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CSBG Archive

A Year of Cool Comics – Day 331

Here is the latest in our year-long look at one cool comic (whether it be a self-contained work, an ongoing comic or a run on a long-running title that featured multiple creative teams on it over the years) a day (in no particular order whatsoever)! Here‘s the archive of the comics posted so far!

Today we look at Planetary #7, Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s tribute (is that even the right word for it?) to John Constantine.

Enjoy!

In case you’re unfamiliar with the set-up of Planetary, the book revolves around a group of “Archaeologists of the Impossible,” a team of specially-skilled folks who investigate strange goings-on to discover what the deal is (and if they can learn anything that could benefit mankind as a whole). Under this set-up, while there is a basic overarching plot for the series, each issue also sort of stands on its own, with Ellis and Cassaday doing their own particular take on a piece of pop culture history (like they might do an issue on a character who is basically Tarzan, or an issue on a character who is basically Doc Savage).

In Planetary #7, the crew learns of the death of John Constantine…sorry….Jack Carter…

then go to England to investigate…

This issue came out at the very end of the 1990s, and in it, Ellis takes an interesting perspective on the 1980s, and the proto-Vertigo characters of DC Comics, which included Constantine, of course, but also had Swamp Thing and Animal Man in their ranks…

As you can see, that’s Alan Moore above.

After that sequence, Ellis and Cassaday have a very strong short Carter story, set in the past. Powerful stuff.

Then, in a comic that is very much meta-fiction, Ellis has the killer revealed as a prototypical superhero (although more specifically, he is certainly referencing the way Alan Moore turned Marvelman into much less than a traditional superhero) who is sick of writers doing post-modern things to him (with Carter standing in for these pre-Vertigo writers)…

Of course, there’s at least one major twist coming (and one major meta-fictive twist, especially!).

This was a sharp comic book by Ellis and Cassaday, and it was especially remarkable for how pointed its commentary was while still actually telling a compelling story. Planetary was a great series, but there were particular issues that worked better than others (makes sense, with the disparate group of characters being spotlighted), and this is one of those issues that worked better than others.

It is collected in the second volume of Planetary, “The Fourth Man.”

33 Comments

Is it too obvious to point out that G-Mozz is also present. I’m pretty sure that’s supposed to be him between “Animal Man” and “Black Orchid.”

I think this issue was both a criticism and a tribute to the proto-vertigo era of the 80’s. OK maybe not so much with Marvel/miraclemanm but that scene did give us the concept of Hitler’s sex midgets!

I forgot how cool that bit of Jakita throwing the bottle on the first page here is. 3D without the glasses, man!

That bit with the superhero is reminiscent of when Ellis first burst onto the scene, and Wizard asked him what he’d do with certain characters (or how he’d kill them). I’m pretty certain that most of the superhero stuff above is how he’d take out Superman (embarass him to death rather than kill him).

Callahan did a When Words Collide piece on this a while ago over at CBR. I know I have the link saved somewhere…

This is a great issue that works even without familiarity of the metacommentary. Ellis was taking over Hellblazer just about this time, too, I think, from what I read of Callahan’s piece.

Dammit, now I have to take out the Planetary books from the library again. Arrgh! I still have to do my top 10 lists for the 100 Greatest Artists and Writers!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I wonder if, in Transmet issue 1, the change in Spider’s appearance from a hairy Alan Moore type to the clean shaven, bald GMozz type was deliberate metacommentary?

I’ve always wanted to read the Vertigo “Metal Men” series whose apocryphal existence is implied here.

Here and throughout Planetary, Cassady’s ability (and Ellis’ too, of course) to evoke particular, perfectly specific and identifiable characters while still genuinely making them new and original always amazes me. The Dorothy Spinner figure with the spun-upside-down face– I know who she’s referring to immediately and yet I want to go back and read her nonexistent stories, which aren’t the same as y old Doom Patrols…

Wow, I’m totally not the target audience for today’s entry. I missed half of the references and the metacommentary I did get is about as subtle as a jackhammer.

@ T: that’s the reason why I’ve never been able to completely enjoy this issue. Planetary is an amazing comic, of course, but the message here seems to be that Vertigo needed to move past the post-modern, the weirdness and all that stuff that Ellis seems to find “faintly ridiculous”.

