Funnybook Babylon

October 13, 2009

FBBP #116 – Planetary Post-Mortem

Filed under: Podcasts — Tags: , , — Joseph Mastantuono @ 10:05 pm

The Planetary retrospective rolls on with a podcast dissection of the series. WHERE IS THE FOURTH MAN? Sorry Jamaalamanaics, he was busy this weekend. But he’ll be back later this week in our Umbrella Academy review from the archives! Also, if you haven’t already checked it out, our Planetary Timeline has been updated with corrected images and more moments in the past decade of funnybook history!

17 Comments »

  1. A brilliant dissection as usual, and in many ways I agree with your review of Planetary– the amount of time it’s taken to tell has damaged it to an almost fatal extent, as it ends up being out of touch, when seen as a meta commentary on comics, and anti climactic as no comic could ever come close to fulfilling the accumulated expectation of its readership. In some ways, it may have been better to have ended up like Desolation Jones: sadly incomplete and it’s ending but imagined in our minds.

    Planetary showed up a certain weakness in Warren Ellis as a writer: essentially, he excels as a short story writer but flounders as a novelist. None of his characters ever seem to change: can Snow be said to be a different person at Planetary’s end? Did Spider Jerusalem change in Transmetropolitan ? In all of Ellis’ long form works it seems that by their completion he has become trapped in whatever ending he thought up, and needed to be adhere to, so many years before. Planetary works as a succession of short stories, but suffers when read together in exactly the way you describe.

    But Planetary does work for me as a novel if seen as an exploration of friendship. It is for friendship that Snow agrees to undergo the mind wipe, as his friends will be killed otherwise. And his friends initially accept this fate, as Snow will be killed if they interfere. But it’s the Four’s lack of understanding of friendship that is their undoing, as the Planetary organisation look out for their friend, seek him out, and make him better. This is reinforced in issue 21 when Snow is asked what’s important to him, and this sets up the fall of the Four and the very reason it has to occur. The making the world a better place is an incidental, the whole of the previous 26 issues of Planetary are there as a set up for issue 27, the saving of Ambrose.

    And this is one of the reasons I think all the time travellers are the Planetary team from the future: the theory that all time travellers will travel back to the turning on of the time machine is actually false, and the time travellers are there to witness their friend being saved, as that’s the only thing that matters to them.* It is this humanity that makes me forget the flaws in Planetary, and in Ellis’ writing altogether. It is the story of the revived lady in Transmetropolitan that makes me care about it; the humanity of an investigative policeman that makes me care about Fell (to my mind, probably Ellis’ best work), and it is this humanity that makes issue 27 of Planetary a fitting capstone to the series, whatever other flaws it contained.

    (*Of course, this could lead to being interpreted as metacommentary in itself, with the old sci-fi stand by of pre-determinism in time travel, so they’re all there because they saw their future selves as all visitors. Which reinforces the feeling you get reading Planetary that the ending was dictated years before, and that Ellis is finishing it only because it needs to be finished, not because he wants to.)

    Comment by Lee — October 14, 2009 @ 8:08 am

  2. I think one of the things that should be marked by the passing of Planetary was the shift from the focus of artists to the focus into writers. During the 90s, the artists were the focal point. The shift of Jim Lee and Liefeld to Image from Marvel changed the cache of artists. Wizard was dominated by artist-focused articles.

    If anything, Planetary (as well as Ellis), marks the writer decade in the comics industry. While Ellis wasn’t the first, he was one of the most vocal. One of the first proposals for a comic series (outside of Alan Moore’s Twilight) was Warren Ellis’ planetary. He is a great copywriter and it really captivated a generation of writers to go into the comics scene. He pushed Millar to the forefront, gave Matt Fraction a place to discuss his interest in comics, and showed a ton of indy writers that writing was important in comics.

    Planetary was a great way to explore comics, or at least the writer-ly history of comics. While the images were very pretty, it wasn’t like Hitch was aping the silver age or golden age styles. He was aping current television and film to develop pacing and storytelling. What was apparent was Planetary’s issue-by-issue dissection of different points in the medium and showing why the stuff we read today was cool.

    Though flawed, I would still give Planetary to up and coming comics writers because it gives you a nice little instructional on genre and genre tropes in comics.

