Caged and Enraged: Bitch Planet Comics Studies Round Table (part one)

Editor’s Note: This is the first of an exciting three-part series here on The Middle Spaces—organized and co-edited by Qiana Whitted—a round table of nine different scholars discussing Image Comics’ Bitch Planet series, by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro. Full bios for all our contributors can be found on the Guest Writers page.

“Rough Batch” – An Introduction to the Bitch Planet Round Table

Qiana Whitted Associate Professor of English and African American Studies at University of South Carolina

In Bitch Planet #1, a new group of prisoners is sent from Earth to the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost (ACO) – a planet for dangerous women whose so-called crimes include marital neglect, patrilineal dishonor, fetal murder, wanton obesity, and gender treason. As they are transported through space, the women’s bodies float in a suspended state as if in utero, attached to breathing tubes while an audio loop describes the lives of “penitence and service” that await them. But there is something different about this group of women; one has even volunteered to make the trip. No wonder an ACO technician surveys the roster of new arrivals and remarks, “Jeez Louise, rough batch.”

Launched in December 2014 by Image Comics, Bitch Planet was created by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Valentine De Landro with colors by Cris Peter and letters by Clayton Cowles. As of this writing, the series is at 10 issues with five more from an anthology series called Bitch Planet: Triple Feature featuring contributors such as Cheryl Lynn Eaton, Andrew Aydin, Kit Cox, and Nyambi Nyambi. The feminist sci-fi comic satirizes a techno-dystopian future dominated by constant surveillance and the kind of brutal spectacle that is reminiscent of the prison exploitation films of the 1970s. Hetero-patriarchal tyranny manifests in the story through the Council of the Fathers and is bolstered by a predatory consumer culture that boxes people in and out, much like the twelve-panel grid that opens almost every issue.

Importantly, the comic’s main characters, like most of the prisoners quarantined on Bitch Planet, are women and non-gender conforming persons of color: Kamau “Kam” Kogo and her sister Morowa, Meiko Maki, Penny Rolle, and former President Eleanor Doane. For stepping out of line, these women are deemed “Non-Compliant,” a diagnosis made all the more sinister when framed by the language and iconography of criminality, sin, and sickness. Against the heavily-inked shadows and slate gray tones of the penitentiary, synthetic pink digital interfaces and faceless guards extol the healing power of pain and humiliation. And when the Fathers force the prisoners to take part in an arena sport called Megaton, the televised competition quickly becomes the comic’s analogy for the battles women face in this society and the acuity, brawn, and sheer luck necessary to survive in it. As the stories of Kam and the other women unfold, the series transforms the two block letters that brand their orange uniforms – NC – from a mark of shame to something as tough and as tender as scar tissue.

The visual and verbal dynamics of this story-world alone are striking enough to warrant the attention of scholars in comics studies. Yet Bitch Planet is also distinguished by DeConnick and De Landro’s efforts to open up a dialogue with activists and academics within the comic itself. From the very start, the title has engaged the ideas put forth by researchers in gender and sexuality studies, black feminist and queer theory, political movements, critical prison studies, and much more. The strategy recalls the bloated advisory boards of professionals that frequented the inside cover of 1940s comics, except that with Bitch Planet, the expert voices are more interested in complicating and building on what the series has to offer, rather than placating the parents of young comics readers. A rich selection of material at the end of each issue incorporates critical essays and bibliographies into a fan-addict’s wonderland of letters, editorial commentary and interviews, tweets, and reader-submitted photos of tattoos, needlework, and cosplay.

Our roundtable contributes to this conversation by bringing together nine academics whose experience with the study of comics is accompanied by a variety of cross-disciplinary interests in Bitch Planet. We asked these scholars to consider how their knowledge of comics history, aesthetics, and storytelling strategies can further enrich our understanding of the series setting, its characters and their choices. Speculation drives these short pieces; we are posing questions and making observations that are designed to prompt further discussion about the critical intersections that Bitch Planet inspires. We’re mindful, of course, that the comic has not yet concluded its first major story arc and remains a relatively newish series, despite the exuberant media attention and reader engagement that it has generated over the last three and a half years.

Nevertheless, the tenured professors, junior faculty, and doctoral students featured here are eager to incorporate the comic’s thematic and artistic provocations into our scholarly pursuits. Several of the participants presented conference papers on Bitch Planet at last year’s International Comic Arts Forum, where DeConnick appeared as a guest speaker. At least three are in the process of writing articles and book chapters on the series for publication. Nearly all of us have begun teaching the comic to college students in courses ranging from “Gender in Comics” and “Black Popular Culture” to surveys in U.S. Literature (using many of the helpful strategies suggested by this 2016 pedagogical roundtable at Women Write About Comics).

