Moving on, then.
Planetary #5 - “The Good Doctor”
A general note on Planetary. The series really revolves around the pulp or “weird fiction” era as the genesis of pretty much all modern genre fiction, not just in comics but in everything. It would be hard to see how any of the most popular films or television shows today - even romantic comedies - don’t have roots in the pulp magazines, pre-code movie serials and radio shows of the 30’s.
Planetary and its stylish logo definitely derives back from pulp magazines like Astounding Stories and Weird Tales, and it is important to note that there is a periodical in the world of Planetary called Planetary that their organization produces. Essentially, the idea is that if you lived in a fictional world where these things happened, then the pulp magazines would actually be news journals. Also, it’s important to note that one of the earliest Pulp or Weird Fiction Genres was the Planetary Romance also called “Sword and Planet Stories” and it was pretty much invented entirely by Edgar Rice Burroughs with his John Carter character. Pretty much all the classic superheroes can be traced back to three characters and two of them were created by Burroughs: Sherlock Holmes, John Carter, and John Clayton*.
It is ironic that there is often a debate whether STAR WARS is science fiction or fantasy when the obvious answer is that it is a planetary romance which is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, genres of science fiction.
This will all prove important later in the Planet Fiction issue as we get more connections between the fictional reality of Planetary and the not entirely fictional history of weird adventure literature in the real world.
*note: I’d also include Philip Wylie’s Hugo Danner and Henry Stone as important but indirect influences as well
So yeah, it’s no surprise that this this issue is largely a pastiche of Doc Savage, given its focus on Axel Brass. But at the same time, it’s all about Elijah Snow as well. Beginning on the first page, we learn that Snow has no scent, and his temperature is different from other humans. At the same time, we learn that Doc Brass has a heightened sense of smell.
Moving on, the title page is another reference back to pulp novels. “The Good Doctor” is billed as a Planetary Novel, like “Strange Harbours” was a complete comic story in Planetary magazine. These flourishes, along with A Tale of the Planetary will be recurring motifs in the comic to come. But as I’ve noted, this issue is as much about Elijah Snow as it is Axel Brass, so this title page is a little bit of deception.
While there’s been one or two references back to prior issues (notably the reference to Hong Kong and Brass’ cameo in issue 4), this is a continuity-heavy story, with references back to Stormwatch, The Authority and the Daemonites for general Wildstorm references. As an aside, this story takes place sometime after the first Authority story arc but before issue 12 of that series.
For internal continuity, there’s a lot going on here, mostly tying back into issue 1, but a lot of what’s established here will inform later events in the story. Notably, it’s the second issue in a row to mention the Hark Corporation, and here the link to Hark from Brass’ team is made clear, as is the identity of his daughter Anna as the diving force behind it, but also that she has an agenda that requires subterfuge and patience - apparently to the point that she still hasn’t acted at least 60 years later.
Brass and Snow’s conversation has two themes running through it - melancholoy and suspicion. The melancholia is mostly on Brass’ part. He was 45 when he fought the ersatz JLA to keep the world safe, and he’s 99 now. He spent half his life in that cave, grievously wounded, and so we’re given copious flashbacks to the first half of his life to hammer that sacrifice home. That sense of loss is amplified for those of us who are Wildstorm fans, with the references back to The High’s attempt to change the world.
The suspicion then is Snow’s part of the discussion. This is our first deep look at his personality - if Jenny Sparks is Earth’s defence mechanism, Elijah Snow is its detective. He’s working with Planetary but he doesn’t trust the organisation - he’s isolated from their motives and goals, and he’s thinking about this right after an investigation involving the legacy of one of Brass’ allies. He’s motivated out of a desire to do good, showing regret that the world isn’t the best it could be, citing Kaizen Gamorra’s attacks in that first Authority arc as an example. But as Brass notes, Gamorra was stopped - by another Century Baby as it turns out.
The end of the issue brings it all together - the final text page is hours before the fateful moment in the Adirondacks, bleeding (heh) into the comic pages with a single panel of Brass lying in the aftermath, frame-matched to his lying on the grass of the Planetary hospital’s grounds with Snow. After slightly mocking Elijah for asking the advice of a man who’s been trapped in a cave, Brass gives Snow some very good advice - break down Planetary’s motivation and goals by looking at what they do and who it benefits (and why does the Fourth Man have to be a man?).