    Comment by gary — October 14, 2009 @ 10:06 am

  3. I found interesting that Chris thought that a lot of Ellis work has elements of fascism in them, because this is something that jumped at me quite often reading his books. Even ‘Fell’ has this strange vibe of fascism hidden being a sort of anarchism, or apparent individualistic anarchism from the main character.
    The behavior of Ellis on his own message boards (in their different incarnations) adds a lot to this feeling. Ellis acts in a very authoritative random manner that basically boils down to him saying he knows what is ‘right’, and that freedom of expression, divergence of opinion, individuality, or privacy are ‘wrong’, as if he wanted to create a public social space just to rule it.

    Comment by Jerry — October 14, 2009 @ 12:19 pm

  4. Elijah Snow won the battle.

    But the Four won the war.

    Comment by Dan Coyle — October 15, 2009 @ 1:37 am

  5. jamaalmaniacs smell better than hulkamaniacs just an fyi

    Comment by Mike F. — October 15, 2009 @ 7:53 pm

  6. Wow. This podcast was not at all what I expected!

    I came away from Planetary’s final issue loving the series even more than I used to years ago when it was still coming out semi-regularly. I can’t believe that you guys would take one of the best new books from the past 10 years and devote an entire hour to it… all for the sake of detailing what a “failure” it was!

    What’s worse is that so much of your criticism was such nit-picking. “Did Elijah being the fourth man make perfect sense?” “Was this happening in the WS universe or the real world?” “How did the Planetary organization get to be so wealthy?” I think that all those can be fanwanked easily enough (if you even consider them problems), and they’re all minor complaints, in any case.

    “The release schedule was so terrible that the book really suffered for it” was about the only major, valid criticism that you leveled, and even that’s more of a meta-criticism!

    I mean, I fucking loved the book, and I can point out bigger problems with the story than you guys did:
    “What the hell happened to the person brought back from the fictional world?” How does Ellis spend the whole last issue re-visiting the events of that earlier issue yet have his characters ultimately dismiss the importance of that individual’s existence?
    And speaking of those two issues, “Why the hell did Ellis think that any reader truly cared about the fate of Ambrose Chase?” He was a character so underdeveloped that I’m pretty sure you guys didn’t mention his name more than once – if that – in your entire podcast!

    Despite flaws like these, I think Planetary was a remarkable achievement. Ellis demonstrated powers of imagination that still put most of his fellow writers to shame, and Cassaday proved his jaw-dropping talent more definitively with every issue from first to last.

    As much as you guys discussed the book’s meta-commentary and as much as you described it as withering with age, I honestly believe that you failed to fully appreciate what Ellis was trying to convey and how relevant – even timeless – his message really is! Oh, well…

    TL;DR: I consider Planetary to have been a triumph. It wasn’t perfect, but that would be asking a lot of any book. I wish that you all had at least had more kind words over the course of an hour than “We really liked the covers.” :/

    Comment by Rand — October 15, 2009 @ 9:23 pm

  7. the thing about the four is that they weren’t good people to begin with. so its not Ellis saying that people who desire more than what they have are evil. only that the four were already evil & used their powers to gain more at whatever cost & no matter who it hurt. they also horded the knowledge they gained.

    Comment by carlos cordova — October 15, 2009 @ 9:24 pm

  8. Rand,

    I’m a Fan of Ellis, but the reason I think we went straight for the meta-commentary is that frankly I didn’t feel like there was much else there in the book. Maybe this is just hindsight, but much of the book felt warmed over ideas that were all better presented in other works I have read (sometimes by ellis himself). As far as his ‘message’ what do you take the message to be?

    However, I do feel we probably should have talked more about Cassaday’s Art, which probably helped define the “Widescreen Comics” style. But I felt that Cassaday’s art carried Planetary far beyond what it was.

    As I said in the Podcast I don’t think Planetary is a terrible book by any means, It’s just that I’ll take Fell, Desolation Jones, Transmetropolitan, Global Frequency, Freak Angels, Crecy, or his Hellblazer over Planetary any day of the week, and I think I was a bit shocked that everyone on the podcast felt similarly.

    Comment by Joseph — October 16, 2009 @ 1:14 am

  9. I’ve actually come to the realization I’m not much of an Ellis fan in general, to be honest.

    Rand, I’m not really sure how commenting that the series had no emotional or dramatic connection, used a lengthy series of metaphors that don’t hold up to scrutiny, and have numerous problems with the plot mechanics and ‘science’ of the series count as ‘nitpicks’. Maybe these positions weren’t conveyed very well in the podcast.

    I’m curious, what did we fail to appreciate? What do you think makes Planetary a triumph?

