Chase Magnett: This may be the most difficult issue of Planetary to discuss so far. That’s not because it is poorly written. It is that the focus of previous issues on a singular topic is missing. Rather than exploring a specific element of storytelling, Ellis and Cassaday use Planetary #5 to characterize Elijah Snow and Doctor Bronze while developing the world they occupy.
It’s revealed when the issue begins that both men are century babies, meaning they were born on January 1, 1990. In the world Ellis has constructed here and in The Authority that date bears a lot of significance as do the people who were born on it. It’s clear that both Snow and Brass are special individuals who either have had and/or will have a significant impact on their world. The difference seems to lie in what they have chosen to do thus far. Brass explores his past adventures, while Snow can only contrast his observations of these events. Brass’ life is one of stunning excitement. Everything about the world he occupied from his friendships, to his personal achievements, to his victories in battle are epic in scope. Although he has been severed from that world for fifty plus years, his memories live on and inspire some beautiful artwork from Cassaday as well as Snow’s current thoughts.
The initial portrait of Snow as a recluse is brought back to life in a big way when he is compared to Brass. He can relate to Brass’ experiences, but has none of his own to share. Like the Planetary organization, he makes it clear that he has decided to record the world, rather than affect it. His position as an observer, instead of being an actor, leaves a palpable sense of regret in his words and expressions. The incredible similarities and differences between these two characters help to reveal a lot about each of them, providing more insight into Snow than the four previous issues combined.
That’s not to say that the issue doesn’t have a twist. The stories from Doctor Brass’ past are clearly homages to pulp fictions of the 1920’s and 30’s where characters like Doc Savage and Tarzan became popular in the American consciousness. The illustrations, style of writing, etc. all attempt to emulate a dime novel. However, there doesn’t seem to be a specific commentary on this form of fiction. Elements of nostalgia and inspiration creep into the conversation between the two men, but that’s about it.
Planetary #5 is much broader in its scope and spends more time exploring the setting of Planetary than a specific aspect of it. Does that analysis hold true for you Ray or do you think there’s a point I’m missing?
Ray Sonne: If there is a singular theme in Planetary #5, it’s loneliness. Ellis and Cassaday key this in by interspersing mocked-up pulp novel chapters in between regular comic book sequences. The colors of the pulp fiction pages, colored purposefully an off-white by Depuy and darkening in the corners, contrast sharply with the modern comic book pages. Depuy colors the exchange between Snow and Brass in a soft sunset with emerald grass and foliage. Brass’ hair is amusingly bright red, a detail unable to be seen in the pulp fiction pages. While the novel depends much more on the prose, almost all of the comic book page is invested into the art. There are no narrative boxes, just dialogue.
While each pulp fiction page has an image to illustrate its story, it relies heavily on its prose in order to focus the plot and characterization. I can’t help but feel that Ellis is not only imitating the old style, but parodying it just by the throwaway line that stated that Brass’ parents were siblings. Just seems a bit melodramatic, which may have been the case in actual pulp fiction, but picking out of all things an incest background seems deliberately provocative.
However exaggerated, the pulp novel’s structure emphasizes Axel as a man out of time. The old adventure pulps are so much a part of him, but nowadays they are nonexistent. He belongs on browning paper, but the paper the reader feels between the two mediums are equally glossy. We don’t know what it is to live in his era; not even Snow knows precisely because Snow didn’t take part in the same exploits Brass did.
What bonds the two men is their semi-immortality. It bonds them to Jenny Sparks, too, who gets a small cameo. Brass points out that the terrorist attack on Los Angeles is taken care of, almost as if dismissing it to fate. But it’s not fate who defends LA and avenges Moscow; it’s Jenny leading The Authority. What this issue does not mention is that the century babies are more than just an amusing concept that Ellis invented. He also created a purpose for them and that purpose was to work as the planet’s immune system. Essentially, Brass was a defender of Earth–as we can see in the illustrations of him fighting the Demonites (perhaps a reference to the Wildstorm Universe’s Daemonites?) and the Variant Neo-Arachnids–and now with his legs wasted, he can no longer fulfill his role.
Yet, he still sees positivity in the world that Snow does not. Is this something that speaks to you, Chase?
