The big secret about Bitch Planet is we’re already on it.
— Kelly Sue DeConnick
This is your occasional Dystopian-Fiction-Featuring-Women Roundup, Winter 2018 edition.
One of these two ended up on Obama’s best books in 2017 list.
And the other one inspires tattoos. Lots and lots and lots of tattoos. They read “NC,” as in “non-compliant,” as in breaking the rules, as in having no fucks left to give. You can even tout your non-compliance in fingerless gloves or leggings.
The Power suggests that women will one day rule the Earth, thanks to the fact that women’s bodies have become electrified deadly weapons.
Bitch Planet posits that women who are “non-compliant” (i.e., overweight, middle-aged, unfaithful, “gender terrorist,” or just plain rebellious) will be whisked off Earth and sent to a grim prison planet. (Bitch Planet’s prisoners include those who are gender non-conforming. They were, the comic notes, the first to be sent away).
Weirdly enough, if I had my choice of worlds, I’d take the one where I’d end up in an orange jumpsuit for the crime of wearing pants and minimal makeup.
But they’re both worth reading, depending on what flavor of depression or rage you’re feeling right now. Both of them will make you feel good, at least for a while. I promise.
If you’re in a “burn it to the ground” mood, start with The Power. The title refers to an actual electrical power that awakens first in teenage girls, and then, eventually, in nearly all women and a very few men. Some, like Roxy, the illegitimate teenage daughter of a British crime boss, use it to wield authority, and occasionally terror. She masters her considerable electrical power like a great artist or champion athlete. I could have spent the entire book reading about how she builds her crime empire (which includes a cozy all-female drug processing collective).
But Alderman skips around the world to introduce us to Margot, a middle-aged US politician who sees a way to expand the military-industrial complex by using young female recruits. They include Allie, a sexually abused foster kid who becomes the luminous founder of a female-centered religion; Tunde, a young African man who becomes the chief documentarian of the weaponization of women; and Margot’s own daughter, Jos.
It all works really well until it doesn’t.
Speaking as a female reader, reading scenes in which women deliver disabling pain to men who seek to harm them gave me a genuine high. In this world — everywhere — men are careful where they walk because the streets aren’t safe anymore. In this world, we would have no Harvey Weinstein because some electro-lady would turn him into a pile of ash. Donald Trump’s arms would end in smoking stumps. In this world, where I never had to worry about harassment, everything felt lovely.
And yet, without providing spoilers, the ending of The Power feels flat and safe and a little depressing. Alderman’s mentor is none other than Margaret Atwood, the big mama of dystopian worlds that are a little light on hope. Alderman ultimately makes her readers pay for reveling in the day-to-day mayhem, for not seeing the bigger picture and the longer view. I think this book will find its ultimate form as a TV series (it’s been optioned in the UK) where its themes can unscroll and its characters develop. The book doesn’t so much end as stop.
Bitch Planet, born during the Obama administration, is drawn in a campy style that seems to deliberately invoke the smeary comics of the 1960s and 70s, before comic books got shiny and clean — back when people bought comics in drugstores, not intimidating specialty shops. The comic even contains fake ads for makeup and advice on how to enjoy harassment.
Because so much of the comic is set among women in prison, it’s hard not to think of Orange Is the New Black, but that isn’t really the tone. There is no pretty blonde prisoner who didn’t think she belonged, yet somehow hogs a little too much of the story. DeConnick says that she and artist Valentine De Landro used both Robocop and The Handmaid’s Tale as their narrative touchstones.
And that’s exactly right. There’s a little bit of a smirk in the story, even as it relays the heartbreaking backstories of prisoners like Penny Rolle, an enormous black woman who, despite how she is reviled by the world, manages to love herself. Or in the story arc of Meiko Maki, a thwarted, brilliant engineer turned murderess.
Despite the suffocating patriarchal world it’s set in, Bitch Planet is defiantly alive. The look is vibrant; the dots jump from the page; the colors are harsh, almost ugly. Some faces are made of ragged, intersecting lines. This is why so many people have gotten “NC” tattoos, and why other artists and writers have contributed stories set in the world of Bitch Planet.
Also, Bitch Planet is hyper-intersectional. Trans women were introduced on Bitch Planet‘s pages only after the creators consulted with several trans women and developed characters that reflected their experience.
Meanwhile, on Bitch Planet‘s Earth, the white guys have won, and the top white guys who run things are called “Fathers.” There are men of color in the comic, but they are never “Fathers.” They are technicians, guards and service professionals. They serve the Fathers.
If you decide to visit Bitch Planet, you’ll land as a worldwide truce has come about because of the bloody game of Megaton, which takes the place of international warfare. But viewers are growing bored of the game — the Fathers need a new gimmick to boost engagement. What if a Megaton team played against the bitches of Bitch Planet?
The latest episode ends in a bloody two-planet cliffhanger. I have no doubt we’ll be seeing some sports mayhem soon. I’ll buy the popcorn if you bring the riot gear.