In Bitch Planet Issue 3, Kelly Sue DeConnick teams with guest artist Robert Wilson IV to present the events that lead to Penny Rolle landing in the eponymous outpost penitentiary. Did she kill someone considering her frequent entries into melee with guards? Did she do something equally dangerous within society? Well, yes, but not at all what a reader might expect. Spoilers ahead!
Penny stands solid and tall, fists clenched, stance wide, ready to defend herself. She dwarfs the two guards flanking her behind barred panels which turn out to be screens of the same sort we saw in Issue 2’s scene of Kamau being tortured. Robert Wilson IV, our guest artist, has drawn lines leading out from Penny, emphasizing her strength of presence and will. As she stands here, she thinks, “I can’t see you, but I feel you judging me.” An inset image of a close up on her eye gives her gaze importance before we move to the next few pages where she will be looked at, judged by at least 40 eyes.
All 40 eyes belong to men. Most are white, but there appear to be at least two black men. These are not her peers, though this is clearly a trial. What is Penny on trial for? “Insubordination, assault, assault, assault, repeated citations for aesthetic offenses, capillary disfigurement, wanton obesity.” The judge reading these charges finishes by commenting, “Good God, woman.” Although I personally think it ought to be “Good God-woman.”
The men on the screens around him have varying looks of shock, disbelief, and disgust on their faces. One actually shields his eyes from her image. Attention is given to him by placing him just above the inset of Penny’s eye. I suspect he’s blocking her because she offends him, but it is a similar pose to when one wants to block a light that’s too bright. And certainly Penny is that, a light that shines far too brightly for their designation of womanhood, a group of people that should be pretty only by their standards, who should confine themselves to an acceptable size and shape. Penny is not that. She is the size of the sun and just as shiny.
I’m at a loss for what capillary disfigurement might be, whether she disfigured herself (seems unlike her character) or if she disfigured someone else’s. In any case, the judge continues his shaming of Penny by asking, “What have you done to yourself?” His tone is condescending, and Penny’s eye, a repeat of the close up from the previous page, narrows in response.
Another judge asks, “Penelope…Do you know why you’re here?” At this question, Penny closes her eyes, head tipping downward, a grimace on her face. She does not answer, but clearly the question has pushed her from angry defiance into a different emotional territory. A third judge tells her, “You’re being given a chance, Penelope. A ‘thank you’ would be nice.” The judge who read the offenses says, “Penelope, your Fathers love you. It pains us to see you like this.” Another judge adds, “All we want to do is help you. Penny’s eyes remain closed at these words though her grimace is gone. Their condescension and hypocrisy have pushed back whatever pain was coming toward the surface. She thinks merely, “Help.” A word whose connotations of support and care don’t apply in this situation, not from these men. The ambiguity of it standing alone builds suspense as we move into flashback territory on the next pages. Does Penny want help? Surely not from these men, but perhaps from somewhere else?
The word “…help” gets repeated as transition into a flashback of Penny as a child. She’s looks around 9 or 10 (though we will later find out she’s only 8), a large child but pre-pubescent. The style of art has changed to visually indicate the flashback. Rather than the solid-looking colors of the present, the flashback has a large half-tone dot pattern. Penny is baking with her grandma. Penny is stirring batter. Her grandmother asks, “Your arm tired? You need Grandma’s help?” Even at this age, Penny is independent. “I can do it,” she states. Her grandmother then plants a line that will come back to have powerful resonance later in the issue: “Well, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” She continues, “But it’s okay if you want some help.” Penny softens, “Maybe you could do the rest of this one.” Grandma knowingly “mm-hm”s. Penny doesn’t want to be soft though: “I’m pretty strong though.” Grandma offers encouragement: “You keep working as hard as you do and you’ll be as big and strong as an oak. Like your daddy.” And here we get a sense of something tender to the touch about the subject of parents when Penny responds, looking down, “My mom is strong.” Grandma is momentarily without words. Then she merely confirms the statement. What’s the story behind this moment? Given the society and future Penny, perhaps Mom has been declared non-compliant too based on aspects of her strength.
But the moment is gone. Grandma has noticed Penny is accidentally dipping her curls in the batter. It creates a moment of both tension and humor. The humor is the slapstick of the batter flying around the kitchen while Grandma tries to get Penny to hold still to keep from spraying the batter every which way. But there’s a tension in the moment as well. A well-meaning response to an accidental situation creating an even worse set of problems. I end up wondering what this moment might be analogous to. Something with Penny’s mother or father?
The humor is increased on the next page as Penny begins to giggle and Grandma starts a food fight in return. What we learn from this scene: Grandma is supportive, helpful, forgiving, and fun. This makes the next page all the more painful when Grandma goes outside to see what the dog is barking at, sees four armed men charging for the door. They are a S.W.A.T.-like team. Their vehicles are armored with police lights on top. These are the police and they are coming after a baking grandmother and her granddaughter. Grandma, eyes wide, body frozen in a dog-petting crouch, says simply, “Penny…RUN.”
Grandma understands the threat these men pose. What happens to her is left a mystery. Does she get taken into police custody and jailed? Is she killed as she attempts to protect and allow Penny to escape? I can imagine both of these scenarios playing out.
The sudden shift of mood over these pages is heart-breaking–loving fun to destructive menace. Penny had a stable, loving home-life, but because her grandmother was obese–we don’t get any further indication of how she might be non-compliant or a threat to society–Penny is taken by the government.
But most crucial to these pages is the contrast between the “help” and “love” offered by the Council–one that comes with condescension and expectations of conformation and compliance–and the actual help and love offered by Penny’s grandmother. Penny was taken, but what was taken from her by the Fathers can never be recovered. Penny is technically the criminal here, but the crime against Penny is clear in these pages and hits as hard (or more so) than the crime against Marian by her husband and Solanza in the first issue. Mmm, that’s some good irony.