Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Bitch Planet #8. Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick (Pretty Deadly, Captain Marvel) with art by Valentine De Landro (X-Factor, Shadowman: End Times) and colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick (The Black Hood, DC Comics Bombshells), this issue delivers a series of major events that push the story into compelling new territory. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
The comic gods are smiling on Kelly Sue DeConnick fans this week, which features new issues of both of DeConnick’s outstanding Image series, Bitch Planet and Pretty Deadly. The latter is a stunning, poignant conclusion to an arc that we wrote about in this February’s Big Issues, and DeConnick and the rest of her team stick the landing of a very challenging story in Pretty Deadly #10. Bitch Planet #8 is challenging in a different way; it’s far less lyrical and visually experimental, but the content forces readers to examine gender inequality in the real world via a worst-case-scenario future where noncompliant cis- and transgender women are sent to an off-planet prison. This week’s issue features an important addition to the narrative as it introduces the trans women inmates of the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost: Facility One, but that’s just one of the big developments in this game-changing chapter that considerably complicates the future of the title.
Although pop culture is starting to take steps forward with regards to trans representation, trans people are experiencing stronger pushback than ever in the political realm, with this year seeing a surge in anti-trans bills introduced in state legislatures. Combine that with the country’s worst mass shooting ever occurring in an LGBT safe space during Pride Month and it starts to feel like 2016 is an endless onslaught against queer people, who would all be classified as “noncompliant” in the world of Bitch Planet. Thus far, the series hasn’t delved much into where trans people fit in this environment, but that changes with the introduction of Facility One and its prisoners, who have the unfortunate distinction of being “the first to be sent away.”
The issue doesn’t spend too much time in Facility One, but the sequence serves as an effective display of the routine humiliation and abuse these women face during their incarceration while also adding an element of dramatic irony to the narrative. Inmate Kamau Kogo is desperately searching for her sister, Morowa, and while Kamau has no idea where her sister is, the reader knows that Morowa is at Facility One. This creates tension when Kamau gets a rare opportunity to search the prison for Morowa, and the reader’s knowledge that the path Kamau is taking doesn’t lead to her desired target builds anticipation for the reveal of who is in the isolated prison cell Kamau makes her way toward when the power goes out.
This arc is called “President Bitch” and the covers have prominently featured the woman who holds this title, though she hasn’t yet made her appearance in the narrative. These covers have done much to create excitement for the debut of this figure, and the teasing ends at the end of this week’s issue when Kamau and her reluctant accomplice, Agent Whitney, discover Eleanor Doane in her isolated single cell. Given the issue’s opening scene showing a meeting of “The Children of Eleanor Doane” on Earth, this addition of Eleanor to the cast opens a wealth of storytelling opportunities concerning who she is, how she ended up on Bitch Planet, and why there’s a group of followers dedicated to fighting fear in her name.
The reason Kamau is able to leave her cell and explore the prison is because Makoto Maki, architect and father of the late Meiko Maki, shuts down the power grid after learning of his daughter’s death. The scene where Makoto makes this discovery is the most heartbreaking moment of the issue, and the creative team does exceptional work depicting Makoto’s silent emotional journey as he realizes that he’s never going to see his daughter again. The scene is dominated by the bright pink that defines the jail’s malevolent, duplicitous A.I., which tries to trick Makoto into believing his daughter is alive by showing him a virtual version of Meiko that is a far cry from the woman he knew. Makoto stands out against this pink, which draws extra attention to each pronounced change in his facial expressions as the shock and grief start to sink in. He puts on a happy face for the A.I., but deep down he knows what’s really happened, and the final page of this scene incorporates a wide spectrum of colors to indicate that there has been a major shift in Makoto’s relationship with both his daughter and the environment that killed her.
Artist Valentine De Landro’s deep understanding of facial expressions and body language make these characters feel real and allow DeConnick to include plenty of nonverbal emotional shifts in her scripts because they will be clearly broken down in the artwork. Body language plays an essential part in quickly establishing Morowa’s character, and she carries herself with a confidence and strength that isn’t seen in the other Facility One inmates. When Morowa’s lover, Rose, steps out from her medical exam, she has her head lowered and is covering her naked body, but Morowa keeps her head up and her arms by her sides, even after she’s beaten for talking back to one of the physicians. Morowa will not be broken, and she manages to find a silver lining after having her lip busted by the guard during her own examination, using the blood as lipstick so she and Rose can be pretty for a little bit.
Kelly Fitzpatrick replaces original series colorist Cris Peter on this new arc, and Fitzpatrick takes a more grounded, textured approach to the visuals. Fitzpatrick leans into the ’70s exploitation film influence by making the pages look weathered: The gutters of each page are a faded, grainy beige reminiscent of the low-quality paper comics used to be printed on, and there are no solid blacks in the coloring, which ages the artwork even further. Peters’ issues had a bold, futuristic look, but Fitzpatrick’s look like artifacts from a past era, giving the story a timeless quality that makes it especially eerie considering the subject matter.
The contributions of letterer Clayton Cowles shouldn’t be ignored in discussing Bitch Planet, and the final pages of this issue spotlight how his work ties into the flow and pace of the narrative. (This week’s Pretty Deadly also features a back matter interview with Cowles delving into the art of lettering.) Kamau and Whitney’s journey to Eleanor Doane’s cell is depicted with a large panel showing a maze, and their movement through the labyrinth of the prison corridors is dictated by the placement of word balloons and the length of their tales. The space between balloons represents time passing and distance traveled, and it’s a very clever way of compressing the narrative with the lettering.
Bitch Planet #8 has four credited consultants, three of whom are trans women, who are helping DeConnick with her depiction of the new trans characters being added to the cast. In a short essay in the back of the issue, DeConnick details why she reached out to Aria Ehren, Emma Houxbois, and Mey Valdivia Rude for assistance, explaining that because trans experiences are so rarely seen in our culture, she and De Landro want to hear from real people who are living that experience and can inform their creative choices. DeConnick also details why her violin teacher, Nick Shadow, is named as one of the consultants, providing background information that enriches the scene with Makoto listening to a virtual simulacrum of his daughter playing the violin. This creative team is committed to putting in the work to make sure that they handle sensitive material with care, and while that has taken a toll on the book’s shipping schedule, that dedication has resulted in one of the most compelling comics on the stands.
In a comics landscape where graphic novels and collections considerably outsell the majority of single issues, Bitch Planet has found a way to make each individual chapter a valuable, satisfying purchase by including loads of back matter that enlighten the main story. This issue contains two essays—one on the treatment of black bodies and black identity in contemporary culture, another on trans representation—as well as an interview with the creator of the Feminist Sticker Club, a reading list of trans positive books, and multiple pages of letters from readers. Designer Lauren McCubbin gives the back matter a sleek look that makes it especially attractive, and all this extra content makes this comic more than just a dystopian sci-fi feminist narrative. It’s a thoughtful, comprehensive resource that uses the story as a launchpad to explore how these themes ties into the world off the page, educating readers so they get more out of each new trip to Bitch Planet.