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Absolute Planetary, Vol. 1 (Review)

With Wildstorm being officially folded into the relaunched DCU (the “DCnU”), I thought I might take a look at some of the more successful and popular Wildstorm titles that the company produced. In particular, Planetary, the which will apparently inspire Paul Cornell’s Stormwatch – easily one of my more anticipated titles of the relaunch.

Planetary, as imagined by Warren Ellis and John Cassidy charts “the secret history” of the fictional Wildstorm Universe, as we follow a team of pulp archeologists attempting to uncover “what’s really been going on this century.”As such, it provides Ellis and Cassidy a chance to dig around and play in the pop culture of the twentieth century, celebrating concepts and ideas as diverse as Japanese monster movies, Hong Kong revenge actioners and American pulp heroes, all with more than a hint of nostalgia and affection.

Strange ways...

It’s interesting to hear the series discussed as an attack on the superhero genre, which arguably smoothered the vast majority of other comic book genres in the sixties. It’s clear to see that Ellis shares the view, as the very first chapter gives us pulp here “Doc Brass” and his buddies locked in a confrontation with a bunch of Justice League counterparts, and the last gives us a slightly more ominous twist on the iconic arrival of the Fantastic Four, where the giant “4” is a grim sign of things to come rather than a symbol of boundless hope and enthusiasm.

Still, “attack” seems like a very strong word for what Ellis is attempting, and it implies some sort of hatred or anger that I don’t really believe that Ellis – for all he likes to play the curmudgeon – genuinely feels. After all, among the forms of pulp fiction that the writer includes in this first collection is a rather lovely one-chapter superhero origin (even borrowing the lightning motif from Captain Marvel). I don’t think that Ellis has a genuine disdain for the genre, but there’s a distinction to be made between an “attack” and a considered criticism.

Snowbody's hero...

If one reads those Golden Age Superman stories, as written by Siegel and Schuster, it’s often hard to really spot the similarities between the Superman spotted there and the one that most viewers/readers would be familiar with. I’m not talking about the powerset and the design, but rather the philosophical outlook. That classic Superman was something of a social crusader – a man who challenged war profiteers and those who would exploit the common man rather than supervillains or would-be conquerors. There’s a strong political subtext to the writing, and that sort of got lost a bit. I think Grant Morrison’s Action Comics will attempt to bring some of that back, but it’s too early to really tell.

However, the Superman of today is the most bland corporate icon you could imagine – and I say this as a fan of the Man of Steel. He’s a soldier of the establishment, a champion of the status quo. I’d be surprised if Clark Kent held a political position on any issue of consequence, and he’s more likely to tangle himself in space opera than to fight white collar crime. Hell, the attempt to add social commentary in Grounded was pathetic, with Superman lacking any real sense of action as he wandered the country passively observing inequity. He may have appeared ignorant of these problems before, but the series made him seem truly impotent.

It's a pop culture monster...

I mention this, because I get the sense that Ellis might be a bit fonder of the earlier Superman, at least measured against his successor.In fact, the series contains a well-written eulogy for three characters intentionally designed to remind us of Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern (“space’s first police man” and, “to light his way, he wore a lamp, whose element glowed perfect blue”, with an oath including the line, “be the light in blackest night”). Ellis very clearly borrows from the iconography of these three characters, with Superman’s cape, Wonder Woman’s gauntlets and Green Lantern’s well… you know.

All three characters are murdered by the Four. Ellis doesn’t just pick Golden Age characters (one is very clearly modelled on the Silver Age Green Lantern), but he seems to be making a clear point: the by-the-numbers templates for modern comic book superheroes wouldn’t allow much innovation. It’s easy to imagine that, if similarly brilliant ideas were proposed today, they would be shot done or toned down or dumbed down. Ellis isn’t criticising the idea of superheroes (indeed, one detects a certain fondness for them), but the hegemony that they foster and create. Hell, these superhero stories today are no longer free to fly as far as the human mind allows, but hedged in by “continuity” and the “status quo.” And I say this as an unashamed fan of the genre. It’s telling that Snow doesn’t accuse the Four of ruining the world or making it worse, but of not daring to be more than they are – for settling for the way things are, rather than embracing the way they could be. “I know you’ve done more than your share of making the world mediocre,” he accuses one member.

