16 October 2009

Flashmob Fridays #004: Planetary #27

Introduction by Alan David Doane

You may recall that Planetary was to have been finished around the same time as the 20th century. It appears that time has finally come.

Planetary #27, the final issue of the sometimes-celebrated series by Warren Ellis, John Cassaday and Laura Martin, is here at last, and the subject of this week's Flashmob Fridays. In a post on his LiveJournal, Ellis reflected on the end of the series, saying "It’s a book I associate with bad times: protracted illnesses, big arguments...my physical collapse and months in bed, and my dad’s long illness and eventual death. All of these things are intertwined with PLANETARY for me, and make it difficult to enjoy the moment."

Of course, any individual is likely to suffer some setbacks and tragedies in any given ten year span, but it did seem at times like this particular comic book was cursed -- a phenomenon that would have gone unnoticed if not for the fact that, at its best, it was one of the most exciting and beautiful adventure comics being published. Together with The Authority #1-12 with Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary and (again) Laura Martin, these two series represent a pretty high peak for Ellis's writing powers and excellent comic books that are always worth re-reading and losing one's self in.

But of course, it's been hard to judge the series as a whole as long as this one, last issue remained unpublished. Now that it's in print, the TWC gang shares their thoughts on the epoch-ending issue.

Christopher Allen

I won’t be commenting on the long-awaited twenty-seventh and final issue of Planetary. I haven’t read it. But like a baseball player, you want to get your swings in, and the reason I’m not reviewing the final issue right now is what I wanted to write about.

Planetary and The Authority hold some meaning for me, as much as any superhero comic of the past decade. I first encountered both series in mid-1999. I hadn’t been reading comics for a year or two, having gotten married, bought a house, and tried to get serious about work. One day I noticed a nice-looking comics & collectibles shop in a strip mall in my new neighborhood, and went in, marveling at such things as busts of superheroes, and wondering what this card game was that the kids were playing at a table in the middle of the shop. Well, the need to read some new comics gripped me, and I looked over the shelves, which had new releases with prior issues underneath. Being out of the loop, I looked for some familiar faces. Hey, that looks like John Byrne art, and he’s doing my favorite character, Spider-Man in a kind of Year One thing? Cool! Hey, it sounded like a good idea at the time.

But I also noticed a couple other books, nearly jumping off the shelves with their stylish covers, and these were the two Warren Ellis series. I wasn’t reading many comics when Ellis made his earlier splashes in comics, so his name meant nothing to me at the time. But these books, they really had the look of the state of the art in superhero comics, and so I picked up the first couple issues of each (there were complete runs there) and read them that night. The Authority was a glorious kick up the pants to superheroes, with stories of real scope and consequence and a fresh attitude to solving them, while Planetary was an ingenious way to pull together every cool superhero/sci-fi/horror character or concept, with either some new tweaks or a good scrubbing to get them down to what made them cool in the first place.

The Authority was great, but it had already been out for a while when I discovered it, and Ellis was just about done writing it, a rare case of a comics creator making the perfect exit, but Planetary only had a few issues out when I started with it. I recall my boss at the time, who was my age, sharing a fondness for superheroes, and I soon lent him these books, making him an instant fan as well. As The Authority passed through many creative hands and with increasingly diminishing returns, Planetary kept going, and with generally good stewardship by Ellis, aside from some less-than-stellar one-shots.

Unaccustomed to paying for high-priced hardcovers, Absolute Authority and Absolute Planetary were nonetheless instant purchases for me. As they were state-of-the-art monthly comics, so too did they lead the way towards the boom in fancy slipcased editions. It was upon my purchase of these that I stopped buying Planetary on a regular basis. It’s not that I was disillusioned at all—I forget a lot of what I read, but several years on, The Drummer, Jakita Wagner and Elijah Snow are still there for me in my mind, along with certain scenes and dialogue. No, it’s just that I felt like the next time I read them would have to be in another Absolute edition. I didn’t want fifteen minutes of brilliance whenever Ellis and Cassaday could get together to make it happen, once a year or so. It’s really nothing on them; I’ve never been one of those guys who turns on creators for missing deadlines as long as the work’s good. It’s just that I set Planetary aside, a reward of hours of images and ideas to be enjoyed fully upon its completion. Various projects, illnesses and other difficulties aside, I really think this has always been a special book for Ellis and Cassaday, and that neither wanted to do it unless they could bring their best effort to it. And so, when the time comes, I will read it in the best format possible. A thank you to both for some great memories, and more to come.

Michael Paciocco

I had become largely bored and uninterested in comic books by the time I was twenty. Not surprising really; the adolescent power fantasies and melodramas that I was all too familiar with by the time had no longer anything to offer me except the promise of the same, and I was ready to move on out of comics. However, needing some kind of stimulation that wasn’t offered by mass media, it was a combination of boredom and experimentation that I picked up issues #3-6 of Planetary from the local comic shop.

So, it’s all Ellis, Cassaday, and Martin’s fault that I’m still buying comics at all nearly ten years later. And not just because I’ve been waiting for this particular issue either, although there were a few occasions where it certainly felt like it.

At the time I started reading the series, there was nothing like it, and that there still isn’t anything comparable to this is a credit to the creators, and the strength of their vision, despite the waxing and waning of the title over the years as various, sundry reasons, both professional and personal, diverted some of the energy and immediacy from this work. Still, it was worth the wait for this epilogue and endcap for the series.

Ellis’s best works are often obsessed with “A Finer World” and the efforts, sacrifices, compromises, and rewards of the quest to create them. In that sense, this finale represents a Platonic ideal of how such a world might come about. There’s a sense of unbridled optimism and selfless altruism that is absent in most of his other writing, which makes it all the more rewarding to examine and immerse oneself in. As an epilogue, it is more concerned with wrapping up various loose ends, some of them going back a decade (in publishing time). Most of the mysteries are solved, one is left wide open, and a few more are actually created.

