Wednesday, May 14, 2008

More pruning, part two

(See this previous post for more about my current project of trimming down my comics collection. Also note that I've only read the first three collected volumes of the comic under discussion here, so my knowledge is undoubtedly woefully incomplete compared to those of you who read the series in pamphlet form.)

As I've been trying to determine which comics are no longer essential for me to own, there are a naturally a few whose long term value I struggle to assess. Case in point: Warren Ellis and John Cassaday's Planetary. I have the first three trade collections, which I remember liking quite a bit when I first read them. But that was a bit of a while ago, and I'm (a) probably less fond of either man's work (especially Ellis') now than I was three to four years ago; and (b) I'm way, way less fond of the thinly-disguised-cognate school of superhero comics now than I was three to four years ago. Still, I do remember liking Planetary more than comparable works like Astro City, and I definitely preferred it to other Ellis-written comics. Obviously I needed to reassess these comics before I could determine their future.

I've always thought of Planetary as the Warren Ellis comic for people who don't generally like Warren Ellis comics. The owner of my local shop, for instance, recommended Planetary in almost exactly those terms, with special mention of Cassaday's art. I'm only moderately familiar with Ellis' oeuvre, but this does seem like the least Ellisian of his major works; protagonist Elijah Snow suffers from amnesia, preventing him from being such the sort of insufferably infallible badass like Jenny Sparks or that dude from Excalibur.* That does change over the course of the series; as his memory returns, he becomes more prone to professions of badassery. Even still, Snow is much less annoying than Jenny Sparks in that Ellis seems to be writing him as the embodiment of the American Century. Snow is gruff and brash, but his bold pronouncements smack of overconfidence rather than smug declarations of the obvious. In other words, you don't necessarily believe him when he says he's going to kick the villains' collective ass.

None of that is really obvious in the first volume of Planetary, which is more like Warren Ellis' tour of sci-fi and genre fiction of the 20th century. According to the back cover, Planetary is a three-man team of "mystery archaeologists, explorers of the planet's secret history." This essentially gives Ellis the opportunity to recast concepts like Godzilla or Doc Savage in late 20th century/early 21st century guise, eliminating silly SF concepts like atomically radiated lizards with silly SF concepts like sliding doors into parallel dimensions. I find that a little grating; the sight of an island filled with giant monster corpses wouldn't mean as much if we weren't familiar with Mothra or Ghidorah. Ellis is depending on the reader's connection with those old Toho kaiju movies, so I find it a bit disrespectful that he would mock the silly psuedo-science of yesteryear, especially since his SF explanations will likely seem just as ludicrous as scientific knowledge advances. Admittedly, Ellis probably knows more about particle physics (or whatever) than Ishiro Honda (or whoever) knew about the effects of atomic radiation. On the other hand, I'm guessing that radiation poisoning had a very different meaning for Honda and his c. 1954 Japanese audience than particle physics did for Ellis and his c. 1999 audience. If you know what I mean.

These early chapters resemble nothing so much as X-Files episodes; there's an overarching plot somewhere in the background, but a given installment might focus on some unrelated form of weirdness. As the series wears on, however, Ellis focuses more on forward plot momentum dealing with the series' villains, essentially an evil version of the Fantastic Four. It's around this point that the series becomes less X-Files and more League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In fact, there's a coalition of old pulp heroes (including, if I'm not mistaken, versions of the Shadow, Doc Savage, Tarzan, and Fu Manchu). And eventually we learn of a 19th century equivalent, which included Dracula and Sherlock Holmes. (And they're sort of evil, which makes me wonder if this is some playful commentary on Alan Moore and LOEG or part of Ellis' larger exploration of the 20th century--more on that later.) Ellis also gives us his take on the Hulk, James Bond/Nick Fury, Superman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman.

