Monday, October 30, 2006

Planetary: A rant about story failures

In Planetary 26 we finally see Dowling, for the first time other than in a flashback, after a six year buildup. We have been teased with his weird power, some kind of mind worms ("Everyone who has ever met Dowling probably is Dowling."). We don't get to see his power at all. He scans Elijah for anything dangerous, finds nothing, and hands over all his secrets. (?!) Why he does not scan the Drummer is beyond me. * Then Elijah announces the Drummer handed him a special device that means that no information will work in this area save one kind. That was an awfully powerful magic chip Dowling forgot to scan for. Then Elijah takes a door out and the ground rumbles and the shiftship from issue 4 appears and Dowling and Kim Suskind just fall to their deaths. After six years they die off screen. We get to see their bodies later. In the first few pages of the same issue Elijah just announces that Greene and Leather are dead. All four of the Planetary's main villains die off screen.

In the last quarter of Planetary Ellis established a new theme -- Elijah realizes the Four are just not that big a deal. In the big drug trip issue Elijah learns he must have a bigger purpose than hounding these four people. So on one level the end of the Four in Planetary 26 makes sense -- if they are no big deal their deaths should be no big deal. But I think the narrative demanded a better end for the story's big bad guys, and I don't think theme is a good enough reason to go to the zoo. Planetary 26 is just lazy writing.

It's not the first time: Remember when Wonder Woman was stabbed through the spine in JLA/Planetary and then at the end she was suddenly fine, saved the day, and then the book ended? You know how she survived? I don't either and Ellis does not leave so much as a clue. John Stone had an evil magic red hand in Planetary 25. Do you know what it could do to people? -- I don't either because we never saw it in action. ** You cannot just tell the audience something is scary. You have to show them. You cannot build expectations for the arrival of Greene, then have him "arrive" in broad daylight, suddenly, a threat to no character I have spent time with, and then unceremoniously blast him into space. For that scene to work something needs to be at stake. If I am to take Greene seriously as a threat, I must see him be a threat to a character I care about. Once again, I cannot be told that he is bad news -- I need you to show me that he is bad news. Anything less is lazy writing. That is basic storytelling, and Ellis should know better and I am ticked off about it.

You can tell me I am wrong, but you better back it up with reasons or you are getting yelled at.

[* Added November 1, 2006: People are right to yell at me and tell me there is an explicit reason why Dowling does not scan the Drummer -- in the issue he says he can't because of the Drummer's powers. I should rant more accurately, but I think the point stands: if Dowling can't deal with the Drummer at all he should be smart enough not to come, or have some kind of plan, knowing that the Drummer could be concealing just about anything. My problem is not really about the Drummer it is about Dowling being phenomenally stupid when he is supposed to be the series Big Bad (as they say on Buffy). I apologize for my inaccurate and sloppy hyperbole. ]

** [Added Novemer 1, 2006: Yes, I know the claw is from another comic book like everything in the Planetary is. My point is that before issue 15 Ellis would reinvent these things and now he is just reusing them, relying on old comics to do his work for him in a way that, prior to 15, he did not.]


Geoff Klock said...

I should say that Brad Winderbaum made me read screenwriting books that made me get mad about stuff like this, so a lot of the above rant is his fault.

Anonymous said...

As a huge fan of Planetary....I was pretty underwhelmed however, in a lot of ways, reading this in an omnibus format (one of those would be lovely) will make it read better, simply because we aren't waiting six years for an epic ending, lowkey works, but not when we're waiting so long for it).

Geoff Klock said...

Marc -- thanks for posting. But no, these will still be mistakes even if you don't have to wait so long between issues.

Anonymous said...

No, you're right. it just seems like 'Planetary' became less of a priority in terms of the things Ellis' was doing. I remember reading all three trades, and being so excited about the conclusion, only to be feeling pretty underwhelmed. I wish that I could say I felt differently, but this is same feeling I got at the conclusion of the Matrix movies. Great ideas, executed questionably, and producing a wholly unsatisfying story. Luckily, Ellis is prolific enough that he'll turn out something decent in the half a dozen series he is writing to make this sting a small bit less.

David Golding said...

Dowling doesn't scan the Drummer because the Drummer affects Dowling's instruments - this is explicitly dealt with. He doesn't scan Snow again, because he's overconfident, like Gloriana Tenebrae, like all villains, really.

