Time to move on?
Planetary #21 - “Death Machine Telemetry”
This child of the 60’s appreciates what the children of the Eighties did there.
Issues 19 and 20. Fuck it, they’re a 2-parter, I’ll do it live!
The cover for issue 19 is, as noted by almost everyone a reference to a promo poster for 2001. Though this issue has more in common with Rendezvous with Rama (the second part is even called Rendezvous), it’s really looking at Clarke-style hard SF, especially the common trope of the Big Dumb Object. I mentioned this trope in my writeups for Star Trek: The Motion Picture for the Star Trekkin’ thread as well - the idea behind the story being there’s mysterious object of unknown origin and usually amazing ability, which humans investigate. The monolith in 2001 is probably the best known BDO, though Rama, which the ship in this story is partially based in is very well known in literary SF circles.
The other major reference here is the Angels, who are partially based on the Rigellian Recorders from Marvel Comics. A series of androids, they’re sent out into the universe to observe major events and return to their creators to add these recordings to their central databanks. The most infamous Recorder appearance is probably the last issue of the Dark Phoenix Saga, in which one is seen standing beside the Watcher after Jean Grey sacrifices herself. Fans of the 80s UK Transformers comics will likely recall the Hercules mini-series which served as a back-up strip and featured a Recorder as Herc’s sidekick.
The other big Marvel reference here is merging Rama with Galactus’ ship, and having a corpse that has design elements in common with both Galactus and Thanos.
The idea of primitive life existing inside a technological artefact is a common trope in literary SF as well. Ring by Stephen Baxter, for example features a human starship on a centuries-long voyage which sees a breakdown in shipboard society, and eventually the ship’s leadership are in charge of warring tribes of low-tech humans
Real world references: The Drummer mentions Cruithne, which is a Near Earth Object. These are asteroids, planetesimals and other small rocks which orbit the Sun close to the Earth’s orbit. For a while in the late 90s, it was believed that 3753 Cruithne actually orbited the Earth, because it’s orbital path sketched out a shape similar to a bean when viewed from Earth’s perspective. Further observation proved that it does in fact orbit the Sun, but its speed relative to Earth and its elliptical orbit created the illusion that it orbited us.
This is 3753 Cruithne and Earth’s actual orbits around the Sun:
And here’s what it looks like relative to Earth:
Cruithne was also the subject of a Stephen Baxter novel, titled Manifold: Time. It’s also been used as part of the question “How many moons does Earth have” three times on QI, each time with a different answer thanks to changes in astronomical knowledge.
The Rendelsham forest event referred to when Snow meets Dr, Kwelo is an urban legend in the UK dating back to 1980, in which a series of lights was seen near RAF Woodbridge, occupied by elements of the US Air Force at the time. It’s frequently called the UK’s equivalent to the Roswell incident. Ellis obliquely referred to it in The Authority, with Lorenzo, Jenny Sparks’ ex-husband from Sliding Albion being interred in RAF Rendelsham.
While the description of the drive on the ship the Angels use is pure SF, it ties back into holographic theory, which The Drummer is clearly a proponent of. The idea that we’re in a 2D space which we think is 3D is an actual theory, with a multidimensional manifold like The Snowflake as a true 3D construct is a real scientific theory, though it’s not necessarily a snowflake, or that it’s got 196,833 sides. Drums reiterates his theory from Planetary/Authority about the Century Babies being the world’s immune system too.
Like many issues of Planetary, this is dedicated mostly to exploring the tropes at hand - there’s a lot of pages of the Angels flying through the unknown ship seeing these amazing sights, even in the issue where Greene arrives in the ship. The ongoing plot and other elements fit around that tableau, especially Jakita’s rising unease with Snow, The Drummer’s theories, and Snow’s game with The Four. And there’s quite a bit going on in a relatively small number of pages.
The most important part, from my opinion is the metaphor presented by Greene. Going beyond his appearance as the Cronenbergian expression of Ben Grimm, he destroys where he goes. There’s massive physical damage to the endcap where he dug his fingers into the walls, huge footprints, and the wanton slaughter he imparts upon the humanoids. Contrast this against The Thing - a major part of his character is that he’s this monster, a physical powerhouse, but he’s got the soul of a prince, a devoted brother figure to the rest of the Fantastic Four and uncle to Reed and Sue Richards’ kids. But Jacob Greene is a monster inside and out, hating and lashing out because of the physical deformities the Four’s transformation has wrought on him.
