Why The Russos Are The Best Thing to Happen to the MCU Since Joss Whedon
Obligatory Tardiness Joke: I was going to wait a year or so to discuss Planetary #27, but you know….
Ahem. My most recent trip through the Planetary series was a couple of weeks ago, on a Sunday afternoon. I read the first two Planetary paperbacks before dinner, and finished off issues #13-26 after “Mad Men.” After years of waiting interminably between issues, it became almost compulsory for me to read the next one immediately, regardless of how late it was getting. Taken as a single extended storyline, Planetary starts slowly, but before too long has gained considerable momentum.
Planetary‘s initial charm comes from its familiar genre pastiches, reconstructed faithfully by writer Warren Ellis and artist John Cassaday and investigated by their heroes, Elijah Snow, Jakita Wagner, and The Drummer. The notion that modern society has been shaped secretly by various groups of superhumans — from Sherlock Holmes and Count Dracula to pulp-hero analogues to an evil version of the Fantastic Four — is incredibly appealing. Add in Japanese monsters, Hong Kong gangsters and 1950s’ B-movie paranoia and the setup becomes even sweeter.
However, the nature of that setup means that many of the fantastic sights the Planetary team investigates are appreciated too late. The series mourns its world’s lost potential, stolen by the Four for their own selfish ends and likewise denied us readers. The more familiar the honorees, the harder they seem to have fallen, as with the monster-corpses in issue #2 and the brutal murders of superheroes in issue #10. Eventually this turns Planetary away from its archaeology-of-the-impossible beginnings and into something of a revenge fantasy, as Elijah Snow and company visit their own brand of retribution unto the Four. Jog described this over-arching plot as “… reductive, stuffing the complexity of one hundred years of pop culture into this damsel in distress role, and then declaring the white hats triumphant gatekeepers of a better, changed, complex, enlightened world, basically by virtue of having hit the bad people to death.”
As you might expect, that is all over now, and issue #27 offers a coda to their efforts. I suppose issue #27 is therefore the series’ last opportunity to emphasize the Planetary team’s constructive behavior, as opposed to the aforementioned violent retribution … but I’m getting ahead of myself.
It’s possible as well to see Planetary as a sort of polemic against “realism” in superhero comics, although you’d think there would be better choices for “realistic” superheroes-gone-bad than the almost-fifty-year-old FF. Besides, Ellis pretty much took apart most of the Marvel characters in The Authority‘s hard-to-miss blunt-force satire.* If Planetary is about returning pop-cultural diversity and “strangeness” to the world, building up DC while attacking Marvel is an odd choice, sort of like picking ABC over NBC or Warner Bros. over Paramount. Perhaps it’s because DC’s signature characters, like the pulp heroes which preceded them, are each products of different creators, and thus represent greater diversity; whereas most of Marvel can be traced back to Stan & Jack & Steve (themselves not quite “The Four”). Still, that’s kinda thin.
Regardless, if we are to blame Marvel, the FF are probably the most appropriate villains. One could make the case for Peter Parker, Hank Pym, Tony Stark, and Bruce Banner, but the FF were there first; and the start of the “Marvel Age Of Comics” is arguably the point at which comics either stopped being so stodgy or stopped taking themselves so seriously (depending on how you look at it). If Marvel’s unifying theme was that super-powers only create their own set of problems, well then brother, you ain’t seen nothin’ like the problems this super-powered quartet can cause. Marvel-as-mercenary, willing to stop at nothing less than total domination, becomes even more horrific once Planetary twists around its flagship team.
Again, though, that’s an awfully superficial reading of the series, not least because versions of both Thor and the Hulk are killed off along the way. If Planetary had been a Marvel book, I don’t think it would have suffered by having the Justice League as the villains with the Avengers (and/or the FF) dying in issue #1. For me (not particularly an Ellis scholar), Planetary is probably most like Nextwave in its love of the weird and the obscure. (Also the violence — “healing America by beating people up,” as it were — although the two series clearly use different tones.) Where the latter played things like Fin Fang Foom and Forbush-Man for laughs, Planetary celebrates them, perhaps to the point of excess. That threatens to oversimplify the series and obscure its nuances under a fog of sentiment.
Indeed, right from the start much of Planetary is about the clash of genres — not just the Four versus everyone else, but issue #1’s pulps-vs.-JLA fight and the “real-world” concerns which end up killing characters like the Hulk-analogue (in the preview story). As such, Planetary describes a world devoid of a certain imaginative spark; and it’s eminently appropriate that the only surviving good-guy superhero is an analogue of the pure-in-heart Captain Marvel.