One would assume that this would lend itself to meta-commentary on the nature of super/pulp heroes, but this isn't generally the case. The best one can say for Ellis' take on Tarzan is that he kept the White Man's Burden overtones surprisingly understated.** In fact, Ellis really only indulges in full-on Alan Moore/Grant Morrison levels of meta when the Planetary team attends the funeral of a John Constantine analogue. I'm of two minds about this sequence. On the one hand, Ellis makes an excellent point in emphasizing that the celebrated British comics of the 1980s and early 90s arose from an very grim political/social environment, and that the concepts and approaches of that era lose their power when ripped from that particular context.*** On the other hand, Ellis chooses to make this point in the most self-serving manner possible by having his Constantine analogue transform into Spider Jerusalem, the star of Ellis' own Transmetropolitan. Which, I believe, was still being published when said issue of Planetary was published. Warren Ellis: "Look to me, for I am the future."

But aside from this one issue, Ellis' use of super/pulp hero analogues serves no real narrative or thematic function. Which isn't to say that Planetary lacks a theme. I see Planetary as a commentary on the tragedy of science and technology in the 20th century. If you've ever spent much time thinking about the last century, you've probably considered the exponential advances in science and medicine which largely defined those hundred years, and perhaps reflected that they have greatly increased quality of life for many human beings. And yet, despite these incredible advances, human beings are still plagued by old evils like war, disease, and hunger, and new ones like pollution. Throughout Planetary, Snow condemns the Fantastic Four analogues (the Four) for having access to a wide array of incredible technology, but using absolutely none of it to benefit humanity. Ellis clearly has the 20th century on his mind here, since Snow (like several other characters) was born on January 1, 1900, and explicitly defines himself in opposition to the 19th century in one flashback. Thus, the Four represent the troubling dichotomy of unprecedented technological progress and continued human suffering. I still don't know what any of this has to do with the Fantastic Four, though.

I see two distinct levels of criticism for understanding this tragedy. One could make a sort of anti-capitalist argument: in the same world where GPS devices are increasingly mundane, millions of people die every year due to lack of access to clean water. That's a pretty incisive criticism of modernity, and I could see someone successfully incorporating that theme into a comic about superheroes. But that's not what's going on here. The Four in Planetary are not motivated by greed so much as exaggerated pride and ego; they refuse to share technology because they consider themselves explorers uninterested in human suffering. They cruelly experiment on the victims of the second Red Scare not out of any political leanings, but because they are the most easily exploited test subjects. (BTW, for those who care, Ellis' dates don't line up. The Four, since they are Fantastic Four analogues, get their superpowers in 1961. Anti-Communist hysteria was still running high in the United States, but the second Red Scare was over by then.)

Alternately, one could make a more pessimistic, anti-progressive, antihumanist argument about technological advancement by noting any number of cases in which science and technology were used to harm people in ways which were impossible in pre-modern times. The Holocaust is the most obvious, and there are a few allusions to it in Planetary. At least one member of the Four has ties to Nazi Germany, and the experiments in Red Scare-era concentration camps reminds one of the sort of "science" that went on in German death camps. But this analogy doesn't really fit for Planetary either. The Four seem to subscribe to a fascist, might-makes-right philosophy, but this is largely irrelevant to the population of Earth. The Four don't seem interested in our mundane world at all; aside from their unfortunate test subjects, average people wouldn't even be aware of their existence. There is one act of genuine genocide, but it's so ridiculous ("they killed an entire planet just to have somewhere to store their weapons--and I don't mean massive, Death Star type weapons, but more like sabers and axes!") that the entire thing seems much more silly than horrifying. These acts of brutality aside, Ellis makes it clear that the Four's sins are primarily ones of omission; it's not what they did, but what they didn't do that initially makes Snow angry.

Later we learn that Snow has more personal reasons for his grudge against the Four, but that initial encounter seems to be more about Snow pitching a fit that the Four aren't sharing their toys. That's generally the entire tone of the series, though. Characters generally express the greatest wonderment at places, devices, and concepts rather than actual people. It's a very different approach from Moore or Morrison, who tend to emphasize the power of fictional characters in their writing. Ellis is more likely to glorify a hidden city or an antique spaceship than any individual character.

