Chase Magnett: We’re back for Planetary #3 and I have to admit that I am very excited to talk about this issue. It continues a pattern that was established in Planetary #2. The issue opens cold with a unique setting and characters that establish the focus of the story, specifically on some sort of genre or story trope. Then the Planetary team gets involved in order to explain what is happening. It ends in a climactic event that reveals something about the genre or trope introduced in the beginning. I’m not a fan of breaking down stories into three acts, but in the case of this issue (and much of Planetary) it’s fitting.
This issue starts with ten pages of long, uninterrupted horizontal panels that frame a car chase and gun battle. It’s vicious, fast paced, and bloody. Cassaday isn’t trying to hide his influences in crafting this sequence. It’s very much a South Asian revenge film and revels in that. The crazy amount of gunfire and blood that appears in some panels is an homage to the heightened state of violence in these films. When a car drives through the ghost cop, he is able to fire on all of the men inside at point blank range delivering loads of gray matter into the panel. The action with the cars is also very well done. Whenever they are in frame, they’re in motion accelerating towards an object or swerving across the street. Motion lines help provide a sense of where the momentum is present to help capture the fast pace of an action film. It’s a very brutal, but thrilling sequence altogether.
The page compositions also make it clear that this should feel like a film. This makes it seem like the comic is being presented in widescreen and paces it very quickly, since readers only have to read from top-to-bottom with no left-to-right transitions. It’s not an examination of revenge or cop dramas in general, but a very specific sub-genre that has appeared in Asian films over the last couple of decades.
The setting in this issue is Hong Kong, but I’m just as inclined to associate this style of film with South Korea or Indonesia. The most culturally prevalent examples would be the films of Park Chan Wook who directed Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and other great revenge films. Gareth Evans may be surpassing him to some degree though with The Raid and it’s sequel. Whatever your favorite director or film from this genre may be, it’s clear that revenge and the brutality of people is a recurring theme in Asian film and it has developed to be its own sub-genre. The first act of this comic captures the visceral nature of this genre beautifully, while adding a supernatural twist to it.
My question for you has to deal with the second act of Planetary #3. It opens with ten pages of action and cars, then breaks suddenly to focus on the Planetary team, even changing the page structure on the first page they appear. The last panel in which the ghost cop appears is the last panel presented in widescreen. My issue is that when they appear the pace of the comic slows considerably. It becomes focused on explaining what is going on, rather than showing. The second act is more of a bridge between the first and final sections of the book than it is a substantive component. Am I wrong here or is this a problem?
Ray Sonne: That cover and introduction. Many mainstream comics nowadays take on the widescreen style, but not all are as inventive about it as Cassaday is here. Cassaday makes the cover look like a movie poster and the first pages feel like a movie. It makes me wonder why more artists don’t take cues from this series.
I see what you mean in regards to the second (and third, somewhat) act being rather expository in comparison to the beginning. This doesn’t bother me, though. Planetary is following a very cinematic structure and having the characters explain what is happening is pretty par for the course. The tension shifts between these two types of scenes as well and Cassaday depicts this very well by making the action scenes with the ghost cop and gangsters high energy and then bringing the reader back to a traditional pace where they have to read to understand the story during the Planetary team part. Movie-makers depend on dialogue to explain the plot 50% of the time and have to get really creative with visuals in order to explain the other 50% so things can seem very talky. The change is noticeable, but I don’t find it necessarily out-of-place.
Speaking of talky, if you picked up Trees #1 recently, you might notice a pattern occurring in Ellis’s work. In America, foreign peoples in both movies and books are often depicted as very polite, likely because they exist to serve the plot rather than exist as characters in their own rights. Ellis deconstructs this with both Planetary #3, The Authority #9, and the recent Trees #1. To compare: “Li always has a better class of bitches. More respectful.” (Planetary #3); “I really don’t care what you bloody say–it’s 1999 and I don’t have to eat bloody witchity grubs if I don’t bloody want to.” (The Authority #9) and “You would be young Chenglei, from Pigshit Village Incest Province, yes?” (Trees #1). With the little representation of people with Asian ethnicity (and Aboriginal people, in the case of The Authority issue) comics has, this seems to be Ellis’s way of not only subverting readers’ expectations but acknowledging that there are different kinds of people in Eastern countries. He and Cassaday explore the ruder angles and the ghost revenge story as pertaining to them in this issue.
(Of course, it also provides some comic relief before the storm, another example of which can be seen with two gay passersby in the recent Moon Knight #3. Perhaps it’s time to consider that I read too much Warren Ellis… but not to worry, I never will.)
Now, in regards to the plot…Chase, what do you think that God Machine is? Because for all the explanation the Planetary team did for the ghost cop, they seemed to have no explanation for that (and I don’t buy that the machine is God unless Ellis likes to double up on those like he does Superman pastiches. See: The Authority #10).
