Casting Angry Women Off to Space With Kelly Sue DeConnick

"Bitch Planet" creator Kelly Sue DeConnick talks non-compliant women, fangirl tattoos, and her feminist comic book take on sci-fi exploitation.

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Aug 10 2015, 1:00pm

Image courtesy of Kelly Sue DeConnick

"Space is the mother who receives us, you see? Earth is the father. And your father has cast you out. For your trespasses, your gluttony, your pride, your weakness, and your wickedness..."

Bitch Planet opens on an apocalyptic note, with a group of rebel women cast into space. A sci-fi riff on women's prison exploitation, it substitutes prison for a literal "Bitch Planet" populated by resourceful, angry women who have, for one reason or another, been branded "non-compliant" with the absolute patriarchy that reigns on Earth. The plot follows five heroines, including Kamau Kogo, an ass-kicking former athlete framed for murder, and Penny Rolle, exiled from society for her refusal to change her body and lose weight.

But the serialized comic, created by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick (Captain Marvel, Pretty Deadly) and artist Valentine De Landro (X-Factor, Marvel Knights: 4) is never too far from reality. Non-compliance, it turns out, is catching: Feminist writers Lindy West and Laurie Penny are already signed up to contribute essays to future issues, and a growing fan base has emerged online, sharing their stories, their fan art and pictures of their 'NC' (non-compliant) tattoos.

With issue five about to go to print, I spoke to DeConnick about Bitch Planet, Tumblr feminism, and the enduring appeal of Japanese revenge heroine Lady Snowblood.

Broadly: A lot of praise for Bitch Planet has addressed how you use exploitation film tropes without actually being exploitative. Are you watching tonnes of old films as research?
Kelly Sue DeConnick: It's funny, I tried. Part of the reason this book came to be was that I remembered those films very fondly. I wanted to capture what I loved about them but with a bit more of a feminist bent. So I went back to rewatch a bunch of them and found that I just couldn't stomach a lot of those films anymore. I had to turn off The Arena. I was like, 'Right, research done!' There are a few films I still really love: I'm a huge fan of Japanese Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion. I would quite frankly watch Meiko Kaji read the phonebook if she wanted to. Her Lady Snowblood is another favorite of mine.

The first issue of Bitch Planet. Courtesy of Kelly Sue DeConnick

It's interesting in how pulp fiction and cinema so often addresses social issues, but does so in this really hammy way...
Yes, they got to be progressive because they were transgressive. But they're still very much a product of their time.

How closely do you and Valentine De Landro work together? There's so much attention to the diversity of body types, skin color, etc. Is it a very specific process?
We're in an era now where comic writers tend to get a lot more press, and I'm just by nature a very chatty human being, so Bitch Planet is often identified as my book. But it's every bit as much Val's book as it is mine. He created some of the characters: He drew them and had ideas for who they were and where they came from.

I saw you had a Tumblr call to speak to trans people for researching Bitch Planet. Have you spoken to many activists, and people in general, while writing the series?
Yes, though most of all it's been friends. Danielle Henderson is a big part of the DNA of the book: It's often just me talking to Danielle saying, 'This is what I want to do but this is why I'm scared to do it.' And she sweetly slaps me around and tells me not to be scared. I can't preach courage unless I have it. I just wish I trusted me as much as Danielle trusts me. She's tremendous. She's the book's doula.

Has Tumblr played a role in the series? It's where so many people learn about feminism now.
That's a tough one. Tumblr is certainly a part of my online experience, I keep an active page there and on Twitter, and I do a lot of signal boosting. I'm in no way a feminist scholar, but I think a big part of the fourth wave that we're in now, if it's not too soon to call it that, is intersectionality, and some aspect of online activism.

The fourth issue of Bitch Planet. Image courtesy of Kelly Sue DeConnick

How did 'non-compliant' come about? It's such a stark phrase, and it's becoming iconic in its way among fans.
The phrase existed before, usually used in medical terms like [with] people with diabetes who continue to eat sugar, or people who don't take their medicine... What I was really thinking about, using it, was how we put women in boxes. We try to compartmentalize women as though there was one single definition. We have the safe understanding that men are as different as the number of men there are, but culturally we have such a limited understanding of women. And we're not aliens... that whole 'men are from Mars, women are for Venus' thing, it's like, shut up! We're not. We're all from Earth. I have no problem cross-identifying with a man, and a man should have no problem cross-identifying with a woman. I find it absurd and destructive to think we're so wildly different. And this is a prison book, so this is women in literal boxes.

It's really interesting how by putting your non-compliant women on another planet, you're going to the place they've been sent in order to be made invisible, and making them visible again...
The longer we work on this book, the more and more I find it's real. It's supposed to be comedy, it's meant to be darkly funny. But every single time I think I've gone too far, I'll look it up and find something like that's happened in real life, and it's like, "Nope, we're really not that far off." Which I find both sad and affirming that this project is the right use of our time.

It feels less like a comic than a magazine, with the feminist essays and the weird ads on the back page. Is it true that some are for real merch you can order?
The ones that have prices listed for them are real! You cannot order the diet parasite, I'm afraid, but you can in fact order the giant middle finger. For issue five we've expanded the essay section, too, so it'll have my intro, an essay, and a bigger letters section. We're really trying to support our readership and give them a place to connect with one another.

Who had the first non-compliant tattoo?
Isn't it funny, there were so many that happened so fast! I love how people have personalized them. It's interesting to me, also, that people seem to have settled most commonly on the inside of the wrist for theirs. It's such a visible, personal place.

And the middle finger tattoos!
That is awesome, I love that. My friend Dan Curtis Johnson said something that is so true I wish I had said it: He said, 'You don't get that tattoo because you're a fan of something in the book. You get that tattoo because the book is a fan of something in you.'

I really like that. The tattoo becomes a marker of the middle ground between imagination and experience.
The thing about it that's interesting to me is that the words can mean two things. In the world of Bitch Planet you don't choose that label--in the real world you don't choose it either, but still, it means you don't fit, 'you are not what we want you to be.' And really, the truth is that all women are non-compliant. The compliant woman is a hologram. The compliant woman is false: She's a mirage.

The women on Earth in the series must have so many secrets.
Yes! What's so interesting to me about Penny is that her crime isn't her size, but that she doesn't hate herself for it. Penny's act of radical rebellion is to know that there's nothing wrong with her. They're trying to diminish her, and she will not be diminished.

Are there any good men in the world of Bitch Planet? I'm waiting for one to crack and help the women, but it's hard to see them giving up the luxuries of absolute patriarchy...
Yes, there are good men in the world--you've already seen one in the series, but barely, as a clue. But there are varying degrees. There are people who just haven't thought about it long enough. The fascinating thing is that they all think they're good men. 'The Fathers' believe that what they're doing is out of compassion, that you just need to follow their instructions and you'll be happy. 'They just want you to be happy.' That's the most chilling part.

Do you know how Bitch Planet is going to end?
I do. I don't know 100 percent how we're going to get there, but I have a map. It's probably going to take about five years, though, so there's a lot of room for changing things.

I can only imagine how many people are going to have non-compliant tattoos by then.
It's going to be an all-girl army. Although, actually, there are a few dudes who've got the tattoos, too. Which is something I support, completely.