It’s often been claimed (and by Ellis himself) that Planetary was his ultimate meta-story about the transformative powers of fiction, and comic books in particular. If that’s the case, I’ve long held to the belief that the core members of Planetary are metaphorical stand-ins for Ellis’s own instincts as a comic fan: the ‘mad idea’ lover, the action junkie, and of course, the puzzle-maker and problem solver as embodied by the acerbic and brilliant Elijah Snow. And this final issue is, like many of the best issues, a story about Elijah, about the quests that drive him, the decisions he make to better the world, and how much of the world and its wonders he’s willing to risk for the sake of making the world a more tolerable place.

I’ll make an admission here that I’m sad to admit -– I generally don’t like Cassaday’s art on other works, as there’s just no way for me to separate his visual style in my head from this series. I can’t think of any other artist that can create the rich tapestry of worlds that seem both old-fashioned in their opulence and at the same time incredibly advanced beyond our technical grasp. I hope that he enjoys a successful career in the years to come because I do admire his work, but it is as difficult for me to imagine this series as presented by any other artist as it is for me to see his work and not immediately think of his efforts on this series.

Laura Martin is the unsung hero of this series, and her palate here, as with the rest of the series, is as vibrant as it is necessary. Martin’s colors here and in the rest of the series has been essential in setting both the tone of the series, and in subtly bringing out characterization and mood in many of the defining sequences of the book; take a look at how a shadow never falls on Elijah’s white suit, and yet it never appears to glow or reflect light. There’s a dozen unique effects just like that in this issue alone, and hundreds more over the length of the series. Martin shows how vital color can be in a story, and that makes her as indispensable as anyone else on this book.

And so Planetary ends, not with a bang or a whimper, but with the final pieces falling into place and locking together into a complete picture, as it should. I admit, I’ll miss this series, and I highly doubt we’ll see something like this from the Big Two for a long time to come. What I will miss more than this book though, was its effect on me – this series lead me to scour the net for good comics and for fellow fans to discuss the series with. It led me to Warren Ellis’s site, to that of other creators, to meet fans that I still talk to today, and of course, to Comic Book Galaxy. I will miss discussing the various mysteries and fan theories that circulated about the story over its long run, and I’ll miss the thrill of turning the cover of an issue to see something new and unexpected behind it. It was a strange world, and let’s keep it that way.

(But I think I know who the fictionaut really is, and if you’ve read the series carefully, you’ve probably come to the same conclusion. If you want to discuss it with me, feel free to contact me anytime...)

Marc Sobel

Alright, let's get the issue of the delay out of the way first so we can get to the actual comic.

I've never been one of those fans who gets too uptight when a comic I like is delayed. I understand that drawing, inking, coloring and lettering hundreds of little panels takes time, and I'd much rather creators focus on making their pages as great as possible, rather than rush to meet some corporate-imposed artificial deadline. However, there is a limit to this philosophy. When an artist leaves a title unfinished to work on other projects, this seems unfair and disrespectful to the fans who supported the series. The reality is that this book is so delayed (issue #26 came out nearly three years ago), that I have little to no recollection of what was going on in the story, and to really get back into it would require going back and re-reading the series, which is a time commitment I'm not willing to make right now.

The whole issue is basically a rescue mission to save Ambrose from some kind of time vortex he sealed himself in right after being shot. Unfortunately, I remember very little about who Ambrose is, what happened to him, or why it's so important that the others rescue him. Although there was undoubtedly a lot of context I'm forgetting in those earlier issues, the opening pages of this final chapter do little to recap what went before. One would have thought, given the delay, that it would have been common sense to add a "Previously in Planetary..." style recap before launching into this final chapter, but unfortunately, there is nothing. The script also suffer from an overwhelming amount of pseudo-science, the kind of made-up techno-jargon that sounds like it could almost be real, except that it's actual meaning lies just beyond your grasp. It's like your typical Grant Morrison comic, strung together with ideas that almost make sense, but never quite coalescing into a coherent, believable concept. What is "quantum foam?" "Chernekov radiation?" "Super-massive frame dragging?" These are just a few examples of the physics-based techno-babble that weigh-down the first half of the book. In that sense, the story is alienating and confusing.

All that being said, John Cassaday delivers in a big way. Cassaday is the best artist Ellis has ever worked with, and he's worked with some pretty good ones. The artwork in this final issue is superb! In fact, it's THE highlight, and for fans of Cassaday's work, it was worth the long wait. The amount of attention paid to every tiny detail, and the architectural precision throughout is impressive. There's also some exceptional coloring in this issue. I find most digital coloring in mainstream comics to be overwrought and eye-numbing, washing out the linework rather than enhancing it, but Ellis's script calls for bright, popping colors, crackling off the page like raw energy, and to that end, Laura Martin delivers in spades. Her electric, neon colors jump off the page in places and go far beyond just filling in the spaces demarked by the linework.

Overall, I didn't think this final issue was anything amazing, though the artwork was certainly worth the price. I suppose it was good enough to make me want to go back and re-read the series again (though I doubt I will anytime soon), and that's perhaps the best compliment I can pay it.

The rest of the issue features a 6-page "sneak peek" of Victorian Undead, and the generic title tells you pretty much all you need to know about this creatively bankrupt concept. It's yet another zombie book, this time set in Victorian England and from the preview, it looks like a hideously-colored atrocity, regurgitating the same old cliched zombie crap as if a new setting could somehow magically reinvigorate this exhausted genre. I hope it's better than it looks in this preview, but I kinda doubt it.

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