Friday, January 14, 2011

Properly Dark

“Properly Dark”
Excavating, reappraising, and cataloging Planetary early in the 21st Century

[The seventh 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 . If I include an annotation derived from someone else, from this point on, I will gladly credit the provider. If I don’t credit an annotation, it means I derived the conclusion myself, or I simply cannot recall where I got the information first.

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.]

”To Be In England, In The Summertime” has a lot of embedded information and a whole mess of giving a damn more than is obvious. This is also true of the British Invasion of American comics, a thing too easily forgotten amidst the accusations that the bitterness and detournement were all poses to look cool. And, yes, there is some looking cool in those comics and in this one, but when you actually sit down and read early issues of Jamie Delano’s Hellblaze or Alan Moore’s Eighties works, you can only deny that the author – and their characters, their fictional world – cares a great deal. There is real moral revulsion in Hellblazer and Sandman, the death of the title character’s family at the hands of his writer, in Animal Man. Not all of the autopsying of live superheroes, deconstructing patriotic paradigms, and examining the ruins of brutalized human beings was for laughs; you are meant to cry for people in Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, to be nauseous reading the desolation or ripeness of various John Constatine tales, and to be cold when reading Neil Gaiman’s take on him, in Hold Me.

It seems significant that this issue came out amidst the so-called Neo Silver Age, a thing that no one could define to everyone else’s satisfaction and which more than half of the supposed contributors at the fore refuted. What was meant, mostly, to be a return to brighter, gungho values of the Thirties through Sixties was also meant to be a call to stop looking at the horrible bits of those same decades, to willfully ignore the everyday tragedies and cruelties of human politics, households, and confusions. For the most part, the British Invasion did not lack the wonder and brightness, though. It only had it’s fair dose of the wicked stuff right up front and not whitewashed away, not ignored.

If giant space squids over the city fail to be as impressive in the face of a fourth term Nixon, rape, murder, and betrayal, that is because of the power of these other, by superhero standards mundane things, not because the squid is lacking. When the big heroic superfellah dies a the beginning of Zenith fighting a Nazi in tights, it is not that the hero is useless or unimpressive, he’s a big guy, he’s tough and forward and… dead. Because – and you may not have heard this – the Nazis were pretty good at killing people. This was just a good way to remind of that (and it helps that it sets up the extradimensional dark overlordy beasties for the rest of the story). On the rise demons in an early issue of Hellblazer have big teeth and drippy tongues and all, but they are horrible because they are heartless fucking yuppies.

If this were a different sort of comic, if this were a Neo Silver Age comic (perhaps), the Superhero would have been justified in running after Jack Carter to beat him to a pulp, if not dead, for the same reasons DC has a team called The Elite to job it for Superman, for the same reason every two superheroes who meet, practically, have to hit each other for awhile before they can be friends. Why DC, again – and DC published the WildStorm titles like Planetary, remember, and Vertigo – had Black Canary, not too long ago, hit her husband to prove she was morally right. And he took it. And hardly a reader batted an eyelash. To prove she’s right, the moral beacon of the story struck her husband during a conversation. Punched him right in the face. Because that’s what superheroes do, it’s the default and it is the default because we ignore the consequences of such actions and move on to the next spectacle.


[From Volume Two, The Fourth Man

07.00 An homage to Dave McKean covers that exemplify the early Vertigo line from DC Comics. Similar elements include the use of textured wood, photographs, atmospheric text overlays, even space down the left side for the Vertigo imprint’s banner to go.

07.01.01 Jack Carter is analogous to DC’s John Constantine, marked by the initials, the use of magick, the seedy conman presentation, and the innate dogooding despite it. The name “Jack Carter” is the same as the criminal protagonist of three Ted Lewis novels, including Get Carter, which has been adapted to film, twice. This is, undoubtedly, intentional, and similarities will become apparent.

07.02.01 The title comes, possibly, from the Art of Noise song Close (to the Edit).
07.03.02 In the dark, lighting his cigarette, is a common introduction to John Constantine in his stories.

