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_Planetary_, by Warren Ellis and John Cassady
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
I read this when it was first coming out, and mostly quite enjoyed it. I remembered being very disappointed in the ending, however. Just reread the whole run, to see if it held up better without multi-month delays between the last few chapters. It did, somewhat, but is still deeply flawed.

These flaws are not unique to _Planetary_, however, and are largely rooted in the inherent contradictions of trying to write politically progressive superheroes. Superheroes are, by nature and long habit, fundamentally regressive, politically speaking. They are based in power fantasy; more explicitly, the fantasy of having enough personal power to do what you want without being shackled by society.

While it is hypothetically possible to have a super-hero who works within the system, actual examples are few and weak. Green Lantern works for an interstellar police force, but has 'gone rogue' on them more times than I can count. There have been a number of 'government-sponsored' super-teams, but invariably in the service of corrupt governments. Even such compromises as having Batman be a deputy of the Gotham Police Department only point up the essential helplessness of society before the ubermensch.

This problem is usually 'solved' by having the heroes only come into conflict with forces that clearly Evil, so that the heroes look good by contrast. Pandering authors, including Ellis on a bad day, will succumb to the temptation to make the bad guys extra evil, in order to excuse otherwise reprehensible behavior on the part of the protagonists. More on this below.

_Planetary_ is the name of an organization of "mystery archaeologists". Though they are functionally hard to distinguish from superheroes, their job isn't to fight crime, but to discover and document the world's strangeness. In practice, this involves them with all the great heroic icons of pop fiction. The old-enough-to-be-public-domain ones appear under their own names; more recent ones as extremely obvious pastiches. It's a nifty high concept, and the (IMO) best parts are those that do just that, without focusing on the larger story arc.

That arc concerns Planetary's opposition to The Four (a thinly-veiled version of The Fantastic Four). Interestingly, this opposition centers (at least initially) on an intellectual property dispute. Elijah Snow, the de facto head of Planetary, is angered that The Four have hoarded all sorts of super-technology that could have been widely deployed to improve ordinary people's lives.

Here, Ellis is playing with (and to some extent getting burned by) an old bugaboo of serialized adventure fiction. In order for the background of the fiction to remain recognizably close to that of the reader's world, the developments in the story (technological, social, political) can never be acknowledged to have large or long-term effects on the world. Ellis takes this old, metatextual problem, and reconceptualizes it as being the fault of characters within the fiction. Unfortunately, The Four can't absorb all the blame here. Ellis has set _Planetary_ squarely within the "Wildstorm Universe", which is no more allowed to undergo permanent drastic differences from our reality than is any other corporately-owned super-hero universe.

That is, assuming Ellis even *wanted* to portray permanent change. While Planetary talk a good game, their actions don't match their rhetoric. They collect much esoteric information, and publish that information in volumes of "The Planetary Guide". However, there is no evidence that these books are *distributed* in any meaningful sense. Whenever one of the protagonists discovers that someone outside the Planetary Corporation has acquired copies of some or all of the Guides, their reaction is one of surprise; these were clearly never intended for wide distribution. Even in the final issue, after The Four have been defeated and Planetary have all of their long-hoarded IP, Planetary continues to act in a proprietary fashion. While they philanthropically release a large number of cheap-or-free life improvements based on the information, the information *itself* remains tightly locked up.

This tight control is underlined by a plot development in the final issue. Some of the characters discuss the necessity of building a time machine in order to rescue a former teammate who is trapped in a temporal bubble. This is seen as somewhat risky, since the moment of the building of the first operational time machine is likely to be attended by the arrival of visitors from across the entirety of the future. They decide to risk it to save their friend. When the time machine warms up, there do indeed appear hundreds of visitors from the future -- every one of whom is a future self of one of the core Planetary team. This is a surprising twist, with cool visuals, but has disturbing implications. For one thing, it means that no one but this small group of people *ever* gets access to a time machine. Again, they keep complete control of the IP.

In truth, there isn't that much difference between The Planetary Corporation and The Four. This is foregrounded in the side-story Planetary-JLA crossover "Terra Occulta", which is set in an alternate universe to the main story. In this universe, Planetary are very much in the narrative position of The Four, as controlling villains. It's as if, in Ellis' conception of story, there always *must* be such a villainous force, and in the absence of The Four, Planetary ended up filling the role.

As _Planetary_ progresses, the villains are made more and more evil, in order to justify the more and more extreme actions of the 'heroes'. In a particularly over-the-top revelation, The Four are revealed to have gained their super-powers by having literally traded the earth away to evil extra-dimensional demons. Henchman of The Four are mown down by Planetary without comment or remorse. A captured member of The Four is gleefully tortured by one of Planetary, ostensibly for information, though the story depicts the captive fully cooperating and giving lots of information *before* the torture starts.

My last complaint is that the final defeat of The Four is accomplished through means that, while they superficially look clever and foreshadowed, in fact require The Four to be absolute idiots to fall for them. Indeed, reading the entire run at once, it is clear that The Four are in no sense actual characters; they are plot devices who do what is required of them, and no more.

_Planetary_ contains lots of fine moments, and is recommended to fans of metatextual super-hero stories. Just don't expect those moments to cohere into a satisfying whole.

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Haven't read it since it came out, but this all sounds about right, and I think you put a finger nicely on the central contradiction that weakens the story. Which is a pity, because the parts *are* quite interesting in that typically imaginative Warren Ellis style. (I long ago concluded that, while he has his flaws as a writer, Ellis packs more ideas per issue than any other five comics authors I an think of.)

So overall, while I don't regret having read it, it hasn't joined Transmetropolitan on my list of "must read" comics...

Heh. Just finished rereading _Transmetropolitan_, and it's flawed in most of the same ways. Spider commits pretty much all of the same crimes that he decries, and only 'wins' because the writer is on his side, and made his opponent an idiot. Spider's set dressing is hard(ish) SF rather than superhero fantasy, but *structurally* he's in a classic superhero story. Which I'm sure he would hate, if he were aware of it :-)

I also like Ellis's idea density, and don't regret having read him. I even like most of the moment-to-moment storytelling. But whenever I step back and look at a larger chunk of work by him, I'm always disappointed.

Hmm. Again, haven't read Transmet since it first came out, but I found the ending of that to be a lot more plausible, not requiring so much idiocy (aside from the stereotypical desire for the bad guy to gloat) -- in particular, while the ending is telegraphed, the telegraphy is set up *so* far in advance that *I* certainly didn't see it coming.

And the thing about Spider is that he *knows* he's a bloody asshole, and wouldn't deny it for a second. His only saving grace is that he realizes, midway through the story, that he accidentally screwed everybody and tries to do something about it. But he makes little attempt to occupy any real moral high ground, so I find him less disappointing -- he's largely a straight-up anti-hero, in the same category as, eg, Constantine in his better incarnations.

But as I said, I haven't read it in a long time. I'll fix that eventually, and see how it plays for me now...

The main idiocy I was thinking was "not having Spider killed as soon as it was clear that intimidation wouldn't work." The Smiler has no compunctions against killing people, but never makes a concerted effort to have Spider killed.

Spider certainly knows and acknowledges that he's a bastard, but it doesn't stop him from claiming the moral high ground whenever his drug mix has more uppers than downers (which is usually).

Hmm. Okay, granted, but -- I guess the sense I have is that, even when Spider himself tries to claim that he has the moral high ground, the *story* doesn't generally do so. From the reader's-eye view, I always felt that Spider's faults were always crystal clear, in a way that wasn't the case with Planetary...

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