I imagine that Ellis thinks you should read Kirby to be scared of Ben Grimm, and read Steranko to be scared of Nick Fury wearing the Satan Claw. Regarding Dowling's power, I think Ellis thinks you should just look around at what Marvel has done to the comic industry. But, to me, this kind of empty referential posturing has always seemed to constitute Planetary.

Geoff Klock said...

David: I get that the Drummer's powers give Dowling trouble, but that's a bit like me saying "Guns can kill me so I am not going to disarm you." I see your point that he is overconfident like most villains, but this guy has been alive and powerful for quite some time, and if he is this stupid I cannot understand why. We are back to the theme issue again (the Four are not that big a deal) which, as I said, is unsatisfying.

Planetary's "referential posturing" changed after issue 14. Before that Ellis would allude to something to persuasively re-imagine it (like making the Fantastic Four into the Four). You are exactly right about Greene and Satan's Claw -- no more imagination, you are just supposed to look it up in your Marvel Handbook or whatever and be impressed.

You are also exactly right about Dowling's powers as a metaphor for the influence of the Fantastic Four. It's just that if it doesn't also work on a narrative level I am not giving it points on the metaphorical level. But that could just be me being cranky this week.

Anonymous said...

it's not my fault - It's Brett Ratner's fault. And it's your fault for seeing X-men 3 too soon after reading Robert McKee. If you want to feel better, watch Cronenberg's A History of Violence, one of the simplest and best structures I've ever seen.

Anonymous said...

Maybe issue 27 will be all flashbacks to the important moments left out of issue 26.


I haven't read this yet. Like I mentioned, I've been reading it in trades. I have the first three volumes... What do you think? Should I purposely not buy the final trade so that Planetary retains its magic for me?

Anonymous said...

I won't say you're *wrong*, but I disagree wholeheartedly with you.

You hated Sandman, didn't you? Not spelling things out to a "T" obviously bothers you :)

He doesn't scan Drums because he is unable to. Not only is Drums' natural tendency to scramble electronic devices near him mentioned throughout the series, but even Downling comments on it in issue #26.

Dowling hands over all his secrets and acts as he does obviously because he is over confident, a classic villain trapping as mentioned above. Once it appears to simply be a two-on-one confrontation with Snow, Dowling's own lust for power and hatred for Snow blinds him. As for dying off screen....I dunno...showing the ground falling out from under their feet and the huge chasm opening up under them seemed on the page to me. The other villains dying off screen? That was Snow simply playing his cards effectively. Greene isn't dead, but he is removed from the equation, as we saw. Leather isn't dead, as stated earlier, but Dowling doesn't KNOW that. All Dowling knows is that Leather was captured by Snow.

To me, 26 fits perfectly, as the book grows through the issues, and the story becomes more and more about Snow asserting who he is throughout, even much to the surprise of his friends and enemies.

(I won't comment on Planetary/JLA. I'm too dumb. The book just confused the hell out of me)

Am I the only one who caught the Devil's Paw/Hellboy Right Hand of Doom allegory? Much of the allegories in Planetary work best when taken with the knowledge of the sources they are drawn from. Going back to the early issues, does the first issue have as much power if we don't see it as the JLA striking out at that universe? In the second issue are we terribly concerned about the dead monsters if we don't have the parallel to draw to Godzilla and Co.? Same goes for Jacob Greene's fate. Snow makes it pretty clear they are unable to fight him straight up, and Greene effortly crushing the skulls of the indigenous people of the asteroid makes him pretty scary, to me. The fact that Snow admits they cannot take him on straight up after all the adventures we have seen him on makes it clear to me he is not one to be handled lightly. Plus, as Snow specifically says in #26, Planetary works differently. They rely on the subtlety, the subterfuge, and guile versus Dowling's attitude of applying a hammer to any situation.

Ok I'm done rambling. But I disagree. I get the feeling if you read the entire series in one sitting you wouldn't be nearly as critical. The fact that we had 6+ months between issues for several years now really makes it difficult for the book to live up to some expectations.

That said, I loved #26.

Tim from Myspace

Richard said...

A fleeting, semi-formed thought: wouldn't Snow's triumph over Dowling carry more dramatic weight if Snow had been obliged to surrender something or lose something in order to achieve victory? If the fate of the whole world is at stake, shouldn't some equivalent sacrifice be demanded in return out of basic storytelling logic?

As it stands, the master manipulator of human destiny who holds our future hostage is foiled because...Snow lures him to an ambush. Surprise!

Anonymous said...

