A comic book industry veteran for the last decade, Kelly Sue DeConnick first earned her chops adapting manga to English, and graduated to co-authoring scripts with Marvel comics powerhouse Brian Michael Bendis. But DeConnick has created a powerful universe in her own right, launched on the strength of her 2012 Captain Marvel series, which saw Carol Danvers, the original Ms. Marvel, take up the mantle of Captain Marvel, a glass-ceiling-shattering move that found support in an ever-growing army of Danvers cosplayers and superfans, nicknamed the Carol Corps. DeConnick followed this with a pair of creator-owned books for Image Comics. Since 2013, she’s authored Pretty Deadly, a mythic Western in which Death walks the plains, and in December of last year, debuted Bitch Planet, a wildly popular, sci-fi, prison-set femmesploitation series that, while only on the brink of its fourth issue, already has DeConnick’s fans doubling down on her message of female defiance. We sat down for a talk about the current wave of Bitch Planet enthusiasm and the wellspring of rage bubbling beneath the surface.
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Sarah Rose Sharp: I was looking at exploitation as a genre, and it’s based the idea that you’re using a low-budget mechanism that relies on exploitation of a particular cultural milieu. So, how would you characterize what exactly you’re exploiting with Bitch Planet?
Kelly Sue DeConnick: Rage-sploitation? Is that a thing? Maybe a thing.
KSD: Righteous indignation. Indignitsploitation? It doesn’t roll off the tongue. Yeah, I’m trying to use the established tropes from the -sploitation genres, but subvert them and use them to instead underscore how these things are damaging, and some of the more subtle ways that this dehumanization of women — particularly women of color, but also women of size — marginalizes, criminalizes these women for just being who they are. Trying to use those tropes to put a spotlight on how that hurts us all.
SRS: So sort of exploitation-exploitation?
KSD: Yeah, really. That’s like a Christopher Nolan piece.
SRS: And do you think putting it in the context of a prison is hyperbolic, or is it actually pretty reflective — because there’s also been a wave of focus on prisoner rights and women’s prisons …
KSD: Well, we just sent a woman to prison for miscarrying and not being appropriately upset about it, or not handling it in the way we wanted her to, in Indiana.
SRS: So maybe it’s not hyperbolic?
KSD: I mean, I think — and I realize to some people this will make me sound like I’m wearing a tinfoil hat — but I think the most disturbing thing about Bitch Planet is how it’s meant to be a ludicrous satire, but it’s really not all that far-fetched.
I mean, the space travel part — we’re really not ready for that. But the classic sci-fi elements aside, it ain’t that far off.
SRS: Well, and that’s sort of what sci-fi is good for, right? We can offer social critique while saying, ‘No, it’s the future.’
KSD: Right. You know, I think the most effective sci-fi for my taste is the stuff that you recognize and you see your world in it. And that is actually — I have to give Val [Valentine De Landro, Bitch Planet artist] more credit for that than me, because I had really intended for the book to look more crazy futuristic, you know, like distant future, and then when the art started coming in, it was like, men wearing suits that look just like men wear now, you know? And Val’s thing was that if you look back, men’s fashion hasn’t really evolved all that much — basically that sort of uniform sticks. I came around because I think recognizing the world helps you see that this is really only 10 minutes down the road.
SRS: I thought what was interesting, too, is who the story is about. The first character whose backstory you really get into is this big woman, and that is a constantly marginalized figure — basically, the fat chick.
KSD: Yeah, I read an interesting comment online from a woman who said that, as a fat woman, she wished that Penny’s size acceptance hadn’t been her origin story. And I think I understand that, but at the same time, this is a book about engaging with the ways that women are shamed and marginalized and depowered, and to not deal with her size would be incredibly false. And it’s not that Penny’s mind gets changed — Penny doesn’t, like, come to love herself. Penny always loved herself; she always knew there was nothing wrong with her. And I think that’s the point of Penny, this idea that, ‘nope, this is just who I am.’
