Major spoilers for the series, and this issue in particular.
More than ten years later, the series that got me to write my book on superheroes comes to a close with its 27th issue. The series began very much in the debt of the X-Files: the investigators look into the "freak of the week" which is culled from various pop culture while revealing an overarching conspiracy. It took so long to come to a conclusion that X-Files knock-off Fringe appeared, and became successful, in part because a chunk of the viewing audience was simply too young to remember the X-Files.
A third of my life passed between the first and twenty-seventh issues, which makes it very hard to review. People bitched about the long wait between issues, but I think the worst effect was that I can only guess what my 20 year old self would have thought about this issue.
At 20 I wanted good ideas to write about primarily, and the Planetary delivered. I was interested in how a work of pop culture incorporates, revises, and attempts to ultimately transcend its influences. Planetary put that theme front and center. The best example of this was issue 10, which showed how the Four (analogues for The Fantastic Four, but evil, and the main antagonists) destroyed three beings that could have been so valuable to earth -- beings who were analogues of Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Green Lantern. Put that with the first issue in which analogues of pulp novel heroes -- The Shadow, Doc Savage, Tarzan, Fu-Manchu, G-8 -- get into a battle with a group of creatures that are clear analogues to the classic Justice League of America. The Pulps battle their comic book successors, just as the Silver Age of comics kills the Golden Age of comics, in order to supersede them. I argued in my book that Planetary made this battle between creators for imaginative supremacy into the plot of the story in order to establish itself as the herald of a new age -- because of course ultimately they would take down The Four just as the Four took down the Golden Age and the Golden Age decimated the pulps.
Planetary was great because of all the things we got to see along the way especially in the first 14 issues: Godzilla monsters, Hong Kong Ghost Cops, Vertigo comics, 50s B movies, Bond, Sherlock Holmes teamed up with Dracula and the Invisible Man, and the X-Files. It was fun getting to see Ellis and Cassaday riff on all these things, and organize them as a critic might: William Leather (The Johnny Storm analogue) was the son of the Lone Ranger, if I am remembering this correctly.
In the back half of the series, after the first major 2 year hiatus, the series had to head for a conclusion, had to begin to wrap up the overarching plot. Analogues were still there, but they were less important - -partly because it felt like Ellis was just sort of done with this thing and wanted it over. There was a ton of build of to the reveal of Jacob Green (the Thing analogue), for instance, but the reveal was pretty anti-climatic -- after many years of hearing about how evil and terrifying he is we see him in full sunlight, with none of our characters anywhere near him. And just like that he is blown up remotely without costing our guys hardly anything. In the end the Four went the same way just sort of getting their asses kicked pretty quickly, at no cost. Ellis has a point here about how it was never really about them, how they are just small things in the nature of the universe of the series. It is a nice point, drawing our attention back to those one off issues from the first half of the series and enjoying the journey more than the destination, but it does not make for satisfying storytelling. You can't spend huge amounts of time building something up and then just have it be no big thing, unless you have a really good plan for a left turn (e.g. Bill in Kill Bill turns out to be a very different kind of threat: the threat of forgetting about revenge and living happily ever after).
After 10 years I care less for ideas and themes, and more for the ability to deliver a good story. From its first issue Planetary had a bit of trouble with story just in terms of structure: a lot of the time, like Hellboy, the characters would stand around while something happened in front of them, or hear a story (like Doc Brass's story in the first issue) and then be done. The Planetary could be like that hanging Scrabble tile that you could use as part of the seven letter word you were building -- you need the letter but the letter is not the word. Ellis was always interested in ideas first, and because the ideas were good it was not so much of a problem. But when he had to wrap up the story, had to have his main characters be MAIN CHARACTERS he runs into trouble. He is just not interested. It is very telling that interviewers have gone to him for a statement now that the series has come to an end, and all he can say by way of getting excited is "it reminded me of a bad time, and I am glad to have it behind me." In issue 26 he even has Snow say something to that effect.
So here we are with 27, which is frankly a pretty bad story. Three panels showing us through news broadcasts and a conference that the Planetary have changed the world, followed by a long science lecture, and a mostly tension free experiment, followed by a happy ending, with no cost.
