Kelly Sue DeConnick tackles exploitation tropes in ‘Bitch Planet’

Jan. 24, 2014 | 9:00 a.m.

By her own account, its title wasn’t what she led with in proposing new projects to Image Comics or her artist collaborator.

But, Kelly Sue DeConnick told the laughing, applauding crowd at Image Expo earlier this month, of the potential books she suggested to publisher Eric Stephenson and artist Valentine De Landro, both latched onto one — one she was eager to confront herself: “Bitch Planet.”

The upcoming comic series from the writer of the intense, mythological western “Pretty Deadly” at Image Comics and “Avengers Assemble” and the once and future “Captain Marvel” at Marvel is set on an all-female penal colony in outer space. And there’s a jailbreak.

“This is born of a deep and abiding love for exploitation and women in prison movies of the ’60s and ’70s,” DeConnick told the crowd. “I like this stuff so much, and it’s so terrible, it’s so deeply awful and delicious, like those candies that are bad for you. So I wanted to see if there was a way that I could play with the things about it that I love and also the things about it that make me wildly uncomfortable.”

It’s not surprising that some elements of the genre make the acclaimed writer uneasy. A champion of equality and diversity in gender and ethnicity in comic pages and in the industry, DeConnick is an inspiring voice at packed-to-the-walls Women of Marvel convention panels. She’s taken that company’s character Carol Danvers from being Ms. Marvel to “Captain Marvel” — and a passionate group of fans called the Carol Corps has risen around that series, set to relaunch in March. Her Image series “Pretty Deadly” similarly features magnetic female characters and has attracted fan art and even recordings of a song a character sings.

So, about “Bitch Planet” …

“We’re commenting on — oh, I just got boring,” she said on stage to laughter. “If anyone wants to talk about the academics of it, you can email me later.”

In a backstage interview, Hero Complex invited DeConnick, who was carrying a copy of Bev Zalcock’s “Renegade Sisters: Girl Gangs on Film,” to jump into the academics of “Bitch Planet,” and to discuss De Landro, her approach to dialogue and encouraging creativity from readers.

Hero Complex: Up on stage after sort of joking around about “Bitch Planet,” you started talking and then stopped and said you were getting academic. And so I would like you to get into the academics of it, especially considering your position in the comics industry as a very progressive, feminist, striving-for-equality-on-all-fronts person. It has an eye-popping title.

Kelly Sue DeConnick: I think one of the things I said is this is us steering into the curve…. No one gets to have their cake and eat it too. So I don’t get to talk about the problems with the lack of diversity in both the books we put out and the creators behind them, I don’t get to speak up about that and then not have my gender brought up as an issue as well…. People will often apologize when they ask me about feminist issues in the industry, and it’s tough. I don’t want them to apologize. These are things that need to be discussed…. My husband’s [comics writer Matt Fraction] gender never comes up in an interview. I think it’s a thing that, if we want it to get better, we have to talk about it. It’s on the table whether we like it or not, so let’s go ahead and – if it’s there, let’s sit down and feast.

Since launching in July 2012 with this No. 1, the Kelly Sue DeConnick-written "Captain Marvel" has developed a passionate following of readers who call themselves the Carol Corps. It pauses after this month's No. 17 before relaunching in March with a new No. 1. (Marvel)

Since launching in July 2012 with this No. 1, the Kelly Sue DeConnick-written “Captain Marvel” has developed a passionate following of readers who call themselves the Carol Corps. It is on short hiatus before relaunching in March with a new No. 1. (Marvel)

I’ve been accused of putting forth sort of an agenda in “Captain Marvel,” which I actually don’t think I’m doing at all. I think I’ve been very true to what the character was created for, the roots of the character that I had nothing to do with. I was 7 years old when that character’s first book came out under “Ms. Marvel.” I’ve been accused of putting forth an agenda and so on and so forth. There’s a certain part of me that’s just like, “If I’m going to take the heat for it, well … let’s do it then. Let’s steer into the curve.”

I have this real love, this genuine affection for the exploitation films of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. We’ve talked about it with “Pretty Deadly” in terms of some of the pinky violence films that came out of Japan and some of the really trashy old westerns…. And so with this I wanted to do that. I could have fun with that; I could have a real sense of humor about it and then also turn over some of these real questions.

One thing that we tend to do in comics is we’ll put forth these salacious images on purpose just so we can wag our fingers at them. Exploitation did that without apology. And I guess I have questions about why the things about those movies that I love I love and the parts about them that make me wince – is there a way to still capture the things that I enjoy and extricate the things that I find deeply problematic? Can I give these women agency? Is there a way for me to turn exploitation over in my mouth and not have it be exploitative?

I don’t know. I sincerely don’t know. I’m fascinated by the question. I want the book to be – I don’t want it to be an academic paper. I want it to be accessible and fun and funny and sexy and violent and all of the sugary things I talked about earlier today – the things that are like the bad candy. I’m not sure.

I have a really smart co-creator who I’m excited about working with. And I’ve also engaged Danielle Henderson, who is a friend of mine from the W.E.F., which was the Warren Ellis Forum, which is where I met my husband…. So I met Danielle there, and she is an author in her own right. “Tales From Fish Camp” was her first book; she’s also the author of the “Feminist Ryan Gosling,” and she has a master’s, I believe, in women’s studies. She’s very interested in these questions as well.

Art by Valentine De Landro previewing "X-Factor" No. 224.1 (2011). (Marvel)

Art by Valentine De Landro previewing “X-Factor” No. 224.1 (2011), which was written by Peter David. (Marvel)

HC: Where did you first see De Landro’s art, and what caught your eye about it?

