Bitch Planet: More Ras Kass than Chuck D

One of the things I think a lot about, and frankly, write a lot about, is this idea of chasing the sublime image.  Whether in my own art, or in the art that I am viewing, what I’m looking for is those images which transcend translation, and speak to an experience beyond text.  Images that link up with the poetic truth of an extrastential experience.  I think that, even though our culture is largely subsumed in images, those images are largely unimportant images.  They are the images of commerce, but not the images of the holy.  If that makes sense.  I think looking for, and creating beauty are two of the more worthwhile things that you can do to pass the time while living.  Tarkvosky writes about this in his book Sculpting in Time:

The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example.  The aim of art is to to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”

As I have said in the past, when I talk about the pursuit of the sublime, I am talking about the pursuit of death.  The thing which is outside of life, and that stops us in our tracks; the thing that if we were to gaze upon it would destroy all desire for further image.  All life builds to this final image, and art is, at it best function, an iconographic representation placing itself between the artist and the viewer, and uniting the audience not with the ideas of the artist, but the ideas of beauty which already exist within that said audience.

But these impulses have been perverted.  Beauty has been changed from something that allows us to understand that which is outside of life, into something that makes us desire life itself.  It creates a need, not for death, but a need for life in all of its turmoil, pain, and exploitation.  The image has changed from that which removes us from the pain of living, to that which entrenches us further within it.  It does this for purposes of exploitation and control.  You are made to desire a false image of beauty so that the company can sell you and control you.  It is the removal of your own interior beauty, for the sake of an exterior master class who through money, can most ably jump you through whatever hoops they need to, because you think that you need their message, their product.  The image goes from a thing that is beyond text, to the thing which follows text around limply and pathetic.  It becomes the thing we have to go through to get to the message which makes us feel a controlled way with a predictable set of outcomes.  Artists are then trained out of their ability to listen, in favor of their ability to speak.  But art is not speaking, it is listening.  And I should note here, when I say things like “art is this or art is that” I’m not saying it as a concrete declaration.  I’m saying it as “I think that this is the state in which things can be the most powerful, and this is my reasoning why”.  Anyone can do anything, but for me, I am interested in these things which induce extreme feelings in me, and linger for decades versus the things which I can’t remember a week after I saw them.

This brings us to Bitch Planet.  A comic book published by Image, co-created by Valentine De Landro and Kelly Sue Deconnick; with lettering by Clayton Cowles, Colors by Cris Peter, and additional line art for issue #3 by Robert Wilson IV.  Bitch Planet is a thick brushed textural dystopian science fiction comic about women who have been cast out of society to an auxiliary outpost facility on a planet far away to live out the remainder of their lives away from earth societies.  These women labeled as “non-compliant” for reasons ranging from murder and assault to disrespect and adultery.  The first five issues largely serve to introduce a group of these women and the larger society that exists around the construction of this facility, and then move the story into some inter-gender kind of future rugby death sport, though we only glimpse this in the final issue with a practice match against the prison guards.

The book is something of an ensemble cast, but only in the sense that the character who makes all of the meaningful decisions in the book for the women (Kamau Kogo) is not the character that the artist has the most interest and fidelity in drawing on the page (Penelope Rolle).  This is complicated further by the fact that 1/5th of the book is given over to Rolle’s origin story, which is strangely drawn NOT by the artist (De Landro) who draws the character the best, but rather by Robert Wilson IV, whose Rolle is significantly less interesting(and smaller, even as an adult).  It’s also strange that none of this backstory comes organically from interacting with the rest of the cast, but just as a flashback that Rolle has while some random prison thing is done to her over the course of a single issue.

But then given how little meaningful interaction there actually is between the women in this comic, it makes sense why you’d HAVE to just force in a flashback.

To that end, there is no real complication within the women of Bitch Planet.  Right off the bat they pretty much trust each other, and start working together toward larger goals–which is useful in terms of speeding the book into the gladiator matches(which still don’t even really take place in full force by issue 5), but because of this decision, you never really get to grips with who these women are and how their different identities operate together, and then before you know it, one of them is dead, and three more have been added.

Artistically the book is drowning to depict its script.  Bitch Planet takes place in the future, but all of the fashion is pretty much what you would expect from a comic set in the present day.  Men mostly wear the same suits they’ve worn in comics for 50 years.  Women have no real clear sense of style rooted in any kind of attempt to create an era.  Guards wear the same kind of standard comic book body armor you’ve seen a million times.  Hands sometimes get drawn.  Faces often don’t.  Large crowds become blobby masses of faceless heads taking up space so that the backgrounds can remain mostly empty and unrefined.  Which is fine because comics don’t really need backgrounds.  But because you never once see the surface of Bitch Planet, or an establishing shot of the prison, or exteriors of where people are on earth you completely lose your sense of scale and place.  Even though we’re made to believe that women can easily be sent to Bitch Planet, and so…you’d think there would be like millions of women on the planet and overcrowding a real issue(I mean they send women there just because guys want out of their marriages, or just for like…looking at men wrong!) because of the lack of a sense of space or scale, and the blobular nature of crowds–it really does feel like there’s less than 50 people on the planet.  Which again, doesn’t make very much sense.  Unless you are saying that the women who are there are the worst of the worst–but if that were the case, then why do they work together so well?  I mean everyone at Bitch Planet seems pretty well adjusted.  And I mean, the only reason you start thinking about these dissonances is because the actual style of the book is fairly realist, it doesn’t really ask you to put logic aside at many points visually.  And there’s so much emphasis on explaining and setting up in the book, that when those things don’t add up, it is kind of jarring.