But you look at Vertigo’s output after Swamp Thing and Sandman and you have Preacher, 100 Bullets, Scalped, DMZ, Unknown Soldier, Human Target. So I’ve never understood what the hell was he complaining about. Vertigo moved on just fine. To me it’s a non-issue.

I always saw this issue as Ellis once again saying “Change or Die”, but unlike Stormwatch, the change was never a problem here.

I always assumed the guy standing next to Animal Man was supposed to be Morpheus.

The art on the scene with the bottle is great however. The facial expressions are on par with Kevin Maguire.

I think it’s Morpheus-as-Morrison, just like Shade is Shade-as-Moore.

When Ellis was writing this story, though, only Preacher was around in any notable form (100 Bullets had JUST started), and Preacher is certainly no less ridiculous than any of those other Vertigo stories (just the terrible things that happen to Herr Starr alone!).

That Vertigo more or less followed Ellis’ advice (although surely not because they literally followed his advice – it’s almost certainly a coincidence) is not a knock on what he is complaining about BEFORE they did so.

@ Brian Cronin: Fair enough, I agree with that. I meant ridiculous in a weird, pseudo-mystical way. You can find the type of black humor that you see in Preacher (like the stuff that happens to Herr Starr) in Transmetropolitan or even Nextwave.

But still, Miracleman, Shade, Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Sandman are some of the best comics ever. Complaining that they look ridiculous now seem unnecessary. Almost all comics do with time, and it doesn’t make them less great. Even the characters remark that they’re a product of their time.

Nevertheless, it was a good issue, just one whose message I didn’t agree with. And I think that the negative mail that Ellis received because of his comments towards Thatcher was silly.

And part of what Brian was saying was that Preacher was atypical at the time. Remember how long Planetary took. This issue came out in late 1999 or early 2000. The modern Vertigo dramas and memoirs and the like weren’t popular yet.
And yes, they do admit that they are products of their time. The point was that the time had passed, and these were still what people associated firmly with the idea of “mature” comics. It wasn’t that they weren’t great, it was that new writers should be doing something new.

I think the commentary was pretty on-target for Vertigo c. 1999-2001. The Dreaming, the many Sandman Presents minis and one-shots, and the Swamp Thing relaunch were mostly mediocre retreads, and seemed to signal that Vertigo was going to keep going back to the same well. Lucifer was terrific, but certainly wasn’t a new and different direction; it was still telling a story that Moore had started in 1985 or so, and Gaiman had continued in 1990 or so. Books of Magic ran out of steam but still trundled along as three more Tim Hunter series afterwards. (I miss Tim Hunter! But keeping the character alive on life-support didn’t do him any good.) There was a lot of holding-onto-the-past going on.

“Complaining that they look ridiculous now seem unnecessary. Almost all comics do with time, and it doesn’t make them less great. Even the characters remark that they’re a product of their time.”

I think the Ellis would agree. I doubt the “faintly ridiculous” comment was really meant as a complaint about the original stories. It’s more of a statement about why you should let things go after they’ve run their course, before they lose their context and become stale.

Remember, Moore wrote the introduction to one of the Planetary trades, so I don’t think he took this as a dig at his work, and if he’s not bothered, I’m certainly not going to be on his behalf.

” Hitler’s Personal Sex Midgets “; Best Band Name Ever.

Hey Brian!
This could also be a great issue for the “Meta-Messages” posts. [That’s a hint by the way] :-)

i loved this issue [except for the crazy politics] & would love a breakdown of all the character icons in this issue, as i’m sure that i missed a few [such as the Metal Men, was there a Vertigo proposal?]

Also, i don’t think that all the words that come out of a characters mouth are de facto the author’s feelings. So, i don’t assume that when Snow talks about them looking ridiculous that Ellis is commenting on Vertigo as a whole, but perhaps Ellis is allowing his character to have his own voice while echoing part of what Ellis would feel. Jakita feels sympathy for their state, so why do we assume that Ellis only sees Vertigo c. 1995-2000 as ridiculous? i think that Ellis is having his characters both speak for themselves and voice certain opinions that Ellis has.

Again, thanks Brian!
DFTBA

such as the Metal Men, was there a Vertigo proposal?

It’s a reference to the 1993 Metal Men mini by Mike Carlin, which retconned the Metal Men into Doc Magnus’s friends transported into robot bodies.