Beyond that, Jakita’s unease at Snow’s actions is a nice counterpoint to what he’s actually doing in this story. We never get to hear what the Angels are saying, we only get Kwelo’s word that they are happy with what’s happening. Snow is deliberately shown in shadow, saying little and from dramatic angles to emphasis the sinister side of his actions here, to better justify Jakita’s state of mind at the end of issue 20. She’s questioning whether Snow’s staring into the abyss too long in his war.
As @DaveWallace noted, the dialogue in this issue suggests that Planetary has yet to go after William Leather, even though that was the prior story. Like the transition between book 1-2 and now 3-4, I wonder if this was rearranged to have a convenient conclusion to the volume, and to not split this story across two books? Of course, this was the point where the book’s schedule started to slip. Issue 18 came out in February 2004, 19 in May, and 20 in September. It could just be Ellis got a bit mixed up and editorial didn’t catch it?
Oh, and I meant to say, I love the repeated motif of the red lighting for The Four. You see it when Snow is entering the Bleed to visit their weapon storage world, in the Arctic facility where Planetary confronted them, and again now as Greene leaves his ship. That really stark crimson light spilling out helps to sell Greene’s sinister nature, especially as we see his space suit is white rather than the obsidian the red light made it appear.
Great post! As I only really started the series on issue 19 I can start to really appreciate this thread. I picked up a lot of the earlier issues and read the ones I couldn’t get at the library, but these ones made the largest impression on me.
Ellis never wrote anything to top Planetary, for me.
Dunno. You want that I should ask Layman? Probably after he gets back from SDCC, Tuesday or so?
You could, but Scott Dunbier was the editor on Planetary…
Yeah, but I know Layman and I don’t think I know Dunbier. (My comix are mostly in storage.) Wasn’t Layman one of the editors?
Layman edited The Authority IIRC, maybe Stormwatch as well.
Right. I’ll ask Laura if she knows.
Planetary #21 is a weird issue for the series. While it does deal with another trope of pulp fiction - here it’s the mystic/shaman/wizard of the Doctor Strange type - it’s not really about exploring that so much as it’s about getting stuck into Snow’s character and asking some pertinent questions about his nature as a Century Baby as well as about his mission in general.
It makes for an unsettling read that asks the reader what they really want out of the series as well as what Snow wants out of his life. Is beating The Four enough? Or does he need to broaden his horizons and seek more than that? Knowing how the series turns out, it’s an interesting turning point for the character and for the book overall.
The method of character exploration is interesting but feels a little bit indulgent in terms of the detail and time spent on it: I often feel like there’s nothing more boring than hearing someone else tell you about their amazing drug experiences at length (see also: other people’s magical experiences, dreams, and holiday snaps), and the issue often gets into that territory in places for me. The potted history of magic as seen through a scientific filter is interesting, but I feel like it doesn’t really go anywhere.
Clearly DMT is an area of interest for Ellis though (I think @RonnieM has mentioned before that this issue came out fairly close to an issue of Ellis’ Iron Man Extremis story that covered similar territory) and his musings in this issue are interesting if not hugely compelling.
Cassaday really elevates the material with some great art - not only the wonderful design for Melanctha (shades of Abigail Brand from his later Astonishing X-Men run?) and the weird and wonderful visual concepts that Snow experiences on his trip, but also in the subtle way he uses the layouts to symbolise levels of perception (I imagine Ellis played a big part in choosing these too).
The constrictive early nine-panel grid gives way to larger and larger panels and more expansive layouts, until (at the point at which Snow’s perceptions are at their broadest) we have panels as wide as the page, with art that sometimes even bleeds off the edge of the pages (a relative rarity for Planetary, especially for non-splashpages). And then, as Snow comes back to reality, we have more formal layouts and smaller panels re-introduced. It’s a fairly obvious technique but it works really well and helps to emphasise the otherworldly nature of Snow’s experiences.
I also love the Doctor Strange-esque design at Melanctha’s place. Similar enough to Strange’s design (which itself draws on the famous window shape from Eisner’s Spirit) but different enough to be distinctive.