SPOILERS FOLLOW for issue #27…
It’s also appropriate that the opening pages of Planetary #27 find the world enjoying the somewhat predictable, but still gratifying, fruits of the Four’s downfall: a cancer cure; cheap water, food, and power; interplanetary travel; etc. The bulk of the issue concerns Snow’s efforts at a more personal victory, namely bringing his colleague Ambrose Chase back to the land of the living. Although the science involved warns of a small-p “planetary apocalypse,” it — like “Captain Marvel’s” revival — is a rare chance (in the context of the series) for Snow to do something positive, instead of cleaning up after the Four. The Drummer is pessimistic, but Snow is determined; and this reader felt as though anything could happen. What indeed would be the consequences of dipping into the timestream, tapping the power of Planet Fiction, and attracting all manner of undue attention? Would issue #1 play out all over again, only this time with Snow, Jakita, and Drummer having to fight off an even greater interdimensional menace?
Well … as it turns out, nothing so dire. The world doesn’t end, Snow gets what he wants, and the future of Planetary looks brighter than ever.
None of it would have happened without opening the Four’s vaults, from whence the time-travel basics come.** Although this inverts the Four’s secretive practices, the issue doesn’t openly acknowledge that its new utopia depends on having terminated the Four with extreme prejudice. At one point Jakita reflects on the fight they’ve won, saying she’s “shallow” because she doesn’t “have anyone to hit.” She explains further that “… it feels like all the adventure is over, you know? Like we won the war, and I’ve been at war so long that I don’t know how to do peace.” Having spent most of the series imagining creatively brutal ways to dispose of the Four, many readers likely sympathize. Because the Four were built up as the series’ ultimate villains, the series couldn’t exactly go back to genre-of-the-month stories once its baddest bad guys were defeated.***
The battles with the Four, and the early conspiracy involving Snow’s past, made Planetary one of those series which invited readers to make something cohesive out of all the details. I’m not sure how far issue #27 goes in that regard, because it definitely leaves one hanging subplot open. Snow observes they’ll “probably never” learn what happened to the one person who returned from Planet Fiction. “There’s no reason to believe he’d have to stay here,” Snow says. “We’re all living on two-dimensional planes of information…. He could be living in other stories now. Slipping between the turns of pages. Surfing down through a rack of books.” Snow looks almost wistful as he says this, presumably happy that the Four no longer control the “stories” into which this mysterious person could travel. Later in the issue, it’s suggested strongly that Snow’s personal feelings can affect an uncertain outcome. Truly, the world is as we might wish it to be.
Speaking of Snow’s expression, I’ve been remiss in not mentioning John Cassaday more. His work here is elegant as always, as usual enhanced by Laura Martin’s subtle colors. This is an extra-sized issue which involves a lot of talking, but under Cassaday’s direction, the conversations have life and the action sequences are suspenseful. Cassaday does particularly well with Jakita, helping make her an important presence in the issue despite her not having much to do beyond reacting to dialogue and events. Cassaday is at least an equal partner in this venture, and Planetary would have been a lot poorer without his considerable skills and talent. When a character says tantalizingly that “the good stuff hasn’t happened yet,” I picture that good stuff as drawn by him.
Planetary has been easy to appreciate, both for its eclectic approach to pop-culture fantasies and its play-fair-mystery atmosphere. Now that it is complete, I expect a new round of analysis will begin, once again trying to organize all of the series’ minutiae, this time in light of issue #27’s events. It’s a shame we won’t see the Planetary team rebuilding their “strange world” (and then keeping it that way).
Nevertheless, Planetary goes out on a high note, perhaps trying to counterbalance all the grimness it had endured to get here. Debuting in an atmosphere of premillennial anxiety, when The X Files was peaking and the future was uncertain, Planetary played on those fears by showing that the old fictional icons were also gone for good. With Planetary #27, Ellis, Cassaday, and Martin reveal that the world’s destiny (and that of our heroes) has been righted. The sky’s the limit, as it should have been all along. Issue #27 may not tie off all the series’ loose ends, but after this long, at least Planetary has its victory lap.
* [EDIT: actually, as alert commenter James points out, The Authority #s 13-16 (May-August 2000) were written by Mark Millar.]
** [In fact, the “loop of light” at the heart of the time machine is essentially the same shape as Galactus’ home planet/space station, where the Human Torch found the Ultimate Nullifier ‘way back when.]
*** [I would love to see Planetary/Santa Claus, but I have a sinking feeling the Four offed him too….]