This article was originally published at DC Infinite on July 16, 2014.
Ray Sonne: One of the reasons that the comic book medium is unique is that it was the first to have “universes.” 1961 was a landmark year for the industry with DC Comics’ release of “The Flash of Two Worlds” and Marvel Comics’ publication of The Fantastic Four #1. Where the older publisher created the idea that their 20+ years of stories had taken place in a series of different universes–or, a multiverse–the younger publisher became the first to start a single, cohesive universe where all its books occurred. These two companies and the superhero genre are so prominent in the comics industry that it’s not much of a surprise that Image Comics and one of its subsidiaries, Wildstorm Productions, tried to follow suit in the 1990s after the publisher’s foundation.
Wildstorm had many talented contributors writing its books over the years. Wildcats (stylized as WildC.A.T.S) had a few talented early writers on the team such as Alan Moore and James Robison. Chris Claremont rebooted Gen13 after its initial run. Many tried their hand at making Stormwatch work (it never worked; DC should have thought about this a few years ago before publishing New 52 Stormwatch, which also did not work). However, I often wonder if the key to making a cohesive universe lies in a single writer, if not a single creative team, because most of the world-building for Wildstorm that proved to eventually matter came from Warren Ellis’s late 90s/early 2000s work. You’re reading a column about one of those works right now.
The shiftship seen in Planetary #4 is unbelievably gorgeous. John Cassaday and Laura DePuy created some kind of cathedral, complete with a Garden of Eden, that enthralls one to look at it. It’s unworldly, it’s unyielding, it’s massive. It can talk. And despite how bizarre the story is, it’s one you can believe. There is probably some other world out there that would build something so amazing for something that seems so down-to-earth and necessary as trade.
The lavishness of the ship’s interior hits the human ability to appreciate sublimity, even though it is flat on the page. The connection with The Snowflake extends this appreciation outward, toward all the other stories that the Shiftship touches by traveling through the Bleed.
What cements the coherency across the publisher Wildstorm’s books is that the Second European Fleet’s shiftship is not the only shiftship in this Wildstorm Universe. There’s also The Carrier.
The Carrier, in many ways, is noticeably different from the Second European Fleet’s Shiftship, however. For starters, she has a much more industrial aesthetic. While the SEF’s shiftship’s doors (the rectangles that surround Jim Wilder before his entrance into the ship) are blue, The Carrier’s are yellow. We get a few glimpses at parts of the SEF’s interior, but no insight as to their utilitarian value, whereas in the original The Authority run by Ellis and Bryan Hitch, the Carrier has a Junction Room, a conference room, an undercarriage, and some other mechanical rooms for her crew to work within. And speaking of crews, The Carrier has hers.
The shiftship that Planetary finds is searching for her own crew. What does that mean for you, Chase?
Chase Magnett: Planetary #4 breaks from the pattern of the previous three issues by exploring a contemporary story that does not necessarily reflect a specific genre or trend in media. Ellis is not using pastiches to the creations of others, but one of his own by focusing the story on a shiftship. This isn’t a case of ego, but rather making a broader point. The story isn’t focused on a specific element of fiction because it is discussing the nature of storytelling in general.
In Planetary #4, the shiftship is an allegory for a story.
The shiftship is a truly remarkable thing in both what it is and what it is capable of. While inside, the Planetary team see wonders of imagination ranging from fantastic architecture to an Eden-like collection of flora and fauna. Beyond what it contains, the shiftship is capable of moving between the almost limitless realities represented in the snowflake. It can transport people anywhere and anytime, unconstrained by the rules or history of a particular reality. If that doesn’t sound like a story, then I don’t know what does.