52 retconned that retcon into a delusion by Doc Magnus.

And, of course, part of the faintly ridiculousness is the underlying “Margaret Thatcher is the Antichrist” motif that runs deeply through pre- and early Vertigo. (And the ending is, of course, Ellis saying ‘No, you idiots, its Blair that is the Son of Satan, see?’)

I love PLANETARY, but this issue fell a bit flat for me. Maybe Ellis was a little too close to the Vertigo wave to effectively homage-satirize it. After all, the man wrote a pastiche of THE BIG SLEEP in which the McGuffin was Hitler Porn.

funkygreenjerusalem

November 29, 2010 at 8:14 pm

Spoilers for a decade old comic below.

That Vertigo more or less followed Ellis’ advice (although surely not because they literally followed his advice – it’s almost certainly a coincidence) is not a knock on what he is complaining about BEFORE they did so.

I was always confused by his commentary here – because on the one hand, he was saying that Vertigo needs to let go of the 80’s and move towards the future, which he represented by having Constantine turn into Spider Jerusalem… yet he himself had just started writing Hellblazer.

It’s not so much that he was writing Hellblazer, but that he said his own character was the natural evolution – thus making himself/outside world a part of the story – yet in life was going backwards from what he was saying.
Seemed a confused statement.

I should also mention, this wouldn’t bother me half as much, but it’s a story that I read when it came out (at 17-18 I think), and spent a lot of time trying to figure that one out at the time.

And, of course, part of the faintly ridiculousness is the underlying “Margaret Thatcher is the Antichrist” motif that runs deeply through pre- and early Vertigo. (And the ending is, of course, Ellis saying ‘No, you idiots, its Blair that is the Son of Satan, see?’)

At no point does Ellis say ‘no you idiots’.
In the pages above, he points out that he thought she was genuinely insane, and these characters are a direct rebellion to that.

I don’t remember any Blair commentary in the issue, nor in his Hellblazer run.

Peter Milligan is the first HB writer I’ve really noticed to go after Blair/post-Blair England in the book.

Peter Milligan’s HB is one of the most under appreciated things in comics right now.

Was Transmet a Vertigo book by this point? I know it started as a Helix book, but I’m not sure when it switched to Vertigo.

And y’know, Hitler’s PERSONAL sex midgets implies there were sex midgets for general consumption. Which is somewhat scary.

Vertigo did basically start out as the weird fringes of the DCU superhero universe and the writers who’d been on those books.

And mind you, I like Hellblazer, but how has that book stayed publishing for as long as it has (I know that sounds like a knock)? I assume sales are good, but what is it about that book in particular that allows it to survive for years? Is it because the writers drop in for a couple years, say what they want, then move on to other things and other writers get a chance to pick up John and do something else to him?

Transmetropolitan was definitely a Vertigo book at the time this issue initially came out. It was only a Helix book through its first twelve issues and it started in 1997, so it would’ve gone to Vertigo sometime in 1998. This issue would’ve shipped sometime in 1999.

Hellblazer probably keeps going because John Constantine remains an incredibly popular character despite how fundamentally dated he “should” be. While a lot of creators have done extraordinary work with Hellblazer, the book’s also seen its fair share of mediocrity.

In comics, it’s generally the durability of a lead character or premise that determines whether or not a book survives runs of mediocre material. I think it’s telling that Constantine is probably the most modern bit of comic book lore to merit extended homage in Planetary.

funkygreenjerusalem

November 30, 2010 at 4:44 pm

but what is it about that book in particular that allows it to survive for years? Is it because the writers drop in for a couple years, say what they want, then move on to other things and other writers get a chance to pick up John and do something else to him?

It’s got a good lead character, who you can drop into almost any situation.

Also, the writers changing does help – and in the runs held in highest regard, the writers have really let loose.
It’s a book that plays for keeps – horrible things happen, characters will die and not come back, and your never sure if Constantine will do the right thing, act selfishly, or try to do the right thing yet still bugger everything up.

It’s a book that’s at it’s best when writers keep the lead a bastard – whenever they try and make him more of a hero, it’s never works as well.
I mean, we’re talking about a guy who has lead to the deaths of most of his friends and girlfriends – a guy who once buggered it up and sent a twelve year old girls soul to hell.