I am going to edit the text of the issue into something slightly different, and people are going to say I am being unfair, but I think there is something to the exercise. Here it is:
"He raised a non-physics bubble around himself. He was a natural description-theory engine; inside that bubble he could select what physics could actually do. He could slow down time. I saw his descriptor effect the second before he vanished. ... You cant go back in time beyond the point the where the time machine was switched on. If you're in the future and you've got a time machine, and you're interested in history what's the first thing you'd go look at? Dinosaurs? The Crucifixion? The Great Flood? You can't. Because the farthest you can go is the point where the first time machine was switched on. You would go look at that. You and everybody else. Everyone from the entirety of future history arriving at once, the second after you flipped the switch. Therefore the whole of the future can be said to have happened at once. And you can't change it because it already happened. That's planetary apocalypse condition. What's the point of anything if it's all already happened? It's Schrodinger's cat writ large. The future currently exists as a mass of probability waves, collapsing into choices and events one at a time as we move forward. Turning on a time machine collapses them all at once. An infinite number of dead cats all arriving on your doorstep at once. It's a loop of light, and moving along the loop moves you along in time. (We're all living on two dimensional planes of of information. The fact that we live and breathe is a side effect of the universe.) There should be Chernikov radiation coming off of the surface of the descriptor bubble. In order for the closed loop of light to do what it's got to do, it needs a massive amount of power. If the bubble is still up there's going to be something called quantum foam around it, the outward sign that something weird and disfiguring is happening to the fabric of reality. If we can visualize that it is going to look like 800 tornadoes in a box. Those vortices create vacuums that give off energy -- massive power from nothing. Supermassive Frame Dragging: big rotational objects pull the fabric of spacetime around with them. Frame Dragging effects time and objects. So we create a closed loop of light, make it incredibly powerful and it will do the same thing only locally -- supermassive frame dragging. These extend down into the quantum foam and draw off the energy we need to power the machine."
It's not that I don't enjoy the hell out of some mad-science / gorgeous-nonsense but a little bit goes a long way: this is a lot of undigested material, like an essay in comic book form. Drums even illustrates his lectures -- not too helpfully I thought -- with a magic pen writing on air, but it was still not so far removed from just a powerpoint lecture.
Plok wrote recently about how a lot of storytellers hit the beats of a story pretty mechanically. There are worse things -- Superman Returns failed to hit some beats AT ALL -- but Ellis seems to fall into exactly the trap Plok describes. Everyone has to learn something and so Elijah learns some science stuff from Drums ("I read your damn books!") and Drums learns to bark orders like Elijah ("You're starting to sound like me, Drums") all because that is what you have to do in the last issue of something. The real image of this issue is Jakita: she is feels useless because she doesn't have anyone to hit in this utopia of mad science. It feels to me like Ellis failed to give her anything at all to do in the first draft of this script, then writes the problem into the script as her discussion with Elijah (resolved in her future self telling her (not showing her) everything is going to be fine). But then he still wants her to have something to do visually (since a lot of the "action" in this issue is pretty hard to make visual, such as "putting more power to the pulse lamps"), so she gets to leap into action and GRAB A LAMP like a monkey.
And then there are the really pointless beats: one of the medical team telling Jakita DURING THE RESCUE "we've never had so much prep time for emergency treatment in out lives but it'll still be touch and go" in response to her "you know what to do, you're all briefed on his injuries." Why, you know ON EARTH, would they be having this conversation NOW except for the fact that Ellis needs to put some exposition in and he needs it in conflict form to jazz the scene up because there is not a heck of a lot going on here; it reminds me of nothing more than the Simpsons moment when the family goes to the library and Homer bemoans having to go as soon as they enter and Marge says "Why do you always wait till we arrive somewhere to complain" (or something -- Scott, help me out here).
