This article was originally published at DC Infinite on June 18, 2014.
Ray Sonne: Welcome back to World’s Finest! Today, Chase Magnett and I will continue our analysis of Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s popular series, Planetary. Planetary #2 has as much to look into as Planetary #1,so hold on tight as the team brings us to Japan.
The cover of Planetary #2 promises a fun ride, with a T-Rex skeleton seemingly chasing after three Japanese men. Cinematic explosions decorate the landscape, while the red-lettered Japanese translations of “Planetary,” “Action!,” “Terror!,” and “Fun!,” emphasize their English counterparts. This cover embraces widescreen style full-force and looks like a movie poster printed onto a book. This is appropriate, considering how important movies are to the themes introduced in this issue.
Planetary #2 opens with some of the Japanese men on the cover plus three extra companions docking their boat on Island Zero, a territory in the middle of dispute between Japan and Russia. The leader, Ryu, insists on his followers calling him “Master Storyteller.” He is a novelist and wannabe spiritual guru, but — even more importantly — he’s a monster of a person. He and his group soon find, however, that he is not the only monster on Island Zero.
When the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese culture changed dramatically. Japan’s most well-known forms of media today include monster movies and dark manga or anime with nihilistic tones. Warren Ellis and John Cassaday focus on the former, exploring the beauty of the monsters through Cassaday’s gorgeous spreads and freaky pencils. Although shells of what they once were, the corpses of these monsters are still incredible to behold.
Chase Magnett: I think it’s very appropriate to be discussing this issue now, less than a month after the release of Godzilla (2014); it’s very specific in its focus on the kaiju genre. Whereas Planetary #1 was a thesis statement for the series to come, explaining the premise and introducing the central characters, the second issue is the first one that feels like a “real” issue of Planetary. It uses the premise and characters of the book in order to create a specific statement about fiction. I imagine that many of our conversations will center around what Ellis and Cassaday are attempting to say about a genre or character and that will certainly be the case here.
Planetary #2 was released May 1999, about one year after the disastrous Godzilla (1998). Although the film did relatively well at the box office, the critical response was universally negative. It’s a film reviled as much as Batman and Robin, another film that managed to kill a franchise for more than a decade. The kaiju genre was absent from theaters for fifteen years, until Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim was released last summer. I would go so far as to say that the genre did not really return in full form until this May — since Pacific Rim is as much a part of the mecha genre as it was kaiju — but that’s a matter of semantics. The important thing to note is that when Planetary #2 was released, it looked like kaiju films were dead and that was true until just recently.
With that in mind, it’s no surprise that when Planetary see the gigantic monsters that populate Island Zero, they are only corpses. Much like the metaphor of the very first Godzilla (1954), the one presented here is not meant to be subtle. Despite the incredible scale of the monsters on the island, they are all dead. Cassaday does a wonderful job of removing any sense of awe from these once powerful creatures. His depiction of a gigantic lizard (that we might as well call Godzilla, because that’s clearly what it is supposed to be) is emaciated and rotting. There’s no majesty to be found in its corpse and the scariest thing about it is Master Storyteller’s notion of eating its body. What once may have been the greatest predator on Earth bears more resemblance to roadkill than a T-rex.
The monsters on Island Zero are stand-ins for the entire kaiju genre. All of the words we’ve used to describe them — terrifying, powerful, morbid — can be applied to the Japanese kaiju films of the 1950’s and onward. They were movies made in a society shaped by a terrible war that ended with two major metropolitan areas being annihilated by something outside of their current understanding. It’s a strange moment in any culture to wrap one’s mind around, and kaiju films help provide some insight into that society. Yet currently, all of the power of these movies has been stripped away. The most recent attempt to create a film about Godzilla was a soulless, manufactured piece of garbage. For all intents and purposes, Planetary #2 was written when the kaiju genre was a giant, rotting corpse that only bore some superficial resemblance to its former self. Ellis and Cassaday clearly admire what movies about giant monsters can be, but their distaste for Godzilla (1998) and the remaining value of kaiju films makes for a strong statement. They do provide a hopeful epilogue in the issue’s final pages that seems all the more prescient today, but I’ll save that for the end.
So speaking of metaphors, Ray, what do you think of how this comic connects to origins of the kaiju genre in post-war Japan?
RS: Monsters aren’t limited to the kaiju genre in Japan, which I find to be the most interesting aspect of this. For every Attack of the Titans, there’s also a Death Note. Godzilla is scary because of its form, but it’s humanity and the most evil parts of our scientific advancement that made it that way. The monster’s keloid scars are from those seen on the Hiroshima survivors. For more recent anime/manga like Akira, the protagonists aren’t exactly figures of hope, but why would they be considering the environment in which they exist?
Island Zero is a literal setting, creating a backdrop for the modern-day characters to grow from. Everything in literature progresses; for instance, without the late 19th-early 20th century magazine Shonen Sekai, we wouldn’t now have the anime/manga Dragon Ball Z or Yu-Gi-Oh!. Shonen Sekai originally focused on science fiction and technology, but the shonen genre eventually changed toward more fantasy ideas. However, it maintains the same targeted demographic and therefore still exists as tribute to its own progress.
