Welcome to GAME CHANGERS, an interview series at Comicosity looking at female protagonists in comic books from the last decade or two (or more!) — and the original creators who brought them to life.
Not satisfied with looking at the characterization of one or two women at a time, we thought it was time to go global — bring you a planet-sized edition of Game Changers. And there’s no title on the stands today that exemplifies the idea of infusing agency into its female protagonists like Bitch Planet, the relatively new series from creators Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro at Image Comics. Valentine is also one of the few artists we’ve been able to sit down and chat with, which makes this a very unique opportunity indeed.
Who are the women of Bitch Planet?
Names: Kamau Kogu, Penny Rolle, Marian Collins, and many, many more
First Appearance (all): Bitch Planet #1 (2014)
Created by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro
Published by Image Comics
In a future world that isn’t all that far off from our own, with technology we’ll likely have in the shake of a lamb’s tail, women who are deemed non-compliant get shipped off to a extraterrestrial detention center — colloquially known as Bitch Planet.
Committed a crime? Bitch Planet. No longer satisfying your husband’s needs? Bitch Planet. Just not what society expects of you in any way? Bitch Planet.
The latest arrival to the prison, Kamau Kogu has a lot of secrets and seems to know a lot of people. She’s already come under notice, and may very well end up a contestant in the mysterious Megaton competition. But she’s not the only one standing out. The larger than life Penny Rolle caused a scene nearly immediately, but it was poor Marian Collins, wife of a man who simply wanted to marry his mistress, that became the example for all the others. DO NOT STEP OUT OF LINE. You will be punished.
A few words from their creator
Matt Santori: Can you talk a little about the genesis of the series and how you and Kelly Sue came together to build this world?
Valentine De Landro: Kelly Sue and I met at a Fan Expo con in Toronto in either 2012 or 2013. After meeting and realizing that each other were cool [laughs], we tried to get together on some work-for-hire things, but timing was just not working out. Eventually, we just decided to stop waiting for the stars to align and just pick up and try to do something of our own together.
She said, “Yeah, we can kick off something of our own, but I have a couple of ideas in development.” She showed me a list of them. I hope the other four ideas come to be, because they are really cool. And if I had the time and ability, I’d love to do them all. But… Bitch Planet was at the top of the list for me. Once you read the name, it has you hooked already.
That was it. I was like, “If you need an artist for that one, we should probably start developing that right now.” This was right before the end of Pretty Deadly‘s first arc came out, and Kelly Sue was approached by Eric Stephenson at Image about doing more. All she had to do was say, “I have a project already with an artist attached. It’s name is Bitch Planet.” and he gave it the greenlight.
It’s pretty cool to see it all pick up momentum so quickly to where it is right now.
MSG: How did you go about visioning out his entire world and future from an artistic standpoint — what everything would look like, but also how it would work?
VDL: One of the appeals of this project was that I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone, and sci-fi is definitely WAY outside of my comfort zone. I’ve sort of established myself more as a street-level/urban noir type of artist, right? All in preparation for a five year run on something like Daredevil. That’s where I really wanted to be for a long time.
But I wanted to challenge myself and do something different. That being said, when you think sci-fi and the future, it’s not that there aren’t different takes on it, but you always want to make it look different than something else. There’s your standard Alien type of sets and corridors that always seem to influence a lot of sci-fi imagery you see out there. They always seem to look the same. It’s either that or going into Blade Runner type of visuals. It took some time to look at it all.
To be honest, I don’t think I’ve really had a chance to explore a lot of the environments in the book so far. We’re still working through issue #5. I think there’s still a little more that could be established as far as the sci-fi elements go. We’re trying to say this is a future that isn’t too far away. Maybe 70 or 80 years out. So, the tech and the environments are grafted on top of what we have right now. It’s a lot of using the technology that’s out there right now, but giving it a distinct vibe so you know it’s the future, but nothing too outlandish so that it looks like it’s hundreds of years away like a Star Trek future.
MSG: It does feel somewhat recognizable, but still jumped ahead just enough.