Following that logic, Jim Wilder is a storyteller. He explains that the shiftship is unable to work on its own and requires living people to power it. Upon discovering this wonderful artifact capable of traversing space and time, he tasks himself with bringing it to life. His existence as a new being possessed by the need to create poses a romantic image of the storyteller as prophet or oracle. The challenges of funding and support are enormous, but unintimidating to him. He believes that the shiftship should be resurrected and he has been changed by the very notion of its existence. In fact, the shiftship literally exists inside of him now having left a massive scar across his chest in the shape of a lightning bolt in order to implant him with the machinery necessary to be its new pilot.
Lightning has long symbolized inspiration or ideas, and I don’t think it is an accident that Jim has been marked with lightning. He has been transformed by something more powerful than himself. Planetary is a series that explores what stories mean and why they are valuable. In this issue, Ellis and Cassaday seem to assert that stories are far greater things than the people who bring them to life, capable of journeying through infinite realities and changing the people with whom they come into contact. Jim, as a crewmember of the shiftship, is responsible for its well being. His awareness of the vessel has created a need to bring it to life once more and change the world. This isn’t the first time that Ellis has written about the people piloting a shiftship though, as you mentioned before.
Ray, you’re much better read when it comes to Ellis’ work in the Wildstorm universe(s), do you think this allegory holds true through his other work or am I overreaching?
RS: I think you’re definitely correct in asserting that the shiftships are representative of stories. Their crews likely change according to which kind of story they are. In this case, the shiftship sounds much more like a potential collection of storytellers, possibly in the comics variety. While Planetary offers their services (especially in terms of monetary assistance), to Wilder, they act as a publisher. Wilder, taking the pilot position, may be a writer with the ship representing his pitch to the company. The other crew members could vary, possibly representing an editor, a penciller, an inker, a colorist, and a letterer. Of course, that only makes six and I can’t think of what function the seventh creator would technically serve, but in terms of the “making a story take off” metaphor it works. Although this shiftship has a diverse interior, one may consider it a science fiction story due to its origin, if we wanted to categorize it into a genre at all.
The Carrier from The Authority is yet again different because she is the ultimate superhero story. The Authority itself is written as a twisted, “realistic” version of the Justice League of America and has seven members. Therefore, The Carrier has a seven member crew, which is what Wilder says the SEF shiftship needs in order to go home. Sometimes members of The Authority take over roles that are listed in Planetary #4; Swift, for instance, pilots The Carrier in Ellis and Hitch’s third arc while The Engineer goes down to The Carrier’s interior machinery to work intimately with the ship. Most of the time, however, they don’t squeeze into the stated roles (especially since The Carrier has a baby universe to fuel her instead of a particular character) and more often use The Carrier to serve their needs to defend the world.
In the first The Authority run, the team mentions that they are not sure where their ride comes from, but finding out doesn’t impress as a priority. Indeed, Ellis and Hitch never do reveal The Carrier’s origins. Like the SEF shiftship, The Carrier is connected to Earth. Although above Earth’s atmosphere, she still technically wanders the Bleed and so lurks out of sight. She needs The Engineer and The Doctor to uncover her like how the SEF shiftship needs unburying from the ground. The Carrier also does not move inside and outside of the Bleed unless a member of The Authority requests motion. Whether a shiftship’s crew is made up of storytellers or characters depends on people for progression like any story.
As we discover later, century babies Elijah and The Authority team leader Jenny Sparks know of each other’s existence. So while the rest of the Wildstorm Universe kind of just sits there while integrating a bit more tightly around 2003 or so, and having publisher-wide crossovers like “Big Brother DC”, Planetary and The Authority are more related to one another than any of the other titles. Out of all of Ellis’s works, they share his most cerebral ideas and carry very many of the same attitudes. Certain character archetypes, fart jokes, and advanced technology are seen throughout nearly all of Ellis’s other books, but you won’t find shiftships in Transmetropolitan or any of his traditional superhero contributions. Planetary is where all the discussions of genre and structure belong, especially of those lesser used in the comics industry. The Authority complements Planetary via criticism of what is often used. If one can think of titles under the same writer as siblings, these two are bipaternal twins (considering the different artists).
