Ray Sonne: In Planetary #8: The Day the Earth Turned Slower, we return to both the 50s and the monster movie genres. Instead of an island full of dead Japanese monsters, however, this issue takes place on a long-abandoned government compound. Our guide is also not a wannabe spiritual guru/novelist, but… well, a familiar face.
Marilyn Monroe seems a strange introduction for an comic book issue about monster movies, given that she didn’t star in any. But when one takes into account the amount of conspiracy involved in Planetary #8, it seems appropriate. Monroe, born Norma Jeane Mortenson, has a legacy in Western culture as the ideal beauty. Her death by barbiturate overdose at age 36 both preserved this image and attracted a number of conspiracy theorists, many of whom point to her relationship with President John F. Kennedy (something that “Allison” in this issue briefly refers to while narrating her introduction to the government compound) as reason for why someone would want her out of the way.
And despite the kind of films that Monroe personally acted in, other films from the 50s were very much tinged with the fears of the time. Like how Godzilla represented the radiation-poisoned cities of Japan, the gigantic ants that are guarding the government compound–a reference to the 1954 film Them!–come from the same birthplace. IMDB’s summary ofThem! is “The earliest atomic tests in New Mexico cause common ants to mutate into giant man-eating monsters that threaten civilization.” The metaphor is rather heavy-handed: nuclear weapons, in some shape or form, will wipe out humanity. Humankind created weapons too big and out-of-control.
Chase, how do you see this era of films relating to both the Planetary plot and the comic book medium?
Chase Magnett: I don’t think this issue relates directly to the comic book medium, but rather to all of the stories that were born out of the Red Scare. Once again, Warren Ellis and John Cassaday have crafted a metaphor that creates a neat statement within this single issue, but doesn’t hinder the larger story of Planetary. It all hinges around the science fiction films that arose in the 1950’s as a response to McCarthyism and government control over media.
You already mentioned Them!, but there were a flurry of low budget sci-fi films that were produced throughout the 50’s including The Thing from Another World (1951) and, perhaps most famously, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). These films hold up very well today and Invasion is still a classic of both American film making and science fiction. They were born out of a dark chapter in American history; filmmakers perceived as communists, or even being sympathetic to the cause, were blacklisted in Hollywood and dragged out before Senate hearings. Speech was being restricted in a very real manner, so writers and directors had to obscure their ideas in metaphors and analogies, oftentimes in movies that no one would take seriously: science fiction.
In this story, we are told that communist sympathizers were rounded up and brought to Science City Zero in order to be used as live test subjects. They were each transformed into unique monstrosities at the hands of the US government. The characters like Allison who were transformed are analogs to the ideas of Hollywood during this time. Writers were effectively unable to express any ideas not sympathetic to the United States government. Their stories were held in a metaphorical concentration camp where they morphed into something different. Writers used metaphor in order to disguise their voices and thus subvert the broken system in which they labored. Objects of beauty and intelligence, like this Marilyn Monroe stand in, were twisted into monsters to escape the wrath of the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC), the driving force behind the Red Scare and blacklisting in Hollywood.
I read this as a history. Ellis and Cassaday observe how political forces reshaped art and storytelling in the 1950s. It’s not necessarily a condemnation either. At one point, Allison says “I can’t always be angry at them. You never get tired of looking at the stars…” It seems that no matter how poor the treatment of artists was at the hands of McCarthy and his cronies, something good did manage to evolve from the conditions they imposed.The many science fiction movies referenced in the text are all positive side effects of some very ugly treatment of human beings.This reflects a pattern of great art coming from intense restrictions.
HUAC mirrors something else created by the government that ultimately limited free expression: The Comics Code Authority. Do you see many parallels between the Cold War focus in this issue and the US government’s effect on the comics medium?
RS: The film industry had its own version of The Comics Code Authority. The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (or the MPA; sound similar to another acronym for an organization that’s currently responsible for rating American films?) was a board of conservative Hollywood industry professionals that self-monitored its media to make sure that it was appropriate enough for American consumption. In fact, the MPA happily gave up quite a number of “friendly witnesses” when HUAC investigated the industry for Communist sympathizers.