And that cover! A wonderful bit of 60s psychedelia.
One other thing: again, Snow refers to having dealt with one member of The Four (Greene) and needing to find a way to get to the other three. Is he just being secretive about holding Leather in custody, or is it a gaffe?
Ah, this is interesting. From the Planetary fanpage linked to in the first post, a comment from Ellis on Melanctha’s design:
Here is a comparison with the lady in question:
This issue is a big change of pace from the last few. An opportunity to examine Snow in greater depth now that he has returned to his most memory block state.
A few things really stood out for me in this issue.
Firstly the discussion about the nature of death and the idea that the “soul” never truly dies or leaves the body. It certainly makes for morbid thoughts when confronted by the way we dispose of the dead.
Next is the panel in which Snow realised he has been drugged. He has visited Melanchtha before surely he knows how this goes but the realisation appears truly shocking to him.
The way the ethereal plane has been drawn the use of the flowers etc is very reminiscent of a range of different observations of what may happen in a realm below the smallest things we can comprehend and in which time has no bearing. Look at Interstellar and even Ant-Man for the imagery they use and it all rings true to elements of this issue.
Finally the last three panels of the book with Snow leaving Melanctha’s. In the opening panel it is snowy but in those final ones it is snowing. Is this an unconscious response to the situation by Snow? Has his power caused this snowfall as he deals with something far bigger than himself (the nature of century babies) or does it just reflec his mood as he leaves?
Or, could it have been winter?
Naw, Cassaday would not overlook this. I would think Snow’s powerful emotions and reactions would increase weather.
I’ve never come on to a strong psychedelic or such, but I’ve observed it. It seems there is an element of surprise and shock, even on a “good trip”. Not sure too much should be read into this, other than the tea was definitely working.
Starting from the cover, we’re deep into psychedelic territory. the limited colour palette and the integration of the logo into the design remind me a lot of classic concert posters, especially from bands like Pink Floyd. There are other influences in here, especially Doctor Strange, which is signposted in the middle panel of page 1, with the window on Melcantha’s door resembling the traditional design of Dr. Strange’s sanctum sanctorum.
The bottom of the second page reinforces what I’ve seen as Snow’s modus operandi the term steal a march comes from military strategy, being when you would accelerate the pace of your forces so they reach an objective ahead of when everyone expects them to, changing the tempo of the battle as a result. Melcantha knows that Snow will use unconventional methods to gain the knowledge he needs.
Richard Feynman is, of course a real person. His field was quantum physics, he made a number of significant breakthroughs in his life, and remains one of the best known scientists thanks to his prominence while alive, and his sharp wit. Eric Drexler is also a real scientist (who is still alive) who did come up with the concept of molecular nanotechnology, building on Feynman’s work on subatomic physics.
While some of what Melcantha says is genuine, not everything is - picotechnology and femtotechnology are still hypothetical, though scientists are user excimer lasers to alter matter on the nano scale, such as this human hair, approximately 100 micrometers thick, etched with the initials IBM twice
But even weirder - there was really an earthquake in Antarctica in 1993 which we think was caused by strangelet interaction.
As the issue progresses, it descends further into metaphysics, and this is where the rest of the references come to play. We’re deep into 70’s weird fiction here, and the crossover between it and pharmacological pioneers like Ken Kesey and Tim Leary, and so-called scientific philosophers (and SF novelists) like Robert Anton Wilson. I got huge vibes especially of Wilson’s Prometheus Rising (itself based on Leary’s 8-circuit model of the human brain) and Cosmic Trigger when I first reread this a few months ago.
The whole idea of the world having a driving intelligence or intelligence-like system at the subatomic level also dates back to that era of weird fiction and the hippie movement, but was undergoing something of a comeback at the time Ellis was writing this issue, noted Cyberpunk author and journalist Bruce Sterling was running the Vidirian movement at the time. This was about primarily increasing the aesthetics of environmental themes, but definitely had an undercurrent of the old Gaia idea. Sterling would frequently post about the movement on the WEF back in the day.
The last segment in Snow’s vision is full of imagery and metaphor. The floor of melted mirror could be a reference to Magic Mirror, a substance that magicians report emerging from them during spellcasting. It was seen repeatedly in The Invisibles. And it should be noted that Robert Anton Wilson had links to esotericism and the Magick scene, so there’s a link.