SRS: And that’s super disruptive in and of itself, because I think for women it’s just standard that there’s something you want to change about yourself. Everyone is unhappy on some level or another.
KSD: I realize that men have body issues as well, and so on and so forth, but I don’t think it’s a fair comparison. I think there is a much broader range of types that are acceptable as men, and men are not put under the brutal cultural judgment and dismissal that women are. And you are entitled to your opinion if you disagree, but I don’t think it’s close.
The sad part of that is the reduction, how women disappear from popular culture in their 40s — they’re just gone. And it’s gotten worse. I had my assistant pull the film stats for 2014, and she pulled one that I hadn’t been aware of before, which was the number of women aged 40 to 60 [appearing in movies]. Whereas the percentage of female characters declined dramatically from their 30s to their 40s (30% to 17%), the percentage of male characters increased slightly, from 27% in their 30s to 28% in their 40s. And then you get into how you’re just as likely to see a woman from another planet as you are to see a Latina or Asian woman. We’re 50.8% of the population in the United States, but 12% of the protagonists in last year’s films, which is down 3% from the year before, which was down 1% from ten years before. We’re holding constant at 30% of speaking roles, though, so woo-hoo! And those are statistics that can’t really be argued with, but what gets argued is, well, why does that matter? Women can cross-identify. But the thing is that if you show women that they are supporting characters in everyone else’s stories, they start to see themselves that way; you limit their contributions, and then you hold us back culturally. Like, as an organism, human beings, if we are not all able to contribute to the height of our gifts, we are held back. I think it makes us ill.
Heidi MacDonald from The Beat did an analysis, and the page count that was given to women cartoonists in The Comics Journal was laughably low. And the response was, ‘Oh, we don’t look at gender.’ Like, you do. You really, really do, and you have a bias.
I have to do a talk at 99U, and I’m trying to figure out what I want to talk about, and their way of differentiating themselves is, ‘We’re not about inspiring, we’re about practical steps, you know?’ And so the thing that was suggested to me was how to make art that promotes social change, and that felt really presumptuous to me — I don’t know if I’m promoting social change.
SRS: It’s a lot to carry.
KSD: But I think what I want to talk about is how to make people uncomfortable. Or how to be uncomfortable.
SRS: How to accept that it’s OK to make people uncomfortable. I was talking to a friend who works in a corporate environment where she’s very successful, and she was talking about how she organized the women at her office to do what’s called the “alley-oop,” which is when in a meeting a women says something, it’s ignored, and then a man says the same thing and receives credit for the idea — that there’s an agreement with the women in her office that a different woman will be like, ‘Didn’t Erica just say that?’
KSD: Oh, good.
SRS: Because you, as a woman, can’t of course be like, ‘Yeah, I just said that.’
KSD: Well, you can.
SRS: But that’s the thing, right? We’re so trained to not rock the boat —
KSD: Because then you’ll get called a bitch, and now you’re a bitch, and now you can’t be worked with, and now you’re against the team.
SRS: And they’ve developed this technique that works around that, but that was exactly my point — to just say it outright would be really uncomfortable.
KSD: Yeah, that is a smart technique, but the piss and vinegar in me is like, ‘yeah, fuck that.’ You know, it’s like that whole thing, ‘I’m sick of talking about sexism.’ You know, I’m fucking sick of talking about it, too.
SRS: Exhausting, right?
KSD: You know what I don’t enjoy? This. But if we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t get any better, sorry.
SRS: So I was thinking about — in the first issue of Bitch Planet, I really fell for the bait-and-switch, in terms of the identity of the central character. If you started from a character basis for this story, which character did you start from?
KSD: Kam has always been the lead in my head, but in Pretty Deadly, even though Ginny has always been the lead in my head, I can’t stop myself from telling everyone else’s story too. I have trouble with the classic protagonist model, and so Kam is the leader for the long game, but there are other very important characters whose stories we’re going to spend time on. We’re committed to 30 issues, and we could go long if it’s going well, and I really want to just be able to take my time and look at all of them. I’m letting out in dribs and drabs how we got here — what happened politically to get us to this point.
