Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Uncaging Bitch Planet #8

Or a look at panel grids as story motifs in Bitch Planet #8
by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro, Cris Peter, and Clayton Cowles; Image Comics

Bitch Planet is ostensibly a feminist take on exploitative women in prison movies. I say ostensibly, because despite some stylistic similarities to pulp film, this comic is doing some pretty complicated thematic heavy lifting. Most of the thematic substance of Bitch Planet has to do with intersectional feminism, an area I am eminently unqualified to essay about. So in lieu of that, I think it's worth looking at some of the structural/layout motifs used in the comic to convey narrative information.

There will be *SPOILERS* in this post.

The above sequence is an example of a "normal" layout in Bitch Planet. It is clean, uses different sized panels, and provides a clear narrative space. The fact the panel size is varied creates a flexible storytelling where the panel number and relative size can be modulated to serve the events depicted and to customize the reading experience. Like in the above sequence, where the comic depicts a father cleverly determining that his beloved daughter, a noncompliant prisoner, has secretly died, this storytelling can be effectively used to create heart rending, brilliant comics. It's a very good business as usual.

The first page of every issue of Bitch Planet has used this 12-panel grid layout. I've written about this approach before, but it bears repeating here in the context of BP #8. These pages, like the selection here, show women living in the "compliant" world, behaving within the patriarchal, garbage world of Earth. This approach ties layout to the motif of control that exists within the Earth of Bitch Planet since the 12-panel grid is a very rigid, orderly, and somewhat old fashioned storytelling approach. It is a comic style that bends the action depicted, the movement of the characters to a set layout, which is an approach that puts the system before the action/characters. It is a strong, visual metaphor for oppression. The white panel gutters of a 12-panel grid also forms a shape reminiscent of prison bars, making these pages look like the view through an idealized cell window. We are gazing into, or perhaps out of, a prison. This sequence, and it's counterparts in other issues of BP, provide a wonderful example of how layout and structure can create visual, thematic motifs.

I bring all of this up again because Bitch Planet #8 uses another panel grid system as a stylistic motif. In this case the comic uses an 18 panel grid to create a unique visual identity and a sense of a unique storyspace. The basis of this grid is the 1-2-3 panel row which has actually been used and riffed on throughout the series. This three panel row, usually featuring the two guard/engineer/controller guys interspersed with surveillance video has been an ongoing visual motif that has been used to showcase the separation between Noncompliant prisoners and their guards, the attitudes/plight of the guards, and the pervasive surveillance the NC's live under. Here this three panel motif is repeated over and over to create an 18 panel grid. The first 5 rows of panels in the grid are directly the 'usual' layout with one of the 'usual' controller-guys, which provides information to the reader that they are viewing a story sequence that takes place in the controller's location/distinct storyspace. The 16 panel grid carries through to remind the reader that the following events remain within the special controller-space. What is particularly interesting about this is that the actual illustrated spaces do not conform to the 16 panel grid, but rather the underlying artwork is overlaid with the grid and broken up. This is a pretty good sign that the grid here is more about a visual motif/sensation than about the direct storytelling of the actions. Which is pretty cool. 

Beyond being a visual signifier of location (controller-land), this motif manages to capture the emotional sense of what it means to be one of the controller/guards. The 16-panels break the page into many small windows to see the action, like the bank of surveillance screens the controller-guys use to watch the prisoners. I also find that, particularly because of the way the panel gutters infringe on the underlying artwork, that these panels remind me of grating. It's as if the reader is peaking through an airvent or stormcover or, to geek out, Jeffry's tube gate to see a secret, mechanical space behind the comic. It really sets the world of the controllers up as a technical, but behind-the-scenes space and not part of the prison world or compliant world of Earth. It's evocative and a great use of layout as motif.

Uncaging Bitch Planet #1
Uncaging Bitch Planet #2
Uncgaing Bitch Planet #3

Uncaging Bitch Planet #4

Uncaging Bitch Planet #5
Surviving Bitch Planet #1

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