Planetary: A Superhero Comic That Hates Heroes. And Heroism. And Also Probably You.

Monday , 23, October 2017 24 Comments

“Three people who walk the world in search of strangeness and wonder. They are the mystery archaeologists, explorers of the planet’s secret history, charting the unseen borders of a fantastic world.”

I cannot tell you how much I love the concept of Planetary (a comic series by Warren Ellis): All the pulp heroes, all the comic heroes, and much else besides, all exist in the same world. The Shadow (or an expy, that is, a clone), Sherlock Holmes, Fantastic Four expys, and on and on. Plus kaiju, giant ants in the Southwest, Count Dracula, and a From Earth to the Moon space launch (in 1851).

In the first issue, the three members of Planetary (see image) discover a quantum computer built during the waning days of WWII by a secret society of pulp heroes, expys of Doc Savage, Tarzan, The Shadow, Fu Manchu, Tom Swift, The Spider, G-8, and Operator 5. In the second issue, they find the Lost Island Of Monsters (aka “Island Zero”), where creatures akin to Gamera, Mothra, and Godzilla once lived. In the third issue, they investigate a Hong Kong legend about a murdered cop who’s come back from the grave to wreak vengeance on the criminal underworld, and find out it’s true. And the craziness only ramps up from there.

Here’s a random quote from the comic:

“I remember gunning down the deployment eggs of alien organic war-automata in Judgement, Rhode Island in January of 1931.”

How can you not love the POTENTIAL of such a series? And how can you not grieve for such potential, wasted?

If beautiful stories are a stream, deconstructionists are the assholes pouring sewage into the stream, fouling the water for every one else for no reason other than Satanic glee at ruining something good and beautiful. And Planetary could have been something good and beautiful. Each chapter sings with concepts and ideas that could make it marvelous. Based on its concept alone, the series should have been a rapturous foray into wonder and delight. Instead, nearly every page is brutal and ugly, because Ellis is a deconstructionist.

Ellis is clearly an immensely imaginative and creative person, and a skilled writer. Unfortunately, all that talent is harnessed to a mind bereft of Christian virtue or morality, one steeped in Leftism and moral relativism. Ellis’ work revels in brutality and blood, and relishes casual and gruesome deaths, presenting each in gory detail. Not a single spaceship from another world can crash land on Earth, save it crushes an infant beneath it (Ellis cheerfully showing us the toddler’s lifeless hand poking out from beneath the wreckage, blood streaming across his bedroom floor).

Issue 7—”To Be in England, in the Summertime”—features a Superman-esque hero, one who’s been degraded and abused by a John Constantine expy (“Jack Carter”). This Superman isn’t a noble being from Krypton, but an unknowing clone of Nazi Aryan super-athletes and Adolf Hitler’s “personal sex midgets”. Despite that, he was once a great and noble man. Then, in a fit of pique, Carter ensorcels him, placing him in a compromising position with “Thai rent-boys”, then takes photos of the noble hero, destroying his life. When the once-noble superhero snaps, descending to murder to get vengeance on the English magician, Carter sets a trap and bloodily murders him instead. (Viscera spraying across the page, of course, because Warren Ellis.) It’s deeply nasty stuff.

Ellis seeks to degrade and debase all that is good or noble, making the implicit argument that there is no morality save for what we choose, no justice save for that we impose via our wills and personal power. Planetary is a deconstruction and repudiation of heroes. It’s anti-heroes and anti-heroism.

The series closes with what would, in other circumstances, be a simple story about a noble pursuit: rescuing a member of the team, long thought lost, from imprisonment in a pocket of space where time no longer passes. And, indeed, the series sort of ends on kind of a nearly hopeful ending.

But that’s exactly the problem with the series: a ton of good stuff interspersed with more than enough absolutely vile stuff to poison the whole thing. The tiny moment of nobility is just a garnish on the fetid stew of nihilism and brutality. It’s TRAGIC.

I love the thought of a world where an aging Tom Swift (or expy of same) can have lunch with Tony Stark, trading tips on maximizing the thrust on Stark’s battlesuit, while across town Doc Savage watches his grandkid playing dodgeball with Franklin Richards, while he and Reed Richards debate the multiple worlds theory with Ray Palmer. Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, the X-Men and the Justice League are teaming up to battle a kaiju summoned by Fu Manchu’s daughter.