But then that last page. Paying back the flashback bleeding over into the comic art, we get one last panel in the style of the pulp text pages showing Brass’ glories - he and his allies celebrating a victory together. And then Snow, alone, saying he was busy at the time. And finally the two men, the survivors of the 30s silhouetted against the sunset as their century lurches towards a close.
I’ve talked a lot about the themes of the issue, but it’s well worth noting the actual script and art, which are superlative. Cassaday is improving with leaps and bounds each issue, moving expertly between a traditional comic page and the pulp-inspired illustrations, given an authentic feel by Laura Martin’s expert colouring to give that sepia tone. The deep, moody inks on those pages help to keep the authenticity going, as do the smudge effects. They’re complemented expertly by Ellis’ prose, which captures the overwrought writing style of the time, while the dialogue in the present day sections is naturalistic and genuine.
Overall, this is the first great episode of the story. The pacing works better by virtue of the pulp sections being illustrative rather than narrative, and the conversation between Snow and Brass comes to a natural conclusion. It builds upon what’s come before and sets up what’s to come expertly as we move to the end of the story’s first section.
The artist is James Bama, who painted over a hundred covers for the Bantam releases.
As an aside, I happened to be browsing in The Secret Book Store in Dublin the other day, and coincidentally there was a Doc Savage omnibus in a stack of books on their counter.
He used the actor/model Steve Holland for his Doc Savage.
However, the original Pulp illustrations of Clark Savage Jr. were based on Clark Gable.
Holland played Flash Gordon in the 50’s televisions series.
Buster (Larry) Crabbe famously played both Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in the 30’s movie serials.
Of course, Ron Ely who had made his name playing Tarzan in the 60’s television series went on to play Doc Savage in the eventual and unfortunate film. I never really liked it, but it did come out before SUPERMAN and the same year as JAWS so it didn’t really fit in the cinematic landscape at the time. Even though the remake film TRADER HORN did come out a year or so before. Does anyone remember it?
Ironically, Spielberg would go on to make perhaps the most famous version of this kind of hero within the decade with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.
Ron Ely certainly sounds like a throwback to the sort of adventurer/movie star that you’d expect from a much earlier period of filmmaking, though.
Oddly, harkening back to the connection between fiction and actual history, Lester Dent, who was something of an adventurer himself, did have a real person in mind when coming up with Doc Savage. Another adventurer and writer Richard Henry Savage.
Also, like with Superman, Philip Wylie generally pops up in the origins of these heroes with two novels this time: The Savage Gentleman and Gladiator. Again though, despite their similarities to Tarzan, John Carter and the Pulps, Wylie’s works really were outside the genres. What the novels provided more than anything were origin stories, but he went out of his way to NOT make the protagonists into straightforward heroes.
One of my favorite Issues in all the Series.
With the story slowly unfolding and giving us answers to the existence of Doc Brass “Cabal” of Pulp Heroes and how they have saved the world many, many times before their last fight (As picture in the first Issue).
It´s worth noticing how the information gaps are adressed in a way that generates more question but, are the same time are fufilling in their own way (The mention of Jenny Sparks, the origin of some of the Trophy´s of the cabal); also, it´s very interesting the depiction of the character of Hark , who is based in a supervillain (Or just villain, Fu Man Chu) that can “Change it´s ways” over Doc Brass Speech, replicating one of the core beliefs of the book (At least, that is what i think), that we, alone, can not save the world on our own (Not even Elijah Can), we need others and, in the case of our protagonist, we need to connect over the beauty and strageness of the things around us (I may have read a litle to much now that i think of it).
Two more things.
1- Kudos to the great John Cassaday for being able to give the “Flashbacks” the format and Feeling of the old pulp books.
2- The final panel of the Issue, With Elijah finally showing the chink in his armor (made of Sarcasm and Bravado) and how broken he really is over his lost memories, anda a past that should have been “Glorious”, is one of the most emotionally wrenching of the entire run.
Gladiator is thematically a natural successor to Frankenstein rather than part of the contemporary pulp or SF genres, albeit told from the POV of the monster rather than the irresponsible scientist who created him.
I don’t know if that was at all in Wylie’s mind when he conceived it, though, so it’s not necessarily a conscious successor.
Planetary #5: Yellow and Pulped
This is without a doubt one a my favorite issues.
Like some have already noted, this is billed and formatted, for the most part, as a novel all on its own. And this is where I feel that the series starts to truly take advantage of the various fictions it is tackling. With the focus on Brass, and his heritage in pulp fiction, it doesn’t pull any punches.