KSD: I met him in Toronto at Fan Expo. I do a thing. My profile has gotten a bit bigger, so it’s a little bit harder for me to do this, but not impossible. I try to make time at any show to walk around artist alley and find artists I don’t know and get excited about their work. It was the last day of Fan Expo and I’m walking around. And there’s a thing that happens. It’s happening less and less, but this was a few years ago. There’s a thing that happens where there are certain people who sit at their table and, if you’re female, they look through you and they’re looking for the wallet that accompanies you, I think. And Val didn’t do that. I was walking around by myself, and Val – without having any idea who I was – engaged me, stood up and greeted me, showed me his portfolio. Treated me as though I might be a colleague.

It’s such a simple thing, but it meant so much to me. And then I started flipping through his portfolio, and was blown away by what I saw. And then we exchanged business cards and started corresponding. I was trying to get him and I together on a Marvel book, and the timing never worked out right. He was like, “We don’t have to wait for someone else to give us something. Let’s just do something.”

HC: Was there a particular image of his that grabbed you?

KSD: There were some pages from [“X-Factor”] with Peter David…. It was the drama that got me. It was heavy use of blacks, very shaded. I was always look for good acting. These were tense, personal moments that were still high-stakes high action. I was very impressed with that. I sent him a list of projects that I had, and he picked three. Two of them that, you know, he was like, “I like this one and I like this one, but I gotta say, my first choice here is this ‘Bitch Planet’ book.”

HC: When I spoke with Warren Ellis about “Moon Knight” a few months ago, I asked him about working with you on the “Avengers Assemble” issues that you did together and he said, and I quote, he was talking about how he was doing first drafts, “I’m writing in dialogue …  but I’m hoping she rewrites it all because her voice is more rhythmic and warmer and more characterful than mine” and then, referring to “Pretty Deadly,” told me to look forward to it; he said you have “a real eye for narrative engines.”

KSD: I’m going to cry. It’s funny because Warren is like a year and a half older than me but he’s been such a mentor to me that this is very much like you telling me daddy approves. I’m seriously choked up.

Emma Rios' cover for "Pretty Deadly" No. 4, which was released Wednesday. (Image)

Emma Rios’ cover for “Pretty Deadly” No. 4, which was released Wednesday. (Image)

HC: Looking ahead to “Bitch Planet,” how might the dialogue for that project be different from the dialogue you’ve done in other things?

KSD: “Pretty Deadly” is pretty definitely a – I don’t know if you can say this thing about yourself – but I’m shooting for a lyrical voice there. I still want all of the characters’ voices distinctive. I always want my books to be able to be read out loud. What I’m going for in “Pretty Deadly” is a musicality. In something like “Captain Marvel,” I want naturalistic dialogue that allows us to get the exposition out in ways that feel comfortable and sincere. And then in “Avengers Assemble,” I’m really going for humor. It’s meant to be jaunty patter. “Bitch Planet” is, I don’t know, like “Die Hard.” I want my “yippie-kai-yay …” moments in here. It should be sharp and strong and badass. It’s what I’m going for, anyway. I’ll leave it to you to determine whether it works.

HC: One thing I think is especially notable about your work outside of the work itself is how – I know you did not personally instigate Carol Corps, but it sort of formed around “Captain Marvel.” And you’ve certainly encouraged it and interacted with them. And now with “Pretty Deadly,” you’re actively inviting fan art. Can you talk about the importance of developing a community where it’s not just a one-way direction, but they’re also actively creating back at you?

KSD: I think there is a good side and a dark side. I think this can be handled well or it can be handled poorly. I think it’s going very well, with the Carol Corps in particular. To me, the purpose of fiction is to make us feel human and connected to one another. When I read a story and have an emotional reaction to it, what I’m reacting to is this idea that I am not alone in my perception of this world, that this existential angst or the beauty of looking at my child sleeping or whatever it may be that I am not the only one in the world who has ever experienced this, that I have community, that I have connection. We all are born into the world and we all go out alone. What we do in the time between is try to find other hearts to connect to. That is the higher purpose of fiction.

The least important part of Carol Corps is the book. The most important part of Carol Corps is how it’s brought people together and how those people have then been inspired by the ethics and code of this character to go out and welcome others and to reach into their own communities and be supportive. These are phenomenally generous human beings who have come together around those ideas. And that is magical. I’m utterly and completely blessed to be a part of that.

I think where it can go awry is…. We have this instant feedback loop now. The book comes out on Wednesday. Before most stores open, people are scanning and commenting on the books. And that immediate feedback loop is very addictive. It’s like a shot of dopamine…. It’s this high. It’s a very addictive thing. I think where it becomes dangerous to you as an artist – if I may be so pretentious – I think when it becomes dangerous to you as an artist is if you start trying to please everyone all the time and if you don’t follow your own conscience and intuition and education about how to structure your stories and your characters and make the books that feel right and read well to you and your editor, and you start trying to make something for everyone, I think you’ll lose your connection to it and I think it’ll lose its power as well.

I hope that I am able to engage and take that feedback without doing those things. I think so far I have been able to. But, you know, I mean, I did write a Carol Corps issue. I did write an issue that was explicitly embracing the fans and saying thank you for that support. I don’t think it was a mistake – I’m really proud of that issue. But it’s a question to think about.

– Blake Hennon | @BlakeHennon | @LATHeroComplex

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