As a result, the critical questions that follow speculate about a range of issues, including pieces on African-American, Asian-American, and transgender representation in the series. One post calls attention to the pivotal role of laughter, while another suggests a comparison between Megaton and the dystopian YA novel series, The Hunger Games. Other contributions explore aesthetic and design elements such as the comic’s use of color, screens and mirrors, and advertising parodies. And we are thrilled to close the roundtable with a short excerpt of a chapter on Bitch Planet from Rebecca Wanzo’s completed manuscript, The Content of Our Caricature: African American Citizenship and Graphic Storytelling (under contract with NYU press).

We welcome your feedback, particularly from regular readers of The Middle Spaces and from other comics scholars who are just as intrigued as we are by the series. What questions are you asking about Bitch Planet?

(from Bitch Planet #3 – words by Kelly Sue DeConnick, art by Robert Wilson IV)

How Do Screens Function as Mirrors in Bitch Planet?

Francesca Lyn, doctoral candidate in Media, Art & Text at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia.

Bitch Planet, the Image Comics series created by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Valentine De Landro, presents a foreboding techno-future where screens are used as an ubiquitous method of patriarchal control. The plot could easily be taken from the television series Black Mirror, which explores our dependency on technology, often taking on dystopian themes. Its title alludes to the darkened surface of a screen, a black scrying mirror where we can perhaps glimpse images of an ominous future.

In Bitch Planet screens are an oppressive, claustrophobic presence that emphasize homogeneity and conformity through the aesthetics of screen culture. Visually, the comic’s title page takes on a cinematic quality, with the title appearing large and the creator’s name appearing below. The title is styled in blocky text with a limited color palette to look like a B movie poster, resembling those of 1970s women-in-prison films such as The Big Doll House (1971) and Caged Heat (1974). The comic’s structure also reproduces the effects of the screen. Some of the comics panels resemble the pixelated surfaces of early LCD screens or grainy surveillance footage.

Screens are also used for torture in order to psychologically break women. For instance, after the death of prisoner Marian Collins, prisoner Kamau Kogo is placed in a room made of screens. This nightmarish room is meant to coerce Kamau into making a false confession to the murder. Screens surround Kamau on all sides, some presenting images of Marian. Though the experience is clearly overwhelming and painful, the screens fail to break Kamau. Instead her resistance is represented by her actually breaking one of the video screens.

In Bitch Plant the viewing of screens is compulsory. It is part of the duties of being a good citizen. In a flashback, prisoner Penny Rolle reveals how she was arrested and sentenced to the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost (nicknamed “Bitch Planet”). Penny, passionate about cooking and food, was working as a baker. While at work a male customer interrupts Penny and demands she put “the feed” (the state run media channel) on the big screen. When a female customer remarks that this could be watched on private screens, she is immediately chastised. As the feed plays, Penny becomes increasingly angry at both the customers and the feed’s content. Finally she explodes, smashing the screen with a rolling pin and then using the same rolling pin to hit a male customer that made racist and lewd remarks about her.

Penny Rolle sees her ideal self. (from Bitch Planet #3)

Like Kamau, Penny is also subjected to screens in prison. The Fathers who oversee Bitch Planet claim that a computer will be able to read Penny’s brain waves and then render a visualization of her ideal self. Penny is afraid to look, as she is aware that society thinks that the way she looks is wrong. She is too fat, her hair is wrong, she is neither black nor white. However, Penny’s idealized self looks exactly like her, presenting a visually accurate mirror image. Significantly, this image visualization is presented not in a square of a rectangular screen but in what resembles a full-length mirror. Rather than accepting that Penny likes her appearance, the technicians comment that the visualization must somehow be broken, that the screen must somehow be at fault. Penny’s response is to laugh, recognizing that it is not she who is broken and that these screens, these black mirrors, cannot break her.

The world of Bitch Planet is dominated by screens. Numerous and varied, they represent surveillance and media displays, and function as a panopticon where every individual is aware of being watched. This awareness exerts societal control. Additionally, these screens function as mirrors that are continually being broken by women that are deemed Non-Compliant. These women are constantly scrutinized and without privacy, forced to reflect and compare their image with that of other women. Can screens be a tool of resistance? How can screens be subverted by resistance forces? In what ways does Bitch Planet employ methods of sousviellance (the recording of an activity by a participant in the activity) alongside surveillance? Is surveillance always unethical or problematic?

How does Bitch Planet Challenge Popular Portrayals of Asian Americans as the Model Minority?

