Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Crossing Worlds With Team Planetary Ends Up Going One-For-Three

Planetary: Crossing Worlds

Warren Ellis and his DC Comics subsidiary WildStorm team have put together Planetary: Crossing Worldswhich collects the three one-shot crossover tales—when characters from one comic interact with characters from another comic—of the series into this one edition; however, while the three separate works are grouped together in this volume for convenience, that doesn’t mean they are of the same quality.  In fact, of the three (1. Planetary/The Authority: Ruling the World; 2. Planetary/JLA: Terra Occulta; 3. Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth) inter-company crossovers, only the Planetary/Batman story is worth reading and is solely where the title here comes from. I will go so far as to recommend you just go ahead and skip down to that portion of the review since the first two sort of suck and not worth the focus of very much detail.  But, in case your interested, I have sections that discus them below too.  Looking at each story as it appears in the publication, the first two will be shot down like giant-freak-tadpoles-from-hell activated by human touch, before turning to the final piece and discussing why it was genius while the others were not.

Planetary/The Authority: Ruling the World

First, there is this Planetary/The Authority nonsense that must be mocked before getting to the good stuff.
  The plot revolves around these gross, flying things that look like green sperm that are spawned by an enormous octopus-type-thing.  The Planetary and Authority teams must step in and save the world, as they are both wont to do, but they don’t even do so together, they never actually meet, although they do have some sort of alertness or sensitivity of the other group’s presence and they all are inherently distrustful of the each other—it happens when you get secrete societies of super humans together I guess.  But again, they don’t actually face one another or anything so the whole project feels like a waste on some level, which was only a minor letdown in this disappointing tale. 

There were only two things I really enjoyed about this comic, the first, being the meta-line Jakita drops in reference to the suspicion that both feel toward their counterpart, where she lifts a linefrom Alan Moore’s Watchmen, click here for a review of that film/book, asking, “Who watches the Watchmen?”  Line used by Moore was also a reference itself, to Thomas Pynchon’s massive novel Gravity’s Rainbow, which I am currently reading, that I will say is roughly about paranoia (but trying to explain a postmodern novel like GR is an exercise in futility), when the book asks, “What have the watchmen of world's edge come tonight to look for?”

The other thing I liked was Ellis’s scathing portrait of an unnamed writer that one of the team members visited some 80-years before the plot of the story of unfolds that is clearly supposed to be H. P. Lovecraft.  Lovecraft is obviously deranged, thinking that the eggs that are activated by human touch that eventually bring about the later action that almost brings the two teams close enough to meet, were actually negro eggs, he opts for shooting them with a shotgun rather than being forced to touch a black baby or whatever.  I guess it is probably pretty straightforward that I am not exactly to biggest Lovercraft fan, thus enjoying Ellis’s critique.

The issue’s major problem, on the other hand, consisted of trying to do too much with too little space for 50 or so page comic book.  It was way too ambitious in it’s undertaking, bordering on unrealistic.  Trying to pack the information of two comic book franchises into a single publication was just too brief to get much depth, with so much back-story killing the work’s flow—focusing on things that needed to be known to understand the story instead of really developing a solid storyline. 

Planetary/JLA: Terra Occulta

This standalone features a Planetary from an alternate universe as they battle Justice League of America (JLA) members Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman.  Here, the Planetary team is more like their archenemies, the Four, who clearly represent the Fantastic Four, and to make this even clearer, like it wasn’t already obvious, Ambrose Chase, whose death before the storyline began created the opening now occupied by Snow who was the last of the trio to join the team, is back from the dead to match them up with the Four numerical.  JLA, then, takes the part of the normal Planetary team that is also, ugh, three in number fighting to stop the group’s world domination. 

The basic jist, plot wise, is that JLA is funding some drunken lunatic’s time travel research to use as a weapon against the previously mentioned Chase—his power has something to do with gravitational distortion fields.  The “smashed” physicist then gets sloppy and starts up the old time machine pulling some poor, green alien into the oxygen breathing planet we call Earth, and breathing, oh I don’t know, carbon monoxide or methane or hydrogen cyanide or something ambiguously mentioned, the guy ends up dying after only a few seconds as JLA basically just pokes at it.  The physicist is a huge dick about it and not only does this kill some unlucky unworldly creature apparently visiting our rock to check out the dinosaurs (although Wonder Woman’s hypothesis on how he survived our atmosphere 75-million years ago during the oxygen filled Cretaceous period is nonsensical), it also tips off Planetary that somebody is messing with the space-time continuum.  Chase then shows up blazing out of nowhere but his reincarnation is short lived as Superman rips off some of his fingers before throwing him into the time loop.  Nice to see you again, don’t let the bat-merang hit you in the ass on the way out.  JLA then uses the conveniently open doorway/portal thing that he arrived in to go to Planetary’s base on the moon so that they can all get it on as super villains and heroes always do.