I agree with about 90% of this. It was unquestionably anticlimactic -- in recent issues Ellis simply hasn't tried very hard, and it shows. (I like best the way you put it in comments -- that up to 14 he did something with his references; afterwards they just became an excuse to avoid doing the work himself.)

Actually, I think the only part of this I disagree with is the JLA/Planetary bit. Unlike Planetary 26, that didn't bother me... partly because a "surprise-the-hero-is-alive-after-all" move is a classic narrative trick that can work (see e.g. Inigio Montoya at the end of Princess Bride), and that Ellis pulled it off there... and partly because it was a few pages of build-up, not a whole comics series (which may account for part one). I know not everyone did, but I actually liked JLA/Planetary a lot. But on P26, yeah, you're on target.

Disappointing as hell.

(The one way he could redeem it would be for 27 to show that Elijah Snow now is Downing, i.e. that he didn't win after all, but in fact lost, due to that "stretching" power of Downing. I don't believe for a minute that Ellis will do this -- 27 is clearly going to be the rescue of Ambrose Chase -- but it would be a nice reversal that might, possibly, make 26 work in retrospect.)

Geoff Klock said...

Mitch: no you should read the whole story for the same reason I did -- the first fourteen issues are so good he earns your attention for his lackluster finish.

Tim from Myspace: thanks for writing all that. Glad to see someone step up to the plate and say I am wrong. But I am not wrong. You have missed my point a little.

1. I loved Sandman when it was coming out but I hate it now, not because it doesn't spell everything out to a "T" but because it is angsty, takes itself too seriously and is no fun. Mysteries are one thing, and do not have to be spelled out to a T. I majored in poetry, and wrote a chapter of my dissertation on Blake. I have an understanding of the obscure and why it sometimes needs to remain obscure. What I am bitching about is not mysteries, but poor storytelling which should be clear. If you want to tell a muddled story you better have a good reason (e.g. Memento). Ellis does not have a good reason -- he is just lazy.

I get Dowling's overconfidence and lust for power. It's just that the guy who seemed so very scary turns out to be quite dumb, and that's depressing. He is TOTALLY UNPREPARED for their meeting; I want a smarter final bad guy. Elijah could be lying about Greene and Leather, you are right. The thing still feels like a letdown.

and you don't need to tell me about how things in Planetary are allusions to things in other comics. I LITERALLY WROTE THE BOOK ON THAT. My complaint is that prior to issue 15 Ellis was re-imagining other comics; after 15 he is just referring to them in a lazy way so he does not have to think up a better version of the Devil's paw.

I get that Greene is dangerous, I just think the real drama is one in which there is something at stake for our heroes, something up close. I needed a confrontation and Ellis gave me "getting rid of bad guys by remote control, which is inherently less dramatic.

But no kidding -- thanks for posting. Post more in the future.


Stephen: "classic narrative trick" = CLICHE. Writing cliches is lazy writing. You have a great ending for Planetary though -- that is the proper ending, I think. I pray you are right; I have a hunch you are a better storyteller than Ellis.

TonPo said...

I would like to point out that you are totally *right* on this! Having just re-read the entier series, I do have to say that following your end-point of issue 14, the rest of the series still reads as entertaining as ever, but the crafting of the individual narratives severly curtails.

I think that issues 17 (Opak Re) and 22 (The Torture of William Leather) still maintain some level of creative reinvention/revisioning akin to the first half of the series. I guess what I'm saying is, at a certain point Ellis & Cassady seemed to have lost interest in telling a certain kind of story and merely felt obligated to finish it out. This is apparent in even some of my favorite issues, such as 19/20 (Mystery In Space/Rendevous) and 24 (Systems). Ellis is trying new things out in these issues, and while I feel that they work, they only work individually and not within the context of the larger work.

You can tell by these issues that Ellis is already ready to move on to new ideas and approaches to story-telling, but can't quite do so until he has finished this one. Ellis himself has complained about the time it has taken him to complete the series, simply because he keeps getting new ideas that too closely parallel some aspects of Planetary, and therefore feels the need to lump these new ideas in places where they don't quite fit in the way they should.

That being said, I still enjoyed the read, and Ellis has crafted these last handful of issues just enough to make them fit into the whole series as one cohesive read without the shifts in tone and approach to be jarring enough that the reader notices it. I thought the action in issue 25 (In From The Cold) was great, and the pacing of issues 19/20 were really good new aspects to the story. I wish Ellis had taken the time to apply some of these new elements to this final "battle" to give it the "final showdown" elements that it needed. Personally, I blame Cassady's perfunctory panel layout more than anything in making this issue anticlimactic and underwhelming.

