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Sunday Slugfest: Planetary #27

Posted: Sunday, October 11, 2009
By: Thom Young

Warren Ellis
John Cassaday (with Laura Martin, colors)
Wildstorm-DC Comics
The enigmatic Elijah Snow has one last errand to run in the long-delayed conclusion of Planetary.

Shawn Hill:
Charles Webb:
Paul Brian McCoy:
Michael Colbert:




Shawn Hill

I last reviewed this title with the now penultimate issue (Planetary #26) in October 2006. Three years ago. A lot has come and gone in that time, including John Cassaday's rightful ascension to superstar status and the finale of the Joss Whedon and Cassaday Astonishing X-men. However, Planetary is where it all started, and it's like an old friend you've missed.

In my review from three years ago, I complained of the title being quarterly--more or less. Internet wags have now done the math to call it more or less a bi-annual series. I was in graduate school when I began reading the series, and I decorated my cubicle with art from the first seven or so issues--much to the indifference of my fellow graduate students.

I even used issue #7 (the one with the giant lady and bugs, the 1950s "nuclear monsters") in a mostly incoherent paper on pop cultural imagery. I received my Master's degree in 2000--and here we are in 2009 with our heroes still living out the next step in the lives they began in the 1990s, and Ellis wrapping up one loose thread I thought we'd already received closure on.

The entire series was about righting the wrongs of the Four, the ultimate nemeses who wanted to keep all the wonders of the world to themselves--but they were formidable, and we moved through successive phases to take them down. The first was reviving Elijah Snow himself to his full personality. As a Century Baby (born at the beginning of the 20th Century), he had special gifts, but they weren't enough to handle the villainy of the Four on his own. Thus, he assembled his own team, a sort of Doom Patrol made up of two of the offspring of their victims, and he fought the Four with his triad of power to ever more crushing defeats.

Only it wasn't supposed to be a triad. They were supposed to be four as well, and their fourth (third? Since Elijah was ultimately the Fourth Man himself when his amnesia cleared) had been irretrievably lost.

Oh, really? Not in the liberated miracle-prone world now free of their tyranny. The issue begins with a laundry list of changes in the present day, a world open to wonders now that the Four isn't hoarding them all. And in those amazing science hero breakthroughs (the world the Marvel Universe Fantastic Four should logically have led everyone over there long ago), Snow insists there be one to make his team intact again.

From issue to issue, this title has been full of referents to such pulp icons and themes as James Bond, Asian mafia movies, sword and sorcery tales, Westerns, Jules Verne, les Frčres Lumičres, Superman, Paradise Island, the Hulk, Japanese monster islands, nuclear family atomic/communist paranoia, 1984, Rendezvous with Rama, Thor, Miracleman, Flash Gordon, and Tarzan. However, all of that pop culture paraphernalia is shunted aside in this issue as Snow, who has made sure that our world stays a strange one, works with singular focus to ensure his lost friend's revival.

Could this be a happy ending for a series that has been so dark? Ellis earns it, as he and Cassaday effortlessly make even long sequences of Drummer's scientific theorizing not only visually interesting, but emotional and dramatic as well

Perhaps you'll say that it's easier to hit it out of the park every time when your series only offers two or three issues per year, and you'd be right. Yet, I was never going anywhere, and it's a special thing to be as excited about the final issue of a series as much as I was about the first one.

In epic scale, Ellis never forgets the small, physical human place of fragile bodies and fleeting lifespans. Though, with characters like Jakita and Drummer and Ambrose and Doc Brass and Anna Hark and John Stone, he has scientific wonders aplenty to attest to the awesome power of soft- and hard-science phenomena. These gifted beings are all driven to defend their quest for knowledge from those who would plunder science.

If Jakita seems a little bummed out amidst all the wonders their victory have unveiled, it's only because (as she complains to Snow in a rare pouty moment) she's got "nothing left to hit." Still, Ellis finds a vital use for the team's brawler in short order--and a promise of wonders to come in a world that she helped make safe for them again.

After all the setbacks and losses, all the misery that the Four fomented in their greed, the good guys are finally whole and fully functional again--and they're not planning to be nice about it.




Charles Webb:

For all the perception of Warren Ellis being the "mad bastard of modern comics," it's easy to miss that, at his core, the writer is one of the big optimists of the field. For every grim zombiepocalypse like Black Gas there's a reaffirmation of human ability and skill in a book like Orbit. So, then we come to Planetary #27, the epilogue to Ellis and artist John Cassaday's series about popular and pulp fictions, their subversions, and sometimes their redemption.

This book is an example of the latter Ellis, written at a time when he admits to going through a series of personal crises some years ago. Planetary #27 reveals the writer pushing his characters to fix everything even when his own world was (at the time) in dire circumstances.