Once on the moon, Snow, who is inexplicably bald, kills Superman immediately by flinging him out into space in a hey-check-this-out-way but not the other two to find out where they are holding Chase, oops, well we kind of threw him into another dimension.  The decision to keep them alive, of course, proves fatal but you have to have those final showdowns.  Separating them off, two endgames take place, one between a samurai looking Jakita and Wonder Woman and the other between Batman and cancer patient Snow.  Good wins out as per use and Snow and Jakita get themselves killed leaving the unmentioned Drummer presumably there on the moon to I assume masturbate to intergalactic internet porn.

One of the reasons the comic is so weak is that it is completely detached from the regular Planetary comic book team except in name alone.  The end result of this is that Planetary fans lose interest because these aren’t the characters they care about.  Not only that but the whole thing is pretty confusing considering that the issue not only develops an alternate universe but also challenges prior knowledge of the Planetary team.  A lot of stuff is going on here, too much stuff, and then there is the whole epic battle to get to after all that is said and done.  Again, as with the first crossover, ambition got the better of the writers and the work fails.

Same Bat-Time, Different Bat-Men: Planetary’s Team Meet a Cloud of Batmen

Warren Ellis and John Cassidy’s standalone crossover comic Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth ingeniously explores the evolution and legacy of arguably the most famous comic book character of all time, Batman, while remaining in the confines of the Planetary universe.  In this one-shot tale, Ellis’s team of “Archeologists of the Unknown,” consisting of super-humans Jakita Wagner, The Drummer, and Elijah Snow, working to uncover the “secret history of the world,” encounter the spectrum of interpretations and our various culturally ingrained images of the “Caped Crusader.”  The comic successfully not only engages the range of the one character that has changed repeatedly over the decades and kept both popularity and central concept intact, but also adds its own mark on the hero that needs no introduction.

The comic opens with the Planetary team arriving via helicopter in Gotham City to investigate one John Black who may have inherited superhuman abilities from his father, a survivor of Science City Zero that resembles the Weapon X Program from X-Men where mutants are unwillingly subjected to experiments.  At the local field office, they meet two Batman characters, Dick Grayson (Robin) and Jasper (an understated version of Batman’s archenemy “The Joker”), who are not as we know them in their roles as Gotham detectives, to exchange information on some strange homicides that have taken place in the city’s infamous “Crime Alley” where fans know the parents of Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne were gunned down in front of him as a boy which led him to a career of fighting crime.  However, this had not taken place in the Gotham the Planetary team finds themselves and there is no Batman.  So while the reader knows the significance of Crime Alley, ironically, having never developed a Batman in their universe, the team has no knowledge of the hero.

Once on location, Black’s powers are confirmed—he can travel and send matter from one dimension to another—when they find one of his victims split down the middle, the missing half sent to another reality.  The murder, however, may have been accidental; it turns out Black has been having seizures causing him to loss control of his power, projecting a sphere of energy that shifts all within its radius into a parallel world.  By pursing Black, the team causes him to panic, making the seizures worse, triggering a dimensional jump taking them to a different universe.  As they chase Black through the new Gotham, they have their first encounter with the city’s finest—Batman.

Batman does not assist, however, in their effort to catch the fugitive, finding themselves at odds with the hero who wants to deal with Black personally.  This incarnation of the Caped Crusader presents Frank Miller’s rendition from “Batman: Year One” who holds his own in a fight with Jakita who has topnotch hand-to-hand combat skills as well as super strength.  Meeting few challenges, Jakita, is, well, uh, sort of turned on, saying things like “Tell me you’re single,” referring to him as “leatherboy” and calling herself “Mistress Jakita” during their exchange.  But then Black seizes again and off they go a-sliding. 

