This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on December 2, 2014.
Chase Magnett: Planetary #11 begins in 1969 when the spy genre was king. It’s the year that saw the release of the sixth James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and the first hand off of the role from Sean Connery to George Lazenby. It is only a few years after the release of Ian Fleming’s final novel, Octopussy, a time when all of his work was in high demand. It’s also a time when Jim Steranko was writing and drawing Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, one of the greatest comics and spy stories of the era. This is a year when spies dominated popular culture.
So it’s no surprise that this is the year when Elijah Snow first encountered John Stone, Agent of S.T.O.R.M., an amalgamation of James Bond and Nick Fury. Storm possesses all of the signature traits of a master spy. He is handsome, suave, cool under pressure, and has all of the best gadgets. The entire first half of this issue reads like a love letter to the genre from which Stone is derived.
There is no irony or criticism present in this section of the comic. Ellis plays the action, the fantastic gadgetry, and humor all incredibly straight. In most issues of Planetary thus far, there has been some twist to the period or genre that is the subject of each issue. In this section though, John Stone is a hero of the Cold War who is every bit as cool as he would lead you to believe. Cassaday provides some panels that are strongly influenced by Steranko’s work on Nick Fury as well with bold combinations of geometric forms and a minimalist color palette. It’s clear that he is an admirer of Steranko’s work (as everyone should be) and wants to show off the artist’s influence. Everything Ellis and Cassaday provide speaks of an admiration for the stories being generated at this time.
This first half of Planetary #11 is firmly set in 1969 in the Cold War and the heyday of the spy genre, and embraces this time frame for the story. However, it is set against a second story that is set in the more ambiguously defined present day. Although Planetary #11 was first published in 2000, this sequence reads like it could occur in 2014. There’s a purposeful juxtaposition of the period from which the spy genre bloomed and gained its popularity to the now.
Ray, what do you think Ellis and Cassaday are trying to say by contrasting these two very different eras with one another?
Ray Sonne: The most recent James Bond film, Skyfall, opened in theaters in 2012. As of this writing, that was only two years ago, and the movie was a smashing success at the box office. It proved that even after almost 60 years, with plenty of bad movies in between Fleming’s first novel and today, people still wanted James Bond. The spy genre, therefore, isn’t passe. It’s not only highly influential on our culture, but remains extremely popular.
The reason why the year 2000 could feel like 2014 is because The Last Shot, the bar where Elijah and John meet, is so isolated it feels like it could be literally any year. Timelessness is a quality that is palpable not only here, but in the diner where Planetary pulls out Elijah from his self-imposed isolation. In this case, the environment could be medieval if not for the two patrons’ clothing. It’s lit by perpetually melting candles. The bored, solitary bartender keeps out of the action and doesn’t even seem to notice that John has tacked up dozens of pictures on the wall. It’s a place for John and Elijah to catch up on Elijah’s memory problems and trigger an onslaught of recollections.
I’m not convinced that this issue ever quite criticizes the spy genre. This is an important thing given that while Planetary as a series visits various kinds of stories, its core premise is a spy thriller. Planetary is a spy team, even if they refer to themselves as archaeologists. Perhaps for the sake of consistency, this is the one thing that Ellis and Cassaday must keep straight. There were spies in 1954, there were spies in 2000, and there are still spies now (even if the most recent James Bond movie indulges in criticism where Ellis and Cassaday don’t, by deconstructing James Bond as a character).
Chase, do you think it has something to do with this consistency, or genre, that had Ellis and Cassaday choose to have Elijah regain some of his memory now? Otherwise, what do you think led up to this moment of recollection?
CM: I think it’s very obvious why Elijah uncovers the secrets of his past and the fourth man on a surface level. Spy stories are all about secrets. They’re all about questions and conspiracies, mystery men and cloaked organizations. You mention that Planetary is an organization of spies as much as it is one of archaeologists. That’s true for the first ten issues of the series where everything is played as a mystery and information is scarce. Is there any better genre to bridge the climactic third act of Planetary when the series biggest mystery is revealed?
