Planetary Book 3: Leaving the 20th Century
Warren Ellis, writer
John Cassaday, artist
Originally written on October 23, 2005 for publication by The Comics Journal. I was an angrier person back then.
THE DUDE: How’s the smut business, Jackie?
JACKIE TREEHORN: I wouldn’t know, Dude. I deal in publishing, entertainment, political advocacy–
THE DUDE: Which one’s Logjammin’?
–Joel and Ethan Coen, The Big Lebowski
Warren Ellis wants you to take him seriously. I don’t. Partially it’s because he, the man who coined the term “pervert suits” to refer to superhero costumes, has heaped as much scorn on supercomics as the day is long, and noisily stormed away from the genre in a rage to try his hand at the wave of the future he dubbed “pop comics,” has spent most of his career as a Comics Superstar writing thinly veiled Super Friends fanfiction and is currently the author of Ultimate Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the “Ultimate Galactus” trilogy (!) and JLA: Classified. Partially it’s because this supposed anti-establishmentarian could not write a comic that didn’t feature a select group of badass illuminated übermenschen using their secret knowledge of the world to shape it into a better one for the good of the sheeplike plebes from whom this knowledge must be kept at all costs if his life depended on it. And partially it’s because his mobile-podcast-Delphi-forum digital-revolutionary comics-activist persona, his relentless touting of (say) Godspeed You Black Emperor! accompanied by diatribes about how (say) Avril Lavigne is bullshit, his name-dropping of his fetish-model friends and his close pal “Bill” Gibson, and his desire to utilize the Internet to cultivate groups of people who think and act exactly like he does coupled with his willingness to rage against the Internet when it cultivates groups of people who do not all remind me too much of an over-earnest black-clad Newcastle Brown Ale-drinking college sophomore who writes record reviews for the campus daily while not busy reading up on the connection between Terrence McKenna and the Rosicrucians at Disinformation.com. (I know this–because I was that college sophomore!!!)
But mostly, I guess, it’s the superhero thing. I feel for Ellis because he’s so obviously conflicted in his feelings about that which Siegel & Shuster and Lee & Kirby hath wrought. How else to explain the cognitive dissonance of his Jan. 8, 2005 “Streaming” column for the comics news website The Pulse, in which he dismissively proclaims the following:
“I think possibly [excellence] is measured in how something grabs at you, how it makes you feel, what it does to your brain, what it says to you. For some people, yeah, that’s going to be all about what’s in Green Lantern’s underpants or whatever, and that’s okay. Personally, I look for the Rock And Roll and the Manic Pop Thrill elsewhere. My point, if I have one at all, is that this year the majors are focussed [sic] on each other, and on making millions off the handful of old characters we already know. There are no surprises to be had out of “mainstream” DC and Marvel in the coming year. Which means it’s down to the rest of the medium to provide them.
This, of course, while Ellis was busy accepting Avi Arad’s dirty American dollars for rejiggering armored avenger Iron Man (he used to use repulsor rays–now he’s into the societally transformative power of cellphone technology!), armored dictator Dr. Doom (he used to rule an Eastern European nation with an iron fist–now he’s rules a commune of hipsters in Amsterdam with mind-controlling cyber-tattoos!), and godlike planet-eater Galactus (he used to be a big huge guy in a purple helmet–now he’s a virus-like swarm that’s the living embodiment of the Fermi Paradox! And oh, he’s called Gah Lak Tus now, because that’s less ridiculous somehow!).
The point, I suppose, is that people who developed a coterie of camgirl acolytes by shitting all over superhero comics probably shouldn’t write them without expecting to be hoist by their own petard, and not coincidentally creating some of the dullest freaking superhero comics in the history of forever. (Thank goodness Marvel has only managed to actually release two issues of Ellis’s Iron Man, as I think that’s about as much technophilic tedium anyone could take before pulling a Unabomber.) At the very least, such people should develop a much deeper cover for their closeted compulsion to write stories about metahuman do-gooders blowing things up with their awesomeness. And that, in a nutshell, is what Ellis has done in Planetary, the title that like as not is what enables people to refer to him in the same breath as an Alan Moore or a Grant Morrison without involuntarily giggling.
Planetary concerns a trio of superpowered individuals–a temperature-controlling albino named Elijah Snow (get it?), a superstrong/superfast/supertough PVC enthusiast named Jakita Wagner, and a long-haired technopath named the Drummer–who flit about the world investigating various bits of pop- and pulp-culture fictional ephemera that, it turns out, happen to constitute the world’s real “secret history.” Basically, there really is a Godzilla, a Doc Savage, an Incredible Shinking Man (a blacklisted Communist sympathizer subjected to cruel experimentation by the United States government, naturally)–it’s a bit like the plot of Return of the Living Dead, in other words–and it’s up to our trio of “mystery archaeologists” (to use the pretentiously juxtaposed job description assigned them by Ellis) to use this knowledge for good, or something.
