Bitch Planet #1

BitchPlanet_01-1

Comic book, 2014

I struggle to get myself to read comics published by Image Comics. I greatly appreciate the part they’ve played in inching mainstream comics away from the extremely limited subject matter and dire presentation they’ve been mired in for the past several decades, but I find the often neat, tidy packaging of their central conceits to be such a boring initial step that I’m seldom moved to take a second. “A thief who steals from thieves”, “TMZ with superheroes”, “Peter Pan fights in World War II”. I’m skeptical of anything that appears too easy to pitch, as this is usually an indication of the creators’s intention to do just that, resulting in an emphasis on dressing up their vapid, catchy concept over utilizing the comics medium to create an engaging work. Not to mention that inherently shallow approach to storytelling being actively resistant to creating work of depth.

So, this is my perspective on the ecosystem that Bitch Planet exists in. And while Bitch Planet does suffer from some of these pitfalls, it does so with a different motivation on its sleeve, and manages to be an entertaining and stylish comic book in the process.

Joe McCullogh tweeted that a recent Grant Morrison comic was “more effective on a broadly metaphorical or emotional level than point-by-point ‘convincing’”. Bitch Planet, similarly in a few places, sacrifices logical plot progression and believable characterization for a more blunt communication of its themes, leaving me confused. The husband of an inmate saying his wife “doesn’t belong” in prison doesn’t seem to jibe with the later revelation of his true intentions, and his use of the word “compliant” seems like an unnatural way to directly tie his motivations to that of the prison’s. Less disorienting and more just distracting, is the prison’s use of a leather-clad hologram of a nun to address the concerns of one of its inmates. Perhaps someone could make a case for why the dehumanizing, brutal prison would use this vibrant spectacle for its effectiveness or something, but to me it read as a very consciously-placed faux edgy flourish.

I wish action was a higher priority in Bitch Planet, especially since it’s such an essential characteristic of the work that comprises the aesthetic it’s riffing on. There are two riots in this issue, and they aren’t very exciting. There’s no defined movement, an essential aspect of action, just consecutive panels of unrelated moments that fail to build on each other in any way. (One striking image, of the largest inmate in midair above a guard, becomes a promise of action unfulfilled as we never see the resulting impact.) I’m reminded of another thematically-obsessed recent work, Snowpiercer, whose fight scenes were also merely signifiers of action, shots filled with flailing arms and weapons with no apparent impact or result. Both works seem to want to have action, but don’t care enough about it to give it any follow through.

So while the resulting failings are similar, I think the instinct to prioritize what’s at the heart of Bitch Planet has a different origin. Bitch Planet very smartly uses its poppy hook, “Women’s prison in space”, to focus on the very timely theme of women’s oppression. It’s a theme beyond worthy of the attention it’s currently receiving in culture at large, and I’m enthused that Bitch Planet expounds on it in a way that has the issue so deeply embedded in its DNA, and is also fun and exciting at its foundation. Despite the toll I think it takes on the storytelling at times, I think that theme is communicated effectively and thrillingly, and is pushed past the inherent commentary contained in the concept at its most basic level (women are in prison) through two big bait and switches which (despite hearing the writer say on Inkstuds that she hadn’t seen it) I can’t help but see as call outs to a couple of the weaker conceptual points of the very prominent women-in-prison television show Orange Is The New Black. I won’t spoil them here, but suffice it to say that Bitch Planet depicts the state of male support of women as much bleaker than Orange, and it’s emphatically not holding readers hands, and relegating the majority of real life prison’s actual populations to the background, by presenting the story through the POV of someone upper middle-class white people can easily identify with. These are adjustments to this concept I can get behind, and think serve the themes much better.

Outside of those themes, Bitch Planet manages to be fun too. The naked riot is a wild, thrilling camp idea. (Which I’m too unfamiliar with the women-in-prison genre to know if it’s been done before. It must have, right?) Also notable for catering less to the male gaze, due to the more diverse than usual body types on display. This idea, in contrast to the leather nun hologram, did not seem contrived. The reveal at the end of this issue’s also promises an emphasis on more focused action moving forward.