Anonymous said...

Well I'm certainly not as well educated as yourself, I'm just a dork who reads a LOT of stuff :)

But I still don't see where the early issues re-imagined concepts that much moreso than the more recent issues. How is the JLA re-imagined in the first issue, for example? Some concepts are explored more deeply than others, The Four, the interpretation of Thor's Hammer, for example. However, there's just as many concepts that are breezed through, and much of their power, to me, relies in awareness of the source material (the Subterrans in issue six, for example?)

No offense was intended, by the way, in discussing references in the book. I'm just surprised by how many people I've talked to didn't think Hellboy during issue 25. Guess it is my Hellboy geekery coming through.

For the record, I could just be blinded by love. I reread the entire Planetary run at least once a month. I could entirely be overlooking weakness because of how much I enjoy reading the book.

(Finally, I hope you don't mind me not creating an account. I have so many usernames and passwords, I'm trying to keep some amount of sanity to the list.)

Tim from Myspace

Geoff Klock said...

TonPo: You are right to remind me that there are a few moments after 14 that are good, but you are right -- the tone changes. The book was supposed to be about wonder, and no more wonder after 14 -- just plot point after plot point until it is done.

Tim: first of all I am nothing if not a dork who reads a lot of stuff. That's all education is. That said, I should not have brought out all that "I wrote this book and that chapter stuff" -- I am just pissed off at Ellis and taking it out on you. I am a jackass and I am sorry. Let me answer you like a reasonable person.

The JLA is re-imagined in the first issue because they share a stage with the Golden Age pulp novel heroes -- the fight is a fight for the future of the genre, as well as a physical fight. The battle is a metaphor for influence and genre and the survival of kinds of fiction, and that is new, and imaginative. Same thing for the Four -- they killed off golden age characters in issue 10 because Marvel's Silver Age comics took over the industry. Now Marvel Comics are old and powerful (like the Four) but stand in the way of new stuff (like Hellboy) just as the Four keep the world from being truly great. Again, it's an interesting metaphor, and new.

You are right that the subterrans in issue six are not reimagined, but they are important for building tension as we realize where we are ("Holy crap -- these bad guys are the Fantastic Four").

Now look at the Red Hand in 25. Part of the allusion is to Hellboy and part to S.H.I.E.L.D. or wherever -- but it goes nowhere. Hellboy is not important in this issue on any level. Imagine if it were the key to destroying the Four, some dark power they are not ready for, and Elijah needs that hand. Then the allusion would tell me something about comic book history -- Hellboy could be part of the "secret history of the world" the Four does not want us to see. (this next bit is a reach, and lame, but forgive me I am trying to make a point) -- this could be a metaphor (again forgive me) -- for the fact that big Marvel Superhero stuff keeps people from spending money on better comics like Hellboy, which can't get the readership it deserves because people are getting CIVIL WAR :A MARVEL EVENT IN 120 PARTS. That's what is pissing me off today.

And man don't worry about an account. Continue to post as is.

David Golding said...

Perhaps the latter half of the series is a metaphor: what is currently killing the industry is not Marvel's Silver Age, but all these re-imaginings that initially seem promising but never go anywhere. :-)

David Golding said...

In that sense perhaps Snow has become Dowling...

Geoff Klock said...

Tim and I continued this over e mail, be he told me I could post our exchange. Here it is.

----------------- Original Message -----------------
From: Tim
Date: Nov 1, 2006 7:54 PM

Gotta say I have really enjoyed the back and forth in your comments. Even when two people disagree, if they are able to discuss on a respectful and intelligent level, it is always enjoyable.

I'm sending you this message because most of it doesn't pertain to Planetary and figured I didn't want to open *this* can of worms in comments on a blog :)

Regarding Planetary, I have never really thought of the confrontation in issue #1 that way. Which is funny because I very easily picked up on the point of the issue starring John Constantine/Spider Jerusalem issue, which was making a different, but similar, point about the transistion between comic eras and styles.

That said, you definitely brought another point of view to the proceedings in the early issues. It seems to get at a problem that is symptomatic of our culture of serialized entertainment (Matrix, Planetary, what most people say about Lost), namely how does one manage to end a story when expectations are so high?

Anywho, what I really wanted to address was your comment about people not buying Hellboy because they're buying Civil War.