SRS: Do you think that ensemble storytelling is more of an inherently female approach?
KSD: I don’t know — I would say not, because the person I think of with this in film most frequently is actually Tarantino. You know, nobody’s just a waiter in a Tarantino film. Everybody has a story.
SRS: Another creator who leverages genre appropriation.
KSD: Yeah, and I think of it as novel style. I think it’s a very novelistic kind of storytelling, and it requires some breathing room, to have some space, which is why, that he’s able to do that in the relatively small amount of space that is a feature film is pretty amazing.
SRS: So, what can we expect upcoming?
KSD: We had a lot of problems with issue #4, because there’s two sex scenes, and trying to do an exploitation sex scene that is — you know, at the end of #3, we’re like, “Next Issue: Lesbian Shower Scene!” And I wanted to live up to that, but at the same time to construct that scene so it wasn’t for the male gaze, you know?
SRS: Right. ‘What is that? Body wash?’
KSD: Yeah. So, it’s harder than you think. And Val was busting his ass and turning in really beautiful pages, but it was like, dude, it’s too porny, you know? It was hard to figure out, how do we de-porn this and still have it be what it’s supposed to be? And then there’s another sex scene at the end, but that one is a seduction, that one is false, so it’s done very conventionally. Anyway, it was a hard issue.
SRS: Now, I heard a rumor that you’ve recently gone Hollywood.
KSD: Yes, yes.
SRS: And I wonder if you’re thinking about moving into a screen medium, TV or movie?
KSD: I write for the team. I write Pretty Deadly for Emma [Emma Ríos, Pretty Deadly artist], and I write Bitch Planet for Val, and it’s about — Pretty Deadly is about trying to figure out how we use myth to help us deal with these painful realities in life, and Bitch Planet is about my rage.
You know, but Pretty Deadly changed tremendously in the making, and I expect Bitch Planet is going to change somewhat. The endgame, I will tell you, all of my collaborators are not on board for. I’m getting this kind of, ‘All right, we’re trusting you, but … ’
SRS: She settles down with a nice man and gets married?
KSD: [laughs] Yes!
SRS: Just the complete antithesis of what your book is about.
KSD: She has the “N” taken off the “NC.” [All the prisoners are branded with “Non-Compliant” tattoos.] Yeah, no, not that. All these fans with [matching] tattoos just read this part and are like, ‘Auuugh.’ Oh, that has been fascinating.
SRS: The tattoos! I was going to ask about this.
KSD: The tattoos have been fascinating, and what has also been fascinating is how angry people get about the tattoos, particularly dudes.
I know, go figure. But there are a couple of dudes on Twitter, and they claim to be supportive of the book, but they are indignant and upset about people getting these tattoos when “that book is only three issues out, and you don’t know what’s going to happen.” And what’s really fascinating to me about it is, first of all, how patronizing it is. This assumption that the people who have made this choice are somehow not aware that there are only three issues out, or that tattoos are permanent — and that this decision has clearly been made from a place of ignorance. But what’s also interesting to me is, as readers and supporters of a book that makes a point of how you should not police women’s bodies, you are policing women’s bodies and making judgments that they cannot make choices for themselves, and are entirely missing it. You don’t see that you’re doing it at all.
And the thing is, the people who get the tattoos, I don’t think it’s about the book at all. If we stopped at three issues, that tattoo would still mean the same thing to them. I think a large part of the fervent love of this is about giving them a community to be angry with. And it isn’t about me, it isn’t about our story, it isn’t about Val, it’s just about giving them a place to be angry and say, ‘I am not broken. I am not criminal for my skin color or my size or the fact that I don’t want to fucking smile at you.’ And to hear you’re not crazy. A whole lot of us are super pissed off.
Bitch Planet #4 will be released by Image Comics on April 29.