Having defeated the Four, the Plantary Group has begun unearthing all of the lost or hidden technology to make the world a better place. Still, for the group's leader, Elijah Snow, this effort is not enough as he dedicates the greater body of the organization's resources to retrieving the group's "missing" member, Ambrose Chase. I'm certain many of you will likely read commentary that goes into further details of the plot and how it plays out. In lieu of such a summary, I'm going to focus on the theme of Ellis the Softie and what it means for this book.

For the most part, Ellis writes the team without the threatening bravado of previous issues. It's strange and kind of beautiful to see the protagonists frustrated and a little frightened about being at the limits of their abilities in this issue. It's even better to see those moments where their knowledge breaks free and they figure things out (a scene near the end where the future catches up with the past is particularly heartwarming).

I'm not sure what else to say. I can't claim that it's the perfect ending to this series as the time between issues has been so long and the expectations that have been raised have been so high that I think that's impossible for the conclusion to be everything to everyone coming to this book. It's not a work that transforms fiction in any way, but it's very good.

I know the writer has stated that he's no longer connected to the work emotionally (particularly because of the aforementioned rough patch he went through during its creation), but he should be proud of the coda that he's put on the series.

As for John Cassaday's work, it is excellent--but nothing here explains the extensive delay of three years between issues. Taking a step back, the gap between issues has been inexcusable for a professional artist in a field where others would kill for the opportunities he's had. Having editorialized on that score it's just nice to finally have the whole thing completed.

If you liked this review, be sure to check out more of the author's work at Monster In Your Veins




Paul Brian McCoy:

Let me start this by saying how much I've been looking forward to Planetary's return. It is one of my favorite comic works, ever, rivaled only by The Invisibles for my absolute favorite of all time. There wasn't a single issue that disappointed me. There wasn't a single moment that fumbled the incorporation of pop culture and fringe science into the narrative.

Until now, that is.

However, don't get me wrong. This latest issue is a success on almost every level, and I am hard-pressed not to give it a perfect score. John Cassaday's and Laura Martin's art and colors, respectively, are almost perfect throughout--though there are a few places where the faces of some characters seem to be slightly angled as though Cassaday wasn't looking at the page straight on while drawing.

Additionally, I think Warren Ellis did a wonderful job bringing these characters back and creating an emotionally satisfying conclusion to an amazing story. I'm sure all the other reviewers here, as well as other places on the Net, will cover what makes the story work emotionally. Ellis also does an effective job balancing the theoretical physics with the dialogue--laying down a complex theory of time travel in a way that is easy to understand.

Unfortunately, I think he simplified it a bit too much, and therefore presented a concept of time travel that just doesn't quite work with the internal logic of the story. It's close, though, and I wish I could just overlook it and move on. I've tried, believe me. I've put off writing this review for a couple of days in an attempt to find a way around the fudging of logic that would satisfy me.

No luck . . . so far. Hopefully one of you fair readers will be able to help me through this.

The worst part of my problem with the time travel here is that it could very easily be fixed with the inclusion of just a sentence or two--or at least the cutting of a sentence or two. Let's see if I can articulate this in a way that makes sense.

Time travel is almost always a troublesome element to incorporate into a story. The problems that usually crop up either involve paradoxes or are the results of writers not keeping the timelines straight (see Brian Michael Bendis's opening arc of Dark Avengers for a good example of the latter).

The use of a time machine in Ellis's Planetary is an ingenious and novel way of rescuing Ambrose Chase. I love the fact that the intention isn't to actually use the time machine as anything other than a trigger to burst the "non-physics bubble" that's keeping him alive outside of time and space--thereby making the focus the time machine itself rather than time travel. If Ellis hadn't gone into such detail about the mechanics of the machine and the physics involved, there quite likely wouldn't have been a problem.

Yet he does go into detail, and that's the problem.

In fact, nearly all of the dramatic tension of the story is based on the threat to history by simply turning on the time machine, but it really isn't any threat at all--or maybe it is, and it just doesn't matter. The intricacies of the threat are just not explained effectively.

I mean, are the future versions of the team that show up at the end just future versions on some sort of annual pilgrimage or something? Or are they alternate timeline versions all re-visiting the moment from which they all split off? A little explanation would help.

Just a little.

First, the good stuff.

The time machine is apparently inspired by the work of one of two prominent real-life physicists working on time travel today. Dr. Ronald L. Mallett, a physics professor at the University of Connecticut has argued that with enough energy, a laser fired into a ring shape could circulate and produce a frame-dragging effect on spacetime itself (just as articulated in Planetary).

Theoretically, by boosting the power, the circulating laser could push the frame-dragging into actual closed "timelike curves" that would allow travel backwards through time to the moment just after the machine was turned on. The travel is limited to the time the machine was turned on because what has essentially been created is an entry-point into spacetime.