VDL: Yeah. It’s obviously far enough ahead so that there’s interstellar travel, but past that, the things that pop into my mind are things like Minority Report and Total Recall. That sort of vibe where it’s not so far into the future, but you know it’s kind of taken a turn. We’re maybe like one step away from being in that future, not five steps.
MSG: It’s funny you mention Minority Report, because there’s an example of a film that blends that noir style with sci-fi very similarly to the way you do with Bitch Planet.
VDL: I was probably one of the few people I know that really dug that movie. I thought it was really cool and liked the visuals from it, if nothing else. A lot of the tech that was developed for that film I felt was the national progression of where we’re going right now.
I’m trying to apply that type of thinking to what I’m doing right now. I have to take a couple more issues to do that well with, particularly since there’s been a lot of set-up and exposition so far. We jumped right into the middle of the story with no real background to any of the ladies, so we need to take a step back and start giving them some depth. That’s taking precedence right now.
Issue #4 has a lot more of the game that’s going to be the backdrop for this narrative Kelly Sue and I are developing. The explanation is a nice reveal.
MSG: So, in terms of the women, there are two that have really taken the forefront of the series so far, out of the seemingly infinite possibilities: Kam and Penny. Tell me a little bit about your inspiration for their look, body language, and place in the story.
VDL: With Penny, Kelly Sue had a bit of direction in terms of what she wanted her to look like initially. She said she wanted her to be a larger girl. She hadn’t necessarily say how large, but I wanted to make her look out of place in a crowd.
Her visual just started to come together, and once some of the designs came in, Kelly Sue sent this message that said, “She should have a tattoo on her arm that says BORN BIG.” And I was like, yes, she should! Absolutely.
Out of the two characters, Kelly Sue had more of a vision for where Penny would end up than Kam. With Kam, I went back and forth with her, but eventually the Pam Grier DNA took over with her. That visual just felt like “leading lady” to me. I think I went through four drafts with Kam before settling on something specific for her.
The afro was kind of cool, so I wanted to play with that. [laughs] It’s like my chance to draw Misty Knight.
MSG: Were they always both intended to be women of color?
VDL: Yes. That was one of Kelly Sue’s notes. She was worried about that at first. She wanted to make up a book where the cast was predominantly made up of women of color. But we were doing a book set in a prison. She asked, “How do you feel about that?”
And I thought it was a great idea. There’s a discomfort to it because it touches on a reality of who the women who are institutionalized right now are. I think ultimately if we were to avoid that subject, it would come up regardless. We feel like the best way is to embrace it and tell a story with the characters that is substantial enough where the characters aren’t just a backdrop. We’re giving them some depth. That’s what we’re trying to lead to right now.
So now, we actually decide whether a character is NOT going to be a person of color. That’s when the subject comes up, but otherwise the rest of the cast has a lot of nationalities and races. It’s a great exercise to try and develop these characters that way.
MSG: Another thing we get right away with issue #1 is nudity, right there and in your face. How did you go about attacking that in contrast to how female nudity is handled in a lot of comics (and media in general)?
VDL: It’s funny because when I started drawing these characters, I began to realize my own habits in drawing women in comics to date, especially when I started drawing the nudes. I’ve done life drawing classes with nude models, but I started realizing that with a lot of the bodies and poses that I would sketch, I never authentically translated them to a book. I would put characters in what I thought of as heroic poses, or poses of strength and power, but never of vulnerability.
What I realized that the poses I was doing were more sexual in nature than I had intended. It’s all in arched backs and turned, unnatural runway type of poses. So, drawing that first scene where the women were coming into the center out of the tubes and just standing there, my first run at it wasn’t right. I don’t think Kelly Sue saw my first attempt, because as soon as I saw it, I knew it wasn’t right.
I didn’t draw the women naturally. I had to step back and think about just drawing the form as the form, and not trying to extend the male gaze. It’s one of those things that I think I was guilty of before I even realized it. Once I turned that off and tried to represent the scene as the scene, just representing the women coming through, it worked better. They’re naked, yes, but they’re still just bodies.