So to sum it up; yes, the parallels between film censorship and comic book censorship could not get any tighter. The only difference between the two is that one medium was forced to become solely for children (its image to mainstream society still damaged to this day), and the other eventually broke out of forced patriotism.
However, Allison says one word that ties the two back together again: “Atomics.” The 50s sci-fi movies plots were either pushed forward by atomic disaster or something alien. This issue’s title “The Day the Earth Turned Slower” is obviously based off the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, which had a plot centered around alien invaders. Comics, similarly, and its longest lasting stories either had characters born of alien origins (Superman) or mutated by radiation (many Marvel Comics characters).
But as you noted before, Allison states that she appreciates the extra time Randall Dowling gives her, even if it’s only 50 years. Do you think her sudden end, which occurs right after filling in the Planetary team as to what Dowling was involved in during the 50s, has a particular meaning to it? I just can’t seem to accept her death as a convenient device where “poof! She’s gone.”
CM: Alison says something very revealing moments before she dies, “It was only half a life, but I wanted it.” This statement is framed by reflections upon what happened to others facing her same situation. Her friends were mutilated and butchered, where she managed to find a way to survive. She was forced to commit unsavory acts (providing sexual favors for a guard) and hide from the public (only now, at the very last possible moment has she chosen to reveal herself), but she managed to survive.
This makes sense within the context of the Red Scare that we’ve been discussing. Writers, actors, and directors in Hollywood were given a choice to present their own thoughts to the public and be destroyed by them or to hide their ideas. The result of that latter path created films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and so many others. Much of classic 50’s and 60’s cinema relies on viewers being able to see the ideas hiding in plain sight.
This concept goes far beyond the Red Scare, too. Homosexuality was taboo in Hollywood at the time and homophobia was a pervasive force for much longer than McCarthyism ever was. It’s another sickening example where creators are given a choice between being honest with everyone about who they are and doing what they love. It’s an ugly situation, but one that continues to exist in some forms even today.
So what does Alison’s death mean? What does her final moment of bravery in revealing herself and her past to the Planetary team tell us? I think it says that what she did was okay, that however someone chooses to deal with persecution is ultimately their choice and they should not be judged for it. Alison is haunted at the end. She appears ghost-like, as a glowing blue spectre. She even apologizes to the Planetary team. Yet none of them judge her. Cassaday draws their faces to be empathetic and compassionate. Her motive was pure. Given a terrible decision, she chose to have a life, even if it was only half of one.
– A few years before the publishing of this issue of Planetary, Ellis had another Marilyn Monroe-esque character in his run of Stormwatch. This character went by “Jean” and claimed to have gained her resemblance to the star via plastic surgery, a necessary move due to her role as a government agent. Jean and Allison are probably not the same person due to their differing relationships with the US government; however, I can’t help but imagine that the Wildstorm Universe post-human residents should be at least a bit amused by this plethora of beautiful blonde women walking around.
– Some of the individuals that live in the compound with Allison almost seem to refer to Marvel Comics characters. The man with a regular-size brain in a giant body reminds me of The Hulk whereas a woman with several legs and bug eyes seems to have some Ant-Man or Spider-Woman qualities.
– Cassaday makes an excellent visual reference to one of the most famous science fiction films of the 1950s, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. It’s such an iconic film that even people who have not seen it tend to recognize the images, making for an excellent visual signifier of what type of fiction this issue is about.
– The snowflake appears once again inside the brain of a test subject at Science City Zero. This imagery continues to pervade each issue at least on some minor level.
– This issue opens with a setting sun. It’s a beautiful piece of imagery that reflects on the ending of a couple of things in this issue. Alison is preparing to die, but so is the age of cinema that is being referenced. Most creators from 1950’s have already passed and within the next decade there may be nobody left to discuss this period of history.