October 27th, 2009
Apart from those good old boys at FB and their typically trustworthy take, the silence greeting this one has been deafening, no? Or do I just not frequent enough those corners of the webnet where ‘Planetary 27 sucks awesome rocks!!’ has been a common refrain these past few weeks?
I don’t think so though – I think, without any sound basis for doing so, and certainly not a scrap of anything that might be considered a minimal amount of research, that actually the strands have just been a bit still and quiet about this one. It can’t be a surprise – it’s almost impossible to think of a way to describe this comic that doesn’t prominently feature the word ‘underwhelming’, and I think even this comic’s biggest fans, which would once (um, nine years ago?) have included myself, have resigned themselves to a quiet, disappointed muttering.
The widescreen stylistics of the start of the decade, something that only Ellis, Millar, Hitch and Cassady ever really made much of, was perhaps more in hock to its Hollywood origins than anyone would have thought at the time. (Aside: have the soon to have off-fcked noughties seen any bigger letdowns for your sweet and innocent fanman as Ultimates 2, or Attack of the Clones?) Planetary, which was supposed to be a comic about superhero comics, their history, contemporary cultural ripples, and future, saw its subject matter evolve hugely in the decade that it was ‘being published’. Essentially, on Planetary’s watch the superhero moved from the punky, dispossessing suburbs of paper popcult awareness to a massive swanky LA penthouse apartment full of gakfaced movie producers and hot chicks and stuff. The superhero finds itself comfortably at home, and far more financially secure, in its new on-screen home. Suddenly, overtaken by events, Planetary was telling only half the story.
This shift in gravity skewed Planetary from its original orbit to an almost unrecognisable degree, into something far more erratic and unpredictable, like an old satellite pinging, unnoticed, into oblivion, nothing but space trash*. The early 7-inch single, done-in-one format that it was touted as having, a smart and vital thing for a comic to be placing itself as at the time, changed like cheap 90s morphing fx into something that was brokenly aping Hollywood’s tired three-act structure: The first setup issues did exactly as advertised: nine tight, musically stylish guides to the historical terrain of the post-pulp tradition. Looking back, wow wasn’t it brilliant being twenty years old, these issues stand up as some of the sharpest books of the decade, flying along with sky-high concepts that were thrown away with joyous abandon. I mean, a superhero book that blends Yukio Mishima with Godzilla in one issue, then Tsui Hark with John Woo in the next, then later goes (even more) meta and paints the early Marvel U and its infamous Bullpen as a concentration camp for dangerous atomic-age experiments, in a story narrated by a dying, radioactive Marilyn Monroe? That’s always going to be cool. That’s what it was with Planetary – something in there was just cool. And who doesn’t want to be cool? Who doesn’t want to like cool? That tendency chased-down and devoured itself with issue 9, which used just a touch of Quatermass, and loads of The Matrix and Invisibles to poke the turn-of-the-century zeitgeist into an unforgettable orgazm of kung-fu, clockstopping gunplay and those long pleatheresque coats that only look good on-screen or on-page, and planted the plot-seed that this final issue grew from.
The second act introduced a stock mystery plot, the kind that only a pedigree dog with a cricket bat embedded in its skull is stupid enough not to see coming, whose most daring reveal was that the series’ best features were disappearing fast. The remixed references didn’t have the same effortless neatness they had before – Nick Fury as Bond-meets-Barbarella – surely that was the whole point already, some forty years ago? The pioneering explorers of a fictional wonderworld discovered ‘Alan Moore woz ere’ graffiti, already scrawled on the rocks. The kids who were too cool for school found themselves lost in a squat, dosed with ketamine tea, getting refried Mckennaite lectures from a crusto-gothic hedge-monkey. Warren Ellis started plundering his own back catalogue for ideas, and relying on his own old riffs far too often (he was elsewhere coming up with his career-best runs on Fell, Nextwave and Thunderbolts though, so we can forgive him.) Among all the side projects, Planetary got a textbook case of ‘difficult-second-album’, or more accurately, ‘crap sequel’ syndrome.