A little backstory on me...I've been involved in the industry forever on the business side at the retail level. My current operation runs two stores, which I have been doing for 3.5 and 3 years. I am a very indy-friendly store. As an example, Pride of Baghdad at my stores sold more copies the week of its release than all but five of the titles I carry that came out that week. I like to think I have a vague idea what I'm doing on the retail end :)

That said, the theory of people not having money to buy Hellboy (or any number of other non Marvel or DC books) because they are buying Civil War is a myth. At the very least in my stores, it is.

There's a lot of myths that the well-meaning indy comic press perpetuates about the state of the industry because they simply aren't in the stores on a day to day basis, and this is one of them.

Now granted, they may put off buying the Hellboy TP a couple weeks because their usual books for the week are heavy, but I have never had someone turn down an "indy" book because they have no money left due to buying big event books.

The fact is Civil War, and Infinite Crisis, and all their ilk, have been nothing but good for the industry. Their successes have given me more money to stock the alternative press books deeper. The new faces that have come in asking for them give me an opportunity to introduce those new people to tons of comics they never new existed from small press publishers. Are there retailers not as forward-thinking as I am? Absolutely. But nothing is going to change their minds on these things anyway.

I can completely understand your distatse for projects like Civil War and such, but I assure you, at least to this retailer, these event comics have been nothing but a boon. Well, at least until Marvel boofed the schedule. Now THAT'S an issue for the legitimate growth of the business that no one actually seems to want to address. Ah well.

Point is, don't be angry about that particular point. It's not as bad as you think!


----------------- Original Message -----------------
From: Geoff Klock
Date: Nov 2 2006 6:35 AM

I am sure you are right. I normally don't say stuff like "people should spend less on Marvel and more on Indy stuff" since I by almost only Marvel and DC myself. In fact I don't think I have every said that before. I don't even believe it. The only reason I said it on the blog was because I was trying to make a point about how the Devil's Claw allusion does not go anywhere and how it could. I just make up bad metaphor on the spot (and said in the post it was lame) to make a point about the difference between an interesting allusion and one that does not go anywhere. You are right that I should not perpetuate bad myths, but I was not trying to -- that was just a bad side effect. I said it as an example of the kind of think Ellis could say with a good allusion in Planetary. Whether the statement is a true one is another story, and I believe you that it is not.

See but I think you have a lot to say and I think the blog is better if you say it there, cause you are obviously a smart guy.

If you like I can cut and past your e mail and this response into my blog, but I won't do it without your permission. But I would like to if only so someone reading the thing does not walk away with the same impression you had, which is that I said something untrue.

Geoff Klock

------Original Message-----

Nov 3 2006 7:38 PM
Subject: RE: RE: Heya Geoff


Thanks for the insightful reply (again)

If you want to cut/paste my reply go right ahead, I don't mind at all.

You'll have to excuse my edginess about retailing/purchasing in the industry, it's very easy for me to get a little worked up and want to ramble on and on about the business. :)

See ya!

Anonymous said...

I think the whole point of the series was to reinterpret some pop culture (comics, pulp fiction, giant monster movies, sci-fi of the 50's, etc) and attempt to make a cohesive whole out of the disparate parts and to NOT meet expectations. You expected the Nick Fury analog to put up some kind of huge down and dirty fight? Wham, fight over. A major confrontation with the main bad guys? Uh-uh, Planetary fights dirty, and are really tricky, taking them out with little fuss. That leaves the comic as more of a character study than an action story.
How much fighting actually takes place in all of these issues? It's usually the set up, or the launch of attack, then an immediate jump to the aftermath. It's OBVIOUS that there was never going to be a gigantic final battle with the main baddies, proven by every confrontation depicted within the story from the beginning: the Hulk analog story where the creature's battle with the military was only eluded to, or other stories, such as when the DC characters tried to invade. We only see a vague impression of a battle. So why was a final battle expected? I don't think anything set one up other than your expectations from OTHER books, but not this one. Not that I'm saying this was a work of genius or anything, only that your expectations seemed to be skewed from what the story had consistently delivered previously.

Geoff Klock said...

anonymous: notice that the Planetary story has to registers: the investigation into the secret history of the world, and the conflict with the Four who are keeping the secret history of the world for their own selfish ends. You are right that many of the stories did not make a big thing out of standard superhero battles, but from issue six this series was heading for a showdown between the Planetary and the Four -- each side wanted to knock out the other and do things their way. Along the way we saw a lot of non-violent character study stuff, and you are dead right to point that out, but the through-line was We Must Stop the Four Even Though It Will Be Dangerous and Difficult. Turned out to be neither dangerous nor difficult.