This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on November 18, 2014.
Ray Sonne: Time to be afraid. Time to be very afraid.
Warren Ellis and John Cassaday turn their critical eyes back to the superhero genre in Planetary #10 and there is a lot to deal with in this issue. We open to a page of three objects: first, a red cloth with a large silver crest; second, a blue lantern with a sci-fi aesthetic; third, two bullet-shaped, gold items that turn out to be bracelets. A baby sent off from a dying planet, carrying his peoples’ legacy with him. An initiation process where a man is brought into a police force that fights for a “finer world.” A princess that leaves her mother to broker peace between their all-female civilization and our larger society.
Three stories of hope. Three very, very recognizable tales of heroes that bring betterness and protection to our world.
And Randall Dowling’s crew kills that hope.
What perhaps makes this issue so heartbreaking is that Ellis does not write these Superman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman pastiches in a cynical light. His usual dark flair is expressed via how these heroes are immediately wiped away. The reader experiences the familial love and emotional investment in at least the Superman and Wonder Woman characters via their parental figures and feel the loss of these individuals, since they highlight the pointlessness of their parents’ sacrifices.
With that in mind, I noticed that even in these retellings of older stories there was some modern social progression. The warrior element of Wonder Woman’s character is one of the most explored in modern day comics; some argue that this is unfortunate as it overshadows her more feminine, loving attributes. In Planetary #10, however, Ellis and Cassaday focus on the connection she has with her mother and Amazon sisters. The Superman retelling also places a little more agency on what seems to be the female parent when it comes to acquiring the baby’s ship; and this is several years before the publishing of Mark Waid and Francis Leinil Yu’sSuperman: Birthright, which is almost uniquely progressive when it comes to giving Lara Van El responsibility in her son’s departure from the dying Krypton.
The modernity doesn’t end there, as these figures’ deaths take in the consideration about superheroes that many of Ellis’ Wildstorm works–particularly The Authority–explored.
Chase, can you outline why these individuals had to die, outside of the context of Planetary’s plot?
Chase Magnett: During our discussion of Planetary #6, where Randall Dowling and his compatriots are first introduced, I raised the idea that the Four are representative of a threat to comics: corporate ownership. I think that idea follows here and explains why these analogs for three of the best known superheroes of all time are all brutally murdered at the very point of their origin.
The brutality of this issue is key. Ellis and Cassaday craft their origins with care and love. The key elements that have allowed these three characters to resonate and remain iconic for more than seventy years are present. Superman is a symbol for hope and a better way of life. Green Lantern represents an unstoppable force for justice, empowered by the will of a good man. Wonder Woman stands for a better tomorrow guarded by someone who society will shame. These mini-origins border on the beautiful simplicity found in the very first page of All-Star Superman. They’re not quite there, but they’re not far off either.
The wonder of these origins make the destruction of the characters all the more terrible. In only three page, Dowling and his cronies are shown to have extinguished all of these bigger than life ideas.
When you consider where these ideas originated, Superman with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Green Lantern with Martin Nodell ,and Wonder Woman with William Moulton Marston. Each of these people created a great story and concept that they would never actually own. Writers and artists, the lifeblood of creating comics, lost control of these ideas after their first issue was published.
Focusing on Superman, Action Comics #1 features a socialist man of the people who fights to correct injustice. That’s not very different from the best incarnations of the character that have existed since like in the aforementioned All-Star Superman and Birthright. However, the property has always existed and been managed to make money. Marketing and sales have been put before whatever ideals Siegel and Shuster hoped to convey in their original story. Their idea was never free to grow naturally and of its own accord.
This issue was published about two years after Wildstorm was acquired by DC Comics. Do you think there is a specific reason that Ellis and Cassaday chose to portray icons from only that company in this issue? And do you think they opted out of including Batman, the third member of the company’s “trinity” for a specific reason?
RS: What separates DC heroes from characters of any other brand is their legacies. They are more icons than people, representing hope in children, in a better tomorrow, in the best parts of humanity. All three are part of our modern mythology and can even fly, which puts them in a firm state of divinity and immortality.
Batman isn’t quite like that. He’s dark, he’s brooding, he has tragic roots, and he’s stuck on the ground unless he invests in a piece of technology such as a Batplane to help him out. Whereas Green Lantern’s technology, the ring and the lantern, are worn by the character or otherwise represent the hero’s inner strength, Batman’s tools are just kind of tools. In comparison to his colleagues in the Justice League, he’s not so Godlike.
The Planetary/Batman crossover deserves an analysis of its own, but to summarize: Ellis and Cassaday have a very different view of Batman than they do of Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, or any heroes similar to them. From how the three are treated in the JLA/Planetary crossover (art by Jerry Ordway), one might almost think that Ellis actually has an interest in Batman that he doesn’t in most superheroes. That could possibly have to do with Ellis’ investment in sci-fi and spy stories, which are genres where Batman fits? Whatever the case, he wouldn’t fit here because Dowling isn’t proving himself against a very trained individual who also happens to have a lot of money to spend on fighting gear. Dowling’s making it clear that he can strike down power beyond human capability.
