Thursday Comics Hangover: Outside the prison walls

It’s probably just a coincidence that the eighth issue of Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s sci-fi women-in-space-prison comic Bitch Planet was published less than a week after the fourth season of Orange Is the New Black arrived on Netflix. But, for the sake of people who write weekly columns about comic books, it’s a happy coincidence. From the very beginning, Bitch Planet has been compared with Orange, and it’s easy to see why: they’re both about womens’ prisons, they both feature diverse casts, and they’re both feminist-minded sociological studies of modern incarceration culture.

That comparison, though, only goes so far. It’s pretty clear now that Bitch Planet has grander storytelling ambitions than Orange, partly because it features an unlimited special effects budget, and partly because Orange is based on a memoir and so must occasionally nod to realism with its structure. One isn’t better than the other — the fact that we have two popular stories in two very different media about womens’ prisons that are non-exploitative in nature is kind of a modern miracle — and in fact when both are done they may even run in thematic opposition to each other.

Anyway, the eighth issue of Bitch Planet is easily the best issue yet. The series has always been entertaining and confident — that first issue was easily one of the best series debuts of the last decade — but issue #8 hums with a special kind of power. It’s hitting that sweet collaborative spot where a writer and an artist sync together into a team that is greater than its parts.

De Landro is using more complex panel layouts in the service of more nuanced storytelling. An early scene in which a transgender woman (sentenced, an information box informs us, for “gender falsification, deceit”) undergoes a medical exam works as a microcosm of the series so far: in four pages we see dignity in the face of institutional demoralization, rebellion, pride, anger, and kindness. Another sequence in the middle of the book is heartbreaking and creepy, using a sci-fi backdrop to magnify a parents’ grief. It’s the most memorable image in an issue packed with memorable images.

(A quick aside: If you’re waiting to buy Bitch Planet in collected trade paperbacks, you’re missing out on something great: the back issue of every issue is packed with pages of interviews, columns, fan letters, and essays that expand on the themes of the issue. It’s like getting the modern version of a 90s riot grrrl zine for free with every issue of the comic.)

It’s hard to say where Bitch Planet will end up. This latest issue brings some political intrigue that suggests the story may be about to burst out of the confines of the prison. That would be just fine with me; Deconnick has made it abundantly clear in previous issues of this series that prisons aren’t the only way women are kept captive. Here’s hoping we’ll see a lot of breakouts before the series is through.