And the "required" beats just keep on coming. One page of news broadcasts to telling, not showing, how the world has changed: on the one had this is lazy writing, but on the other hand I can understand why you would just allude to this -- it would take a bunch more issues to show how the world was different; and again, Ellis is just THROUGH with this now: all he can to is point ahead, because he does not want to write anymore. We get cameos of Hark and Doc Brass to bring things full circle (remember when we thought maybe Doc Brass would become an antagonist?). We have the recap of the fictional survivor plot from issue 9, and Elijah's dismissal of that whole storyline ("We never found out what happened to the person they brought back" -"Probably never will"): again, I get that maybe you don't want to explain EVERYTHING (sometimes mysteries are just better as mysteries) but you also don't want to feel Ellis's exhaustion with this whole thing -- he just does not want to write this book anymore and has no interest in following up on one of the most interesting and ominous things he introduced even a little bit.
There is the pointless callback of "It's a strange world. Did you think for a minute that I wasn't going to keep it that way" -- I am not at all clear HOW is he keeping it that way, except I guess it is strange to Drums because Elijah did not give him enough information to understand what is happening when the "future" arrives. (Snow has always been Ellis's stand in character, and here we see they are alike -- they keep the tension up by just keeping key information to themselves in the cheapest way).
And worst of all -- the doctor in one of the final pages saying of Ambrose "No. No, that's it. That's all we can do." I get that TECHNICALLY this is ambiguous but I cannot see why anyone with any sense would say something so ambiguous in front of friends worried about their friend dying -- except for the fact that the happy ending is forgone conclusion, which lacks tension: so Ellis goes for the cheapest kind of tension, one notch above the bait and switch of horror movies where you think the character is in trouble and it turns out to be the cat in the cupboard or something equally lame.
This is what my 30 year old self things of this issue. But I thought it would be nice to see if I could think back to what I would have said at 20. I am not sure I would have wholly loved the issue but I would have had some good things to say about it. I would have said that Ellis has always been kind of amazing with this book in terms of tropes of past and future. There are those I have already mentioned above about the Pulps vs the Golden Age vs the Silver Age, but there are others, particularly an issue in which Snow visits a woman who gives this whole trippy lecture about how drugs come from plants that are nourished by the dead, so that we are seeing visions inspired by the dead, literally eating and incorporating our precursors. He does not fail to deliver an equally, even more powerful image here -- because no one can go further back in time than when the time machine was switched on all of future history will come back to see it the moment you flip the switch: the end of all history essentially. The twist is that only future versions of the Planetary arrive, all of them intact, and the only difference between them and the current team slight changes in dress and hair. In my book I argued that Ellis was organizing all past comic book history to set up the fight between the Four and the Planetary that the Planetary would WIN establishing themselves as the future of the genre. That pretty much literally happens here: there is NO FUTURE BUT THEM. In the entirety of future time they are the only ones to have this technology -- they never share it, and no one else ever duplicates it. If they did --then where are they? The whole of Drums' discussion of the future collapsing is meaningless if this is not how we are to read this scene.
There was a time many years ago when noticing as Jog does the Four as the Comics Company metaphor (the people who rape and profit from a naturally imaginative world where people who can do amazing things should be able to control their own destiny); and noticing Ellis' mean streak (I did not appreciate what a sentimental guy he was back then) I imagined he might end Planetary with the Four winning. He is after all writing X-Men nearly ten years after he attacked Morrison for writing X-Men instead of creator owned stuff with the line "sometimes your friends fuck ugly girls." It feels like the corporate side is doing pretty well. Looking at the ending we did get I notice that the split second we get the Fourth Man back on the Planetary Team we get a vision of nothing but the Four of them on and on through all of future time, having shared the time travel technology with absolutely no one. It is probably over-reaching to say this, and even more over-reaching to claim that they also snuffed out anyone else coming up with this time travel tech at all points in all future -- but then where IS everyone else when the time machine is switched on? This issue could have ended with a big fold out tableau along the lines of the cover except with new stuff -- a vision off the amazing new world of new things that have opened up because of the Planetary, but it does not. "A long long future lies ahead of us all. It's taken a long time to get here but you and me and her and him -- we're just getting started." Ellis figures his 10 year Planetary run as prelude -- but prelude to nothing but more Planetary adventures, adventures we will never get to see. It is a new kind of Four that dominates all future time.
It is a strange world, and Ellis did keep it that way, but I am not sure he intended to keep it strange in THIS way.