The final nine issues, replete with tired or silly ideas and a half-forgotten, fully forgettable superhero plot that could have been pleasingly retro if it had been able to summon any kind of momentum, was now just a catalogue of disappointments, far from being the rough guide to an exciting alternative universe and more like the listings page of a deeply unpretty provincial newspaper. This very final coda issue, coming some, what, sixteen thousand years since the previous, was a last chance to salvage some good memories. As the rather spiffy cover seemed to hint, Planetary 27 could have been a god’s eye view of this comic and its strange, hyper-turbulent decade-plus, and a handbook of what to demand from the next. Instead, this is where, as hinted earlier, it would be very easy to write the word ‘underwhelming’ forty times and go to bed early.
But let’s not blame Ellis again, though it’s his ideological engine – let’s turn round and look at the guy who’s driving it. Cassady is one of those artists who has a real eye for the cinematic, and who can apparently render almost anything with a detail and solidity that makes even the craziest scenes of DMT-induced hallucination seem like they’re happening right in front of you. It’s been easy these past ten years to fall in love with his work on Planetary and elsewhere. Although it’s easy to suspect that the script he was given didn’t allow much room to maneuver (no Invisibles 3.1 hypercompressed holographic fireworks here), it’s a real shame that Cassady couldn’t find a more exciting sequential mode to cap the series with. All we get are blank office spaces and flatpacked Ikea kitchen interiors as anonymous set-dressing for static conversation scenes (because why? ‘It’s a character-based book’ all of a sudden? Let me tell you, it really, really is nothing of the sort – Planetary lived and lingeringly died on the strength of its high concepts, peopled with three appropriately empty and unlikeable ciphers walking around the pretty, brittle fantasy-scapes with their hands in their pockets, describing and destroying things as is a superhero’s eternal wont.) Letterbox tiers stacked onto yet more tiers, with a monotony that, if one were being excruciatingly generous, could be assumed to represent the stacked-universes model of the multidimensional plane whose varying description has been one of Planetary’s recurring motifs. If even half-true, this is a sad regression from the fractal snowflake model that the series promulgated at the start. The notion catches the lacklustre spirit of this issue well: Go back to the top and look at that cover again, and imagine a whole book designed and plotted with that kind of visionary elan, and try not to cry at the disappointing finish that this previous forerunner of a bright new future has wheezed to. Let’s not, at this stage, blame Planetary for the credit crunch, for the global ecological catastrophe, for killing the world entire. Even if you want to – correlation is not causation.
As it reaches the very end, Planetary’s painful, almost plaintive cheyne stoking nearly hits a note of bathetic redemption. As the books that will define the next age of superhero comics (LOEG: Century 1910, Prison Pit) begin to emerge – call it The Laser Age, says my inner 8-year old, a new lens refocusing the disparate post-Prismatic kaleidoscope back onto a single super-heated point, books whose dramatic beats when graphed, Vonnegut-style, all fall in a straight line – there is something ultimately fitting about the way this issue bows out. Planetary, like lots of ephemeral pop, good and bad, was hinged totally to its time, increasingly irrelevant as that millennium moment faded, yet still connected to the rhythms of the world outside. Its conclusion is regrettably but utterly unsurprising, bidding a bittersweet Hello-Goodbye to the standard Prismatic trope of a hundred thousand multiverses of infinite variety, though all a bit similar looking, (as a final curtain to the dominant themes of the last ten-plus years, you really need to look at Final Crisis), turning up for that party at the end of time. A party, it hardly need be said, with a very silly dress-code indeed. I mean, no merlot on the menu with that many grumpy whitecoats around, is it?
(*I like this analogy, let’s kill it to death: In its post-publication future, the Planetary orbiting buoy yet remains to either burn up in the stratosphere, unnoticed; drop somewhat intact into the ocean, its passing marked only by a few obsessives; or crash, without warning, into your nice house and flatten it while you sleep, changing the game forever. For old time’s sake, for your own dissipated optimism’s sake, let’s say Planetary deserves the latter.)