Speaking of atypical genres in comic books, any thoughts on how Planetary #4 works like an action movie, Chase?
CM: I don’t know if I read this as a corollary to the action genre of films. Action films are defined by their use of physical feats, violence, chases, and humor. Planetary #4 contains a punch-up and chase in its first half, but after page 8 there’s no violence. Although there are jokes throughout, the strong tonal shift that occurs at the end of the chase sequence removes most of the major elements that compose the action genre. However, I think that page and the rest of the story makes it very similar to the action movie’s cousin, the blockbuster.
The term blockbuster has come to refer to high-budget movies written for a wide audience. They contain lots of special effects designed to astonish the senses. The opening sequences of Planetary #4 can certainly be seen as pleasing to all audiences. A detective beating up a crook and chasing him through the streets of New York is about as basic as you can get. Yet on page eight, the world opens up and gets a lot bigger. Cassaday does a wonderful job of constructing truly astonishing panels that can make the audience marvel at both their scale and intricacy. The shiftship, the touchstone, even Wilder’s costume are all incredible feats that would require a nine figure budget to create in a film. The “God Machine” in Planetary #3 and snowflake in Planetary #1 only hinted at the incredible nature of the multiverse. The imagery in the second half of Planetary #4 is spectacle and miracle writ large.
Ellis and Cassaday have a very high opinion on the value of stories. They’ve explored how the kaiju genre helped Japan to understand its national pain after the events of World War II and how revenge films of southeast Asia provide insight into modern morality. This is a team that sees deep connections between the stories we enjoy and how we function as a world. Planetary is all about big ideas, so it makes sense that an allegory for stories would be grandiose in nature. What better way to show the wonderful potential of what this series is all about than to apply the language of the most over-the-top, visually spectacular genre of all.
-Equally as strange and wonderful as the shiftship itself is the costume it gives Jim Wilder. It has a very knightly aesthetic to match Wilder’s new role as a champion taking on a challenge or going on a journey. In the interior art, it resembles Jim Lee’s Mister Majestic’s costume, although that is probably unintentional.
-Up until this point, much of the Planetary issues worked as one-shots. With a small glimpse at Axel Brass in the beginning, some of the storylines start to come together. It’s an entertaining and unusual way to do exposition; like in Ellis, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire’s recent Moon Knight series, readers can conceivably hop on anywhere at this point and not get lost. Although later on Planetary is not as accessible, it seems to value its periodical format in the beginning.
– There’s an interesting shift in the power dynamics of Planetary in this issue as well. Until now Jakita has been seen as the de facto leader of the group. She has explained the missions and led the charge. Even for most of this issue, she is the person issuing commands and making decisions. At the end Elijah Snow overrules here and decides to help Jim Wilder, transforming Planetary from an organization that observes to one that acts. This change is met by smiles from the Drummer and Jakita. Given only the context of this issue, it’s a change that seems strange, but will make much more sense after we discuss Planetary #12.
– Speaking of the long-term plans of Planetary, this issue also returns two elements from the first issue of the series: the snowflake and the Hark name. It’s an effort in world building for Ellis and Cassaday’s where characters and motifs are naturally re-introduced rather than being forced into the issue as a sub-plot. It’s a good example of how to combine episodic storytelling with long-term plans. We certainly haven’t heard the last about either of these elements, but they are not key to appreciating Planetary #4 on its own.
– I wonder if the lightning emblem scarred onto Jim Wilder’s chest and emblazoned on his new uniform is a purposeful homage to Captain Marvel. In addition to being recognized by large left-slanting lightning bolts on their chests, both characters are capable of instantaneously transforming into a being of great power connected to a world beyond our own. This issue isn’t focused on Captain Marvel or the superhero genre, but it may be pulling from the cultural zeitgeist of Western comics to say something about Mr. Wilder and his newfound nature.