Here's the kicker, though. The machine must stay on in order to be used. Turn the machine on, wait a while, then enter it in order to return to the starting point. Turn the machine off and your doorway in is gone--which is exactly how the same idea is used very effectively in the superb time travel films Primer and Timecrimes, where the focus is also on the machinery and logistics itself (much as it is here).

This point is where Ellis drops the ball, and I just can't find anything in the text of the book to justify the way he uses the technology. In fact, at least twice he has characters specifically mention the point where I think he fudges the logic of the story.

Please note that I am not saying "Time travel can't work because . . ." or "There are rules to time travel that Ellis is breaking. . . ." I'm not saying those things at all. I'm saying that the rules that Ellis lays out don't quite make sense given the narrative structure that he is building.

When the subject of time travel is first raised, Drummer says, "The idea is that you can't go back beyond the point where the time machine was switched on, because time machines didn't exist prior to the point where it was switched on."

Elijah immediately, in the same panel, says, "Huh. That makes sense. Actually, Wells' pal who made his time machine in 1888 only went forward. . . ."

Drummer, surprised, responds with, "You knew of a time machine before?"

In these two panels alone, the problem is either being contradicted or dismissed. Drummer doesn't say "because the time machine didn't exist prior to the point where it was switched on," which would make the logic work. He specifically says "time machines didn't exist prior to the point." However, if Drummer's statement was the rule, then the time machine that belong to H.G. Wells's pal would have triggered the end-of-history threat that we then spend the rest of the issue worrying about.

Maybe it's a glitch in the scripting, but Ellis also specifically avoids mentioning the powering down of the machine--which, I can only assume, is to allow the suggestion of a narrative justification for the conclusion.

On the very next page, Drummer reiterates that if you have a time machine you can't go back and see dinosaurs or the Crucifixion because "the furthest back you can go is the point where the first time machine was switched on" [my emphasis]. Then, because everyone in the future could return to this first moment, the future becomes set--locking down the probabilities into actualities, and essentially eliminating the concept of Free Will and cementing Determinism. Again, Ellis is laying groundwork that will allow for the suggestion of a reason for the conclusion to occur as it does.

However, it seems as though he had his conclusion in mind and then worked backwards to justify a way of making it work by fudging elements here and selectively mentioning (or not mentiong) elements there.

Yet, if the first time machine was switched on in 1888, shouldn't the end of history have happened already? If it doesn't work that way--and that's why Elijah Snow already knows that turning on the time machine won't be catastrophic--then the rest of the book is missing any true dramatic tension.

Even bringing the whole Schroedinger's Cat analogy into the text is a red herring rather than a "real" possibility for the outcome of the story that has to be circumvented. By mentioning Wells's pal, Ellis introduced the narrative need to explain why history hadn't already ended in the context of the current story--but he doesn't explain it.

Putting that aside for a moment, the next big problem with the use of the time machine comes at the conclusion of the story. First off, starting up the circulating laser and creating the frame-dragging effect that opens up an entry point into spacetime shouldn't allow for the multiple openings that all of the future versions of the team step through. They should all be coming through the loop of light that the present-day team is watching.

The closed time curves of the machine should only be accessible in that spot--and only while the machine is powered up, if the story wasn't cheating. Turning off the machine should close the door. If time doorways are opening up all around the team, then time machines would have to have been started on each of those coordinates.

This problem is only bypassed logically by the assumption that just because this time machine was turned on, any time machine built in the future could return to this particular time machine's space-time coordinates. However, there's just nothing in the text to establish any reasonable justification for such a leap--particularly when Ellis has gone to the trouble of actually grounding it in current physics as much as he has.

One way of potentially side-stepping the problem would be by incorporating, at least in a sentence, an element of time travel theory put forth by Israeli physicist, Professor Amos Ori, who purports that the familiar time travel looping that Mallett proposes being accomplished with lasers could occur in various ways through a distribution of spacetime curvature that will allow a physical object or person to move along an orbit and travel back to the past. According to Dr. Ori, the closed time loops would be permanently formed features in spacetime, thus creating a doorway that would be open for all the future as a part of the "infrastructure" of spacetime.

A brief mention that the spactime frame-dragging would be a permanent fixture of this place would at least have gone some way in explaining why our climactic time travelers are able to travel at all, much less hang around after the device is destroyed and the time travel effect seems to stop--allowing for the medical team to get to Chase and rescue him. Even then, though, the arrival points of the time-travelers would place all of our present day characters inside the closed time loops--essentially still inside the machine.

