This article was originally published at Infinite Comix on August 13, 2014.
Ray Sonne: Planetary #6 introduces the series’ main plotline and antagonists, The Four. The Four are, of course, pastiches of The Fantastic Four wrapped up in sci-fi plot and criticism of Cold War values. In real life, The Fantastic Four brought a new era to superhero comics, but in Planetary, their ascendance to post-human conditions were kept as secret as the Artemis space project that brought them into the center of the multiverse. In true Wildstorm fashion — unlike the original versions of the characters — The Four aren’t exactly the pinnacle of moral integrity.
“That’s what made heroes back then; arrogance and righteousness and the individual American Way versus the Commie hivemind,” Ellis writes. 1961 — both the publishing year of The Fantastic Four #1 and the year of The Four’s fictional mission — is planted firmly in the Silver Age, an era epitomized by Cold War terror and conservative values, had only material rife with censorship. The pulp magazines and any of the edge that Ellis, Cassaday, and Depuy honored in previous Planetary issues were wiped away by the sweaty hands of Dr. Frederic Wertham of Seduction of the Innocent fame and all of the parents and government officials that listened to him.
While Marvel Comics threw off many of comics’ stale patterns and Comic Code Authority insistence in later years, The Fantastic Four #1 was created right at the beginning of the Silver Age. Sue Storm’s goading of Ben Grimm in the form of, “We’ve got to take that chance…unless we want the Commies to beat us to it!” in order to get him into their ship lays out a motivation drenched in fear. It is, indeed, a self-righteousness and anti-Russian ideology that gets them all on that ship. It is Reed Richards’ arrogance that has him assert that nothing can go wrong, even though he did not properly do the research on gamma rays before the flight, which causes The Fantastic Four’s accident to happen. It’s a mistake that they become “heroes” because that flight was only noble and brave by standards of those who were afraid every day that nuclear war might begin.
The Fantastic Four, in all their self-involvement, may very likely have become villains instead. And that’s why Planetary #6 villainizes them.
Chase, what thoughts come to your mind about the depiction of the classic “heroes” we see in Planetary?
Chase Magnett: Your reading of Planetary #6 as a criticism of early Marvel comics and the medium under the Comics Code Authority is one I like, but I think Ellis and Cassaday are criticizing a much bigger target, one that The Four act as mere symbols for. Before getting to that, I think it’s important to take a look at the creators’ opinions towards the source material that the central villains of Planetary are based upon.
Like you said there is no doubt that The Four are a facsimile to The Fantastic Four; a Faux-tastic Four of sorts. From their New York headquarters to their origin story, from their visual presentations to the year of their transformation; Ellis and Cassaday are doing everything possible to connect their villains with the Fantastic Four. It’s impossible to miss the connection, unless you’ve never read a superhero comic or been in a theater in the past ten years. But both of these men have a great deal of love for the source material and one of its creators, Jack Kirby.
Warren Ellis and John Cassaday love Jack Kirby. There’s no if’s, and’s, or but’s about it. Ellis wrote a column for Bleeding Cool called “Do Anything” where he claimed to have the robot head of Jack Kirby on his desk. He expounded about Kirby’s importance and his enormous respect for the man over the course of thousands of words later collected as a small press book. Beyond that, interviews with both creators reveal a love for Kirby and his many creations. That’s why I have a difficult time seeing this issue as a denunciation of the Silver Age of comics or Fantastic Four. Not only do Ellis and Cassaday like Jack Kirby and his many works, but they passionately hate whatever The Four represent. When Elijah Snow speaks about The Four, there is no room for anything besides contempt and hostility. When he says “I don’t enjoy killing people. I want to kill these people.” it is as if the creators are speaking through him.
So what do I think this issue is really about? The corporate control of intellectual property.
The Fantastic Four don’t just represent the Silver Age of comics, they represent the birth of Marvel. Kirby’s invention of the Fantastic Four not only helped save the Marvel offices from being shuttered, but provided the template on which every character created there for the next five years would be based. Without this one issue, Marvel Comics would not exist today in any recognizable or meaningful way. Fantastic Four #1 is emblematic of Marvel Comics in a way that even Action Comics #1 or Detective Comics #27 cannot reflect in DC Comics.
That’s not to say that this reflects any sort of preference between the “Big Two”, only that The Four are the best possible analogs for corporately owned intellectual property. They were created by two giants of creativity and represented a fresh new take on both a genre and the medium. It is impossible to understate the contributions of Jack Kirby to the comics medium. Yet almost all of his ideas are owned by companies that have controlled their representation and stories since Kirby left.
This also fits with the fact that The Four are primary antagonists of Planetary. The Planetary organization has spent five issues both literally and metaphorically exploring the power and wonder of stories. They represent a big idea and it only makes sense that their chief rival would be of equally staggering enormity.
So do you think this is a fair analysis of the villains of Planetary and what both Ellis and Cassaday are aiming to set up as the primary struggle of the series? What do you think drives the high level of anger portrayed towards The Four and whatever it is they represent?
RS: In fairness to the series as a whole, I’m sure we’ll find several details that support your analysis of The Four in later issues. If The Four want to harness any of the strange things in this world, it’s for their own malicious benefit. It’s similar to the Big Two and their corporate owners; although individuals employed by these companies may want to expound upon the properties and find their potential, that’s not necessarily what the properties’ owners want. It is a safer option, financially, to keep them at a certain status quo.
Cassaday visually expresses this via the Subterrans.