And that's what makes his incessant use of analogue characters so pointless. The most effective comics dealing in such characters use them either to celebrate the power of fiction or to comment on the media from which they came. Ellis really does neither. The Four are defined primarily by their intimidating power and shadowiness; what exactly is the comment on Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's creation? What is the commentary on superheroes in general? There are a few mild suggestions about power fantasy in that the Four are pretty unsavory folks, but it's not terribly well developed. Once again, I'm tempted to praise Ellis' discretion in sparing us yet another reductive commentary on superheroes as a fascist fantasy, but I still wonder what exactly is his point?

This pointlessness is especially ironic in that Planetary's popularity, as best I can tell, largely arises from Ellis' use of superhero cognates. Recasting the Fantastic Four as villains seems terribly clever on the surface, even if there's no deeper point to it. Having these villains slaughter Ellis' Superman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman equivalents probably does more to establish them as villains in readers' eyes than any of Snow's speeches about potential cures for cancer being held back. It's a cheap tactic, one that plays on the readers' love of these intellectual properties without providing anything meaningful in return.

And that's a shame because Planetary works just fine as an entertaining piece of genre fiction, especially if you look at all the stuff about technology and power less as half-assed messageering and more as a plot device around which to explain the conflict between Planetary and the Four. I frequently found the superhero analogues to be an impediment to my enjoyment of the series, especially in the more violent sequences. Ellis' occasional tendency to try to outwit the creators of the original properties (see the part about Godzilla above) makes it even worse. "Mystery archaeologists" seems like a strong enough concept to eliminate the need for fake Nick Fury to watch his subordinates being shot in the face, eyeballs flying through the air.****

Unfortunately, John Cassaday's art doesn't complement Ellis' approach to storytelling. Cassaday's people are some of the most convincing in mainstream comics; they have a weight, a sense of realness that one doesn't often find in highly detailed superhero art. However, he fairs rather worse in trying to draw the sort of spectacular vistas that Ellis' script seems to necessitate. The hidden African city of Opak-Re is greatly overshadowed by the people living in it. We never get any sense of its dimensions or architecture; all we see are geometric golden forms jutting out of the greenery. There are lots of dead monsters (and one living one) on Island Zero, but Cassaday's compositions don't inspire an appropriate sense of awe. It's a widescreen comic without the widescreen art. Where are the double page spreads? Where are the majestic panoramas? What we get instead are mostly mid-shots and closeups of characters.

Despite all these reservations, I'll be keeping these comics. I'm curious to see how Planetary turns out (DON'T TELL ME), and I'd feel pretty stupid getting rid of these volumes and then buying the last volume. Especially since my memory is bad enough that I'll have forgotten a number of important details before I get the chance to actually read the fourth volume, which almost certainly won't be out in softcover by the end of the decade. I know this sounds like a rather lukewarm endorsement; I guess that's probably right. Still, I think my interest in seeing Planetary through to the end testifies to the core strength of the central concept. It's a high stakes power struggle over forbidden knowledge; it doesn't need a bunch of geek culture references mucking it up. I think Ellis would have us see all those references as the icing on the cake. If so, it's a particularly unpleasant type of icing he's concocted here; I'd prefer just to have the cake. But I'm guessing there are a bunch of fans who just want the icing.

*Or so I've heard; I've never read any of Ellis' mutant work.

**Not that this is an invalid criticism of Tarzan; it's just a very old and, frankly, obvious one. On a quasi-related note: I've heard that the John Carter of Mars books have surprisingly ambiguous and interesting commentaries on race. Any thoughts on this?

***Does this mean that the current crop of (mostly) American Vertigo writers and their comics are the product of the Bush administration? I mean, clearly quite a few recent Vertigo series are basically responses to the current political environment. Maybe they'll get better should conditions deteriorate over the next decade or so. I guess that's something to look forward to, assuming that we don't have to burn our comics for fuel.