So, the in-text reasoning that just because a time machine was turned on would allow for different time machines to travel back to the moment where the first one was turned on is the justification for the conclusion, but it doesn't really make sense since there's no established permanent time travel infrastructure created in this localized point in spacetime. If it was simply the creation and use of a time machine that allowed for Ellis's conclusion, then it should have been happening all the way back to the turning on of the first time machine in 1888.

Are these errors in time travel logic a deal-breaker? Only if you're mentally ill, like me.

However, even then, it's a problem that only makes the book a little less than perfect--when it was very close to achieving perfection. Although, to be honest, Cassaday's occasional warped angles on the faces would have knocked the issue down half a bullet for me anyway. The two problems together kept me from enjoying the book as much as I wanted to, and so forced me to give it 4 out of 5 bullets.

Not that a four-bullet score is anything to be disappointed with. It's a very good story; it's just not the perfect one it was so close to being.




Michael Colbert:

When I got pulled back into comics around '97, I had no idea that I was smack dab in the middle of a British invasion of comics or that the writers I was getting into were just hitting their stride. Morrison's zonked out subversive sigil The Invisibles, Ennis' sardonic love letter to America Preacher, and Ellis' fear and loathing future shock Transmetropolitian all opened my mind to the possibility of what this beautiful medium could do, how much it had matured, and (most importantly) the crazy-ass ideas they were exploring. Of course comics always had crazy-ass ideas. SF concepts like time-travel and alternate universes have been fodder for comics for decades, with just enough science in the fiction to sell an imaginative 12 year old on the idea. These titles, though, went deeper. Maybe just deep enough to sell an imaginative 25 year old on the idea but when a comic book talks about the holographic universe theory - you sit up and take notice. I have been a big fan of these three writers to this day. Ellis has remained my steady favorite not just because of his constant use of crazy-ass ideas but because of his storytelling skills.

I came to Planetary around 2002, which is unfortunate because it was around the time that there was no Planetary coming out. I grabbed every back issue or trade I could. Yes, the crazy-ass ideas were in full bloom but there was more; Ellis had done a mash-up of fringe science, genre deconstruction, SF ideas and a loving homage to superhero roots. Where else were you going to find Sherlock Holmes, quantum computing, Doc Savage, Godzilla, string theory, kung fu movies, The Lone Ranger, zero point energy, Rendezvous with Rama, cyber-shamanism, and an evil Fantastic Four all in one place? Basically, this book had everything! A geek fever dream with one foot rooted deeply in the past but the rest stretching into the future. I didn't stand a chance, I was hooked with the first issue.

The first thing you notice about issue #27 is the gorgeous triptych cover. There is something from every issue of Planetary here and you could spend the average amount of time it takes to read a comic just catching everything. Inside, the story picks up a year after Planetary's victory over The Four. Elijah Snow, The Drummer and Jakita Wagner are sifting through the massive scientific archives of The Four and humanity is reaping the rewards. But that's not what is driving Snow. Ambrose Chase, the fourth member of Planetary, was shot trying to prevent a fictional character from entering reality. He's presumed dead but that doesn't deter Snow from trying to rescue him. Rescuing people is what Snow was put on Earth to do and he's not going to let a little thing like death get in his way. Besides, Chase had the ability to alter the laws of physics around him. The team thinks that he did just that to keep himself from dying of the gunshot wound. Specifically, Chase stopped time inside his bubble till Snow could save him. Using a found time travel theory, the team figures out a possible way to get Chase out of his bubble and save him… or possibly collapse all of time into a singular event.

Planetary 27 is full of a lot of exposition; it spend the majority of its time explaining the science and theories behind time travel and the possible problems that go with it. The story has the very real possibility of collapsing under the weight of this information overload. It doesn't for two very good reasons: 1 – those crazy-ass ideas are well explained both visually and through dialogue. 2 – At its heart, this story is a rescue drama. Such dramas work by balancing complex daring schemes that teeter on total collapse and the humans concocting the scheme in the first place. Put another way - for all its crazy-ass ideas Planetary never loses its beating heart. They prove Chase is alive in a time bubble and then build the time machine to pop it.

Mind you, I seriously dig the crazy-ass ideas; just the mention of terms like Quantum Foam and Description-theory engine kicks the gee-wiz module inside my brain into overdrive. But there is a big difference between reading Planetary and a paper on black hole thermodynamics, and I'm not just talking about the math. The book wouldn't work if you didn't care about the characters. When Snow states that he's activating the time machine with intent, the intent to save his friend, is where Planetary draws from those deep set heroic roots. Crazy-ass ideas are in the service of excellent story telling. I won't say what happens when the time machine switch is thrown… wither Ambrose is rescued or time collapses… all I'll say is that the end of this wonderful series is deeply satisfying. I'm sad to see the book end but just like Elijah Snow, there was no compromise. Now if Ellis could get around to doing more of Fell.



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