There’s something more to this than the simple connection between spies and mysteries though. One reason why Planetary can easily be associated with a spy network is that they seek to uncover mysteries. Unlike spies they are not interested in fighting a war or controlling what an enemy knows (at least not normally, The Four make an exception to this). They are interested in information though. The goal of Planetary is to learn the secret history of the world, to know as much as possible.
Information is the key and it’s the focus of this genre piece. Every issue of Planetary is about information, both its discovery and its passage. This comic digs into stories and their composition both literally and metaphorically. Every mission reveals some information about the world in which Planetary takes place. It also reveals information about our own world. When Planetary explores the ghost stories of Hong Kong, they reveal the origin of a ghost cop, but they also reveal the impact and value of Southeastern crime cinema. Ellis and Cassaday aren’t interested in their own continuity so much as they are interested in the continuity of storytelling and art itself. They are seeking to uncover the mysteries of comics, film, and modern stories themselves.
Maybe that’s part of the reason why the spy genre has remained so potent and popular even more than two decades after the conflict that spawned it has cooled. The central conceit of the spy is the act of discovery. It doesn’t rely on a certain conflict or nationality, but upon human curiosity. Whether you want to call it archaeology, spying, or something else, Planetary is about discovery. It is interested in what we know and what we can find out.
So what do you think the central mystery of the first half of Planetary says about the series and its focus on storytelling? Why is the identity of the Fourth Man so intriguing and why do we care about Elijah’s memory loss?
RS: Frankly, I don’t find the mystery of The Fourth Man to be intriguing at all. If anything, Ellis and Cassaday heavily hinted at Elijah’s position from the first issue and on. If we believed the narrative given to us initially, it opens up a lot of questions. If Elijah was such a powerful Century Baby, why would Planetary bother picking him up for the first time while he was in his 90s when they surely would have known of him earlier? Why, by the second issue, is Elijah so comfortable with treating The Drummer terribly as if he had known him for years when he supposedly only just met him? Elijah’s memory gaps have worked all up to this point in the story, creating inconsistencies in characters’ behaviors and motivations.
What the Fourth Man has served to do is work as a figure of authority, even while in the background. Since the Fourth Man funds the team, according to Jakita in Planetary #1, the team has always presumably followed his orders. Even in his absence, Elijah’s legacy kept a silent influence over Planetary’s actions. While in Planetary #10, Elijah came to understand why he had to defend the world from The Four, now he knows how he will do it. As the unchallenged leader, he can lead the team to where it needs to go.
- Cassaday’s work on this cover is a beautiful homage to the work of Jim Steranko. It’s non-traditional, engaging the reader with multiple layers of effects that all relate to the story inside. Steranko’s work was groundbreaking in the 1960’s and 70’s, and continues to be a significant influence on artists today. He is as influential to spy comics as Jack Kirby was to the superhero genre.
- The gadgets that John Stone uses when subduing the Bride reflect Cassaday playing with a classic Bond trope in a way that can only be done in comics. The Blitzen Suit, Rip Round, and Equalizer Disc are deus ex machinas, every bit as ridiculous as some of the technology used in the Bond franchise. They function in a way that would be very difficult to capture on film, but manage to work naturally on a comics page.
- This is not the first appearance of the bar known as The Last Shot. It was previously referenced in Warren Ellis’ work on a comic called Stormwatch. I believe Ray knows a thing or two about that book.
- The Sherlock Holmes cameo is so wonderfully strange in its implications. Even while entrenched in an action flick, Planetary returns to its roots of exploring strange stuff (mystery), which can be traced back to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”
- I love how action movie the flashback panels are. Of course you have to have the sexy, noirish woman going “Nevah forget meeeeee.” Of course you have to have the guidance figure being wise. Of course you have to have the villain saying something creepy. It totally works. But maybe Ellis and Cassaday are parodying it just a little bit.