Sunday, September 1, 2013

Dig The Longbox (Redux): Planetary #13

This review of Planetary #13 originally ran on for the 'Dig The Longbox' column.

I quit collecting comics sometime in 1988 and came back at the end of 2011. Oh, sure, I read the odd graphic novel from time to time, but I was not, shall we say, 'active' in the life. Someday, I'm going to write about why comic fans stop reading/collecting and why (or if) they come back. ANYWAY like any traveler returned after a long absence, I was curious to know what I had missed. What were 'the kids' reading -- and dancing to -- these days?

There exists the perverse thrill of watching surprise (indignation?) dawn on the face of (some) fanboys when I admit ignorance as regards Preacher, Ex Machina, The Authority or The Invisibles let alone having not read (much) Ennis, Vaughan, Ellis or Morrison. Anyone who spends lengthy stretches of time in any one particular pop culture hothouse or another too often develops a kind of blindness or myopia to the outside world. I find cinéastes are the worst. I've seen more than a few come down with an acute case of the howling fantods when they hear a confession about never having seen Vivre sa vie, Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows), or anything by Antonioni or Lubitsch; so, it's all relative.

Planetary (1999 – 2009) by Warren Ellis, John Cassaday and Laura Martin née DePuy (including a host of different letterers) falls well within my time spent off-world. I'm far from a fully-committed Ellis aficionado. With the exception of Planetary -- of which I've only read a half-a-dozen issues -- I remain unschooled in the majority of the Ellis oeuvre. I would call myself more of an Ellis tourist with the potential to become a raving wild-eyed promulgator should I allow my psychosis to further develop.

At only thirty issues (twenty-seven in series proper) Planetary can be classified as manageable when it comes to the comic book reader's favorite pastime, 'catching up.' Then again, just because you tag along on a docent-led tour of the Vatican doesn't mean you're conversant on the intricacies of the Sistine Chapel; because that's what Planetary is, a masterpiece. To write about such a magnum opus approaches dissecting a snowflake with stove wood.

For all the praise and laurels Planetary receives, I find it remains cultish, on the fringes, which is precisely where it should reside, in secret. Wikipedia away, but know is this: Planetary is about all things great and geeky in the last two millennia. From sci-fi to pulp and from genre-fiction to film, Planetary has it all not to mention it's meta, complicated, deconstructs and reconstructs and abounds with analogues -- a genre comic book about comics and genres, but, so, so much more.

Planetary #13 essentially marks the midpoint in the series. I would be curious to know if it was Ellis's intention to mark this occasion with an exploration into the 'salad days' of protagonist, Elijah Snow, or if it was more organic. As a kind of stand-alone origin intermezzo, Planetary #13 locks into place while it also reinforces the overall narrative. The cover to the penultimate issue confirms this overarching 'puzzle,' each issue apiece of a piece, and part of a greater whole. Origins have origins -- secret histories -- and so Planetary #13 marks Snow's first meeting with a couple of extraordinary gentlemen and explains how Snow got so smart.

A writer with the balls of a Warren Ellis knows comics should read as well with words as without. Perhaps, this knowledge is made easier when one hitches his wagon to the likes of John Cassaday. An artist with a realist style equal parts unfussy and detailed, Cassaday's work is simple to categorize: gorgeous. Perhaps to evoke memory, Cassaday draws each of the panel borders in this issue with rough-edges and (with a few inset exceptions) separate from their neighbors -- the constituent parts of a patchwork quilt. Each page is composed as a complete story and each panel leads the eye from one image to the next. Isn't that what comic books are supposed to do? Rhetorically speaking, yes. But ask yourself: how many pull of the feat? This is what we talk about when we talk about sequential art and John Cassaday is among a very select number of the art form's masters.

What little narration there is at the start of Planetary #13 fits within tidy boxes meant to look like notebook entries. The leaves of this journal are clipped and neat, not torn or frayed. These are the edited musings of a circumspect mind, a man of intellect, the exact opposite of the man who shows up on the page. The turnout may be Tom Wolfe, but Cassaday draws Snow (natty or not) as a bruiser -- short, boxy with wide shoulders and a strong right cross. For all his physical gifts (his physique not to mention the power to freeze things solid), it's Snow's charm, his cranky gentility which makes him memorable and likeable. As he bludgeons a faux-Frankenstein monster with the frozen arm of one of its colleagues, he asks, ''Die or something, would you?'' and then thanks the beast when it obliges. Only a comic as audacious as Planetary would pay off a four-page fight with the line: ''I was only lookin' for the damn library.'' Ah, the charms of Monsieur Ellis, how they juxtapose with Cassaday's gifts for action.

The library belongs to ''the Baron'' although Ellis has enough cheek to let readers figure it out for themselves (hint: see above parargraph). Throughout the issue Snow's thoughts (and dialogue) are sprinkled with other (not so) obtuse references: ''that invisible fella,'' ''a man who went to Mars'' and ''the Frenchman.''  Beasts bested, Snow finds his objective, ''the secret map of the world'' as divined by a group of illuminati who styled themselves, ''the Conspiracy.'' The map leads Snow to a well-known London address on Baker Street. After another display of his Alexander-of-Macedonia-like action-hero-ish nature, Snow has a conversation with the master sleuth so chock-a-block full of conspiracies (some open, some dark and some darker) and secrets (''eugenics'' and a ''controlled economy'') that the entire chummy chat turns quite forgettable. Planetary makes its bones on secrets and some sort of 'dead-drop' gets made every issue.

What makes Planetary #13 memorable is when Snow kicks Dracula and shatters his crotch.

The name 'Dracula' is never said. Why say the name when you can 'count' on Cassaday to sink his teeth into it? The unnamed undead emerges from the shadows (of course) and before Snow administers the ultimate coup de grâce, Snow confirms this is no garden-variety vamp: ''met a lady called Van Helsing in New York city last year.'' As one of Ellis's countrymen once wrote, ''—that is all // Ye know on earth, and all ye need know.''

The ball-busting image of a shattered Dracula serves as graphic shorthand for the phrase: ''that's the issue when …'' It's a one image distillation of the opening sequence, a challenge -- a literal kick in the crotch -- from Ellis and Cassaday to their fellow writers and artists (and by extension to every reader) to remember: comic books are a visual medium, don't forget it.
I'll pass along the advice I received when I wanted to 'catch up' on Planetary: don't read it in trade, sample a couple of singles first and then buy the trades, if you must. Every issue of Planetary stands on its own, has its own orbit you might say. If you like one you're apt to like each and every thrilling adventure. Odd, nowadays, I know, a comic book series that reads as well in singles as it does collected. As Snow is fond of saying: ''It's a strange world. Let's keep it that way.'' Dig it?

1 comment:

  1. "Anyone who spends lengthy stretches of time in any one particular pop culture hothouse or another too often develops a kind of blindness or myopia to the outside world."
    Even before you nailed the read it in singles-ness of Planetary, that sentence is so darn right. Wise words!