Life on Another Planet

Posted: Saturday, July 1
By: Daniel Coyle
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Writer and Artist: Will Eisner
Published by DC Comics

Life on Another Planet is my first taste of the legendary Will Eisner’s work. After fourteen years of reading comics, it’s about time I got around to him. For my first crack at him, I decided to take on his 1978 graphic novel Signal From Space, which was renamed and collected by Kitchen Sink Press in 1995, and republished in 2000 by DC Comics as part of their Will Eisner line. A line which, ironically, will not include Eisner’s newest work, The Last Day in Vietnam, to be published in July by Dark Horse.

Life on Another Planet is called by author James Morrow (in his introduction, which contains an irritating spoiler), “a kind of science fictional Bonfire of the Vanities.” That is an assessment with which I cannot disagree, but the crucial difference between Life and Tom Wolfe’s eighties epic is that Eisner’s work is essentially humorless. Sure, there is some comedy to be had in the often comical depictions of characters like the patently obvious Nixon and Idi Amin lookalikes Dexter Milgate and General Ami, but Eisner is too puffed up with self-importance to really needle these characters.

What’s most striking about Life on Another Planet is its plot; I’ve rarely seen anything quite so byzantine in my comics reading. Eisner is able to string many, many plot threads together. From a cult revolving around the signal from space, to a corrupt businessman’s attempt to buy the White House by backing Milgate, to scientist trying to create a plant out of human remains, to even a mob hit totally unrelated to the plot that eventually spirals into a presidential assassination. At the center of it all is Bludd, a scientist and government agent that acts as the voice of reason inside all the madness. Life on Another Planet has more plot than most feature films I’ve seen last year, and it’s a true testament to Eisner’s abilities that he’s able to keep all his balls in the air for the majority of the novel. It’s one of the most snappily plotted science fiction movies I’ve ever read. But the plot is only part of the story, and while Life on Another Planet moves quickly and touches on many themes in its 128 pages, at the end I was left with a very sour taste in my mouth.

As an introduction to Eisner, this book teaches me first and foremost that he is a cynic. In fact, his cynicism practically bled off the page and burned my fingers as I was reading it. The “MacGuffin,” as Morrow calls it, of the story is the signal from space, the indication that there is life out there, a dream. But the dream causes a lot of people to reveal their true selves, and invariably, those selves are rotten. Even Bludd, the ostensible hero in the middle of all this, can be by turns insufferably bland or insufferably smug, and not really very interesting as a hero. By the end of the book he’s not really much different from his nemesis MacReady, surely one of the most odious corporate villains in comics history. With the exception of Bludd, there’s not a single character that isn’t looking out for himself or herself, and there’s something irritating about Eisner’s reveling in the folly of mankind to make his point. We’re not intelligent enough for intelligent life. Wow, Bill Watterson did that in three panels; it takes Eisner over a hundred pages.

The depiction of women in the book I found to be particularly reprehensible. Nadia is one of those female character you see so often that serve what is really a small role in the plot but continues to be along for the ride for one reason and one reason only: to validate the lead male protagonist’s heterosexuality. The relationship between fellow spies Nadia and Bludd is the falsest note in the book, and I found it difficult to even care about or notice their “romance.” The only other major female character is Cora, who stars out an appealing enough dreamer but soon is only defined by whoever’s sticking it in her at the time. Eisner may have paved the way for storytelling breakthroughs in comics, but his depiction of women as appendages to their male counterparts is strictly stone age.

Yet, there are scenes of undeniable power in the book. While I have some quibbles with the intercutting of a few scenes that don’t really make a point to be put together, the artistry can be impeccable. The assassination sequence is utterly fascinating to look at, as are the plentiful and varied expressions of the assortment of characters. Every person in the story has a unique face, although some characters, particularly Bludd, were difficult to make out in their scenes. Early on in the book Eisner soulfully depicts the fears and desperation, and even dare I say it, the idealism, of the menagerie that learns of the possibility of life on another planet. After all, this world is so bad, why not try and start anew?

Eisner, however, takes the first part of that last sentence a little to close to heart. I found Life on Another Planet to be a worthy read on the terms of its wonderful plot and pacing, but the characters were uniformly unlikable and dull, and that made it difficult to care where such a great plot was going. In a way, that’s part of Eisner’s point, that humanity is too self-centered and petty to deal with the hope of life on another planet, and Bludd’s actions in the end are meant to be just what the world deserves. Too bad, for Eisner, then, that the future itself often can’t be stopped by the flick of a switch.

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