Magnett: I do love some optimism in my comics and that mentality seems to central to Brass’ role in this issue. At the end, he’s very much a happy man, but that isn’t how he starts. In the opening pages of the issue he discusses his predicament with Snow and claims that he would have been strong enough to accept that he lost more than fifty years buried in a mountain. The panel that follows this proclamation is absolutely tragic. Without a single word, Cassaday reveals the pain that Brass is suffering at having lost so much time and so many friends. It is a perfect portrait of resilience in the face of incredible tragedy.
That’s the key to Brass’ optimism later in the issue when he and Snow journey onto a hillside: resilience. At no point does he claim the world is unflawed. Snow brings up the destruction of several cities in The Authority. In response, Brass simply states, “But they were stopped.” Brass’ response reveals a lot about his character and the perspective of the creators. It’s not that the disaster is unimportant, both men treat it with the gravity it deserves, but that it does not necessarily need to be viewed from a fatalistic point of view.
Perhaps this is where the connection to the ongoing commentary on narratives lies in Planetary #5. Brass is a symbol for a now defunct medium of fiction. Although there are still homages to and fictions inspired by the pulps of the 1930’s, they have ceased to exist in any meaningful way. The cost, style, and combination of words and pictures are no longer seen as a popular form of media. That doesn’t necessarily imply that they were without value or importance though. Without the pulps, it’s impossible to imagine how the funnies and eventually modern comics would have surfaced. Without the stories of Doc Savage, there would be no Superman or superhero genre. They are an important link to our modern pop culture landscape, undeniable in their significance.
Fifty years removed from the end of his era, crippled, and with no friends, Doc Brass is still able at the blue sky above him and smile. He captures the best elements of pulp novels and the superhero novels. Although there is plenty wrong with his current state of life and plenty of horrors in his past, he still capable of inspiring Snow. Just like the pulps eventually led to new formats and genres, Brass’ removal allowed something new to change the world in his stead.
Pulps may be gone, but the superhero genre is bigger than ever largely thanks to various film adaptations. At the time this was written in 1999 though, the future of the superhero was pretty bleak. Do you think Ellis and Cassaday might have written this issue to tackle the issue of what it would mean for superhero comics to fade away?
RS: I would probably feel that more strongly if Snow and his crew were closer to traditional superheroes. But the thing is, with the exception of Jakita’s superior physicality, they go against the superhero in many ways (and then quite literally, if you pick up Planetary/JLA Terra Obscura). So I find it hard to believe that Snow is representing the fading superhero genre, speaking to its predecessor on how to survive after death. If anything, he might represent espionage tales, which are still going strong if you factor in how well the movie Skyfall did two years ago.
On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that Planetary #5 isn’t a celebration. It’s just a celebration of a century and everything that happened within it. It’s a celebration of the wars fought and the literature written and the different attitudes between decades. It’s yet another 100 years of humanity surviving, despite the occurrence of things the world had never seen before such as two World Wars and the creation of nuclear weapons. And it’s not just us who lived through all that; comics have, too.
If we can get through the 20th century, we can probably get through anything.
– The title page in Planetary #5 is the first to not differentiate between the roles of Ellis and Cassaday. Rather than using the phrases “Written by” and “Illustrated by” like previous issues, it simply uses the word “by” as a prefix to their names. This continues in future issues of the series. It’s a change that I really appreciate as it focuses on both men working collaboratively to tell a story, rather than parsing out their roles.
– I commented in our very first column how much I like the trophies found in the Appalachian Mountains, specifically the outfits of The Murder Colonels. The return of both The Murder Colonels and the Charnel Ship in the pulp pages of this issue are nice callbacks that provide a sense of the cohesive world Ellis and Cassaday want to build. These are not major plot points, but are fun for fans like myself who really like names like The Murder Colonels.
-Looking between this issue of Planetary and Stormwatch #37, it’s interesting to note the similarities between century babies. Like Snow in Planetary #1, Jenny had to be roused out of the bar she was wasting her life in. There seems to be a motif across these three characters’ resurgences; like the genres they take part in are possibly being reborn. It doesn’t quite connect since it’s not like comics took a 15-50 year break, but it’s still an intriguing pattern.