A similar evolution occurred for the kaiju genre. The point and tone are the same, but the form is different. The monsters live on with changed appearances. Much like how there was a contrast in Planetary #1 between the pulp hero and superhero pastiches, we have another historical confrontation in Planetary #2. The Master Storyteller wants to usurp the monsters’ place by consuming their flesh. Godzilla is dead, but Ryu can still be a killer and he proves it by shooting the follower who speaks up against him.
On the other hand, while humans have become monsters, the monsters have recently become heroes. In this year’s cinematic appearance, Godzilla is defender of the world and it is not his first time. How do we compare this “superhero” Godzilla to the Planetary team and then the Planetary team to Japanese anti-heroes in current bomb-inspired, nihilistic media?
CM: I find it interesting that you refer to Godzilla as a “superhero”. He certainly does less damage than the latest Superman film, but he still wreaks havoc and kills a lot of people. Godzilla has generally not been the villain in most of the films he is featured in, either fighting other monsters, human threats, or being controlled by an external force. In most kaiju stories, the kaiju isn’t a simple villain, there’s typically something else at play. Even in Godzilla (1954), you can say that he’s an effect of a worse problem: nuclear war. For stories about oversized monsters, there’s a lot of moral ambiguity to the kaiju genre, and that plays out in Planetary #2 as well.
Most of the characters in this issue aren’t heroes or villains by definition, although they could be perceived that way due to circumstance. The Planetary team is on the island to investigate and protect its mysteries. The guards are their to do the same, but they are employed by world governments. The kaiju on the final page is simply flying about its natural habitat. Even Master Storyteller’s followers aren’t inherently bad. They are being misled by a charismatic leader, like members of a cult. In fact, the only real monster on Island Zero is Master Storyteller. The issue is much more focused on him as the antagonist that drives all of the other characters into action.
His role as the villain of the piece makes a lot of sense, especially when you consider that Planetary #2 was released only three years after the Tokyo subway sarin attacks. These attacks were perpetrated by a group very similar to the one presented in this issue. They were a small band of men with apocalyptic dreams led by a self-appointed savior of Japan and homicidal madman, Shoko Asahara. The sarin attacks were the most deadly attack to occur on Japanese soil since the conclusion of WWII. Master Storyteller ends his own life and those of the soldiers by releasing a similar substance. In that moment, Planetary #2 reveals new fears and problems facing the same society that invented the kaiju genre in response to a previous generation’s greatest troubles.
Ellis and Cassaday may not have much to say on the topic of homegrown terrorism in Japan, but they recognize it as topical, as well as having dire consequences. The panels in which Cassaday depicts soldiers and terrorists alike dying from the gas are horrific, revealing intense pain and the indiscriminate nature of this destructive force. Planetary #2 is not about the subway attacks or continuing fears of domestic terrorism, but it is about the need for stories that address these topics.
With the thought of these terrible attacks in mind, Ellis and Cassaday reveal the twist to their premise. All of the kaiju on Island Zero are not dead. A new creature, one not necessarily based on any previous film (though it does bear some resemblance to Rodan) flies overhead. The need for stories that explore our shared fears of nuclear war may have passed, but that doesn’t mean the world is without monsters. New threats have arisen and, collectively, we still need stories to deal with these issues. Planetary #2 points out that there is still a need to be filled with the kaiju genre.
It took almost another twenty years, but we are just now seeing how right Ellis and Cassaday were. Godzilla (2014) addresses societal fears of government cover-ups and natural disasters that are particularly prevalent right now, giving us an entertaining look at the very real monsters that exist in our world.
– Many props to letterer Bill O’Neil for this issue. Normally, foreign languages have a note from the editor that they’re a translation. O’Neil made this unnecessary by making a font that referenced the style of Japanese characters where characters spoke Japanese. Editorial interference on Planetary would shake up what famous writer John Gardner called “the vivid and continuous fictional dream.” That is, if not for O’Neil’s spot-on lettering, our immersion in this issue may have been violated.
– Thanks to my friend, Angel, who informed me on kaiju movies so I could do this analysis correctly.
– I really like that the big reveal isn’t of the Godzilla or Ghidorah homages, but of Mothra. I love Mothra, but compared to the King of the Monsters or a three-headed dragon, he has a pretty lame visual design. That having been said, Cassaday does a great job of making the corpse of a moth look really impressive.
– In addition to the words “Action!”, “Terror!”, and “Fun!”, there is also a translation of dialogue on the cover. It distorts a Japanese speech bubble containing three symbols (1 kanji and 2 hiragana), that translate simply to “Go!” into the English phrase “I think we shall run.” It’s a commentary on the American treatment of foreign cinema that keeps its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. Cassaday does a great job conveying that the Japanese phrasing is precise and impactful, so that readers without an understanding of the language can still get the joke.
– “It does us good to have our gentials frozen into small dead things.” You’ve got to love Warren Ellis’ weird sense of humor. This sounds like a line that could have come from Transmetropolitan, Nextwave, or just about anything the man has written.