#FridayReads July 1, 2016

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Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley: A bittersweet novel that avoids all the “man’s best friend” cliches and reminds why we love dogs so much, even though we outlive them.

Create Your Writer Platform by Chuck Sambuchino: An informative, no-nonsense book about the how, what, where, and when of getting seen online and, to a lesser degree, in print.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson: A quirky comic about a girl who wants to become a sidekick to her favorite villain.

Morning Glories Volume 9 by Nick Spencer, Joe Eisma, and Rodin Esquejo: The continuing adventures of a group of students held prisoner by their teachers and their efforts to figure out exactly what the school is and what their teachers are up to, and to escape.

What’s on your currently reading shelf this week?

#FridayReads: Bitch Planet

BitchPlanet_vol1-1Title: Bitch Planet Vol. 1: Extraordinary Machine
Author: Kelly Sue Deconnick (script), Valentine De Landro (covers/art), Robert Wilson IV (art on issue 3), Cris Peter (colors), and Clayton Cowles (letters)
Publisher: Image Comics
Publication Date: 2015
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 136
ISBN: 978-1632153661
List Price: $9.99

As a card-carrying, ardent feminist, Bitch Planet is the best thing since sliced bread (and I do love me some bread). The entire comic is a giant fuck you to the patriarchy. In fact, every time someone reads Bitch Planet, a misogynist gets permanent erectile dysfunction.

Are you non-compliant? Do you fit in your box? Are you too fat, too thin, too loud, too shy, too religious, too secular, too prudish, too sexual, too queer, too black, too brown, too whatever-it-is-they’ll-judge-you-for-today?

You just may belong on… BITCH PLANET.

That’s the back copy, and it’s a great summary of what’s inside. Women of all colors, shapes, and sizes who stand up for themselves and fight the system, even though it’s grinding them into the ground.

Or, in this case, sending them to an entirely different planet, where they are imprisoned for their non-compliance. Things like “seduction and disappointment” and “patrilineal dishonor” and “unpermitted birth” and being a “bad mother.”

You’ll notice, though, that these are all things women have gotten into trouble for in reality, whether they’ve been jailed, assaulted, or outright murdered for their “crimes,” which amount to having a uterus and not feeling bad about it.

There’s so much social commentary in this comic, I’m not even sure where to start, so, let’s start with the future dystopian world we’re dealing with here.

In Bitch Planet, the political system has institutionalized patriarchy to the extent that those in power are called “Fathers,” and they exert total control over the world (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). Any friend or family member can report a woman for non-compliance, and there aren’t any trials.

Citizens are required to watch the Feed, which is essentially the Fathers’ propaganda channel. Instead of looking at ratings or the number of people watching, they measure “engagement,” which is how many people are actually interested in what they’re watching.

And that’s where the story picks up. Engagement is down, and the Fathers want to bring it back up. One man has a possible solution—getting a female team of prisoners from Bitch Planet to play in the Megaton, a brutal sport that’s similar to football.

The catch, of course, is that no one expects the women to win. Indeed, the way the Fathers hope to get engagement up is from the actual deaths of the athletes.

And our main character, Kamau Kogo, knows it. Kamau is a kick-ass black lady with a giant Afro who knows her way around martial arts and doesn’t know the meaning of compliance. She befriends other women on Bitch Planet who feel the same way she does, and together they decide to take on the challenge not because they want to win, but because it will give them a chance to take down some of the Fathers directly.

Volume one ends before the actual sporting event begins, but there’s still plenty of intrigue and action. And that brings us back to the social commentary.

Bitch Planet is essentially an allegory for what women deal with today. We are judged on everything, especially our physical appearances, and always found lacking. If we are bold and assertive at work we get called bitches. If we aren’t assertive we get called hyper-sensitive and overly emotional. If we don’t look like porn stars with perfectly shaved snatches and giant perky tits, we get teased for being fat, flat-chested, and worse.

In Deconnick and De Landro’s world, these “failings” are actual crimes, and women go to jail for them. It’s no different than reality, really. No, we aren’t all in a physical prison, but there’s that pesky glass ceiling and all of those societal expectations keeping us in line (well, some of us).

