Award-winning husband-and-wife writing duo Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick have made their share of waves in the comic book industry. From the critically acclaimed smash success of Fraction’s Sex Criminals to DeConnick’s highly buzz-worthy ongoing Captain Marvel, this pair is responsible for some of the bestselling, best reviewed books on the shelves today. Beyond the obvious success of their work, Fraction and DeConnick have also used their respective platforms to tell stories that reach girls and women in meaningful, positive ways. “I am willing to make other people uncomfortable so that my daughter won’t have to,” DeConnick has famously said of the issue in a 2013 interview, and is something Fraction has echoed in his own work as well.
DeConnick has been an unstoppable force in the discussion of female empowerment in comics since she began writing Captain Marvel in 2012, bringing Carol Danvers to the forefront as a complex and beloved hero. Since then she’s gone on to successful runs on Avengers Assemble, Ghost, and her original comic Pretty Deadly, which reimagines the supernatural western through a fresh lens. In Sex Criminals, Fraction tackles the realities of sex, love, and even sex work in funny and brutally honest ways, creating truly genuine stories about the nature of human connection. Likewise, his run on Hawkeye saw a great arc for Kate Bishop, affording her a poignant journey of mishap and self-reflection that female superheroes are not often given.
This year, DeConnick and Fraction have continued this trend, purposefully crafting stories meant to uplift and empower female voices, both on the page and in the real world. These two new titles, DeConnick’s sci-fi 70s exploitation movie pastiche Bitch Planet and Fraction’s space opera Homer homage Ody-C, set out with the sole mission of telling strong, complex, sometimes unforgiving stories about women. While two very different books, both in tone and execution, Bitch Planet and Ody-C employ the same strategies to engage their readers and create safe spaces for women to inhabit.
The Death of the Trope
Both Bitch Planet and Ody-C trade in the familiar tropes and clichés of the sci-fi and fantasy genres, building upon these well-trodden foundations. The familiar visual language of space travel and women in tubes are used in both titles, but not in the way you might expect. The pink, fluid-filled cryo-tubes used for prison transport in Bitch Planet are be seen everywhere in sci-fi, often carrying docile young women in need of rescue. These women are prisoners of a lawful (however morally bankrupt) state, not an evil emperor or soulless corporation, undermining this imagery entirely.
Likewise, the starships in Ody-C represent the strength of technology and military force through clear allusions to female reproductive anatomy. In Odyssia’s matriarchal the female form represents the power of the state, rather than traditionally soft or motherly themes. Not only do women go to war, they are just as barbaric and cunning as the male warriors of Homer’s epic. This is clearly communicated in the design of the ship’s interior and the surrounding technology, used to exert the character’s will in the world around her.
The Use of the Female Form
While these writers are creating the stories being told, the artists they are collaborating with are the ones bringing them to the page. Bitch Planet artist Valentine De Landro does a great job of rendering the female figure as a strong and capable form. The protagonists have varied body types but each of them has a sense of weight to them, and as such, a grounded sense of agency. Even though there is a great deal of nudity in the first issue of Bitch Planet, including a nude large-scale prison brawl, there’s nothing sexy or coy about these women. They’re more than capable of defending themselves, but more importantly, they’re more than capable of being as brutal or cruel as any antagonistic male guard. These women are prisoners but they’re not victims, and the way they are drawn conveys that effortlessly.
Christian Ward of Ody-C has a very different task before him with the genderswapped, sexually ambiguous pantheon of gods and goddesses. While Odyssia and her fellow warriors are certainly robust and physically powerful, there is a softness to the nudity, affording these characters some sense of frailty in private moments. There is also an intriguing exploration in sexuality within the pantheon itself. Zeus has been transformed into a voluptuous, heavy-set woman. With her excessive, almost cartoonish bust, her appearance is likely meant to play with both themes of fertility as well as the ravenous physical appetites of classical Zeus. It hasn’t yet been stated if this god is as sexually insatiable as her male counterpart, but the idea of her being just as carnal gives her a sense of power that plus-sized women are rarely allowed to have in mainstream entertainment.
The Sabotage of Expectation
Nearly every aspect of these respective casts are designed to totally undermine what people expect from female characters. Bitch Planet’s kung-fu-fighting Kamau Kogo and unapologetic Penny Rolle are both capable women of color. Stealing the spotlight from Marian, who first appears as the obvious protagonist, they both strike back at the corrupt sexist and racist power structures that put them away. This isn’t a position that women of color are afforded in fiction, which makes Kamau and Penny refreshing to see, even in the spirit of grindhouse-style exploitation schlock.
Ody-C’s Odyssia is as complex as her male counterpart, a brilliant warrior queen whose path is complicated by her bloodlust rather than the sexual excursions that waylaid Odysseus. Her crew is as equally inclined to acts of violence, even on fellow crewmembers, speaking to the war-driven culture of the Achaeans. Ene, who takes the place of King Menelaus, gleefully carves her name in the face of Helen of Troy stand-in He to humiliate him for his capture by Paris. These women are as cold, practical, and sadistically cruel as many famous male characters are known for being, and without becoming exploitative or hackneyed. It isn’t pretty, but a woman’s story doesn’t have to be.
These titles tell very different stories, but they do so in a way that explores the stories of women in the sci-fi and fantasy genres. And while these titles represent marked efforts to diversify the content of mainstream comics, they are but two examples of this ongoing discussion. It’s a discussion worth having as comics continue to explode in every facet of pop culture, and I look forward to seeing more from these comics and their creators in the coming years.
Well done! Fraction has been a favorite of my daughter for a while now. Good times
Great article. I would still argue with people that this was not really the year that women came to power in comics, because there have been some strong female characters in the past, but this is definitely the year that there has been a ton of controversy around female characters and their portrayal, pushing things to the forefront in the media.
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