All that remains...

Indeed, the influence of the team’s newest recruit to Planetary, Elijah Snow, is one that insists on dynamic action rather than passive observation. “We cannot allow the world to be this way,” he insists, and feels like a mouthpiece for Ellis’ philosophy. In a way, it’s a bit of a counterpoint to Millar and Quitely’s run on The Authority, a softer approach to the same basic idea: those who can make the world a better place have a moral obligation to do so. It’s an inspired and almost romantic idea, and one that demolishes a lot of the cynicism Ellis occasionally finds himself accused of.

Through this lens, one begins to see why the dominance of mainstream superhero works might be a bit grating. There’s something strange about how, for example, these dynamic and exciting products of the ambition human imagination have been stuck in a perpetual status quo for the last few decades. We can imagine Superman, but all we can do with that idea is watch him punch Darkseid over and over and over again? What was once a bright and clever idea has been xeroxed to the point where it is a copy of a copy of a copy. And it has dominated and drowned out virtually every other genre in comics publishing, pretty much. In a way, it’s hard not to be just a bit disappointed.

It blue my mind...

More than that, though, is the argument that superheroes have kept the medium from thriving and developing as perhaps it should have. “The things these scum have cost us since 1961,” Elijah muses, and it’s no coincidence that the first issue of the Fantastic Four appeared in 1961. One of the best chapters in the book, To be in England in the Summertime, sees the team arriving for the funeral of Jack Carter, a thinly-veiled John Constantine stand-in. Ellis uses the opportunity to make some wonderful and poignant observations about the explosion of British comic book culture in the eighties (“England was a scary place,” Jakita explains, “no wonder it produced a scary culture”), the decade that gave us talent like himself or Alan Moore or Grant Morrison.

It’s no surprise that Carter’s murderer is revealed as a superhero, appearing to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. perhaps Ellis is saying something of the post-deconstruction dark-and-gritty post-modern mainstream superheroes that all that raw eighties talent got focused into, an awkward fit for both creators and characters. Indeed, having seemingly been put through the wringer, the character protests, “You had to die! you were a the symbol of everything that had been done to me, you scum! I should have been noble! Clean! Single!” Mourning his own lost innocence, the character wonders if he might have been better left as a carefree fantasy figure, instead of revamp and reimagined, “I like my life! there was nothing wrong with me! I wasn’t hip, I wasn’t trend, I wasn’t edgy, and you know what? That was okay! I didn’t need the split personalities, the nervous breakdown, the shift in my sexual orientation, my life being a lie — if you didn’t want me, you should have just bloody ignored me!”

Smoke and mirrors...

Ellis doesn’t seem to write in anger, but in sympathy. After all, why bend the superhero genre into something it clearly isn’t in order to accommodate all these writers and fans? Surely those looking for “darker and edgier” comic books would have read Hellblazer or a resurgence in horror comics or gritty crime comics? Given some of the distortions that mainstream superhero comic endured during the nineties, it would have been an act of mercy to let them keep their dignity and channel the energy into broadening the scope and appeal of comics. There’s something fiendishly clever about the end of the story, which gives us Jack Carter, Alan Moore’s Constantine reborn as Warren Ellis’ Spider Jerusalem – two of the more iconic by-products of the British Invasion.

By making his team a bunch of pop-culture archeologists, Ellis can phrase the series as something of a mournful epilogue for the types of pulp fiction that have really fallen by the wayside in recent decades. There’s actually something quite heartbreaking about watching the team navigate a monster graveyard, with Jakita observing, “They’d died off by the mid-seventies.” You feel a hint of sorrow for a genre that never really got a fair start, and has now faded into history. The notion that the best days of these stories are in the past.