I’m trying to avoid that salaciousness. It was harder in the beginning, but now it’s becoming a little more natural to draw the women and not try to sexualize them. It’s one of those things I thought would be easy until I had to do it. I realized that I have a lot of bad habits, looking attractive women and translating that to the page. And it’s not that the women I’m drawing aren’t attractive, but it’s seeing them in a different way. Trying to translate that onto the page authentically is challenging.
MSG: Well, it’s clearly paid off. I think the book really has that sense of authenticity to it, even in the sort of crazy, sci-fi surroundings. There’s a physical authenticity.
VDL: I had to step back and look at my book and ask myself, “What am I doing here that I’m not doing on these pages right now?” There was a gap. And it was in a lot of my poses. I was just overposing them. It’s something so simple, but it’s something you realize that women fall victim to on a daily basis in photographs and on the magazine stands. There are augmented women, not just digitally or in editing, but in the way they present themselves too. It’s unrealistic, but it’s a standard that we’ve all fallen victim to. When I realized it, it was something else to see that it had happened to me too.
I also want to ask you about your cover process. I don’t know if there’s a direct correlation to 60s and 70s exploitation movie posters, but it sort of has that feel for me.
VDL: Definitely. It’s a lot of the grindhouse posters and one-sheets they used to put out for the drive-in movies. That’s been a huge inspiration for the covers. We wanted them all to flow together.
Rian Hughes is the guy who designed the logo and does the lettering treatment on the covers afterwards. Kelly Sue will come up with the phrases like, “Caged and Enraged.” That’s all her. She’ll send Rian a couple of those and he’ll lay them out on the cover and do a couple more weathering treatments to try to give it that 70s look. It’s a great collaboration. I love working with Rian. He’s super talented and always brings the cover together again in the end. I don’t think we could get that same effect without him.
It’s been a lot of looking at those posters for inspiration and also trying to stick with a color scheme. Those big obnoxious neon colors that Rian is great about selecting. I’ve never had much of a chance to do covers before, so working with Rian has been educational. It’s been really cool.
MSG: Anything we should be looking forward to in this week’s issue #4?
VDL: The shower scenes in issue #4 is the tease. You can’t have a women in prison movie without the shower scenes, so we’re finally getting to that. [laughs] You get two!
In issue #4, you learn about the game. That’s taken quite a bit of development. Kelly Sue has a friend who is a trainer for mixed martial arts that’s been involved and came up with a lot of the notes and technical aspects of the game. He wrote the rules.
A little more of the mystery continues. Kam and Miss Whitney go head to head again. There’s a little bit of back and forth with them in the showers actually. The book is about 60% shower scenes, so… yeah!
Issue #5 is more of the game and we’re going to have a character death.
There’s just a lot of building the layers of the characters, particularly Kam. She has a couple of agendas she’s going to start putting into action in issue #4.
This book has just been a wild experience. The fans… I don’t even have the words for them. Just seeing all these tattoos! Maybe I should have spent more time designing this symbol! [laughs] I feel like it should be better now that people are tattooing themselves with it. It’s something else, man.
I’m thrilled beyond words just to see it happen.
“For all this, there is the story about women who made choices based upon the roles they were pushed into and what they did about that those who pushed them. If you cannot read the issue and feel for the inmate featured in this story at the end, then you need to ask yourself why. “
– Jessica Boyd, Comicosity
“The De Landro art is epic in nature, painting a backdrop so unique it’s hard to put in words. It’s equal parts retro and futuristic, which makes it perfect for a book that has a future civilization sending us back to a primitive time of discrimination.”
– Heather Joy, Comicosity
“Penny is introduced to the reader through one of the most blatantly honest assessments about how women are assessed in our society — the real Bitch Planet, according to Danielle Henderson from issue #1 — by being put in front of a panel of men who think they know the best thing for you.”
– Michael Hale, Comicosity
Where can I read more?
- Bitch Planet #1 (2014)
- Bitch Planet #2 (2015)
- Bitch Planet #3 (2015)
- Bitch Planet #4 out this Wednesday!
For a full list of Comicosity’s Game Changers, please visit our index.