All the heroes. All the stories. All the time.

It’s a damn tragedy that the mind which actually created such a world was so dark and twisted that he ruined it, squandering its potential. In an ironic way, the corrupt “First Four” (the Fantastic Four under different names and slightly different powers) mirror Ellis himself: genius which, in another world, could have been benevolent and admirable, twisted to the service of darkness.


Jasyn Jones, better known as Daddy Warpig, is a host on the Geek Gab podcast, a regular on the Superversive SF livestreams, and blogs at Daddy Warpig’s House of Geekery. Check him out on Twitter.

24 Comments
  • Roffles Lowell says:

    For as much as we discuss the current shortcomings of mainstream comics with regards to their overt political contrivances, this is the sort of thing that’s been at play longer, doing far more damage.

    As I recall, if you were not a Marvel or DC True Believer and you just wanted to read some good stuff coming out new, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison, and later Brian Michael Bendis were the guys writing the choice pickings during the late nineties/mid-aughts.

    And that sucked.

    Ellis, Morrison, and Ennis all love the trick where they draw you in with something exciting and a little roguish, (greater and lesser degrees of the latter dependant on who you go with) and then bludgeon you with cruelty and nihilism until the story limps across the finish line with either a profound stroke of antisociality or a pathetic mewl of sadness. Whee.
    Oh, once Bendis got in the game, “good stuff” meant comics written like edgy TV crime dramas. Boy howdy, what fun.

    What I’m driving at here is that every time I see a pitched battle between people who hate that comics aren’t cool anymore, particularly that they’re just bad sociopolitical sermonizing, someone always pops up to say that they’re wrong because comics haven’t been what they think they were – fun, upbeat, rewarding adventures – for a very, very long time.

    I think back to stuff like this and I sadly agree they are right.
    Not one lost generation, but two.

    • JonM says:

      That’s a good point. “Comics have sucked for a long time,” is the weakest argument they could possibly make and yet it’s also the most frequent.

    • Elijah Dupree says:

      Can Grant Morrison truly be considered nihilistic when half his works rejects outright nihilism and often shows heroes being heroic? I recall a moment in final crisis event series where he had superman fight backs against the series main villain who’s essentially a cosmic horror representing nihlism. Granted, I haven’t read his comics in years so maybe there are outright nihilistic elements I missed. But I recall him having written superheroes in generally non-nihilistic, non-grimdark way.

      • Andy says:

        Yeah, Morrison is actually a huge fan of superheroes and he seems to be genuinely inspired by the genre (or at least he was when I was still picking up new stuff). I would say his biggest problems are that he’s weird for the sake of weird and he sometimes doesn’t seem to have a filter for some of the stuff he writers and it just reads stupid. I always remember this one moment in his X-Men run in which Cyclops’s visor gets knocked off, so Cyclops reappears a few panels later with “emergency contact lenses” placed on his eyes. Now, I don’t wear contacts myself, but I’m pretty sure it’s a lot easier to put on some spare glasses or a visor than it would be to put in some contacts…

        • Elijah Dupree says:

          Well alot of his stuff that reads like it’s weird is often because he is unashamed of how weird superhero comics are. I find his weirdness charming and it makes him a more interesting writer, even if he run’s the gambit of making things so weird you need to keep journals of all the high-concept shit he throws your way.

      • Roffles Lowell says:

        I admit I got off the train sometime around 2004. My Morrison exposure is Doom Patrol/X-Men/Filth/We3/Seaguy, Seaguy being the point I stopped reading him. If my appraisal of his work is inaccurate, I admit I’m happy to be wrong.

        • He’s all over the place, and some of his work is really heroic and good. I’d point to his JLA run as a great point for that. Hope and courage in the struggle against darkness, with a huge belief in archetypes(hence Aztek, Zauriel, and the 2 million event).

          His non hero stuff is not heroic(his doom patrol included). And I think there he gets in some of his other views, and is more nihilistic by far. He’s really an odd mix.

    • Brooklyn says:

      Don’t forget to include Mark Millar on that list; I don’t know if its a British Isles thing but with those authors, it was always so damn discouraging to read the books. There were always plenty of good ideas but they always had to be wrapped up in dark craziness. Even Grant Morrison who clearly has a love for the classic age would always end up sticking something in that would just make the story feel wrong.

