Excavating, reappraising, and cataloging Planetary early in the 21st Century
[The fifth in what should be a comprehensive series, both these small essays and the related annotations are intended for someone who is already familiar with the series. Spoilers will be dropped as necessary, events and concepts discussed out of their order of first-appearance, and general summaries of stories will not be provided. All of these posts may be subject to severe and dramatic rewrites without notice, as new things occur to me, and of course, I welcome any further annotation suggestions or general feedback at
This project could not exist without the fine work of The Planetary Appreciation Page, the now defunct Warren Ellis Forum, the slowly-defuncting Barbelith messageboard, and the Planetary team of Warren Ellis, John Cassaday, Laura DePuy/Martin, John Layman, David Baron, Scott Dunbier, and the many letterers, designers, and other contributors.
This project is dedicated to mystery archeologists everywhere, of every walk and a myriad of tastes, habits, and ingenuities.]
Binaries stick out more than multiple choice, probably some part of our deep psychology that is essentialist at heart, or maybe it's just operational laziness. But, if we can see things in either/or terms, in yes/no ways, we most often will. We can know it's wrong, that it's oversimplifying or misdirection, but still, we will.
Rereading Planetary and knowing the metatextual significance of all of Brass' team in that mountain base, knowing the in-story significance of many of those characters, such as Leather and Blackstock, I still find myself paring down the group to being about Hark and Brass collaborating, East and West, even though I fully recognize that East and West, Occident and Orient, are mythic constructs, mindsets and not actual people. Brass and Hark aren't actual people, they are mythic constructs. And, as they appear to be in opposition to each other, so, narratively and emotionally, they are opposites.
I assume Warren Ellis, at least, is aware of this tendency to binaries, to opposing forces, especially in areas where it really doesn't matter, does not add anything but to reify the difference. Look at Snow's lack of smell, here, in this chapter. I can't think of any good reason, biological or metatextual, for it, but... we learn eventually that his opposition, Dr. Dowling, has a strong smell. That smell might be him seeding into other people's brains, getting into their heads, but Snow? Snow doesn't have a scent, it seems, because his opposite number has an overpowering one.
Similarly, Brass has a scored visage and very stiff, immobile hair, while Snow, here pared as his opposition/foil, has smooth skin and quite unruly hair. This chapter is didactic in the best way, it's just a conversation between two men, their dissimilarities and where they are roughly the same all hit up against each other, as they talk things out, getting us, the reader, to where we need to be. The text with spot illustration sections seem to stand out as Brass' natural world, while the more traditional comics-looking sections, the modern world, that is the realm of Elijah Snow. Everything else in this issue, including the differences between Brass and Hark, between Snow and Sparks, are given to us through their conversations, through their positions in the world and in history.
None of the binaries are real, but the reification of them may be useful for motivation. In times of stress, Doctor Axel Brass still hums the same song as his father, the same nationalistic, nostalgic tune.
[From Volume One, All Over the World and Other Stories
05.00 An homage to the 70s paperback reissues of Doc Savage stories, the years faded into the black background are years that Doc Brass, shown here, would have missed out on, spending the time in a cave, pointing guns at a door no one was coming through.
05.01.02 The scratched look of Brass’ skin, and the stiffness of his hair, lend to the metal motif of this stand-in for the Man of Bronze, himself a precursor to everyone’s favorite Man of Steel.
05.02.01 The spot illustrations are done in black and yellowing wash. How better to illustrate an old pulp hero than a semblance of old pulp paper?
05.03.01 The Century Babies, including Brass and Snow, here, are extraordinary men and women who were born at the beginning of the concept of the century. There appears, at this point, to be nothing uniting them except a shared sense of justice, superhuman abilities, and a general slowness to the aging process, though more will be revealed, and the Century Baby is actually shown to be one of the core types of superhuman (hint: it’s the Jesus model).
05.03.03 Jenny Sparks, at this time, was the leader of a new superhuman Super Power, calling itself The Authority, and a Century Baby. She controlled and lived as electricity, in many ways, and was the Spirit of the Twentieth Century. She has since died.
05.04.01 Snow is a very formal fellow in some interesting ways, including insisting on “Doctor” Brass and not the affectionate “Doc” used elsewhere, and referring to the “videotape player” here and “television”, not a VCR and TV.
05.04.02 Snow shows some of the blessed arrogance, with this issue, that Brass mentions later. Here, he’s asking a man who has been isolating inside a mountain for decades, about a recent computer company. But, he also remains silent when called on about his complicity in not informing Brass how long he had actually been trapped in there.
05.05.01 Warren Ellis has mentioned elsewhere, the appeal of Doc Savage’s chemistry set and the fun and games he had with those vials and beakers.
05.05.02 “I was born for it. Trained for it,” reflects what will become a common trope with Century Babies, that they were not only introduced to this life, special, but that they learned to be more special.
The idea of writing “the plan for the Superman,” also feeds into the later revelation that the Century Babies are manifested, made things, put into this world with an agenda behind them. So above, so below. Here, Brass sees himself as the result of a eugenics experiment, up to his birth and then a training regime, a special education, to make him, himself, after that birth.