That’s what I love about this series, when it goes that extra mile, with art, presentation, and metre. The writing of the prose parts are rather good, and just brimming with camp/outlandish attributes. Hark is okay, I feel like his inclusion was more focused on bridging the gap between Adventurous Brass to the more Pragmatic Brass that would build the snowflake computer.
This issue also moves forward Snow’s character some more. He’s become much more driven, and thus the series itself becomes more driven. That’s how the symbiotic relationship between a series and its main character should play out.
More than likely it was a big influence. Actually a case could be made that almost all weird fiction has its roots in Frankenstein.
However, Wylie’s primary theme was more socialist thematically. No matter how powerful one man might be, he won’t achieve anything without a society to support him. In Gladiator, the corrupt society was really the antagonist of the story. And if you’re familiar with Wylie, you would see that he really meant “men” in that context and not women.
What is interesting is that if you combine his novels When Worlds Collide and Gladiator, it sorta mirrors the Superman origin story.
I like how Snow articulates his lack of trust for his teammates, Yet looks to Brass for an ally to help him figure out their true agenda. And for help determining the identity of the mysterious Fourth Man.
Knowing nothing of the mans real mental state.
The lack of trust makes sense. But why stick around if he dosn’t trust them?
Really enjoyed how much this issue ties into the other wildstorm books through the boys chat and the proses pieces.
Yeah, the b story arc through the issues doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it is really just there to add some dramatic conflict to the adventures.
Also, Snow is one of the most powerful metahumans on the planet. He can kill them if they try to screw him over.
Plus, the money.
Dude’s been living in the desert, drinking dog-piss coffee.
It’s something to do.
He don’t seem too motivated to do anything with money.
Not like he’s this guy.
Hey, all I’m saying is Jakita lured him in with the offer of a million a year.
Snow has displayed a real genuine concern for the world and the people in it. With the resources Planetary provides, he can make some actual change with direct action. As displayed in the end of the last issue (issue four).
I like this issue a lot, and I think it represents a real break for the series compared to the first four issues. We don’t have a big fantastical mystery for the team to investigate (in fact, most of them don’t even appear), but instead the team becomes the mystery, and we get the sense of a much larger overarching story being in progress.
I also like that it makes explicit a few things that have been implicit so far. Snow’s mistrust of Planetary is one; Ellis’ desire to show the pulp yarns of almost a century past as the direct antecedents of today’s superhero comics is another.
When I first read this issue I remember being slightly disappointed that the pages of the Doc Brass adventures were presented as they were, rather than as comic pages. But now I think my younger self is stupid for thinking that. Because the ideas Ellis is playing with wouldn’t come across nearly as well that way - it would muddy the contrast between the storytelling styles of retro/pulp and modern/superhero. And just as importantly, it wouldn’t provide Cassaday with anywhere near the same opportunity to cut loose with big beautiful illustrations in the way that he does here.
I like the nods to other Wildstorm happenings too (although I’m not a huge WS fan, so some of it was lost on me - I got the references to the other Ellis stuff though, at least), and the way that it dates the issue as somewhere between the first and last arc of Ellis’ Authority run, as though all this stuff is going on at the same time.
Other random bits:
The VHS and gigantic TV that are wheeled into Brass’ room look very dated now, which I found pretty funny.
I love Brass’ dialogue - both the way he cuts to the core of Snow’s problems, and the way he self-deprecatingly describes himself as not much help (which clearly isn’t true, as he gives Snow pretty good advice despite being ‘out of the loop’ for so long).
Is the pulp stuff with Anna Hark and the reference to the Fourth Man possibly being a ‘she’ meant to be something that we put together to leap to a certain conclusion?
I wish I had more time to comment, but –
Yes, this was my favorite issue of the volume by far, and one of my favorites of the series. It carefully walks the line, but doesn’t cross, into pastiche.
The whole Brass reinvention was brilliant and hugely influential on me, in helping to create a space in my head for ‘post pulp’ comics, a more rigorously modern, historically rooted sci-fi adventurism, taken to it’s full and natural extent in TOM STRONG.
In a very real way, I found Brass to be the most interesting and the most tragic figure in all of Planetary, honestly. He had lived and done so much, but had this massive hole in is life; a hole that should have swallowed him completely, but did not seem to dim him in the least.