      (I’m thinking of All Star Superman; on the one hand, tons of great, gigantic silver age ideas but on the other hand he’s of the Kill Bill Superman origin school. I remember the issue where Superman is dealing with some Kryptonians who accuse him of going native and he basically starts talking about humanity to them in third person like he’s Albert Schweitzer instead of basically Tarzan.)

      As for comics being cool, they kind of started petering out in the mid to late 1980s. They just didn’t start becoming insufferable until the 21st century.

  • David E. says:

    If you want a comic with the pulpy goodness promised in the brief, you could do far worse than to check out Atomic Robo:

    http://www.atomic-robo.com/atomicrobo/v1ch1-cover

    From the about page: http://www.atomic-robo.com/about

    1. No angst
    2. No cheesecake
    3. No reboots
    4. No filler
    5. The Main Robot Punches A Different Robot (Or Maybe A Monster)

    I should add that in the course of his adventures so far, the main robot also punches Nazi super-scientists, dinosaur super-scientists, gangster super-scientists, and even giant ants in the Southwest.

    And related, by the same writers, be sure to check out Real Science Adventures:

    http://www.realscienceadventures.com/comic/v01ch1-page-cover

    You will not be disappointed!

  • VD says:

    You should have known it was going to happen the moment that you noticed that “All the pulp heroes, all the comic heroes, and much else besides, all exist in the same world.”

    That’s the hallmark of someone who can’t create anything new. So, naturally, he’s going to tear down someone else’s work and call the process his own creation.

    It’s literally Satanic.

    • Carrington Dixon says:

      “All the pulp heroes, all the comic heroes, and much else besides, all exist in the same world.”

      That’s the hallmark of someone who can’t create anything new.

      Philip Jose Farmer did pretty well; although, his Wold Newton universe may have been ‘just’ all the pulp heroes.

      • T. Everett says:

        It may have started out that way, but at this point there’s a small industry of folks expanding the Wold Newton concept into pretty much every genre conceivable.

        And while this admittedly can lead to extensive pastiche efforts (there’s considerable overlap with the Sherlock Holmes and Cthulhu Mythos publishing behemoths), I know of at least one original series that’s come out of it – Joshua Reynold’s Royal Occultist, who learned ghostbusting from Carnacki and fought everything from Jack the Ripper’s ghost to the Encyclopedia of Tlön.

      • Vlad James says:

        PJ Farmer (who I’ve lauded extensively on this blog before) always presented these characters in a suitably heroic, respectful manner, and rarely used more than one or two in the same story. A story that was completely original and not reused from another’s work.

        He created the Wold Newton, yes, but it’s only ever discussed in “Tarzan Alive”, which isn’t a story or adventure, but a fictional reference/history.

  • Get Over Yourself says:

    So you’re mad because someone made art that didn’t appeal to you.

    Get over yourself. If you want fairy-tale superhero comics, there are plenty for you to read. It isn’t anyone’s job to make their art accommodate your ideals.

    • David says:

      you’re mad because someone made art that didn’t appeal to you.

      Wrong, there is no anger in this post. You are just projecting your own anger because he criticized something you like.

      Get over yourself.

      You should follow your own advice. If you want someone to praise the stuff you like, I am sure you can find that praise somewhere. It isn’t Jasyn’s job to accommodate your ideals.

    • Ellis SCRIPTED it. It’s not about the art style, it’s about the fact that the writer told him to put it there.

    • Vlad James says:

      So you’re mad

      SJWs always project!

    • jic says:

      That’s like something a teenage girl who has just read a disparaging comment about Twilight would write.

  • Fidelios Automata says:

    I don’t mind a bit of nihilism as long as it’s not a steady diet, but I hate hit-you-over-the-head sermonizing, even if I agree with the writer’s politics.

  • […] Jones, aka DaddyWarpig, has done a fisking of Warren Ellis’ Planetary. I haven’t read Planetary or much Ellis, though I’m interested in doing so. Still, I want to […]

  • Tomas Diaz says:

    So, my response got real wordy: https://tomasenriquediaz.wordpress.com/2017/10/23/comic-books-and-deconstruction/

    tl;dr – Deconstructions have merit; just not as edifying fun.