Jeanette Roan, Associate Professor in the Visual Studies Program and the Graduate Program in Visual and Critical Studies at California College of the Arts

There is an astounding image near the end of issue #6 of Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet: young Meiko Maki’s smiling face reflected in a large pool of her would-be assailant’s blood.  For readers, the surprising turn of events that leads to this moment comes with a measure of satisfaction, not in the act of violence as such, but rather in the unanticipated twist to an all too familiar story.  Popular culture is replete with scenes of blond, blue-eyed men attired in ersatz Asian robes, in rooms decorated with Asian things, anticipating the attentions of a beautiful Asian woman.  But this ending—Doug Braxton’s ending—is shockingly, deliciously unexpected.  

In an essay about the representation of Asian women in U.S. films, writer Jessica Hagedorn reminisces with pleasure about the Jade Cobra gang girls in the 1985 Michael Cimino film Year of the Dragon.  Though minor characters, Hagedorn recalls them as “defiant, fabulous images.”  She remembers one particular scene, the conclusion of a shoot out in a Chinatown nightclub, in which the main character, police officer Stanley White (Mickey Rourke), asks a dying Jade Cobra girl (Doreen Chan): “You got anything you wanna tell me before you go, sweetheart?”  Her response: “Yeah. Fuck you.”  These characters are Hagedorn’s “small revenge, the answer to all those Suzie Wong ‘I want to be your slave’ female characters.”

(from Bitch Planet #4)

Similarly, Meiko Maki strikes a chord with Asian women who have been fetishized as exotic, erotic Orientals, a musical metaphor that speaks to a feeling of recognition and identification.  Meiko’s actions are a “fuck you” to all those who see only a sexy, submissive geisha girl rather than the precocious engineer or the shit-talking Non-Compliant who yells “And that is how it’s done, muthfuckaaaaaaas!” after she scores for her team, playing the rugby-like bloodsport, Megaton.

In addition, Meiko’s backstory introduces readers to her non-compliant family, who challenge the model minority myths that not only pit Asian-Americans against other racial minorities in the U.S. but also homogenize a strikingly diverse racial group.  Furthermore, their resistance is made possible by the perception of Asian-Americans as compliant, as people who are willing to do as they are told, who will not complain, who do not fight back.  Asian-American history has had its share of non-compliant women, people like Yuri Kochiyama, Grace Lee Boggs, and Helen Zia, all of whom have devoted their lives to fighting for social justice.  Yet popular perceptions persist of Asian American women as quiet, docile, servile, and meek.

Initially, Meiko doesn’t look like she’d be much help on the Megaton team to Kam, who only sees someone who is “a hundred pounds sopping wet.” But as Meiko points out, she and Penny can balance each other out, and indeed the two develop an effective on-field strategy, with Penny’s size and strength clearing the path forward for the much smaller, but much faster, Meiko.  As Penny says, “me and Meiko got a thing we do.”  Penny confounds those who gaze upon her with displeasure by defiantly claiming her body, as it is, as ideal.  In contrast, Meiko is seen as the very image of socially sanctioned femininity, a literal illustration, on the first page of issue #6, of the masculinist analogy between the hourglass shape of a violin and a woman’s body.  Although Penny and Meiko are very different, in their embodiment and in their backstories, during their tragically short time together they model a vision of women of different sizes, shapes, and backgrounds putting their collective talents to work towards a common goal and celebrating their victories together.

Issue #7 includes a letter from a reader, M, who identifies as “Eurasian, multiethnic.” M expresses disappointment with Meiko’s death, noting that East Asian, South Asian, and Middle Eastern minorities are often invisible in popular discourse, existing in “a weird space in society between black and white” and often treated “as foreign and suspicious.”  M writes, “it was powerful to see Meiko so included, and not just as a throwaway character: a literal reminder that people who look like me and walk this strange space between black and white have a home amongst the non-compliants.”  

Meiko prepares to garrote her father’s co-worker who seeks to blackmail him in order to fulfill his Asian fetish with his daughters (from Bitch Planet #6) [Art by Taki Soma]

Learning Meiko’s origin story and meeting the rest of her family soothes somewhat the sting of her death, but her absence from the issues that follow raises questions about whether Asian-Americans will continue to have a “home amongst the non-compliants.”  Meiko’s father Makoto’s actions at the prison, undertaken in her honor, suggest the answer is yes, at least for the moment.  But is his function within the story now also fulfilled?  At the end of issue #5, DeConnick writes of trying to find a way to avoid Meiko’s death: “I wanted to save her, but the story doesn’t work if she lives.”  Imprisoned female former President Doane and her supporters mean to take back the world.  But will people like Makoto or Meiko participate in this uprising, or have they already played their parts?   

