Sunday, 20 December 2015

They Came To Outer Space

It’s Orange Is The New Black in space! It’s Orange Is The New Infinite Blackness Between Stars!

Except it isn’t, of course (though that may have made for a handy elevator pitch), and given its politics it’s hard to imagine anyone involved in making Bitch Planet would be happy with the idea of equating it to the Netflix hit just because both are set in a woman’s prison.  There are parallels, obviously, but the TV show (at least in its first season, which is all I’ve seen to date) concerns itself with the isolation and hopelessness generated by an incarceration system swollen utterly out of control by the twin political aims of generating the cheapest possible labour force and of always looking tougher on crime than the other guy. Bitch Planet is saying something very different.

And it is not saying it quietly. The comic opens on a woman trying to make it to a job as a voice actress. It is not a job at which she is appreciated, with the technician – despite being in the middle of an asthmatic episode – swearing he will do the job himself if she is any later. Because why wouldn’t a wheezing techie do as good a job at speaking with clarity and panache as the woman someone hired specifically because she's good at those things? What’s no less telling is why this woman is having to rush to a job she’s already late for; she’s trying desperately to make her way through streets packed with men who are too caught up in their masculine shit to recognise they need to make way for her. Above her gigantic billboards say things like “BECAUSE HE SAID SO”, “EAT LESS POOP MORE”, “OBEY” and “WE GET BY WHEN WE COMPLY”. It’s They Live with capitalism replaced with the male gaze. It’s our world if the patriarchy would actually admit it exists, rather than dressing as Batman because it doesn’t get to see its son as much as it thinks it should.

This is the central theme of Bitch Planet; what if society started saying the quiet part loud? What if refusing to lose weight or answering back or just basically being unable to retard your ageing process indefinitely got you literally expelled from society rather than just - “just” – being looked down on by all and sundry?

What with this being the first issue, there’s not much time to really explore that question; there's simply too much set-up to get through. Even so, though, DeConnick manages to get in another hard-hitting dig at contemporary Western civilisation – even in a prison designed  for “non-compliant” women, it apparently occurred to no-one to stitch together uniforms for plus-sized inmates – and two solid narrative twists which each not only work splendidly in their own right but further underline the fundamentals of the book.

Saying more on these issues would be to rather spoil the, er, issue, so let me simply say this is some of the most intriguing and progressive writing of the year and move on to discussing De Landro's artwork, which is kinetic but scratchy. It's not my favourite style, to tell you the truth, but it's a good fit for the purposefully retro feel of what is going on here. This is a book concerned with taking the past (specifically exploitation flicks and the surrounding unfettered sexism) and forging them into something new and better. That's bound to be a messy process, and at least on that level De Landro feels like a solid choice.

As does this whole package, in fact. Even saying that though feels like I'm underselling this book's potential. DeConnick has proved in less than two dozen pages that she understands not just how to spin a yarn, but how to anchor herself to something that will make the yarn worth spinning. As opening salvoes go, what more could you possibly need?

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