Review by Frank Plowright
Extraordinary Machine introduced a resolutely unpleasant society where women are second class citizens. Although present day real world issues are introduced, it’s set in the USA of the future, where any women whose behaviour has infringed male sensibilities for any one of a variety of reasons is shipped off to the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost on another planet. Beyond the deliberate anonymising of the facility name, it’s a jail, colloquially referred to as Bitch Planet.
For all the 1950s b-movie trappings and designs around the series, Kelly Sue DeConnick has a raft of serious points to raise about how we live today, about the general treatment of women in supposedly civilised societies. In the slipstream of revelations about Harvey Weinstein Bitch Planet has become ever more relevant.
The ongoing story is punctuated by chapters detailing the pasts of individual cast members, and Meiko Maki’s opens this book, prefaced by an advisory of sexual assault featuring in the content and suggesting anyone likely to be disturbed skips to the following chapter. It seems an overly cautious warning in what is very much an adult graphic novel, but this is a disturbing tale, and the only one in the book with a really strong point to make. In our world plenty of oppressed women eventually snap, and it’s all too rare that anything other than the snapping point is taken into consideration.
As well as the sleaziness of the attitudes to women, DeConnick has a few barbs about the sleaziness of corporate culture to the throw into the pot and keep it simmering, but after the raw manipulation of the previous book President Bitch is tame in comparison. It may seem a strange comment about a graphic novel featuring the brutality of a prison riot, but the strength of Bitch Planet is the visceral commentary and the plot takes over here. DeConnick knows what she’s doing. Wrapping the issues she’s concerned about in sensationalism attracts a far larger audience than she would just blogging about them, but it also means the plot needs to be serviced, and that can dilute the message. There’s a fair amount of action, but little of it isn’t common to prison dramas (or indeed, prisons). The one item that’s definitively new concerns the introduction of a character who’s been mentioned, but not seen until now.
An interesting aspect of the art is colourist Kelly Fitzpatrick’s use of a form of letraset dots effect for much of the background, inherited from previous colourist Cris Peter, but given greater emphasis here. Pull it away, and it’s remarkable how spartan Valentine De Landro’s art is in places. It has to be emotionally strong work for the series to succeed, and his characters are very expressive, but their environment often light. As previously, the character spotlight is by a different artist, Taki Soma, who’s not as good. The figures are posed and sometimes strange, and a manipulative corporate executive looks more like a teenage boy.
The book is rounded off with the primary creators discussing the presentation of gender spectrum, introduced without fanfare, and, as previously, by a discussion guide, which is a great idea. Instead of the creators raising the points, it’s down to polymath Professor Ben Saunders of Oregon University. If every graphic novel had such a section, would creators consider their efforts a little more? Discuss.