Thankfully, coming from somewhere other than being movie option-bait frees Bitch Planet up to actually be a good comic formally; Its existence as a comic book has been taken into account, down to the pleasant, pulpier than normal paper it’s printed on. It’s stylish in a way that seems more geared toward being a good looking comic than a set of storyboards, including a distinct and effective visual aesthetic and conceptual page layouts that would actively work against that purpose.

So while I might have significant issues with its storytelling, I think Bitch Planet #1 is strong in a number of ways where it really counts. and I’m excited by how it’s representing its important themes.


Curse Of The Molemen

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Comic book, 1991

Charles Burns’s Curse Of The Molemen barters heavily in 50’s science-fiction and horror, not unlike another comic of its time I recently read, Clowes’s Lloyd Llewellyn. Curse Of The Molemen, by contrast, casts a decidedly more ironic gaze upon its subject matter, effectively launching a much sharper jab at the faults of that era. (Specifically as depicted here, domestic violence.) Because of this, and the heavy use of surreality, comparisons to Blue Velvet would be apt. The main difference, besides being a lot more direct about its heritage, is that its protagonist, Big Baby, is actually a part of the surreality. Or, perhaps he is the only true piece of surreality, as all other depicted aspects of it could be attributed to his imagination. To be honest, I don’t quite understand the meaning of the Big Baby character, but this is the only story featuring him that I’ve read, and I’m under the impression there are more.


Lloyd Llewellyn #1

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Comic book, 1986

It’s difficult to view early work by a great artist outside the shadow of their later, more substantial achievements (if that’s the trajectory their career in fact took). This is the case with Lloyd Llewellyn #1, the debut solo book of the great Dan Clowes. The work stands on its own, with style and personality to spare, but what it has in those areas in volume it lacks in density, clipping much of that personality from a certain irony-tinted nostalgia for 50’s swank and masculinity. It’s an area of interest that comics doesn’t support any more. (I can think of a number of artists that paint with a similar broad, lively brush who stopped releasing work a number if years ago, although Steve Mannion recently seems to have found a new way to funnel interest for it via Kickstarter.) This could be due to a shift in the interests of comics readers, a shrunken industry no longer being able to support work this insubstantial, both, or something else. So it’s a good thing Clowes made the shift in his work he did- he went from this, to having his characters be into this, to this being only one of a variety of hues that color his work- because he saved his career, and helped shape the industry, by doing it.


Lobster Johnson: The Burning Hand #2

Comic book, 2012

Like Dan Clowes says, comics aren’t a very operatic medium. (I repeat this, as he originally stated it, as “someone who would rather be reading comics than anything else.) It’s rare that they’re able to deliver visceral emotional responses, but Arcudi comes up with no less than two in this issue. A joke on the first page, and a retort from the plucky female reporter midway through that earns her stripes with the boy’s club. I’m certainly also still loving Tonci Zonjic’s artwork here, but I’m wondering if this subject matter isn’t a little too on-the-nose for him. I fell in love with his work on an old Madman special, and the discrepancy between his aesthetic and the material produced a more unique, exciting energy. Maybe that’s not exactly my disconnect, but I can’t help but fixate on that small chink in this otherwise flawless armor.


Fearless Dawn: The Secret of the Swamp #1

Comic book, 2011

I bought this for the art, hoping the story would also embody its Mad Magazine-esque qualities, but was disappointed on both fronts. The art is fine, but seems a bit dashed off in most places. The artist, Steve Manion, is a great renderer, there’s no questioning that, but he seems to be in a hurry through a lot of this. And it’s not because he spent so much time writing it. What pages aren’t merely sketchbook material subject us to plots that forsake everything to throw tropes and some really bad jokes at us. This book does have it in two places where it counts, however. That’s with a really fun design for its lead character and some killer monster art.