The incestuous nature of Brass’ parents, may actually make some sense, if one thinks about standard breeding practices and a dwindling lineage. It’s also very much in line with Philip J Farmer’s revision of the Doc Savage mythology, in his Wold Newton works.
05.06.01 H.G. Wells was a science fiction author, social theorist, and general figure of interest, during the late Ninteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. He pioneered the modernistic use of science fiction as social fiction, with, indeed, the social aspect being the one area of science where he frequently got things right enough to still be valid today.
05.06.02 Was the girlfriend Jenny Sparks? Snow says he only met her once, but we learn later, that this was part of his engineered amnesia. And she does get namechecked immediately in the next panel.
05.06.04 John Cumberland, as related on the following page, was a Superman analog from another reality, very much the New Deal ideal, who died in the late 90s flying into a UN orbital platform and going splat, after being used by all sorts of people from all sides of the political jungle gym. Cumberland, like Kent, is located in England.
Just as Snow is claiming to have done in this issue, Cumberland sat out whole decades, maintaining general inaction and noninvolvement with the world.
05.07.01 The shield on Cumberland’s chest is very similar to symbols used to identify extropians or extropy movements. Cumberland died trying to make the world grow up, be fair, and be nice, which are fairly extropian notions.
05.07.03 What is that fabulous architecture behind Brass and Cumberland? Thereby hangs a tale, I’m sure.
05.09.01 The fetal spider-men… Spider-babies? A reference to the film or just happy coincidence?
And, that word, “miscegenated,” really does carry a menace to it here, in the past, which it shouldn’t today. As we’ve seen already, Brass, for all his goodness and good intentions, is not an unbigoted man.
05.10.01 As seen by his ability to fix things by shooting the hell out of them. Which, is also more of the abovementioned “blessed arrogance.”
“Black,” here, although most likely not referring to race, falls in line with “miscegenated” and other words that hold semantic prosody inextricably linking them to race. Quite common in the era of pulp fiction being alluded to with these ink wash passages.
Observe, also, Brass’ narrative extolling the genius of Europe, even as the examples given are Brass’ villainous parents, but America has Emperors and Murder Colonels, Britain has Black Royalty of UnderEngland. The nationalism of Brass’ day and his own psyche is deeply entrenched, and so emic to his perspective he cannot see its machinery working his thoughts and perceptions.
05.11.05 “And that’s a part of the world…” is more of Brass’ blind perception of everything in nationalistic and racial terms.
05.12.06 Of course, the enlightened, exceptionally bred White man with his big guns will tell the Asian guy who is, not only his same age and just as educated, but ostensibly his intellectual superior, that “we’re all on the same planet.” The White Man’s Burden must be very heavy on Brass’ back some days.
05.14.01 “[S]tep into the light” that completes a “secret society.” Of course, Brass’ would be in the light, because, well, light is good. It’s those folks described as black or Black, that you have to worry about.
Despite all of Brass’ maturity and understanding, he still mimics the organization that gave him life, with his club of heroes, here.
Maximilien Robespierre was one of the primary figures of the French Revolution, who developed the notion of a Supreme Being who was a “radical Democrat” from which he anticipated divine messages, and was eventually executed.
05.15.01 Demonite, here, is a reference to the alien species that is commonly known as Daemonites, in the Wildstorm universe that Planetary, for the most part, takes place in. Again, the reference to “cleaning out an enclave” contains semantic prosody and social implications beyond its literal point.
05.16.01 The Charnel Ship is a shiftship, a craft for traveling between universes, via The Bleed, which is what the “blood-colored tides beyond space and time” refers to.
That, Brass and his allies lose here, despite the Special Operator’s success just before on the U.S. West Coast, is a demonstration that this world, unlike the traditional Doc Savage world or most superhero/action hero worlds, allows for failures. For tragedy.
05.17.01 Note that only Brass and Edison are looking at what appears to be a snowflake manifestation out of The Bleed. The rest are looking at the bodies, the poor damned dead. Edison, in fact, seems rather placid about the whole thing, looking directly up at the manifestation.
05.18.02 The damage to Moscow, London, and Los Angeles, is reference to events seen in the first story of The Authority, called “The Circle” and was done by the mindless followers (and de facto children) or a raging Yellow Peril stereotype, called Kaizen Gamorra.
05.18.03-04 “[T]hey were stopped,” hints at the possibility that the best change Brass and his allies made to the world, when they left it, was that tragedy could be corrected eventually, damage could be stopped if not prevented. This world may be self-correcting (which, again, plays into the nature of the Century Babies as we will learn of it later).
05.19.01 The calming, nostalgic effects of The Marseilleise feed right back into Brass innate nationalism and inability to perceive the connections he has to the culture, practices, and even the family that spawned him.
Even Hark’s mode of travel is “black” and “sinister” and sneaky.
[Click here to see further annotations for Planetary]