Conspiracies, nightmarish prisons, and a totalitarian state: welcome to Bitch Planet, a new ongoing series written by Kelly Sue DeConnick. The tale begins on an Earth saturated with media displays and surveillance devices before shifting to a ship full of women docking on the titular prison planet. After creating the genre-bending Western fantasy Pretty Deadly, DeConnick’s new venture deconstructs grind-house exploitation and gender dynamics with insight and style. With the first issue launching on Wednesday, Paste chatted with DeConnick about her new comic’s creation, her collaboration with artist Valentine De Landro and the virtues of raising a willful daughter.
Paste: Where did the idea for Bitch Planet come from — the combination of the prison setting within a totalitarian future?
Kelly Sue DeConnick: It started with the idea of wanting to do a women-in-prison story, and wanting it to be in space, and working backwards to make that make sense. I had intended for the book to be much sillier than it is. I had in mind something kind of camp, and I think I missed that mark. When it came to the writing, there’s a certain part of it that’s just intuitive, and there’s no way to explain it, other than to say that it feels right or it feels wrong. There’s nothing less funny than trying to force funny. I had these gags in mind that I was planning to use, and they felt really false and really forced. Ultimately, I decided not to do that.
Paste: The way that the word “compliant” is used, and takes on these incredible sinister connotations throughout the first issue…when did you arrive on that?
DeConnick: Everyone who works in the medical field hates me for that choice, by the way. Apparently, non-compliant patients are nothing you want to cheer for. I don’t remember making that decision. This is a thing I see with my daughter. My daughter is a very spirited 4-year-old girl. And with my daughter more than with my son — when my son is, let’s say spirited, it tends to be, “Boys do that; that’s boys.” And it’s chuckled at, if not encouraged. And when my daughter has initiative or is disagreeable or has a different idea about how she wants to do things, she’s a pain in the ass. She’s a troublemaker. She needs to smile and act nice and not disrupt the system. And I want so badly to protect this. The thing about my daughter that I most treasure right now: Tallulah does not give a fuck if you like her. I am so proud of her for that. And I know that there are parents that that will horrify. Please understand that we have a saying in our home, that you don’t have to be nice, but you must be kind. And what we’re trying to emphasize is you don’t have to be compliant; you don’t have to just go along with the way of things.
The compliancy idea is that it’s more important to me that women contribute and bring their whole selves to our culture than it is… I don’t care if they’re helpmeets or pretty or docile. I’m a fan of pretty; I like pretty. I like pretty in all things, but if that’s not who you are… The character of Penny — Penny doesn’t care if she offends your eye. Penny kind of wants to offend your eye, because then she knows you see her. And it’s Penny’s “How dare you judge me.” I’m about as subtle as a sledgehammer, but it feels good. We’re all enjoying working on this book, and we’re all building characters that feel real to us, and that we care about. And hopefully we make it an exciting and entertaining story, too.
Paste: In the first issue, you do have the two guys monitoring the prison and acting as a kind of chorus, though not a particularly sympathetic one…
DeConnick: There’s certainly some humor. Their names are Gene and Schiti, and — have you read Pretty Deadly? They’re sort of the anti-Bones Bunny and Butterfly. They’re a chorus, a narrative assist, but they are not, at this point anyway, anybody you’d want to cheer for. They’re not the trusted and warm, wise spirits that…the bunny is, anyway.
Paste: I hadn’t seen that parallel, but now that you say it, I can absolutely see it. Is it coincidence that both of these books are coming out around the same time, where you have these very different sets of characters commenting on the action?
DeConnick: It wasn’t intentional, but once I read it as a whole, I immediately saw it. I think there was a certain amount of disappointment on my part when I sat down and read the completed Bitch Planet, as much as I love it and I’m proud of it. And I’m very proud of Pretty Deadly as well. I was a little disappointed to see my fingerprints as clearly as I saw them, if that makes sense.
Paste: How far along have you written it? Are there places where that device might be adjusted in different ways for each book?
DeConnick: Oh yeah. Only in the fact that there are these watchers is it similar. The characters are very different, and the way that they relate to the main story is very different. Let’s be generous and say that I’ve made a stylistic choice rather than saying that I have a narrative crutch, where, in both cases, there are these watchers that allow me to comment on the action.