****From a creative standpoint, at least. I recognize that Planetary probably wouldn't have enjoyed such a long lifespan if superhero-only fans weren't so interested in seeing things like Mr. Fantastic dissect Green Lantern. That's a depressing thought, isn't it?

16 comments:

David Wynne said...

I kind of have to ask... have you ever read any of Ellis' non-superhero stuff? I find it interesting that when referring to his "major works" you mention the Authority and Excalibur. Surely his major works be the SF comics, since he's always made it very plain that that's the genre he actually enjoys writing, as opposed to the superhero stuff which he's always made no bones about doing purely to pay the rent.

I've always thought of Planetary as "the Warren Ellis superhero comic that reads the most like his non-superhero comics". I'd also say that perhaps you're looking a little too hard for meaning in it: I personally saw it as Ellis' crack at the ultimate pulp yarn. No extra depth required.

Dick Hyacinth said...

I've read a little Transmetropolitan, but couldn't take it. Didn't mean to imply that Excalibur was a major work. What other SF series are especially important to his oeuvre? Global Frequency and Fell? Is Fell even SF? I was under the impression it was more of a horror/suspense comic.

I'd be more than willing to accept Planetary as the pure entertainment you suggest; in fact, that's the point I'm trying to make at the end. But the use of analogous characters creates the kind of problems I mentioned in the post, or at least it does for me.

Derek said...

Fell is just detective stuff. The done-in-one format doesn't leave much time to build a ton of suspense. It's entertaining enough.

Katherine said...

About five years ago, Abhay Khosla said that Ellis had basically been writing his protagonists as slight variations on John Constantine since the Excalibur days. He hasn't really expanded his repertoire since then; even Crecy has a Constantine-alike on the English front lines in 1346. I haven't read Planetary, but I wonder if the transformation of the Constantine-analogue into Spider Jerusalem was Ellis mocking his own narrow range more than anything else.

Bob Agamemnon said...

It's been a while since I read the Japan issue of Planetary, but I don't really remember any sense of mocking the Godzilla story. I thought a lot of what was going on was smashing together Japan of the fifties (monsters) with Japan of nineties (death cults). Obviously another level of mash-up is the metaphorical history of radiated monsters and the literal existence of groups like Supreme Truth.

I think what may be missing from your critique is seeing the sense of play at work in Planetary. I don't think Ellis is or wants to be a particle physicist. I think he's more a poet and prankster. I'll concede that he's not always coherent, but I'm not sure he always needs to be.

Anonymous said...

If memory serves, Ellis has stated that Cassaday drew the Spider Jerusalem-like tattoos on the Constantine analogue (Jack Carter, wasn't it?) for shits and giggles, rather than anything in the script. I can't recall if Cassaday has corroborated that, though.

Tucker Stone said...

You've described my feelings about Planetary exactly. I hadn't read it until just recently-same as you, the first three trades-and i'm still surprised by it's relative popularity. Not much going on it. I could go another fifty years without reading another crappy version of the chain-smoking "i'm an ornery bugger" character.

I'm a huge fan of Fell though. That's a great comic.

Marc-Oliver Frisch said...

You're making some good points that make me want to go re-read PLANWTARY again. However-

"Ellis is depending on the reader's connection with those old Toho kaiju movies, so I find it a bit disrespectful that he would mock the silly psuedo-science of yesteryear, especially since his SF explanations will likely seem just as ludicrous as scientific knowledge advances."

I don't remember getting that vibe from the comic. I don't recall if the characters maybe mock the science or the concepts of the "cases" they're investigating, but I doubt Ellis is. If anything, I consider PLANETARY Ellis' Unified Field Theory of Pulp Culture - an affectionate attempt to excavate archetypal pulp concepts, dust them off and put them in context.

(On a sidenote, I didn't have a nostalgic connection with any of the concepts Ellis was tackling and still enjoyed PLANETARY most of the time, so I'd probably disagree on that part, as well.)

MarkAndrew said...

I generally like Ellis' stuff - I like Transmetropolitan a lot, actually.