They resemble those stuffed animals you might see in a museum. Preserved in a glass case in order to keep them in the same condition and propped up in permanent positions in whichever way their owner saw fit — it’s an apt metaphor for corporate interest in comics. They are not alive and they cannot progress, like how the big comic book properties cannot grow. In previous issues, we saw a variety of strange things roam free, such as the creatures on Monster Island. Here, there’s no positive thing for Jakita or Elijah to say. Monsters and century babies can thrive again after decades of struggle, but the Subterrans don’t have much hope.
Right before declaring his desire to kill The Four, Elijah mentions, “The things these scum have cost us since 1961…” Not sure if Ellis is just playing with the Fantastic Four date there or if he is directly referring to something historical industry-wise. Either way, there are a lot of arguments that can be made. DC never had another company threaten its top position in the industry until Marvel was established. Both companies have a rap sheet of treating creators poorly; Kirby is one of the biggest (or at least one of the most well-known) victims. Perhaps Ellis is citing the year as the time when the abuse of Kirby began. Even after his involvement in most of Marvel’s biggest properties and essentially earning them millions, he was never paid or credited nearly the amount he was due.
Perhaps it’s slightly ironic that Planetary was published by WildStorm, because by the time the series was ongoing, DC owned the company. Then again, Planetary is one of the series that highlighted the best of WildStorm. Lack of restricting editorial and creative interference (as far as we know) made Planetary and many other series published by the same imprint what they were. Since we can agree by this point that the Planetary team is really just a trio of readers doing their part in bringing out the stories and appreciating them for what they are, The Four makes sense as a censoring force interested in monotony, not quite seeing what all those strange things truly represent.
Does this analysis of the Planetary team as readers ring true to you or do you think they function as more than that?
CM: You mention that the Four and their role in the overall narrative of Planetary grows as the series continues. I think the same can be said of the Planetary team itself. The purpose of Planetary is very clear in the series first issue, to observe and record wonders. That makes for an apt metaphor for readers. They search through comics, books, films, etc. in order to find fantastical stories and new creations. Yet they are not involved with the process. They don’t create their own wonders or become involved with the work of others, besides consuming.
Planetary stops consuming and starts acting in a big way in Planetary #6. They don’t arrive at Four Voyagers Plaza to discover the wonders inside. They go there to murder someone. That’s very involved. It may not be a nuanced response, but it’s a response, nonetheless. It marks the beginning of their conversion from observers (readers) to actors (artists). This issue fits nicely as the ending of the first of four volumes of Planetary because it reveals the upcoming changes of the team and the comic itself.
Even at the end of the first issue, there is a hint of their role changing. When Elijah says “It’s a strange world”, Jakita responds “Let’s keep it that way.” That is not the voice of a passive observer, but of a passionate fan, someone ready to get involved. That does not happen right away though. Most of the stories we’ve discussed so far involve the team watching a problem resolve itself. They are, at best, secondary to the plots of their adventures thus far. This is the point when that slowly begins to change, as Ellis and Cassaday conclude the series first volume.
Planetary starts as a story about the power of art and storytelling, but its protagonists are not always heroes; they have to grow past the role of observer in order to become actors within their world. This is the moment when the evolution truly begins. They have been exposed to wonders all along, but now they are forced to recognize that those wonders cannot come to exist or continue to exist without guardianship. Stories and art require protectors.
As they wander through Four Voyagers Plaza, Elijah Snow and Jakita Wagner recognize this. They see wonders and want to share them. Looking on a massive portrait of the universe, they recognize that this is a goal worth fighting for.
-One very good way you can get more out of this particular Planetary issue is by picking up Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe. It not only goes over the bad treatment of Jack Kirby, which we referred to extensively in this analysis, but also Marvel’s relevance to the industry, the importance of its rivalry with DC Comics, and the company’s more editorially-controlled, less creatively-controlled eras.
-One of William Leather’s last pieces of dialogue in this issue is, “Who knows the secret history of Elijah Snow?” While this is a plot thread that continues throughout the rest of the series, it has some relevance to other century babies as well. Jenny Sparks: The Secret History of The Authority by Mark Millar and John McCrea goes over her entire lifetime.
-It’s hard to rank the awesome visual concepts Cassaday uses, but depicting the film of The Four on their Artemis mission as a film strip must be in the top 15 at least. Cassaday and Ellis are not only using Planetary to talk about stories in general, but also comics. This is an example of something the medium can do that others can’t.
– The tower in Four Voyagers Plaza is an obvious allusion to the Fantastic Four’s headquarters in Four Freedoms Plaza. It’s also wonderfully portrayed by Cassaday as a symbol of corporate power that looms over everything around it. Its peak is first shown as being slightly higher than the rest of the New York City skyline including the still standing Twin Towers (the issue was released in 1999) and breaking the panel border. Beside it, the greatest monuments in the greatest city in the world seem small. It’s an ominous image that clearly characterizes The Four before they even appear.
– The inclusion of the Subterrans is another allusion to Fantastic Four #1, creating an obvious homage to the moloids, minions of the Mole Man and the very first villain to appear in the pages of Fantastic Four.
– During the film reel in the middle of the issue, the image of the snowflake shifts from the light appearance presented before to a much darker blood red opposite. It is this inversion of the snowflake image that transforms The Four into the monsters they become, while the Planetary team has only encountered its beautiful opposite. Although it won’t become clear until later, this is far from the only parallel between The Four and Planetary.