Paste: If you have something set in a prison, having people in an observation role is almost innate to the setting.
DeConnick: Yes. And you’ll see that more in the second issue — the lack of privacy, that they’re encroached upon from every angle. There’s a splash that makes that very literal.
Paste: Where did you and artist Valentine De Landro first encounter each other?
DeConnick: I was walking about Fan Expo a number of years ago, and Valentine had a table set up. There’s a thing that’s happening less and less now that there are so many women at conventions, but there was a time when you could see artists behind their tables looking through you. If they were selling pages or looking to make connections for work, they would look through you for where the wallet was, or where the more important person was. Val stood up and shook my hand and showed me his portfolio and made no assumptions about who I was or what I might be interested in. He treated me immediately as a potential colleague. And at that time, nobody knew me. He didn’t have to do that. And I was so used to the opposite of that, from people who did know me. I was used to people making the assumption that I kept my husband’s calendar or whatever. It was incredibly refreshing; it meant a lot to me to be treated like a professional.
And I looked at his pages and was immediately wowed by them. He has a very effective use of black. The negative spaces in his work are really powerfully placed, and I liked that a lot; I loved the drama of it. We started a correspondence: we exchanged cards and followed up after the show. I just adore him, both as an artist and as a human.
Paste: Some of the page layouts in the first issue are very striking — the way the parallel interrogations in the middle of the issue are juxtaposed, for one. Is that from your script, or is it more collaborative?
DeConnick: I don’t script for Val quite as loosely as I do for (Pretty Deadly artist) Emma (Rios), but we’re getting there. Particularly the page where Marian appears in a column of three panels down the left side of the page, and her panels are oriented vertically, and on the right side of the page there are these horizontally-oriented panels of Marian’s husband and Director Solanza having their conversation. It’s laid out to be read in groups of three: the panel on the left and then one, two; the panel on the left and then one, two; the panel on the left, and one, two. He had to add a panel to make that work, and that is entirely on Val. That page is amazing and I love that page, and that is totally Val.
I had that at eight panels, and he figured out that if he did this in nine, he could do this really cool layout. Some of it’s him, some of it’s me. I’m not particularly good at page layouts. I make an effort to stay out of the way of the artist. What I’ll try to express instead is, ‘What we’re going for here on this page is the idea of the containment of these women’s bodies. So I want them framed as though they’re bursting out of the panel borders.’ I’ll try to get across thematic ideas, and make some suggestions about how that could be expressed visually, and I’ll leave it for the visual experts to make that something that’s powerful to look at and easily read.
Paste: Rian Hughes is credited with design — where does his involvement fit in?
DeConnick: Rian mostly does the covers. Val does the art for the covers, and then Rian takes it and does this treatment; he adds the dot pattern that’s nice and rough and imperfect, and offsets the colors. He does all of the text placement, and he designs the logo. I think he did the inside front cover as well. On that double-page title spread, he made some suggestions on font choice there, though Clayton [Cowles, letterer] needs to get credit there as well. It is a solid team. For instance, that page that I was talking about that’s nine panels, read in groups of three? That wouldn’t work if Cris [Peter, colorist] hadn’t done her job so well. When you cut back and forth the way we cut back and forth there, and you’re in two different places, you can’t read that properly unless the colors cue it. There are some other choices that she’s made that assist with the reading so well, I think, throughout the book. I couldn’t be happier with this group. I think everyone makes the others stronger.
Paste: The design of the masks that the guards are wearing, too — it’s so simple and so effective.
DeConnick: There’s another thing in issue two as well, where I said, “Yeah, I have no idea how you draw this — good luck with that! How do you draw a clear mask? I don’t know. But I’ll bet you’ll figure it out!” Those super-creepy clear plastic masks that obscure your face enough that it brings you into uncanny-valley territory — that’s what I wanted. I don’t know how you draw a clear mask. That’s another person who should get some credit, too: Dani (Vulnavia) is pulling research for us. She maintains the Bitch Planet Pinterest board. If she sees the note that says, “I don’t know how you draw a clear mask! Good luck! I’m cheering for you!” and then she pulls a bunch of pictures of clear masks so that he has a reference to work from.