Hellblazer probably keeps going because John Constantine remains an incredibly popular character despite how fundamentally dated he “should” be

I think it works because they do age him – more rapidly than I think they should sometimes, but it wouldn’t work as well if he was the cocky young guy from Swamp Thing.
Everyone in the real world gets older, and priorities change – if John was still running around brimming with anger about politics, it would have worn off.
Now he just seems to take it as one more kick in the gut, unless it affects someone he knows.

While I do think aging Constantine has lead to some good stories (and not-so-good stories), I think it’s a bit indifferent to what keeps the character so durable. I think there’s just something very resonant about the idea of a guy who’s a powerful wizard and yet somehow is completely unfulfilled and frustrated with the unjustness of the world.

He’s the anti-Harry Potter, for all that he predates that guy by a good couple of decades. Constantine’s frustration will probably continue to resonate with people as long as the world is far less than ideal, which is conceivably forever. I look forward to when the Harry Potter generation breaks into comics, they’re going to write some absolutely crazy Hellblazer stories.

I’d never call Constantine a “powerful wizard”. They way I see it, his magical abilities are quite limited, but he combines what he has with skill in manipulating people, cunning and ruthlessness to achieve what he needs.

I dunno. There’s stories where the guy successfully cheats the Devil into curing his own cancer. That’s not awesome magic in the Gandalf sense, sure, but it’s plenty awesome enough for power fantasy purposes.

Yeah, Constantine has done some pretty out there things during his days, like carving a sigil into the soul of an angel and such.

Cheating the devil wasn’t magic at all (beyond the summoning part). It was just sneakiness. That’s where JC excels.

I think glossing over the summoning part is a bit disingenuous, as it was a necessary requirement of Constantine’s ability to pull off the deal. Also probably laid the necessary groundwork for him to understand Hell and its powers enough to figure out how to construct a watertight deal.

Obviously the summoning was magic – but it’s small scale magic.

Absolutely he has a great understanding of Hell and it’s powers, but that’s not magic.

Hm. Constantine does call the process “a basic sort of affair,” but I get the feeling that’s unreliable narration. He goes on to talk about how the “basic” affair for summoning the Second and Third requires a rare piece of magical chalk he obtained eight years ago. It’s implied that Constantine probably couldn’t get more if he needed it. This does not give me the impression that the magic is really “small scale” or easily done at all, it’s just easy for Constantine.

Now, summoning the First could be considered trivial, since all Constantine has to be willing to do is gash his arm deeply enough that he’d shortly die of the blood loss. This scene is kind of ambiguous, though– the First’s dialog clearly indicates that his rapid appearance has a lot to do with answering the insult Constantine dealt him earlier in the arc.

While we do see another character who dealt with the First in that earlier part of the arc, Brendan Finn, Constantine’s narration and things we see Finn pull off in the basement clearly indicate that Finn’s powers are probably fairly advanced and comparable to Constantine’s.

Arguing that a great understanding of magical things has nothing to do with magic doesn’t really make sense to me. Conscious mortal exercise of magic in the DCU-derived Vertigo stuff I’ve read is largely depicted as a “knowledge is power” sort of affair, so doing magic things and knowing about magic are typically much the same. I don’t recall ever coming across any real exceptions to this (not even the Tim Hunter stuff), though if there are any it’d be interesting to hear about them.

The insanity of Reagans 1980’s and the nearly fascist policies of 1980’s Thacarian England led writers like Moore to write such tales of fantastical characters striving against oppressive authority. This was the vein of Vertigo books through Morrison’s Invisibles to, I believe, the Preacher. In this age of a war on ‘Terror’, we tend to be more on the side of Authority. I believe that Ellis, the creator of his run of Stormwatch that became the Authority, WAS BEING IRONIC!!!! The issue was a homage to the days when, while Captain America had no problem wearing the flag, writers were telling you that all is not right in your land of Oz. There is a melencholy to the issue that reflects my own personal sadness on how this shining light of creative inspiration has dimmed.

Arguing that a great understanding of magical things has nothing to do with magic doesn’t really make sense to me.

I never argued that. JC has an encyclopaedic knowledge and understanding of magic and is an incredibly influential and respected/despised man in magic circles. He’s just not a powerful wizard.

Simon Cowell is incredibly influential in music and has a great understanding of it, but as far as I’m aware he doesn’t sing.

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