There’s a two-page spread of the prison interior early on, and in retrospect you can look at it and tell which characters had to be delineated and which ones did not.  Anyone who didn’t have to be drawn on those pages, became an inky ill-formed barf of a person.  Even the layouts are largely restricted because of how many words have to be fit into them.  You only really understand how much De Landro is holding back when you get to the largely wordless shower scene where suddenly the layouts become quite inventive, and the pages become much more dynamic.  There’s not much of a sense of play in the art of Bitch Planet.  It is very much art that is depicting a script, not complicating it through exploration.

The script itself is all over the place.  One minute Kogo is being tortured to get her to confess to a murder she didn’t commit, and then the next minute she’s being told to assembly a crack future-rugby team with little to no connection between the two sentiments.  I mean they say they tortured her for 18 days, but in the end, it’s just to ask her to start up this game?  And why did they accuse Kogo of the crime and not anyone else in the prison?  And why do they need someone to confess to a crime anyways?  She’s already IN jail, and the implication is that she’s there for life. If the goal of the prison is actually just to reform these women–why do they need to be on another planet for that?  All of the brainwashing is handled by technology anyways.  And then the torture itself is isolation, noise, starvation–which are all things that are really hard to depict visually in a few panels, and aren’t that interesting to look at.  It’s also a pretty sexless prison.  There’s one couple, but they can only make out in the shower because they let a guard watch, but they have to do it in the shower, because the guards can’t watch?  So in the distant future prisons have become really hostile toward homosexuality?  And then Kogo’s whole reason for not wanting to play the megaton game is because they’ll lose and get humiliated, but routinely we see her and Rolle beat up gangs of men like they are superheroes–so there’s no indication that the two of them are any less strong than men, and in fact, Kogo is shown to be superhumanly strong when she rips a showerhead out of the floor, flips, and then breaks down the wall with the pole.

There’s a constant sense of things in Bitch Planet  happening because they have to happen, not because they should happen–and they happen largely to the detriment of any kind of development of an emotional core of the book.  The book has some terrific depictions of some of the more sinister manifestations of patriarchal rule(particularly the scene with the waitresses in the gold dresses who are harassed and at once everywhere and nowhere)–but that’s all they are, is depictions.  They’re not really seated in anything.  And while the book’s decision to make the cast predominantly people of color, and mostly black women, is very good, and I think it’s nice just to see not only different races depicted in a comic, but also different body types–I mean on the whole that, the empowering marketing campaign, and the book’s politics are all things that I agree with and like–but the problem is that the message is just the message.  And I already agreed with the message.  The message doesn’t hit.  You don’t feel it.  You hear it. There’s no complication in Bitch Planet because all it is is the expression of a logical and sensible world view.  And that’s certainly a valid thing to do, and not insignificant in the current climate.  However, the difference between Ras Kass and Chuck D was that Ras Kass TOLD you the nature of the threat, Chuck D made you FEEL the nature of threat.  And if you just asked “who’s Ras Kass”? Exactly.

The book was originally marketed as a book owing to the exploitation cinema of the 60s and 70s, and the covers for the book still attest to that.  But what’s interesting with exploitation or trash cinema is that maybe a lot of things in those works were low budget–or poorly executed–but the works that we remember 50 years later, we remember them because it was complicated problematic troubled truth coming from the fringes.  It was the passion of the Image.  Like you don’t really remember the parts about Thriller(1973) that were just Christina Lindberg being drugged and raped and objectified by the camera–you remember her with an eye patch and a shotgun fucking dudes up–you feel those images, and they mean something beyond the sum of their parts.  The fucked up energy of the whole also created the same space for these weird things we’d never seen before, that could be extracted and taken with us for strength.  There’s nothing like that in Bitch Planet.  There’s no passion to it, there’s no rage in its pages.  There’s no danger.  And the thing is, we are in an era where women are becoming as dangerous as ever.  Where Nicki Minaj shakes her ass in a video, and half the internet sets itself on fire.  Where Beyonce calling herself a feminist in a music video pisses MRAs and white feminists off for totally opposite, and equally ridiculous reasons.  There is stuff going on right now.  Right now in 2015, people are wildly uncomfortable with dealing with women–but that fear isn’t really directly confronted here.  It’s certainly not meaningfully pushed back at.  I wish this book was its marketing, because I very much wish this book was a problem for people.  But it’s not.  It’s just another thing that’s the most important thing ever that you need to support because if you don’t then blah.  Just like everything else.  It will probably be a shitty movie in 5 years.  We’re selling people what they want, not giving them what they need.

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1 comment
  1. Angus Gillett said:

    The most epic introduction to a piece of comic book criticism ever. Extra points for the parallel to Ras Kass and Chuck D (though I’m a huge fan of Ras Kass’ ‘Van Gogh’, the comparison is still valid…).

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