While the team and Black remain the same throughout the jumps, Batman changes forms in each multiverse, a phenomenon that goes unexplained, this reviewers only complaint.  Now instead of a guy that makes her weak in the knees, Jakita is face to face with a version that repels her, literally, when the Adam West TV version from the 1960’s fends her off by spraying her with Bat-Female-Repellant in a can, nodding to ridiculous things like Bat Shark Repellant used to his advantage in a surfing contest.  This absurd satire of West’s portrayal, with his overly formal speech and unsculpted physique, cools her jets abruptly.  The parody pulls no punches, the Drummer compares him to a “transvestite hooker,” something the next makes him pay for uttering.

Following another seizure, they now have to deal with Miller’s massive, imposing “Dark Knight Returns” rendition of “The Batman” as he calls himself.  Grabbing Snow, whose super power manipulates temperatures, rapidly sucking heat from areas he chooses, must give him a severe ice cream headache to escape.  Despite his unfamiliarity with the Bat-Story, unaware of the irony, Snow self-referentially calls himself “Mr. Freeze,” scoffing the gritty Batman’s third person remark.  Upon recovery, the bat-mobile, more tank than car, ripped straight from Miller’s 1986 work, creates distraction and The Batman flings bat-projectiles/grenades before knocking Drummer out of the pane with a single punch to the face.

Reaching Black mid dimension shift, Batman morphs into the iconic Neal Adam’s 1970’s creation—brighter in color than the Dark Knight but still more intimidating than the West intimation—intending to cart him off to the authorities.  Snow and Jakita reason with this version, telling him Black’s history involving his the death of his parents resulting from the Science City Zero project, background with which Batman sympathizes.  Dealing with a character that believes in redemption and favors preventing crimes rather than vengeance for them, this is the Batman that transcended the campy, kitsch idea of West’s Batman that began the dark, dramatic portrayal that now defines the character image in our collective minds, Batman appears on the verge of handing over the fugitive, when another dimensional change brings another interpretation.

The empathetic Batman showing compassion for a fellow orphan gives way to a different sort of hero.  The “new” Batman proves less reasonable than his predecessor, in whose pink-gloved hand is now a gun that this version is about to use to enact his own justice on his captive, saying “Crime doesn’t pay.  Crime mustn’t pay.  Ever.”  Hmm.  This version, tough to identify, turns out is Bob Kane’s original, from 1939’s Detective Comics No. 27.  Pre-back story, the murdered parents bit came later, this Batman has no moral objections to firearms as the orphan renderings make clear and thus has no reason not to fight fire with fire if you will.  With this scene it also becomes understood that their motivations are different and so must be dealt with diversely, to the team’s frustration, having to piece together a new strategy for negotiations every few pages on a case-by-case basis.  Although, something connects them, as the Drummer points out, which has something to do with that particular alley.  The reader knows that this is where Bruce Wayne watched his parents’ executions but, of course, Planetary has just pieced together the clues to come to this realization. 

Illustrating how much the character has evolved over 70 plus years, the original and perhaps most significant revelation, is the shortest lived in the book as they cross worlds as soon as the Drummer shares his insight.  After seeing Batman in all his known forms, the creative team behind Planetary leaves its own fingerprint on the character by creating an ideal Batman in his platonic form that melds all the previous versions into one.  With this new incarnation, recalling his past after the team discovers his motivations, Batman sympathizes with Black and uses their similar tragedies to soothe Black whose freaking out has set all this in motion.  Relinquishing his captive to Planetary after they bond, Batman looks on as Black and the team teleport back to their own reality.

The reinterpretation of the superhero motif in this self-conscious depiction shows great respect for the hero ideal that was obliterated in the 1980’s postmodern comic masters like Alan Moore and Frank Miller who damned them as unnecessary.  Working at a time when people long for nostalgia, the genius of this comic is seen through the work’s study in why and how the character of Batman still appeals to such a diverse mix of people living in different historical times over a long period of time. Despite the different looks Batman has adopted in changes to survive both inside the comic books and within the genre reflecting the constantly changing world at large, something still remains the same.  At their core, each rendition shares a balance of the drive to bring criminals and empathy of those who’ve lost their parents including his alter ego that a fan from any era can recognize as distinctly Batman. Thus, it works where the others had failed by toning down the scope covered in the 50 or so pages by making it about a comic book character that any reader would have at least a base knowledge of and confining it to one section of that character’s history, Crime Alley, even though it is found in alternate universes.  The story then flows and is successful in that it becomes personal as they deal with one character and his pursuit of justice in the fate of one criminal, instead of that of the world.

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