So. Yeah. Still on the Warren Ellis trip I’ve been rereading Planetary (yeah yeah I know I know – it starts off great and it’s reinventing comics books as we know it and then it just falls into a whole lot of suck and a total waste of time and you’re better off without it – ok) and I’ve been struck by way that mainstream comics basically poisons the imagination of the writers who get their start there… I mean they write good stuff don’t get me wrong but _so many_ comics there have the same sort of design as Planetary where it basically rests up all this other stuff that you have to know… thinking in particular of (best comics writer ever) Alan Moore who – in spite of being one of the most original creative minds of the medium – is actually nearly always unoriginal in how most of his work depends upon / rests upon other works. Even after he graduated to being able to write his own stuff instead of doing work-for-hire stuff it’s like the creative habit had already set in… Watchmen. From Hell. Tom Strong. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Etc in fact the only things that he wrote that are sui generis are Halo Jones, Promethea and Top 10…
Like it’s not a feature of the medium so much (I don’t think?) but more a feature of how the western comics mainstream system is set up. You start off writing characters that already exist in universes that are already mapped out – and I think partly that means that you’re learning habits that last a lifetime. Which you know – maybe might help to explain why comics are often seen as the red-headed stepchild of the art world: excreting the same few ideas (“Hey guys – picture this: what if there was someone that had amazing superpowers?”) and then stuffing them back in it’s mouth again. I mean in a healthy artistic ecological system comics could look towards other mediums and innovate and evolve itself by looking at various cool techniques from other places (I seem to recall Alan Moore in his prime talking about doing stuff like this – working out the features of how to tell a story in a movie and then translating that into a comic and seeing how the transference process might get rise to interesting and exciting cool new mutations) but – alas! – it seems as if mostly the translation process is happening in the opposite way and films and TV and even books are following the deformed and malnourished example of mainstream comic books and creating narratives based around – well – people with amazing superpowers and stories that never ever end but just keep cycling on in perpetuity (I mean I don’t even have to name any examples at this point right? Just you know – turn on a screen).
Maybe I’m being crazy delusional here – but I feel like good new ideas are still possible. Everything doesn’t just have to be a riff on everything else. Although of course of course it’s much easier to sell something when you can frame it as X plus Y with a little bit of Z sprinkled over the top (“And would you like some diverse casting with that?”) while anything that actually tries to create new pathways runs the risk of being too strange to be successfully marketed…
Planetary doesn’t fall into trap. In fact – it’s almost too perfectly designed. The two word pitch is: “Superhero archaeologists” and (at the start at least) every issue is it’s own self-contained little world. I had a friend once who was convinced that the beautiful simple verse-chorus-verse structure of a pop song wasn’t down to any sort of artistic breakthrough or a careful distilling of melodic elements to their most basic and essential parts – for him it was just a question of technology and the fact that a 7‐inch single could only hold three or four minutes worth of music. Maybe there’s something similar going on with comic books too. I mean for a certain type of reader who’s been weened on a certain type of book – there’s a sense in which a standard 32 page comic is like a basic building block of narrative or something but you know – it’s just a contingent quirk of the manufacturing process and the available technologies of the time…
(I do like the superhero team as a band idea tho – made explicit by the fact that The Drummer is called The Drummer which I guess means that Jakita Wagner is like Kim Deal and Elijah Snow is Paul Weller painted white).
But then – I was never there at the start of Planetary. Never got the individual issues when they first came out. Only really discovered it much later in the collected trade (which to be fair – is how I read most things…). For those people who were there on the ground floor and brought it back when it was all fleshly baked and just out there’s a glitter in their eyes when they talk about how amazing it was. How it felt like a small piece of the future in the here-and-now (way back then). And of course everything reads different in different contexts (how many films or books have you watched that were made pre-2020 and yet take on somekind of spooky significance when you watch them in our Covid-infested world?) but Planetary for designed for that first sugary rush and collected and bound in four books it loses a lot of it’s pop and sparkle. And what must have seemed revolutionary just feels a bit… rote? I mean for a lot of the early issues it’s basically them standing around and listening to other people tell stories about stuff that’s already happened.
(But then that’s archaeology for you I guess – most of it doesn’t take place in here and now).
And at the risk of sounding like a contrarian I feel like I mostly tend to enjoy the later issues more (or as most people know it – when Planetary got shit). Which is tantamount to saying that their most favourite episodes of the X-Files was when it got into the whole conspiracy stuff (and omg that’s actually probably the most perfect parallel ever except there’s no sexual tension between anyone in the Planetary team which – you know – is a shame. Maybe somekind of sexy threesome would have given the series that exist twist it needed?). But yeah – it’s nice when things start connecting up to stuff and everything doesn’t feel quite so aimless. Although as with everyone else I’ve got to admit that the final showdown with the baddest and (supposingly) smartest and well-resourced bad guys in the history of existence is a massive and total let down. It’s like if you went up against The Evil Emperor crossed with Professor Moriarty and then just chucked them down a hole or something (yawn).
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