Their primary opponents in this quest are the Four, a team of enormously powerful metahumans who rule the world and just happen to be badass what-if versions of the Fantastic Four. In many ways they resemble the titular superteam from another Ellis creation, The Authority, who are a team of enormously powerful metahumans who rule the world and just happen to be badass what-if versions of the Justice League, except that the Four are bad guys and the Authority are good guys. Now Ellis, that lovable scamp, has been known to claim that the Authority are the villains of their comic, but to paraphrase Harrison Ford, “You can say this shit, Warren, but you sure can’t type it”; you’d have to be a mystery archaeologist to unearth evidence of the Authority’s villainy from the text itself, which reads like a prolonged MASH note to the group’s hyperviolent Lefterventionism. (Shit, man, you wanna read a genuine critique of the superheroes-take-over idea, read Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme.) Regardless, that the man who’s derided supercomics as a go-nowhere culture of remixes has created at least two comics that revolve around Fatboy Slim dance versions of Big Two teams says more about Ellis than his inescapable “what I’m listening to/what I’m reading” lists, despite his efforts to portray things to the contrary.
Planetary has a couple of things going for it–neither of which is its endless recycled riffery on superior genre entertainment. “Hey, it’s the Hulk–only DEADLIER!” “Hey, it’s a John Woo movie–only WEIRDER!” “Hey, it’s Sherlock Holmes–only he’s the leader of the ILLUMINATI and he’s brought DRACULA as his MUSCLE!” “Hey, it’s Tarzan, only he FUCKS MONKEYS!”–you’ve now experienced the majesty of Ellis’s condescending chop-shop work on stuff he’s too embarrassed to straight-up enjoy. Perhaps the nadir of this tendency is the issue in which a troupe of Vertigo-character analogues appear and are rejected as the hopelessly dated relics of their Thatcherian era–after which Ellis’s Vertigo character, Transmetropolitan‘s Spider Jerusalem, shows up and is duly crowned the trail-blazing heir to Gaiman, Moore et al. In other words, pretty much everything sucks–until Ellis puts his stamp on it, at which point it’s the tits. This is morally and aesthetically superior to milking “The Death of Gwen Stacy” for thirty years how, exactly?
But everything’s drawn beautifully, which is Planetary‘s first virtue. Artist John Cassaday can get a little lazy with the backgrounds, but his figure work is astonishing (no pun intended, X-fans!), all warm curves shot from fascinating angles. He’s an excellent choreographer of action (see Chapter 16’s wire-fu homage) and a prodigious talent when it comes to conveying Ellis’s admittedly sharp pacing choices (as in the the silent five-panel sequence where the team’s attempt to infiltrate the Four’s headquarters is discovered and thwarted with literally earth-shaking violence). Cassaday’s go-to colorist Laura Martin is every bit as compelling here. Avoiding both the vomit-like palette of greenish browns that mars much of DC’s “serious” output and the Skittle-explosion Photoshop slop of the big guns, her sensible and sensual colors perfectly fill out the contours of Cassaday’s pencils. Her monochromatic work is always a sight to behold–like her contemporary Dave Stewart, she can do more with one color than most colorists can do with, well, all of them.
Virtue number two is a structural one. Earlier volumes of Planetary were interesting for the way Ellis bypassed the traditional climactic slugfest of superherodom for an approach that genuinely mirrored that of (yep) archaeology. More often than not, Snow, Wagner, and Drums would show up after the action took place–investigating gargantuan radioactive lizard corpses on Monster Island, watching a spectral flashback to a Hong Kong cop wrongly slain, and so forth. As Ellis’s subconscious yearning to write Secret Wars took over this tactic was mostly abandoned, but it’s been replaced by what may end up being the most drawn-out prelude to a final confrontation between protagonists and villains in superhero comics history. Each issue contains a small step forward or push backward for the Planetary team’s quest to thwart the Four, who are so powerful that they’re nearly omnipotent and therefore require a whole lot of planning and effort to thwart. Volume Three culminates with the team’s first successful mano-a-mano with a member of the Four (the Human Torch knockoff)–it’s taken eighteen issues for them to take out their adversaries’ weakest link. Ellis craftily builds the Four into such a formidable obstacle that we’re more than willing to follow the Planetary crew’s long and winding road for the sense that they’ll surmount that obstacle in the end.
It’d be nice if our drivers on that road were at all interesting, though, and that’s ultimately Planetary‘s fatal flaw. Swap the color schemes and the sex organs and you’d be hard pressed to spot the difference between main characters Elijah Snow and Jakita Wagner at all. Consisting of virtually nothing but the type of deadpan “I’m incredibly blasé about this outrageously cool thing that I’m looking at”isms that Ellis has somehow made a career out of, their dialogue is completely interchangeable; indeed, one of the few non-Cassaday pleasures to be had from Volume Three is the flashback sequence from back when Snow still spoke in a Claremontian down-home American dialect, since if there’s any other way in which Snow is different from Wagner–or Apollo, the Midnighter, Jack Hawksmoor, Jenny Sparks, etc etc etc–I’d love to hear about it. (I’m reasonably sure Spider Jerusalem smoked more, but of course tracking the number of times Ellis added “substance abuser” to “ubercompetent badass” and called it a personality would require a whole ‘nother essay.) Ellis characters are little more than dim echoes of things that made other characters interesting, wrapped in skin, adorned with a superpower and a kewl outfit, and pushed on-panel to kill a few hundred thousand people, kick someone in the junk, and recite whatever Ellis read on Metafilter that day.
They’re just superheroes with a slightly better iTunes playlist. One with lots of podcast subscriptions, no doubt. Sigh. Warren, call it “Galactus” and be done with it, already.