Weird Science: Planetary #27

November 18th, 2009

Almost three years since the last issue, Warren Ellis has delivered the final book of Planetary.  It's an odd and problematic epilogue, but a welcome one nonetheless.

The premise seemed simple enough on the surface.  All that stuff in the superhero comics?  It really happened.  Four scientists did venture into space and return with supernatural powers.  A dying planet did send its last son to earth.  Sherlock Holmes was real, and there's an island off the coast of Japan where giant monsters live.

Of course, none of it happened the way we've been led to believe.  Spoilers ahead.

The Four Voyagers traveled into a rift in the spacetime continuum as part of a top-secret Cold War project predating Apollo.  Their aim?  To sell this world out to the rulers of another in exchange for power.  They incinerate the nascent alien on his arrival to earth.  They shoot down a lantern-bearing cosmic policeman and eviscerate him for his secrets.

There's a layer of marvel and wonder to the world that most people don't see, one that the Four plunder for their own benefit.

Acting in opposition is the Planetary organization, led by a man named Elijah Snow.  Their motto is, "it's a strange world.  Let's keep it that way."  The primary arc of the series involves Snow recovering from a self-imposed exile to stop the Four.

The dark mirror of comic-book history that Ellis sets up allows for some truly remarkable stories.  The series is both brooding and grandiose.  We think we know these stories.  They're archetypes in our culture, but Ellis turns them into something else.

Saviors are killed before they come into their potential.  World-changing events are covered up or stymied.  There's a quiet war on, though most of the world is unaware of the brinkmanship.  The rare victories that Snow and his people achieve are often somber and tinged with the regret that they couldn't  have done more.

Snow is the last of his kind, a group of immortals born on January 1, 1900.  He's a lonely man who surrounds himself with the children of these people, as well as the victims of the Four's experiments.  In one issue, he's given a drug that allows him to see the afterlife, and he realizes that there is no place there for him.

Elijah Snow is a created thing, not a human being.  He's described as a "self-defense mechanism for the universe," and his mission is to save the strange and lonely things that live in the uncharted corners of the world.

Jakita Wagner is the daughter of this world's Tarzan, destined to live for centuries.  The Drummer is a savant who has a psychic connection to the very idea of information, and who can manipulate it at will.  Ambrose Chase is a child of test subjects from a 1950's atrocity known as Science City Zero.

Ambrose is lost during Elijah's exile.  Once Elijah returns, he's consumed with two desires: to stop the Four, and to find Ambrose.  By the end of issue #26, he's defeated the Four, as much by guile as by force.  Many of the series' loose ends have been deftly tied up, and after ten years of production delays, personal setbacks,  and sporadic scheduling, we felt as if we'd reached the end.

Except for Ambrose.

Ambrose could warp reality.  When Planetary invaded an installation set up by the Four to retrieve artifacts from a fictional universe (still with me?), Ambrose was shot and seemingly killed.  However, reality was stretched six ways to Sunday, and one of the cardinal rules of comics kicked in: we never saw the body.

That's what this issue is about.  It ties up the last big loose end, which gives it an odd singularity of purpose.  Unfortunately, it also feels a bit tacked-on.

Don't get me wrong.  There's no way Snow (or by extension, Ellis) could have left Ambrose out in the cold.  Narratively, this had to happen, and we all wanted it to.

It's just that the timing is odd.  Issue 26 was the climax, and the big victory.  Everything that happened over the course of the series suddenly fit into place, and it felt like we were back home.

This issue is more of a coda than an epilogue, but a welcome one nonetheless.

Suffice it to say that Ambrose is rescued, and the team reunited.  Time travel is involved, and as is typical for the series, there's a great deal of odd but plausible super-science at work.  Ellis knows that this is an adult readership, and he knows that he can't just make do with pulling time travel out of a magic box.

After all, this was a series that proved the universe is "a theoretical snowflake existing in 196,833 dimensional space."

So, most of the first half of the issue is spent discussing the theory and means of finding Ambrose.  To stave off death, he'd enclosed himself in a frozen bubble of time, and Snow and his people have to find a way of breaking into it.  What follows is a wordy but surprisingly engaging discussion on how time travel could feasibly be done.