That’s likely the main reason why there are no Marvel pastiches to be found in this issue. Green Lantern starts off human, but is enhanced by the Guardians’ technology. The Guardians are many things and human is not one of them. Wonder Woman for much of her existence was human (demi-goddess now, thanks to the New 52), but once again enhanced by the Amazons’ advanced technology, fighting techniques, and ability to peacefully govern. This makes them different from your usual Man’s World person. Then Superman is just an alien.
Captain America? Human on super steroids, created by the military.
Iron Man? Human genius (among the many that exist in the Marvel universe).
Spider-Man? Human loser that got himself a radioactive accident, by a spider in a science lab.
Yes, like Green Lantern and Wonder Woman, Marvel heroes are enhanced humans. But even the cause of the Marvel heroes’ enhancements are human inventions. The birth of the Marvel Universe as we know it today happened after the publisher thrived from the late 1940s-early 1950s Love Glut, a high-selling point for romance comics, which were a genre that concentrated primarily on the characters’ internal emotions and external relationships. Very human stuff.
Dowling’s frightening because he is not his source material, which is Reed Richards aka Mr. Fantastic. Reed Richards is an arrogant genius, who is tethered to humanity via his family. Without them, he can very easily become Dowling (an idea that is followed up a few years after Planetary in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe line. Ultimate Reed Richards is just plain evil). He is something that breaks through the humanity of the Marvel Universe and seeks to conquer it.
So, Chase, in a world where Planetary apparently exists where there are both DC and Marvel elements where do you think the team fits in on a morality level? Do you still think they’re simple bystanders even as Elijah Snow says:
CM: I’m reminded of the title of Howard Zinn’s memoir: You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train. Planetary is introduced as an organization that observes and records; they are archaeologists. Yet their travels and journeys bring them across living history. Whether it’s on Island Zero or in the alleys of London, they are not just digging up the old, but discovering the new. In that process of discovery they become aware of current issues, the most obvious being Randall Dowling’s tyrannical suppression of information and power.
We discussed this before in the context of Planetary #6 where Elijah Snow first acknowledges that he wants to act and respond to what he sees. This issue builds the argument for that decision. Planetary is part of an active and evolving universe. They cannot separate themselves from the world of which they are so clearly a part. Given the ability to act, can they not?
The destruction of these symbols of hope reveals what happens when they do not. Randall Dowling has acted with immunity. He and his cohorts have destroyed analogs for three of the greatest icons in Western culture. You mention that all three of these characters have come to represent more than simple enhanced humans. They provide a higher standard for humanity to which humanity can aspire. That is the depth of Dowling’s depravity and faced with that, Elijah, Jakita, and The Drummer must act. It’s an argument against indifference or neutrality. Planetary is in a unique position to help improve the world. Ellis and Cassaday construct the danger they face within the terms of superheroes to compose the argument in big, operatic terms.
That argument can be applied beyond those grandiose terms. It’s something that functions within the context of families, cities, states, and even in a global perspective. However, I think it’s important to make the connection between the heroes featured in this issue and the moral message. The creators of these characters were mistreated by the companies that employed them. At the time there was little recourse, but now creators and comics buyers hold more power and have a greater awareness of these situations. Ellis and Cassaday want to make a statement that those in the comics community have a moral obligation to act when given the opportunity.
We’ve mainly discussed Planetary regarding its relationship with fiction. Here, it widens its scope. Ellis and Cassaday are continuing their dissection of fiction, but along the way they have been compelled to say something about the broader world in which they live. Planetary #10 makes it clear that indifference is not an acceptable response in the face of evil.
-”Be the best kind of policeman; the one who works […] for finer worlds.” See Stormwatch: A Finer World for Ellis’ introduction of this phrase into the Wildstorm Universe and The Authority for a team that acts upon that mission statement. It’s perhaps one of Ellis’ sneakiest moral warnings because that phrase is something to be afraid of based on the type of characters that pledge themselves to it. While the pastiche Green Lantern Corps shown in this issue seems to be on the “good” side of things, it should be noted that the phrase indicates that they are more likely of a mixed morality.
-”Get hold of that Henry Bendix in military intelligence. Tell him I’ve got an alien badge of office that is also a mind-powered weapon. I believe he was in the market for something like this.” Once again, check out Stormwatch: A Finer World to see where the lantern ends up
– On page 17, there is a one page spread of the Wonder Woman analog with magical weapons and images forming from her and breaking the panel boundaries. Cassaday appears to be alluding to Promethea by Alan Moore and J.H. Williams III here. Promethea is another Wonder Woman analog, but one that was primarily controlled by its creators.
– In this article I refer to Martin Nodell who did create the golden age Green Lantern in All-American Comics #16. However, it’s important to note that the character was significantly reimagined in Showcase #22 by Gil Kane and John Broome. This is where all of the science fiction elements were added and is the basis for the Green Lantern mythos known by most people today. In my opinion, Kane and Broome are more deserving of credit for inspiring this issue than Nodell.
– Technically, William Moulton Marston had an ongoing agreement with the entity that we now know as DC Comics that if they were to ever fail to publish a comic featuring Wonder Woman, then ownership would revert to his estate. That never occurred, so Marston never effectively had control of the character, although he potentially could have. That agreement has expired after his death.
– With this we will also be switching to our bi-weekly schedule as reprinted columns give way to brand new materials. Come back in two weeks when we look at the spy-driven, Cold War antics in Planetary #11.