But I hated everything you did about Planetary, except more-so. Planetary basically feels like blatant pandering, like he wants a response from the audience "Oooh! We recognize the same pop culture touchstones! I feel so CONNECTED to you, and your work! You've seen GODZILLA, too! I love that movie! It's like a spiritual thing, man!"

Even John Cassady feels like a "sum of his parts" artist - He seems to comfortably reference a lot of familiar, mainstream, comics artists but doesn't have much about his style that's unique. Or interesting. Alex Ross style photorealism with a little bit of Kirby - Who cares? Be your own man.

I'm not seeing much of a sense of humor in Planetary, either. The characters quip, but the creators seem to take their pop-culture mishmash VERY seriously, in a way that Ellis and Robertson didn't with Transmet - Which contained a lot more substansive ideas, to boot.

So, yeah, I've made the Alan Moore comparison too. League of Extrordinary Gentlemen did the same thing first, smarter, funnier, with much better art, and... and STYLE, goddammit.

Hugh Stewart said...

"Thus, the Four represent the troubling dichotomy of unprecedented technological progress and continued human suffering. I still don't know what any of this has to do with the Fantastic Four, though."

Honestly, I've always read the Four as Ellis' condemnation of superhero comics, and the way they usurped a certain section of the public consciousness since 1961, (or whenever) when the FF were introduced.

Ellis is mad because they killed/replaced the pulps, and the possibilities of stories, ideas, etc that they represent, I guess? Comics were conquered by the Marvel Heroes and now all the other genres are slaves? I don't know if I agree with it, but that's the way Ive always interpreted things.

Dan Coyle said...

"Comics were conquered by the Marvel Heroes and now all the other genres are slaves? I don't know if I agree with it, but that's the way Ive always interpreted things"

And the moment Ellis went back to Marvel, hat in hand, the entire series' relevance was completely destroyed. You don't get to do a series where the point is "Marvel ruined everything" and write Dark Speedball. That's what a sellout does.

Abhay said...

"About five years ago, Abhay Khosla"

I don't remember saying this, though it's entirely possible. I'm not a John Constantine fan or expert-- I don't even remember his run on that comic, so it sounds odd I'd have made that complaint.

I doubt I'm the first person to notice a sameness to his protagonists-- it's not subtle. It's not indefensible, either. If a writer writes a particular character type well, and fans are happy, who's harmed? But ... for me it's the larger world-view that the character, in part, represents that's so often a turn-off.

He wrote a bit in one of those New Universe comics of a girl and boy starwatching though that I preferred to the usual angry people. More work in that vein would perhaps be nice.

Dan Coyle said...

Also, Planetary boldy rips off Phil Farmer, just like Transmetropolitan cribs mightily from Hunter S. Thompson. But Ellis at least credit Thompson with the inspiration for the latter book.

Katherine said...

Abhay: Googling has revealed that I misremembered. It wasn't you, it was Chris Allen quoting Jason Latta. You and Chris both had columns on the same site at the time, which is why I mixed you up. Apologies to you both.

Bradley Susumu said...

Dick,

Great post, as a PLANETARY lover, I liked reading the con-arguments.

I just wanted to third (?) that I didn't get the feeling that Ellis was mocking earlier pulp creators, even in the Godzilla one or the 50 ft. woman issue.

I have always worried about the "cultural touchstone" pandering, and can never totally recommend Planetary to comics virgins. But as a geek, I adore it.

As for Ellis's SF oeuvre, obviously TRANSMETROPOLITAN has to be mentioned since that's his longest work by a wide margin. Then I have seen people both name check ORBITER and MINISTRY OF SPACE as their favourite Ellis work. And now he's working on FREAKANGELS and DOKTOR SLEEPLESS which are complete sci-fi and set to run for years.

Coyle,

Say what you will, but his work at Marvel brings new readers to his experiments to bring back pulpy comics and other things.

Dan Coyle said...

"Say what you will, but his work at Marvel brings new readers to his experiments to bring back pulpy comics and other things."

That's not a reason. That's an excuse.