They return to the laboratory where Ambrose was lost, and the Drummer sets up his machinery.  Here, Snow and Wagner discuss one of the series' most glaring loose ends.

Planetary #27

The ship the Four had sent out into fiction had returned with a passenger.  He was only seen once, in shadow.  He asked why he'd been invented, to which the director of the project replied:

We're in a strange relationship with our fiction, you see.  Sometimes we fear it's taking us over.  Sometimes we beg to be taken over by it…sometimes we want to see what's inside it.  That was the initial project profile.  To create a fictional world, and then to land on it.  A sample return mission.  To bring back someone from a fictional reality.

There's been a great deal of speculation as to who the passenger (referred to as the Fictionaut) was.  Some speculate that it was Ambrose himself.  There's merit to that interpretation, as the project director seemed to be waiting for Ambrose when he appeared, and the Fictionaut entered reality as Ambrose left.

My take?  I think it was Ellis breaking the Fourth Wall for just a bit.  Planetary is an odd sort of metafiction in which we're led to accept the book as "reality," since the characters themselves are exploring fiction of their own.

Issue #9 sets up a fiction-within-fiction structure, and it would make sense that "what's inside it" would indeed be the man behind the curtain.  I'm not sure what commentary Ellis might be making in this case, but it's as good an explanation as any.

As Snow told Dowling in issue #26,

In the long run, we are all three-dimensional side-effects of a two-dimensional universe existing in a multidimensional stack.

There's a metaphor if I ever heard one.  After all, doesn't that describe the very medium of the comic book itself?  There's a hint of self-awareness in Elijah's words, as if he knows he's in fact a work of fiction.  In fact, it's the job of a fictional protagonist to "keep the world strange."

If so, what does that make the Fictionaut?

These are the kinds of questions Planetary makes us ask.  There have been other series that act as commentary on the whole genre of comics, such as Moore's Watchmen.  However, the Watchmen felt like it was written to condemn and parody its parent medium, even as it told a superhero story couched squarely in that medium.  Moore's book was about making superheroes obsolete because they were supposed to be, and perhaps they deserved to be.

In Moore's world (as with Grant Morrison's run on the X-Men), the whole idea was shown for how incredibly stupid it was.  A bunch of oddballs, sometimes with godlike powers, have nothing better to do but dress up in tights and beat each other up, over and over again, while utterly failing to change the world for the better.

Ellis takes a different tack.  In Planetary, the superheroes aren't obsolete because they've failed, they're obsolete because they've suceeded.

Sure, the Four have killed, and on a massive scale, but according to Snow, their greatest sin is in what they've kept from mankind.  Elijah stops them so that he can take those things and use them to make the world a better place.

(I'll sidestep the possibly fascist implications of a group of privileged superhumans deciding "what's best" for the little people.  Ellis did a great job of exploring that in the Authority.)

Now that Snow's done that, what's left?  Just before the rescue operation, Jakita remarks to Snow that she's bored.  She was the muscle of the group, and Snow observes that she doesn't have anyone to hit.  She responds,

Do you really think I'm that shallow?  Oh my God, I'm that shallow.  It's just…it feels like all the adventure is over, you know?  Like we won the war, and I've been at war so long that I don't know how to do peace.

This is what happens when superheroes retire.  It's not fun, and it's not entirely satisfying, but it makes sense.  During the rescue, there are glimpses into the future (it involves frame-dragging, wave function collapse and quantum foam), and she's still there, so we can take heart that she's found a purpose in life.  As Snow remarks, she's got "a lot of years to learn how."

In the end, they bring Ambrose back, with a cute aside between him and Snow.

"How long's it been?"

"The Drummer's voice broke."

"Forty years?"

"Smart ass.  Not so long.  (…) No more lost years for you and me."

In the end, Ellis leaves us knowing that there's definitely a future for these characters, but he leaves it open-ended.  For us, their story in two dimensions is over, and they can now retire into fiction.  They've earned it.

No Comments

No comments yet.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.