Paste: Is this the first time that you’ve used a dedicated Pinterest board for collecting resources like that for a project?
DeConnick: Yeah. Emma and I share a Pinterest board that we can do that with, but I don’t have anyone else maintaining it the way Dani does for the Bitch Planet board. Emma’s is just me and Emma going back and forth. Dani digs up stuff I’ve never seen before; it blows my mind. It’s a fairly new thing. She’s pulled up some really amazing futuristic stuff that we’ve not found a way to work in yet. But it gets across the feel, you know?
Paste: Is that more specific images, or scenes from films and artwork, or something totally different?
DeConnick: Well, Dani’s focus is on fashion, so it tends to be more fashion-oriented on the Bitch Planet board. But it’s not entirely — sometimes it’s handy things. I wanted a particular look for the model, so Dani pulled a lot of plastic surgery references. I was talking about the containment of women’s bodies, and women in tubes and women in boxes, and we found a lot. It’s a sci-fi trope, women in tubes, you know? We pulled a lot of that.
When Rian and I were talking about the type of exploitation poster look that we wanted for our cover, he and I threw a bunch of stuff back and forth there. And Laurenn McCubbin is doing the last page in every issue, which are these throwbacks to the old classified ads that used to run in comics, and so there’s a bunch of that on the board that Danny and Laurenn both pulled as reference.<</p>
Paste: I was just about to ask about the backmatter.
DeConnick: We’re going to change up the backmatter every issue. The back page will be consistently that ad thing. The classified ads, we’re hiding bits of the narrative in there. Supporting pieces, not things that you have to read. There’s some fun stuff in there — there’s actual crap you can order, if you’re so inclined. We just like the look of it. This one has an essay from Danielle Henderson, who was the first editor on the book. I’m also talking to some artists and writers about doing backup stories. I’m talking to one young woman right now about doing a two-part story that would be four pages of comics in two issues. It’s an opportunity for us to give someone a chance to do some work, you know?
Paste: There are different things revealed about the society in which this is set, sometimes in passing dialogue. I get the impression that there’s more to be revealed as the series goes on.
DeConnick: You’ll learn a lot more about the politics of the current state in issue two. Issue one is the opening contract, where I really wanted to set the tone. Anybody who’s read Pretty Deadly knows that I tend to savor an immersive, “You’ll figure it out as you go!” style. Pretty Deadly really does not hold your hand. Bitch Planet is less disorienting. Pieces come out; a lot more comes out in issue two.
Pretty Deadly really needs to be Emma and I. And Emma and I both do other work. Emma is someone who really did not need a writer. I do not know what possessed her to work with me, but thank God she does. Emma and I take breaks between arcs. In order to try and not do that with Bitch Planet, what we’re doing is having a guest artist on every third issue. But rather than having it change up the look of the main story, what we decided to do was have every third issue give you the backstory of one of the prisoners. You can hop in on any of those one-shots and get a feel for the world, and all of that information in the backstories weaves its way into the main story. I don’t want anyone to think of it as superfluous; it’s additive. It’s like we’re telling this story nonlinearly.
Paste: In terms of figuring out the setting, was there a point where you realized that you needed to start writing it and figure some aspects of it out as you wrote?
DeConnick: It’s sort of like concentric circles. I knew the stories of the innermost circle, but as I’ve started moving forward, I’m starting to understand the circles that surround it. I had no idea that the politics of Earth would have as much to do with our story as they do. I really felt like it was going to be this contained thing, and as I’m moving forward in the way that we talked about, I know where I’m going. I know what about 21 issues’ worth of the story are. And I can’t say, “Oh, in issue 14, this…”
I know where we’re going, but as we’re moving forward, I’m learning… This happens a lot. You put this character on the page, and you think that they’re just there to move something along, and then they show a side — there’s something more real about them than what you’d expected. They’re not just a device; they’re not just a utility. They have an inner life, and then that becomes interesting and you say, “Well, I see how this motivation connects to this.” And suddenly they’re an important character.