This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on December 24, 2015.
Ray Sonne: So, now that the relevant bit of what made Elijah Snow start The Planetary Guide is all said and done last chapter, Ellis and Cassaday move onto closing up the gap where readers wondered how Dowling got his hands on Elijah’s brain. In Planetary #14, Elijah visits a scientist friend of his who shows him a radioactive stick which, when struck on the ground, turns into a steampunk-styled hammer. Obviously, this hammer is in reference to Thor of the Marvel 616 Universe hammer and its discovery has Elijah fall down a path to finding the world it came from, now used as a weapons warehouse for The Four.
The artifacts collected from this world, and presumably many others, stand above the rotting skeletons who are piled on the ground like a crooked layer of soil. Several recognizable homages from John Cassaday, including alternate versions of Captain America’s shield and Hawkeye’s bow and arrow, signify the world as Planetary-universe version of the Marvel 616 universe. Alternate versions of Marvel heroes probably lived there, but now they are the previously mentioned skeletons.
The Four killed off the entire planet in order to utilize the planet. The reveal is kind of cold and not at all surprising, but a massacre is a massacre so Elijah brings the rest of the Planetary crew, including their fourth member, Ambrose, who dresses just like Elijah, to fight The Four.
Planetary #14 feels more like a filler than some of its predecessors. Not much happens in it other than the inclusion of some details that seem required in order to understand Elijah’s, and probably The Four’s, arc. There are some typically interesting Warren Ellis bits (you don’t realize that invisible people, due to how light works, probably shouldn’t have the ability to see while they’re invisible until he points out a solution) and some great work from Laura DePuy, who effectively sets the mood every panel.
Chase, do you think The Four killing off a world that they recognizably belong to makes them seem more evil? Less? Also, what do you think you gain from Elijah’s character in this issue?
Chase Magnett: I think the answer to both of those questions is linked. While what we see in this issue reinforces the portrayals of both The Four and Elijah Snow, neither has anything truly added to it. Everything about these characters is something we’ve discussed before in this series of columns.
Starting with The Four, what they have done is truly monstrous, but was there any doubt that this group was filled with amoral monsters? When we looked at Planetary #10, we discussed how they had murdered analogs of Superman as a child, Wonder Woman as she departed on her ambassadorial mission, and Green Lantern Abin Sur before he could pass on his legacy. That’s three of the brightest heroic legacies in superhero comics all extinguished in their purest form. If you don’t hate The Four after that, then I doubt a pile of bones is going to do much more.
Conceptually a murdered planet used as a weapons storage facility is fantastic, one of those ideas that makes Ellis such a hot commodity to this day in comics. The manner in which Cassaday make the rows and columns of weapons seem endless, like a spreadsheet from hell, gives an excellent sense of the enormous death on display. And, as you mentioned, DePuy’s colors with the blank skies and pale grey bones really makes that scene chilling. But beyond being an interesting idea, it doesn’t add anything to The Four besides making it clear that the scale they operate on is absolute.
Elijah Snow is the same Elijah Snow we have know throughout the first 13 issues of Planetary as well. His grit and determination is there, and he’s the fully composed leader we were introduced to in Planetary #12. Ellis and Cassaday are making it clear that even with the memory blockers in place, Snow never stopped being Snow. His attitude never changed. That’s something that was established just last issue in Planetary #13 when we see him in his early 20’s running about Europe.
Planetary #14 is a flashback sequence and reads like one in that it exists to provide exposition. The comparisons between The Four and Fantastic Four are better established with the exploration of Kim Suskind’s powers, but this is primarily about reestablishing the ongoing conflict at the heart of Planetary. Ray, is there something I’m missing, some subtle critique, or is this really the most plot-heavy, idea light issue of Planetary?
Sonne: Unless Ellis and Cassaday are trying to make a point about average Marvel comics, I don’t quite see it. Despite having many jobs on their resume from that company, we know at least one of them is not overly fond of the superhero comics Marvel churns out. This issue doesn’t read like a Marvel parody, however. If the creators intended that, one would think that we would see more of Planetary team acting chummy or, Marvel characters’ favorite past-time, fighting.
The explanation for why Kim Suskind doesn’t go blind while turning invisible also cuts across that theory. It reads way too Ellis–too nitty gritty science details, too practical–for it to represent a joke. I might associate brevity, but never shallowness with all 13 previous issues. All I come away with is the sense that something happened during the production of #14 that made it this way.
Magnett: I don’t know if it’s so much that something went awry as much as it is that this issue simply is what it is. We’ve been pretty spoiled when it comes to mining Planetary so far with tight 20 page packages each delivering loads of subtext and commentary. Here we have a flashback told as a superhero adventure, and the result feels shallow because by comparison it is.
Although this doesn’t deliver in the same manner as what we’ve come to expect, I don’t think this necessarily makes Planetary #14 a bad issue. It’s really a necessity at this climactic point in the series in which the greater plot comes into focus along with the true history of Planetary and Elijah Snow. Rather than get clever and continue to slowly lay his cards on the table, Ellis is opting to clarify exactly what happened to Elijah Snow and his team and make it clear just how powerful The Four are. There are still a few surprises left (the appearance of Jacob Green, for example), but these aren’t central to the plot or character arcs on display. While this ongoing battle will become a greater focus ahead, after Planetary #14 the series is able to resume its status quo of focusing on specific genres and periods of fiction. This exposition provides the blank slate needed to get back to what has allowed us to write so many words about Planetary.
The issue is hardly a waste even looking beyond the expository elements. Cassaday really takes the lead here with some crystalline sequences of action and grandiose presentations. Everything from the very quick beat downs of both William Leather and Kim Suskind to the abduction of the arctic Planetary base make this issue fly. I have no doubt that the ease with which he both introduces big alien objects and strange powers was one of the reasons he was put on Astonishing X-Men, which is another very enjoyable superhero tale without too much subtext.
I think Planetary #14 may be a good example of how readers have to read something on its own terms. It isn’t striving to be much more than the superhero-styled flashback that it is. If you read it like any previous issue ofPlanetary, it is a bit baffling. However, if you just take it as a necessary moment of setup and explanation focused through some Marvel-style action and adventure, then it can be a solid, if unchallenging, comic book.
– I kind of wonder how many references Cassaday pulled from the Marvel Universe to make up the weapons world and how much he just made up. I see Captain America’s shield and Hawkeye’s bow and arrow, but don’t recognize much else. Cassaday probably knows much more Marvel than I do, though.
– I’m struck by the similarity in style between the artifacts we see in this issue and the shiftship in Planetary #4. I wonder if the shiftship originated from this world and crashed just in time to avoid seeing its home massacred by The Four.
– The abduction of Planetary in this issue has to be my favorite moment in the issue. It’s three very simple panels presented in a clearly logical manner. A small tool is presented from the UFO and directed at the arctic station, then there is only an enormous crater where that station once was. A and B therefore C. It’s another great example of how overwhelmingly powerful The Four are that utilizes the comics form very well.
– The manner in which every superpowered person in the fight uses their abilities is visually creative. Kim’s invisible shields are covered in spikes and colored to be both easily perceived and transparent by DePuy. Ambrose’s reality warping abilities look scarily psychedelic when warping her form. William’s fire is as viscous and bloody as the first time it was shown in Planetary #10. If nothing else, Planetary #14 is a great example of Ellis understanding when to back off as a writer and let artists show readers, instead of telling them.