Greyshirt: Indigo Sunset #3

Comic book, 2002

One indication of an inspired work can be a high number of connections made by the author. By this measure Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics, publishers of Greyshirt: Indigo Sunset #3, was a lightning rod for inspiration. Greyshirt: Indigo Sunset #3 is full of references. It references the issues of Greyshirt that came before and after it, it references the careers of its creators, it references the industry that spawned it, it references the medium it’s constructed in and it references itself (a faux newspaper in the back reports on the fallout of events taking place earlier in the comic). This policy of connection-making works well with creator Rick Veitch’s most consistent theme across his entire body of work, dream logic, which seems to have an influence over even his most conventional work. The fact that Veitch seems to have here been given the freedom to make as good a comic as he could, combined with the high production vales and conventional slickness, to make this seem like a culmination of Veitch’s career. (In fact, one of my favorite creators, his mainstream work from the 90’s is my favorite work by him, by which I mean this and Tekno Comics’ Teknophage.) The fact that Greyshirt is played almost exclusively for fun also makes it a lot easier to get behind than Veitch’s more recent political work. Also, can we talk about how great V For Vendetta artist David Lloyd is in this? Where are we hiding him and how can we get him drawing more comics?


Fatale #1

Comic book, 2012

I think I got off on the wrong foot with the Brubaker/ Phillips team, which is to say that I got off on TOO good a foot. The first thing I read by them was Incognito. I’m forced to wonder if seeing their work for the first time, as they’re one of those acts that only tells one joke, albeit really well, is the reason I enjoyed it more than anything else I’ve picked up so far. But I feel like it’s not. That series, the first half of it anyway, was so thematically strong. I didn’t see anything in Fatale #1 to get behind other than “this is a monster/ pulp gangster comic”. Which hey, Phillips sure can draw and Brubaker can write some fairly absorbing dialogue, so maybe that’s good enough. (Anyone who can write pulp pistache without it being mortifying for anyone who isn’t predisposed to like it, and I don’t include Frank Miller in that group by a longshot, has my respect.) But I think I’m always going to be looking for that magic I saw the first time, and I’m not sure I’m going to see it. Not to mention the fact that this is kind of a dull opening. You take an unexpected punch, but the promise of the cover is never delivered on- there’s no monsters!


Lobster Johnson: The Burning Hand #1

Comic book, 2012

Holy smokes. Arcudi and Zonjic, what a team. Two great tastes that tase great together. This is like eating a penut butter and Nutella sandwich for the first time. So rich, so smooth and so complimentary. A part of this  is simply due to the two creator’s shared sensibilities. Zonjic is clearly at home in the first half of the century, and even when Arcudi is writing a story about an occult military fighting a Jaguar-god in the modern day it feels oddly like a John Wayne movie. If there’s a disconnect it’s only that Zonjic’s images may be a little too delicate for Arcudi’s blunt disposition. But I’m really looking forward to drinking the rest of this series in.


Tom Strong #2

Comic book, 1999

The way I saw it, and I believe I’ve heard Alan Moore confirm this in interview, was that Moore’s ABC line of comics were his attempt to make the opposite of Watchmen. That’s fine, but all that really mattered was that he was putting the best superhero comics on the stands at the time, four different titles a month (one of them containing four different stories in itself). It was staggering. Somehow I missed this issue of Tom Strong at the time, but I’ve got it now. It’s good, just the same as all of the other issues of Strong. There’s a whole fucking story in this thing, beginning, middle and a big end. The art id great. When you set it down, you go “That was good”. I never understood why these books didn’t get bigger. Too smart for the dumb people and too dumb for the smart people, probably. Tom Strong always had an emptiness to me, like the characters were hollow somehow, but it’s probably the result of my not being familiar with the serial adventure old-timey comics that this was riffing on. 4