Planet 'B': How A Feminist Comic Book Found Devoted Fans Through Absurdity NPR's Kelly McEvers talks with writer Kelly Sue DeConnick about her comic, Bitch Planet, about a dystopian future where being "noncompliant" in almost any way can land women on a prison planet.
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Planet 'B': How A Feminist Comic Book Found Devoted Fans Through Absurdity

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Planet 'B': How A Feminist Comic Book Found Devoted Fans Through Absurdity

Planet 'B': How A Feminist Comic Book Found Devoted Fans Through Absurdity

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When comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick got the opportunity to reimagine Captain Marvel as a blonde, blue-eyed fighter pilot named Carol, she made changes to the character that some fans didn't like. Carol now wears a flight suit, not the sexy dominatrix outfit she used to wear back when she was Ms. Marvel. And for that, DeConnick was accused of having a feminist agenda.

KELLY SUE DECONNICK: You know, I'm pretty good. I have a pretty thick skin, and I can shrug most of this stuff off. But there was some kernel of - this is not angry feminist. You want to see angry feminist? Let me show it you.

MCEVERS: So DeConnick started writing another very different kind of comic. The title of which we should note includes a word some listeners might find offensive. I'll say it now and again at the end - "B**** Planet". The first five issues of "B Planet," as DeConnick says to her kids, have been collected into a graphic novel which is out today. The story is about a futuristic world dominated by men. I asked DeConnick to describe what happens to women there.

DECONNICK: In this world, if you are a woman who does not fit in the box assigned her, if you are too loud or too opinionated or too quiet or too religious, too atheist, too black, too brown, too any of the things that they don't want you to be, you are labeled noncompliant. And if you are deemed terminally noncompliant, you are shipped off-world to an auxiliary compliance outpost that is colloquially referred to as B Planet.

MCEVERS: OK, and it's basically a women's prison.

DECONNICK: It is a women's prison, yes.

MCEVERS: An all-women's prison is a setting we know, you know - from the '60s and '70s TV and movies - of course now, "Orange Is The New Black." At one point you reference this. I mean, you're like, and now for the obligatory shower scene.

DECONNICK: Yeah. The book is completely absurd. And that's the thing that my co-creator and I, Valentine De Landro, are trying to play with some of the tropes from women-in-prison movies and exploitation and blaxploitation films from the '70s that we loved but are, you know, as we like to say, deeply problematic.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

DECONNICK: So we do things like label pages the obligatory shower scene. And in that scene, we turn the camera on the viewer. So as the scene progresses, the guy that's watching from the hole in the wall - the panel that is his peep hole continually gets bigger and bigger and bigger until it covers the rest of the scene because he's our focus. So it's, how can we take these things that we're all so accustomed to and flip them in a way that calls attention to what they are and what they do?

MCEVERS: And then, of course, at one point, one of the characters just punches through the wall and punches him.

DECONNICK: Oh, yeah.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) Which is great.

DECONNICK: Oh, yeah. You got to have that.


DECONNICK: Because catharsis - I mean, come on.

MCEVERS: Yeah, exactly. I mean, the title of the book is, I would guess, purposefully provocative.

DECONNICK: Sure, yeah.

MCEVERS: Why'd you do that?

DECONNICK: Genuinely because I thought it was funny. And there's a, you know - that's a terrible thing for a woman to be called, right?

MCEVERS: The B-word is a terrible thing to be called, yeah.

DECONNICK: Yes, yes. You know, it's a thing that we're all sort of afraid of. We so want to be liked, and I'm a pleaser as much as anybody else is. And I don't want to be considered unpleasant, but you know, sometimes I'm also the boss. And if I am unable to continue for fear of being called a name, I'm not a very effective leader.

And so there's an attempt there to just sort of own it, put it out there. And that's a similar thing with the noncompliant label that I've seen happening in reaction to the book that's been utterly and completely fascinating. You know, it is not a good thing in the world of this book to be labeled noncompliant. It means you don't fit. It means you don't belong. It means you're not good enough. You are not right. And in the real world, a number of our readers have really glommed onto that label and kind of taken it on proudly.

MCEVERS: Yeah. There's a logo. There's tattoos.

DECONNICK: I believe we are at over a hundred people have sent us photographs of the noncompliant tattoos that they've gotten in the way that they've personalized them and what they mean to them. And a friend of mine, another comic book writer, said something that is so smart that I wish I had said it. He said, you don't get that tattoo because you were a fan of something in the book; you get that tattoo because that book is a fan of something in you. And I think that that encapsulates it so much better than anything that I have been able to construct.

MCEVERS: I mean, the comics industry is starting to look at least a little bit friendlier to women, right? I mean, you've got the female Thor book outselling the old male version, and you are starting to see more women on creative teams and in editorial positions. How has that changed the industry, or how has the industry changed recently?

DECONNICK: So there are three things that have happened in recent history that have created this sort of paradigm shift in our industry. One is Image Comics has returned. And Image is the third-largest publisher after Marvel and DC, and they write comics that are not part of a shared universe. So you don't have to learn a new system. You don't have to go to Wikipedia to start reading comics. Just the same way that you would select any book from any bookstore, you can choose an image title based on your interests. And you know, you sort of start with number one or the beginning of a new arc, and you jump in and go. So that welcomes a lot of new readers. There's a lot of new women coming from that.

The second thing that happened was the Marvel movies did exceptionally well at the box office, right? And 50 percent of that audience is women, and those women came out of those movies going, I think I might like to find out more about Iron Man or Black Widow. And so they found a comic book store. So that was the second thing that happened.

And then the third thing is digital comics. So if you have a smartphone - and you have a smartphone - then you have a comic book store in your pocket. So you don't have to get over any social anxiety you have about entering that space. And those three things have meant a flood of women readers are returning to the industry, and it has changed the way we think about our audience. It's changed the way we think about who we hire to work on these books. It's changed the way we think about who we put on the cover and how we put them on the cover. And we're at a kind of Wild West time right now where nobody's exactly sure how that's going to wind up, and it's very exciting.

MCEVERS: You know, you are one of the most prominent women creating comics right now. Does that feel...

DECONNICK: Weird - yes.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) ...Like, you've got a lot of pressure on you, too. The future of women in comics, you know - go.

DECONNICK: Yeah, right - I'm 45 years old. I better not be the future of the comics (laughter).

MCEVERS: But is it - it is a lot of responsibility, I guess.

DECONNICK: Yeah. I don't think about it like that. You know, I am a nerd among nerds. That's about it.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) And you're comfortable.

DECONNICK: Yeah, yeah. I mean, look; I love my job. I love the position that I'm in, and I love how many women I meet every time I do a public appearance who tell me that they want to do what I do. You know, it's very exciting, and I don't feel the yoke of representation maybe as much as I should. I don't know. I don't think about it.

MCEVERS: Well, Kelly Sue DeConnick, thank you so much.

DECONNICK: (Laughter) You're very welcome. Thank you.

MCEVERS: Kelly Sue DeConnick is the creator of the comic - I'm about to say it - "B**** Planet."

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