act as a geek chorus to everything that goes on: it’s a nice touch. (And that giant treadmill scene too! That’s proper good comics that. You kind of thing you have to check a bit to make sure you’re reading it right which is a thing that I like…)
I think maybe this helps to explain a bit why I ended up feeling so meh on the whole thing. Because well yeah: it starts promising and there’s real potential there. Expect well: the giant treadmill scene is also I think when the issue starts to happen which is this – Bitch Planet is basically average TV. I mean: they have to get a team together in order to go and do a thing that …. zzzzzzzzz. Oh. Wait. I’m sorry. Was someone saying something? I mean: that’s kinda my basic feeling with a lot of er popular comic series which are around these days in that – they mostly just feel like storyboards for the TV show that their authors hope that they can become and that’s well…. pretty disappointed. I mean: you have an infinite world and an infinite canvas with infinite possibilities and this is the best you can come up with?
MUST DO BETTER.