    Comment by Chris Eckert — October 16, 2009 @ 2:30 am

  10. A disclaimer: I’m an archivist (or at least a guy with a degree trying to get a career started as one), so Elijah’s revelation that his purpose in life is to “save things” perhaps held special resonance for me. It’s not every day that you come across a certified super-archivist!

    Anyway…

    What I thought you guys failed to appreciate was Ellis’s attempt to really just “keep the world strange”, as he has Elijah repeatedly stress. I take this to mean “make the realm of ongoing superhero comics fresh and interesting again (and again)”. Planetary got this job done from 1999-2001, and in my experience, only rare titles like Morrison/Whedon’s X-Men, Kirkman’s Invincible, and Vaughan/Whedon’s Runaways have been able to do the same for any length of time since.

    Smoke-and-mirrors changes aside, the Big Two stopped caring about maintaining their philosophies of “anything can happen” long ago. Anyone who’s been reading comics for a decade or more knows that no major change matters in the long run because every character will eventually be retconned back to their ancient status quo. Ellis wanted to bring back “anything can happen” and make it mean something.

    With the exception of Millar’s run that just ended, I haven’t read any Fantastic Four in years. Yesterday, I found out that one of the Four died a while back under DeFalco. I guess that didn’t last. So, even if/when one Fantastic Four member does manage to die, they sure as hell won’t/don’t stay dead. In Planetary, Ellis says “Fuck that!” and does away with the entire “Four” for good. Wow!

    “How will we go on without a Fantastic Four?” the fans cry. “Ahh… don’t you see?” replies Ellis, “Those four were a product of the 20th century. I’ve given you four 21st century adventurers in their place. They’re a less conventional family, sure, but we must keep things strange!”

    In short, Ellis spends the first 2/3 of Planetary offering a guide to the 20th century for those who need to be caught up on its highlights before spending the last 1/3 of Planetary tearing down a tired fantastic four to make way for his own. That on its own would be quite an achievement, but this series was clearly meant to be furthermore laying the groundwork for some future creative team. It’s this that was truly marvelous, if only in its potential! (And I do hate that you guys didn’t even ask yourselves, “What if Planetary isn’t really over yet?”)

    “Here you go!” says Ellis to this future team, “You get to write the 21st century’s answer to the Fantastic Four. Just one catch: there are absolutely no limits to what you can do with them. If you can think it up, they can dig it up. And if, in the end, you decide to bury Planetary themselves, they can stay dead. Just keep the world strange!”

    Combine this awe-inspiring message with artwork by John Cassaday that – for so many reasons – is difficult to praise highly enough, and you have what I call a triumph.

    Needless to say, I love Planetary, and I want everyone else to love it, too. Perhaps this bizarrely-structured answer of mine won’t manage to win anyone over, but it’s my best attempt at expressing the way that Planetary affected my life and my conception of just how much awesome potential superhero comics still and always will hold.

    Comment by Rand — October 16, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

  11. Interesting points, but frankly that’s exactly what doesn’t keep things strange.

    If the Fantastic Four are such an outdated 20th century idea, why would we need a NEW fantastic four? ESPECIALLY when it’s just the alternative fantastic four. That’s the most boring thing ever. Why do they have to be four or fantastic? Or superheroes for that matter?

    And the analogy is false, was the Fantastic Four (or big two in general) really taking all the oxygen out of the room? There was Milestone, Image, Dark Horse amongst others before Planetary.

    And as far as “the big two” not doing anything new? Or leaving the “Anything can Happen” mantra? Sure you can point to the fact that they want to keep their major properties going but…

    Cap’s been dead for 2+ years. Batman’s been out of the picture for a while, and DC is pushing they premier writer for the new batman. Batman has a son. They’re pushing a lesbian Batwoman. Marvel is pushing a new style of storytelling where almost every book is about the different sides of a single character. Spider-Man is a weekly comic. The Incredible Hulk gets kicked off his book to do a weekly series about Hercules. The Avengers have been dissassembled and reassembled and made into supervillains. The Big Two are doing big things, and it’s impossible to ignore that, regardless of what you think of the comics themselves. To say that nothing’s happened except changed window dressing doesn’t sound right too me. I don’t love all these comics, and there are definitely wierd holdovers, but things have shifted incredibly since 2001.

    I mean shit, If there’s one thing I can’t complain about, it’s that I think comics definitely does have an “anything can happen” vibe. Sometimes for the worse, Sometimes for the better.