A Planetary revolution...

However, Ellis seems to ask, why so glum? Through Elijah’s proactive intervention, the writer quickly forces the group into a more active role. Rather than passive observers of times long gone, examining skeletons of monsters or strange artifacts, suddenly the gang is pushed into taking part. The strange artifact found in the rubble is more than just a piece of history to document, it’s something that is alive and can interact with them. Rather than running a stale and dusty mausoleum, surely they can instead embrace the strange beauty. “Isn’t that great?” Jakita asks on catching a rare glimpse of a flying monster she thought long extinct. Despite how impressed Jakita is with the ship found banked against reality, it’s Elijah that actually suggests they help. And it takes him by surprise that he’s apparently the only member of the group who dared to think like that.

“These are the moments I live for,” Jakita observes when a whole new world opens up for the gang. “I put up with all the other crap just to get seconds like this. The moments when you know the world is a better place than advertised.” However, Ellis seems to be making the case that the onus isn’t on us to passively stand by and wait for those moments to come and document them with an impassive deference, but to actually go out there and seek them for ourselves. Particularly when it comes to genres that we fear extinct, Ellis asks if the energy we spend mourning and documenting them might instead be used to breath new life into them.

Go with the flow...

Because that is literally all it takes – these are ideas and concepts, all we have to do is imagine them. As Elijah overcomes the horrible things done to him, he doesn’t win through some handy plot device, or the careful application of technobabble. He reclaims his lost memories simply by daring to question himself. He observes that it came back “as soon as I stopped accepting being unable to remember and started asking myself why I couldn’t recall specific things…” Sure, he may be too cynical to accept that at face value, but it’s a powerful idea.

And so, rather than write a sorrowful deconstruction about how all these great little pulp stories have fallen by the wayside, Ellis does something else. He actually writes them. Each chapter in his story is self-contained, and essentially gives us a glimpse at a different facet of pop culture. In an era of decompression, where entire arcs are typically spread across half-a-year, it’s refreshing that Ellis can tell his own story in so few pages and advance his myth-arc and never feel rushed. Of course, the cynics in the audience might argue that the famous scheduling issues around the publication of the series meant that you might be waiting more than six months for a story, but there were extenuating circumstances, and – to be frank – it was absolutely worth the wait.

Jump on board...

There’s also a sense that this is a deeply personal work for Ellis. The writer, in fairness, populates a lot of his work with his own ideas and philosophies and viewpoints – the wonderful and amazing theoretical science that grips his imagination is brilliantly and proudly shared with the world. However, here there’s just something more. I can’t quite place my finger on it, but it might be the recurring religious philosophy that the book returns to from time to time – embracing the rather wonderful idea that we should embrace the world as it is, rather than waiting for our “eternal reward.” His murdered Hong Kong police officer preaches the idea, “This time is all we have; we can’t allow anyone to take it from us. And no-one understands that better than a cop executed in Hong Kong.” It’s an idea returned to later on, where Ellis writes of “the triumphant dead” who opted to have their eternal souls destroyed rather than used in a “tug-of-war” between heaven and hell. It’s a terrifying thought, but also a liberating one. Would the world be a better place if we all acted like it was the only one we had?

John Cassaday’s work on the title is stunning. I won’t bore you with compliments to his style. He perfectly manages to evoke whatever Ellis is aiming for, but while maintaining incredibly consistent and insanely detailed. In fact, I think one can deduce an evolution in the artist’s style of the course of the run, as it does something seemingly impossible: it gets better. I love Cassaday. If I wanted a framed print of any comic book image, it’s that wonderful Cyclops cover he did for Astonishing X-Men. But, I mean, you know he’s good. Just look at the pictures.

"Blue" Lantern?

Cassaday and Ellis have crafted something truly special here, and it’s something that demands celebration. For any other book to demand celebration would be rude, but here it’s more than justified. If you like pop culture, you owe it to yourself to check this out.

Read our reviews of Warren Ellis’ Planetary:

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