Monday, 11 May 2015

Uncaging Bitch Planet #4

Or a look at structural separation and breaking barriers
by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro, Cris Peter, and Clayton Cowles

Bitch Planet is a comic about a Sci-fi penal colony for Non-Compliant women who reject the control of a dystopian patriarchy. It's a badass, middle-finger raised take on women-in-prison exploitation cinema and a feminist examination of the bullshit woman experience at the hands of society. It's also a really, really well made comic that does a variety of technically impressive things worth taking a closer look at.

Bitch Planet #4 continues the trend and pays off a long running structural element in a really interesting and satisfying way.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Bitch Planet #4.

One of the recurrent elements in Bitch Planet are two semi-omnipresent guard characters. These two characters seem to run some sort of prison control station and have a very high degree of access to the events happening on Bitch Planet. On the one hand, they are interesting in that they operate as semi-narrators, sharing their knowledge of Bitch Planet with the reader from a position of authority. Which is, in and of itself, a pretty nifty choice.

What is also interesting about these guards is their ironclad separation from the inmate population. We never see these guards in the same panel as any of the Non-Compliant women. Which is a choice that helps cement these control room guards as semi-narrators: they exist in a story... zone between the reader and the story as they are observers who are apart from the main story. This choice is also quite significant as these guards are the only male faces we see on Bitch Planet, and they are scrupulously kept separated from the women. This helps establish a story rule where the men in charge of the prison are segregated from the women.

Of course, Bitch Planet does have other male guards. However, we never really see them as individual people. All of the guards who actually mix with the inmate population wear masks that completely cover their faces. This further suggests that their is a structural, institutional rationale for the strictly enforced separation between women and men. I think you could argue this is interesting from a feminist perspective since we see a patriarchal penal system that punishes women and drives structural divisions between genders.  I also think it's quite interesting from a storytelling perspective since it sets a precedent and creates a narrative tension that can be exploited in interesting ways.

And Bitch Planet #4 pays this tension off in some really cool and satisfying ways.

One of the most technically impressive sequences in Bitch Planet so far leverages the separation between men and women on Bitch Planet to tell a really daring and effective bit of story. The story of the scene is that Kam is given covert information by a pair of women who enjoy shower sex, in part, as a smokescreen for moments of "privacy". This being Bitch Planet, there is no real privacy, and their sexual relationship is observed by a peeping tom who doesn't report their illicit dalliance in return for being allowed to peep. Which is quintessential women in prison exploitation story fodder.

This is also a scene that is some expert level comics. For one it plays with the barrier between women and men in some cool ways. The peeping tom is separated from the non-compliant women in the shower by a wall and his mask, which is, in a way, consistent with the rules of segregation on Bitch Planet. In a perverse way the barriers between men and women are still intact. And yet, the separation of sexes is incomplete since the peeper has a hole in the wall to peak through and we can clearly see his eyeball. This is a clear violation of the narrative rules of the comic and represents a storytelling transgression which enhances the inherent perversity of the peeper's behaviour. Which is a pretty nifty use of the gender separation trope which has been established.

This scene is also pretty great in the way it makes the hole in the wall and the peeper the central part of each pages composition. By driving the readers attention to the peeper instead of the naked women, this composition drives home the wrongness of the peeper's behaviour and serves to associate any titillation we might experience as readers with his perversity. Which really takes what could be a pervy, exploitive scene and repurposes it into something that transcends its problematic roots and makes some broader points.

The conclusion of Bitch Planet #4 also does some pretty spectacular things with the separation of men and women on the prison planet. Specifically, the closing pages of the comic see Kam smash through the shower wall, breaking down the barrier between genders, and drag the peeping tom guard into the prison. This is significant because it represents the first time we have seen a man on panel with the Non-Compliants. As such this represents a complete violation of the segregation rules in the prison. It also represents a violation of the narrative rules that have, until this point, served to keep the women and men apart in the comic. As such this scene feels hugely significant and deeply transgressive: because Kam is overcoming the inertia of the comic structurally keeping men and women apart this scene feels extra shocking and powerful. It also makes Kam's achievement here that much more impressive since, in a way, she defeated the comic itself to nab herself a perverted man-guard. Which is a great payoff to a thoroughly established narrative tension and really sells just how much trouble this perverted guard is in.

Bitch Planet is a comic you should be reading.

Uncaging Bitch Planet #1

Uncaging Bitch Planet #2
Uncgaing Bitch Planet #3
Surviving Bitch Planet #1

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