But this book isn’t just RAWR WOMEN. The characters are fully-developed, three-dimensional people, and their relationships with each other are complex. It’s not just women vs. men, either. One of the primary antagonists is a woman, and while we don’t learn too much about her in this first volume, there’s definitely a story there, and I can’t wait to read it.

The men running Bitch Planet get a running commentary throughout, in the form of little panels off to the side. Their asides mirror the way men (and other women) feel the need to comment on women’s appearances, either positively or negatively. These men aren’t evil—they definitely show some compunctions over their jobs, but they are doing what they feel is “right.”

The back matter at the end of each issue is also full of commentary, and this time the target is the comics industry itself. The back matter features “ads” for junk products similar to the muscle-building programs and spy kits you see in comics from the 1960s and 70s.

Surprise insight! Scientific obfuscation really works. Imagine—you put on the “X Ray” Specs and hold his hand in front of you. You SEEM to be able to look right through him and see the truth! That guy in the black Taurus who followed you home? Is that really insecurity you “see” beneath his clothes? Or is it a gun? Is he probably going to murder you?

LOADS OF LAUGHS AND FUN AT PARTIES.

The fake ad is so depressingly true, it blows by funny and lands squarely in the land of irony. All to often, women are followed, and parties are one of the prime places women are sexually assaulted (and then blamed for it).

And, of course, there’s the whole “comic books are for boys” thing that is, unfortunately, still an issue today.

Thankfully, Deconnick and De Landro are here to say, “Fuck that shit.”

So, if you have lady parts, or you like people who have lady parts, read Bitch Planet.

Down with the patriarchy!

Masturbatory metafiction in Jack of Fables

ImageOver the summer I learned that consuming too much metafiction, as with chocolate, wine, margaritas, cheese, berries of any kind, coffee, tea, cake, cookies, candy or anything else delicious and edible, can lead to headaches, indigestion and temporary loss of taste for that food.

I’m not saying Jack of Fables is a bad series. In fact, it does something completely brilliant by making the writing/illustrating process a kind of character in the books. I’m just saying that it’s a very bad idea to read eight volumes of it right in a row. This comic by Bill Willingham is a spinoff of one of my all-time favorite comics, ever, Fables. The books follow our favorite fairytale characters in their lives in New York City after they were run out of their homelands by the Adversary. And then other stuff happens. Jack of Fables spins off fairly early in the series, and follows a separate timeline.

The best way for me to describe the metafiction contained within is this:

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Photo by Celeste Hutchins. Used under Creative Commons.

Many jokes are made about the authors creating the characters (and Jack actually turns fat and ugly and then into a dragon for making fun of the authors—see, the writing/illustrating process has agency in this text! Fracking brilliant!). Literary terms, genres and plot devices like science fiction, fantasy, literary, the fourth wall, the other three walls, deus ex machina, etc. become characters. In every issue (so several times a volume), Babe the Blue Ox gets a page or two to look out at the audience and make jokes.

For the first few volumes the story revolves around the Literals, a family of powerful individuals who created all the Fables. One of them tries to write the Fables and all magic out of existence, and so the Fables must prevent this from happening. The Literals are another way Willingham has characterized the writing process, and made it both hero and villain as certain members of the family fight for the Fables, and others against.

All of it is brilliant, and delicious, and if you read it all at once, thoroughly nauseating. Most of the devices and techniques Willingham uses here are fairly obvious, though the effects of those techniques are varied and as I said earlier, brilliant. My first reaction to this was to roll my eyes and say something to the effect of, “Cervantes was never THIS obvious,” but I was missing the point.

Jack is a self-absorbed prick. Under normal circumstances, only other self-absorbed pricks would have any interest in reading an entire comic book series about such a douche bag. So by making the writing process itself a character, I could stomach Jack’s self absorption and laugh about it. It was especially funny to me as a writer, because sometimes your characters turn into assholes when you want them to be nice, and you’ve got to do horrible things like turn them into dragons in order to make them nice again.

Willingham obviously has a lot of fun with this series, and it’s a lot of fun to read.

That being said, don’t read it all at once.

A version of this post originally appeared on my now-defunct blog about metafiction, The Narrative in the Blog.