The life forms that emerge from the melted mirror aren’t a direct reference to anything, but they communicate primarily through symbolism, which Snow interprets on the page - except the close-up panel. The letters on the life form are how we represent DNA - the 4 letters C G A and T represent the 4 nitrogen containing nucleobases - cytosine ©, guanine (G), adenine (A), or thymine (T). My dedication to this post does not go so far as to enter the chunk of DNA we can see to figure out if it’s actually part of a sequenced genome or anything.
And so, some analysis.
This issue is building on two conversations - Snow, Jakita and The Drummer in Planetary/Authority, and then Drums and Jakita in issue 20 about Snow’s role in the world as the world’s immune system. Snow rejected Drums’ theory the first time around, and he wasn’t privy to the second, but here he’s basically told that not only was Drums right, but that he’s an actual construct rather than a human, or even superhuman. He was made by - call it the 20th century, or the world, or something - to defend it from threats. There’s a suggestion that the other century babies - Jenny Sparks, Brass, Blackstock and all - died because their missions were done. Sparks was born to kill God, Brass, Hark and Blackstock to defend the Earth from the ersatz JLA. And then is Snow still alive because the Four is? Will he die on their final defeat?
Another thing to consider is the page layout as the story progresses. The first three pages are 9-panel grid. Page 3 begins to break this when the top row is a single panel. Still maintains the grid, but it signals that reality is about to shift. It’s also the panel where Snow is first shown drinking the drugged tea.
The book shifts into six-panel grid next, as Melcantha begins to weave a trance to trigger Snow’s trip. We get 6 pages - double the last section - and it ends with Melcantha telling Snow he’s been drugged.
And then we get 12 pages of three-panel grid which ends with Snow coming down from his trip. There’s numeric sequences there - 3 - 6- 12 and 9 - 6 - 3. They don’t map perfectly but they’re all factors of 3. In an issue that references Robert Anton Wilson, who popularised the 23 coincidence, it has to be deliberate.
The sequence is designed to show the perception of time. Snow enters Melcantha’s place at one speed, he begins to slow down as the drugs start their work and he’s drawn into Mel’s voice, and slow down even further when he’s fully into the hallucination.
The last page shows how quickly he comes back to reality. 4 panels in the 6-panel grid style as he retreats from the house, and 3 in the 9-grid as he leaves.
While there’s not a lot in this issue beyond saying “So yeah, The Drummer’s right”, it’s as pretty as Planetary gets, and has wonderful imagery. It makes me think of Promethea, but not as deep. Which is kinda appropriate for Planetary?
Loved this issue, I just don’t have a lot to say about it. I wonder if Ellis ever used DMT, although there is enough on the web about it to be able to come up with a realistic way to describe it in a comic book.
Apparently - something else I learned from that Planetary resource page - some of the imagery of the issue, including these creatures, refers to this description of a DMT experience recounted by Terence McKenna:
It’s interesting to read this in conjunction with the issue and see how much made it in there.
Somehow in the pinball game that is my life I had missed the “23” thing completely, and became aware of it when the movie “The Number 23” (or some such) was playing. I briefly considered antipsychotics, then realized it was just a movie. There’s this thing with mathematical geniuses and schizophrenics and idiot savants about an attachment and symbolism to numbers that, frankly, most of the rest of us do not “get”. Approached from different directions, what we call “coincidence” has been explored throughout history. Putting elements of quantum chaos into an order is a right good trick, and it must be a bit shattering to have that order crumbled by a cup of tea. Humans have done that all throughout history as well, messed with their own and others heads with an IDIC of substances. Nostradamus quite enjoyed number games.
Have we addressed the use of the color green?
I meant to mention McKenna as well. Ellis specifically name-dropped him as one of the references at the time.
Only inasmuch as it was a big thing with the Viridian movement…
I’m doing this from memory - and you all know how messed up that can be! I just get, from “scanning mental images” a feeling that when a primarily-green palette is used in Planetary, it usually indicate a major change or advancement of some sort. There was a lot of green - and purple, but that’s o’ course a different color - in this issue, and Snow came to insights. We even have the Jakob Green character undergoing the most hideous change.
Does this seem reasonable?