  • Vlad James says:

    To be fair, I’ve always had a soft spot for nihlistic, occasionally mindless hedonism ever since I became enchanted with Japanese samurai, yakuza, and Hong Kong kung-fu films in my early teens.

    And I did like Garth Ennis’ “The Boys”, which is a deconstruction/satire of super heroes. But at this point, it’s become an eye-rolling, over-used, irritating cliche, no different than zombies or grimdark superhero movies.

    The opposite would very much be a breathe of fresh air at this point, regardless of one’s tastes.

  • Brooklyn says:

    My problem with Planetary is the same problem that Ellis has in all his books; none of his characters are really likable. They start out with potential but in the end they usually only turn out to be a few degrees away from the villain, mainly differing only motivation. And this isn’t just a matter of a character who’s a pain in the neck or of rough means but is still someone you can root for. The Punisher or Spectre Jim Corrigan (John Ostrander’s version of the character) aren’t pleasant people but fundamentally they are driven and restrained by something in their natures that we can respect and root for. The characters in Planetary aren’t like that. I don’t think any of Ellis’ characters are like that. (If you really want to see this let loose, check out his Avatar comics series like “No Heroes” or “Supergods”. Avatar is a good example of his works in the raw because they basically were able to publish his material by letting his run wild without any editorial interference whatsoever.)

    I enjoyed a lot of the different takes on the various ideas that Ellis did introduce in Planetary. But the characters and ultimately the underlying story undermine all that. What does the story in Planetary boil down to after all?

    *Spoilers* (Yeah its been out for years but just in case…)
    When it started out we had a mystery; who was the fourth man? Who is the protagonist? What’s going on and why? All those interesting ideas – Godzilla island, Hulk caught by army and left to die over 20 years of thirst in a missile silo, ancient snobbish eugenicist Sherlock Holmes as the mentor of the protagonist, so on and so forth – were dressing around the main adventure of the series. And what does it end up being? Its a turf war. The Nazi Fantastic Four are retarding technological development of the planet so Darkseid can conquer the place but the materials they are hiding are the journals of the main protagonist Elijah Snow, journals that he put together thirty years before the Nazi FF were even a twinkle in anyone’s eye. He’s been doing the same thing as the villains, keeping all the cool, super-science and history in his own private collection, just over a longer period of time and for different reasons.

    Its something Ellis never gets to in any of his Spirit of the 20th century characters – they have all the future sci-fi in the 1920s and 30s but somehow history goes the way we know it did and they only somehow get some motivation to begin doing anything because the magic number – the year 2000! – pops up. If its wrong to keep all this knowledge hidden in 1999, why was it right in 1931 or 1942 or 1957? Ellis even pretty much can see Planetary as just another set of control freak villains because when he finally got around to doing a crossover with JLA (actually an alternate reality version of both sets of characters), it ends up with them being the villains outright. About the only really good story in Planetary was their crossover with Batman and it made the point that the Planetary characters aren’t that likable even clearer; when even Adam West Batman can show up and kick their asses and you can’t find a reason to at least feel a bit sorry for them in all the confusion, there’s a problem with your set of supposed-to-be non-villainous characters.

    re: Issue 7 – The multiple retcon hero wasn’t a major issue for me when I first read the series mainly because it was pretty clear that Ellis was trying, in a very overblown and over the top way to poke fun at the endless retconning in superhero comics. Its terrible for the character in question but we don’t know anything about this character except what he himself says and we could easily argue that he’s insane and nothing he’s said is true. Its less this that was a problem in the issue as much as it is the reaction of the supposed heroes of the story; they don’t care and don’t take much notice of this characters death when it finally happens. Its just background noise to them. This is pretty much true for everyone in the series who isn’t a part of the team or connected to them in some way. The mass of humanity is either a bore or in the way.

    An argument could be made that they aren’t superheroes, they are archaeologists of the fantastic and it isn’t their job or duty to save anyone. But thats part of the problem with the book; who wants to spend time and money to read about characters who are self-centered and only do anything at all to avoid boredom?

  • […] blog. The criticism there, such as this piece on the 2016 Ghost In The Shell movie or this one on Warren Ellis’ Planetary, both by Daddy Warpig, are just too damning. Posts like these are a complete narrative inversion, […]

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