Works Cited:

Hagedorn, Jessica. “No Joy, No Luck: Asian Women in Film,” Ms. Magazine (January/February 1994), 74-79.

How Should We Think About Color in Bitch Planet?

Joshua Plencner, Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Union College.

Well, firstly and simply, we should think about color in Bitch Planet. Cris Peter’s vibrant, electric, and at times bombastic color palette feels almost architectural to the broader narrative, and Kelly Fitzpatrick’s interpretation of the world has developed that lively spirit in exciting new directions. Too often it is true that colorists’ work gets short shrift in comics studies scholarship. Indeed, as Jan Baetens (2011) argues, comics studies suffers from a kind of “color-blindness” (112-13). While Baetens acknowledges that “most case studies of comic books and graphic novels mention color and make room to discuss its use” (111), he convincingly points out that very few scholars have taken advantage of that room. As a result, our most dominant critical voices—and the methodological preferences they model in widely-cited monographs—tend to flatten the myriad means by which color shapes comic books and graphic novels under study.

In that way, such methodological “color-blindness” isn’t exactly inconsequential. To say nothing of that fact that this field-crafting “chromophobia” effectively erases the labor of colorists in producing the finished artwork printed and sent to market (see Batchelor 2000), inattention to color recasts comics studies in problematically monochromatic terms, favoring the canon “black and whites” that, although apparently lacking color, are neatly composed of two of them (and then again often in various kinds of grayscale). As we pore over the critical discourse of comics studies it seems that color “is both everywhere… and nowhere,” present throughout the entirety of the corpus yet critically undertheorized (Baetens 111).

But when considering this under-theorization alongside a book like Bitch Planet, which explores themes familiar to recent constellations of real-world social protest, we might immediately confront the polyvalence of Baetens’s observed “color-blindness” to emphasize the manner in which comics studies’ inattention to color entails an inattention to questions of race and racism, historical processes of racial formation and identity construction, and the cultural role of comics in girding the political project of white supremacy across time and space. After all, “color-blindness,” isn’t simply a methodological quirk of a nascent scholarly field; it is a hegemonic racial ideology that formally excludes race from substantive public deliberation in order to secure and defend the structural (which is to say social, political, and economic) advantages of whiteness.

Thus, casting colorblindness in its more widely recognizable political valence is productive here in order to interrogate how colorists and their work provide fascinating opportunities to reflect on racial meaning, emphasizing themes inherent within the narrative through a kind of polychromatic politics—a powerful exercise in colorful racial world-making.

Kam entangled in a room made of screens, entangled by pink speech bubbles (from Bitch Planet #2)

Peters’ initial palette choices in Bitch Planet—for instance, and I think most prominently, the neon pink bathing the central protagonists as they’re transported to the prison world in the very first issue, and that same hue’s continued use throughout the story as the color of the holographic representation of the prison warden—are crucial in the construction and hierarchization of racial identity. Indeed, the case of the prison warden is especially instructive. In early scenes, when shown towering over the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost’s new arrivals, the warden’s pink can be read as a candy-avatar of idealized white femininity, searing reader attention with glowing-hot tones that both radiate outwards and pull the eye inwards—a kind of luminous node centering and emphasizing the authority of whiteness on the page.

Elsewhere, that same pink functions as a binding power, literally constraining the bodies of black and brown characters. For example, in the second issue when Kamau Kogo is subjected to the “confession module” after Marian Collins is murdered in a “red window”—or, an off-the-books execution—the warden’s relentless attempts to cajole Kamau into a confession are depicted as a long string of pink speech bubbles. Each beat of the speech further entangles Kamau in the warden’s efforts to pin the murder on her. Distant and small, and wrapped within the warden’s pink speech balloon tethers, Kamau’s situation renders visible the vicious anti-blackness of white feminine ideals.

So much more can be said, but by thinking through color in Bitch Planet at all, I want to be clear that what’s at stake here isn’t simply an extension of formal analysis into hue, shade, and tone; rather, I propose that the consideration of color in comics studies necessarily entails an analysis of racial meaning and power. Specifically, Bitch Planet compels the study hegemonic white racial ideology—how it is built, maintained, and defended, as well as how comics use can color to challenge the assumptions of whiteness by revealing its inherent violence and oppression.

Works Cited:

Baetens, Jan. 2011. “From Black and White to Color and Back: What Does It Mean (Not) to Use Color?” College Literature 38(3), pp. 111-128.

Batchelor, David. 2000. Chromophobia. London: Reaktion Books.

We encourage readers to contribute comments and questions below and to come back in two days for part two of our round table when three more scholars will explore a question about this fantastic and rich comic book series.

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