CM: I certainly see what you mean about Cassaday’s presentation in the page where the “God machine” emerges. It’s overwhelmingly large and presents as a fantastical combination of aesthetic components: part human, part art, and part machine. It is the kind of image that fits best in the comic medium where it can be presented in great detail and allow the viewer’s eye to linger. What it is is just as complicated.
Shek Chi-Wai, the ghost cop, states that it is God, but that word doesn’t clarify its state as much as it associates it with specific questions and concepts. The Drummer helps provide further connections when he relates it to the snowflake first seen in Planetary #1. In my estimation it is a different visual interpretation of the multiverse. Instead of being a glittering spiral of possibilities, it is an ornate casket filled with seemingly endless human forms. Although this may not be the omnipotent, benevolent God defined by Thomas Aquinas, it is something omniscient and possibly outside of human comprehension. The multiverse is every possibility of existence and the casket represents all of those combined into a single form. Whether that form is self-aware or capable of acting is an interesting question and one that Ellis and Cassaday do not really begin to explore here. The architecture of this casket will be seen again, in the very next issue, but we’ll discuss that in two weeks. The thing that most interests me about this conclusion is what the appearance of this artifact says about the morality play that concludes this issue.
Shek is shown to be bound to the casket/snowflake. Although he serves a very specific purpose, he is bound to the great superstructure of the universe and is capable of uncovering its nature. This lends a lot of weight to what he says at the end of Planetary #3. When given an opportunity to speak again he implores the Planetary team to treasure their lives. According to him, there is nothing better to be found after death and that makes the value of life all the greater. He asks the team to both bid farewell to his girlfriend and make the most of their own lives. It is an odd blend of nihilism and humanism, portraying the world as both a chaotic place without supernatural moral arbiters, but also one worth protecting for all humanity.
The humanistic tendencies of his speech are undercut by his actions though. Knowing that there is no afterlife, he seeks to purge anyone he deems evil from the world by the most violent means available. Shek lost his life, all of the dreams and possibilities it entailed, to a bullet to the head in an alleyway. Throughout the course of Planetary #3 he dispatches more than half a dozen assailants in the exact same manner. The men are certainly criminals, but he does not hesitate or question the righteousness of sentencing them to the same fate he bemoans. So what do you make of this? Are Ellis and Cassaday making a moral statement here or reflecting the morality of the films from which Planetary #3 is derived?
RS: There is a very distinct hypocrisy in Shek’s words and actions. The movie from this genre I am most familiar with is Oldboy. The protagonist powers ahead trying to find out who persecuted him for so many years. It’s never about recovering what he lost during that time, it’s all about revenge. I won’t go any further in detail about that movie–although if there’s anything most people have heard about it, it’s that it’s pretty sick–but the situation here is quite similar.
There is a bittersweetness to Shek’s fading away because he’s spent all his energy doing the same thing. Although he tells the Planetary team about his girlfriend, he does not move from the place he’s lurked in for years in order to tell her himself. He likely cannot, which is the metaphor of how he has limited himself from moving on from his own death. He won’t allow himself to think of anything else, but the kill. He is, body and mind, stuck in that part of his life like how Oh Dae-Su is still trapped mentally even when he is no longer physically restrained.
As for the so-called God Machine, I wonder if it is a repository of all the other men that died in the same spot Shek did. The only thing we can tell for sure that it contains are bodies and that it is in that particular location. Shek refers to previous vengeful ghosts that had his role before him, which means that area is defined by dead bodies. Although he says, “After this, there’s nothing.” he does not know that for sure. He knows what happens when the physical body is finished, not when the spirit moves on. I’m willing to bet that he is looking at his next step right before he takes it. The glowing giant jar adds his story to its collection; something that seems more possible when we look at the Planetary series as a whole. Every chapter is about stories and where they go.
– I really like Ali Fuchs’ lettering in this issue. Only Tony and his henchmen speak for the first ten pages and it is clearly meant to be Cantonese. She uses an exaggerated, but legible font to mark the difference in language and it’s very effective. Plus, there’s the beautiful speech bubble where one gangster’s screams are pressing against the bubble’s form. That’s pretty cool stuff.
– The very first appearances of the ghost cop are not inked or colored. The two panels at the bottom of page two appear to only shade his form using pencil, allowing the white of the page to make his highlight his unique presence. This is the same thing that Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire are doing with the titular character in Warren Ellis’ new Moon Knight series. I doubt that there is any purposeful connection, but it’s interesting to see the same technique used in two different series more than a decade apart.
-Warren Ellis can write nothing but self-contained one-shot ghost stories for the rest of his career and I’ll buy them all. While Planetary itself could very easily be subsequent action scenes or something less than what it is, his ghost stories are always very high concept and suitably sad near the end.
-Tony dying is perhaps one of the freakiest panels I’ve ever seen in comics books. Cassaday made the delicate choice of not going for the overly gory, but pencilling the head right before the moment of explosion. It allows a perpetual tension where the reader fills in their worst idea of what results will be and it is far more effective than most brain splatters I’ve seen.