07.03.04 The moon/sun dichotomy between Carter and the Superhero begins here, as well as the motif of introducing Carter with his head haloed by the moon.

07.04.05 These superhero teams were seen, briefly, in Stormwatch, also written by Warren Ellis.

07.05.02 The Superhero is framed by a dim sun, here, continuing the sun/moon motif between him and Carter.

07.05.04 Reference to Dream and his sister Death feeding pigeons in Sandman #8, The Sound of Her Wings, written by Vertigo superstar Neil Gaiman.

07.06.02 Visual references for the characters at the funeral include Etrigan, the Demon (created by Jack Kirby and written in the early Nineties by Garth Ennis), the Demons Three (who appeared in Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing), the Metal Men (who were dysfunctional and tragic long before their early Nineties mini, which actually made things less messed up), The Specter, Swamp Thing and Abigail Arcane/Holland, Dorothy Spinner from Grant Morrison and Richard Case’s Doom Patrol (according to Ben Rawluk, who knows better than I), Animal Man and The Writer (from Grant Morrison’s Animal Man), Black Orchid, and in silhouette, Shade, the Changing Man (written for Vertigo by Peter Milligan, created by Steve Ditko). Richard Hunt also identifies in the crowd, Brendan McCarthy's Mirkin the Magician and Nick Abadzis' Hugo Tate.

07.07.01 Shifting Man = Shade, the Changing Man. Forest Deity/Robin Hood = Swamp Thing, nailing down the connection through the unmentioned concept of the Green Man.

07.07.05 The jacket with the circles is reminiscent of similar clothes worn by the Milligan version of Shade.

07.09.02 Carter, again introduced with the moon behind him.

07.10.03 Peter Milligan would write a series for Vertigo called Greek Street, years after this was published. The reference here is to the actual street, however, as presaged by the mention of the Coach and Horses. Films and other fictions have mentioned the presence of prostitutes there. Greek St is where the Ancient Grand Lodge of England was organized, and where the London sewage system was developed.

07.16.03 Reference to Michael Moorcock, who has dealt fictionally and nonfictionally, both with London and with the Eighties culture thereof (and much, much else).

07.17.04 The Superhero is a reference to many superheroes – and indeed the concept of the superhero, as it was – perverted for new, cynical uses during the birth of the “Vertigo Era,” aka Alan Moore’s Bad Mood and Its Influences, most specifically Moore’s own Miracle Man work and Grant Morrison’s Zenith.

07.19.02 Moon-halo motif for the final time. And there’s the shotgun to reinforce the Get Carter connection.

07.21.03-04 Visual reference with the shaved head and tattoos is to Spider Jerusalem from Transmetropolitan that Warren Ellis created (with Darick Robertson), published by Vertigo. Ellis had famously quit Hellblazer, whose title character Jack Carter is mostly a riff on, due to a shelved issue and different standards of content and portrayal. Ellis has said the following about this visual transformation: “John and I had talked about "his version" of John Constantine, who would have a shaven head and weird tattoos and/or brands. When scripting that scene, I said, John, here you can do "your" Constantine/Jack Carter, but, you know, with the bald head and the tats, you could just make him Spider for laughs... Which was, you know, a joke. I was a little mortified when the finished comic came back with Jack AS Spider...!”

07.22.05 Is that an upside down question mark in the smoke?

[Click here to see further annotations for Planetary]


Simon (formerly Johnny Sorrow) said...

I think Moorcock St. is more than a road to the 1980s. It's homage to Moorcock's own interest in pastiche and cross-genre pollination.

It also connects the "JC" of John Carter (and John Constantine, by implication) to Moorcock's own Eternal Champion. Carter's incarnation into the Spider-esque figure makes him like Jerry Cornelius, et al--taking a form appropriate to his new world.

Anonymous said...

Despite the sun/moon motif, I'm not convinced that the flying superhero in 07.05.02 is the same bloke who shows up later - the one thing we can see clearly about him is his red cape, but the later bloke's cape is blue (and distinctly more ragged).

Which raises the question, of course: If that isn't who he is, who is he?

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