    Now, if you want to point to Planetary being part of the spearhead of a movement where the industry started valuing writers more, there might be something there.

    I’m just glad that the future of superhero comics has been much much wierder (just think of the insanity of 52 or Final Crisis, regardless of whether you liked it) than Ellis envisioned in Planetary circa 2001-2002.

    Comment by Joseph — October 16, 2009 @ 8:23 pm

  12. I just wanna say, this is a great podcast. As you may have guessed, I don’t like Warren Ellis, the personality, very much, and have mixed feelings about the writer. This podcast succinctly eviscerated him far better than I ever could. Thank you, guys.

    Comment by Dan Coyle — October 17, 2009 @ 6:13 pm

  13. Great analysis, addressed a lot of the problems I had with this whole series and like you I’m of two minds, the book is fun to read and good, but frustratingly poorly thought out.

    Comment by Kid Kyoto — October 20, 2009 @ 11:12 pm

  14. I remember it being mentioned in a previous show that some of you donate your new single issues to a children’s community organization (or charity) after you are done reading them. What was the organization in NYC that you gave them to? I know someone that lives in Manhattan and is throwing them away, so I want to suggest he gives them to this group instead. Any help you can give me is appreciated.

    Great discussion of Planetary guys. Planetary is the series that pulled me back into comics after a decade-long hiatus but in the end I’ve ended up in the same place as Chris – I’m not a Warren Ellis fan anymore. The only series of his that I can remember re-reading and enjoying was Global Frequency, but I’m also glad it ended when it did.

    Comment by JFC — October 21, 2009 @ 6:07 am

  15. I think that, while most of your podcast was correct about the lengthier metaphors associated with Planetary (that this is a commentary on the comics industry, etc…), I don’t think the “entire” series is meant to be a continuing metaphor on comics.

    From what I remember from the proposal, Ellis envisioned Planetary as a “Pop Single” (his first of many Pop Single-style stories) which each singular comic is meant to be a specific popular style, which is overturned and dissected to show how “cool” that style is and how it resonates today.

    For instance, the Kirby interlude where we see the Angels and encounter Space Travel for the first time. Taken as a 2-part story, it takes Kirby’s fantastic-style iconographic imagery and updates it to a new level that shows and incorporates the 2001/Arthur C Clarke/Stanley Kubrick influences of the piece. It shows the influences and the lineage of Kirby’s “Gods in Space” and also gives us how that could look in a current context. Planetary’s goal is meant to be the opposite of the prevailing “conspiracy-oriented” popular fiction of the X-Files: whereas all the extra-normal things in X-Files is secretive and tainted by secrecy, the extra-normal things in Planetary are extraordinary and cool.

    I think of Planetary as a “sample” guide that is a commentary on specific genre pieces that are updated and commented upon for today. The covers are the biggest hint of this: every cover refers to a specific genre that is being illuminated. Even the final issue is meant to be an examination of “Death and Rebirth in Fiction” that goes all the way back to Sherlock Holmes coming back after his fight with Moriarty.

    To read the whole series as a consistent metaphor is a bit flawed, but if you read every issue as a commentary on a specific genre or trope that is conceived or incorporated into comics, then you have more of a complete picture of what Ellis is trying to say with Planetary.

    Comment by gary — October 21, 2009 @ 4:43 pm

  16. I came to your site to listen to your webcast reviewing Darwyn Cooke’s “The Hunter”. You had some very good points to make but they got kinda lost in your sloppy, rambling, semi-coherent presentation. I had to try listening to this one to see if you were maybe having an off day.

    This podcast was better but only because there were three of you instead of four. You really need to think about your listeners if you’re serious about doing this. Make notes beforehand. Have your key points rehearsed. Don’t talk over each other. Stop the smug injokes and backpatting. In other words, try to respect your audience and don’t waste our time. Think about editing out all the ums and ahs, dead air and repetitions. If you were properly prepared and organized in your round table this podcast could have been 20 minutes long and you wouldn’t have lost a thing.

    I’m surprised “Nextwave” didn’t get mentioned at all! Some interesting similarities with “Planetary” in the metaphorical superhero department, no?

    Comment by Shelley C — October 27, 2009 @ 6:14 am

  17. […] from those good old boys at FB and their typically trustworthy take, the silence greeting this one has been deafening, no? […]

    Pingback by Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Tues review: Like a Milk-Man convention or something… — October 27, 2009 @ 7:47 pm

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