Some essays and random thoughts on the subplots of Planetary...
Ellis and the Creation of Finer Worlds
or Why I'm Afraid that the Planetary Team, and Elijah Snow in Particular, will Meet with Some Manner of Grisly Death
Note: This piece was originally posted sometime prior to February 2001. It turned out to be wrong, of course. But it captures some of the uncertainty in those early issues, and more of the mood of titles at the time, and therefore stands as a small glimpse of the mood back then. - RDG
I'm worried about Snow.
I'll just state right up front that I'm not North America's leading Warren Ellis authority. I've only read his run on Authority/StormWatch, Planetary, and a few of the Transmetropolitan trades. But I've noticed a pattern, and it's got me concerned:
Characters who try to change the world rarely fare well in the Ellisverse.
I'm not sure why this seems to be true. Cynicism on Ellis' part? A realistic grasp on the enormity of the job? Personal experience? Hard to say. But take a look at how some of his would-be world changers have fared (presented in Ellisverse chronological order, not real time).
This, Ellis' most recent creation, represented a collection of the most visionary and unique inhabitants of the late 1800s-early 1900s. The diverse congregation of Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Dr. Frankenstein and his creature, authors H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, the original Invisible Man, John Carter (the Edgar Rice Burroughs, mars-visiting Carter), and Robur the Conqueror gathered to try to "construct a brave new world from the remnants of the old," primarily through the pursuit of eugenics, re-education, and a controlled economy. Wells had wanted it to be an Open Conspiracy, both in name and action. But the rest of the world, unready ready and unwilling to change, left the group marginalized. Pushed into the dark, Holmes stated that the group itself became darker. While this is not elaborated upon, it isn't too difficult to extrapolate that the groups once-lofty goals became secondary to the mere survival of the group. And whatever the result, it was bad enough to capture the attention of a young Elijah Snow who, even with his then-rudimentary moral compass, saw fit to end the conspiracy altogether.
The Pulp Heroes
Fast forward to the 1930s. The Pulp Heroes were the next group to seek to create a finer world. The group, composed of founder and adventurer Doc Brass; Hark, the once-evil Asian supergenius (and father to Anna Hark); Jimmy, a federal agent (or "G-Man"); The English Lord, a nobleman raised in the jungles of Africa; The Aviator, pilot and adventurer; Edison, unmatched scientist and inventor; and the Spider, a gun-toting, dark-cloaked mystery man waging war on crime; the group first worked to avert crime, then the unseen horrors afflicting the globe. And finally, during the waning days of World War Two, they decided to risk their own untested super-science in an all-or-nothing gamble to use a Quantum Computer to develop the equation for the best possible world, then have that template imposed on the existing world. When one of the universes created during the computational process realized what was happening, it unleashed its own heroes on the pulps in an effort to save itself. The heroes from that other universe died trying to stop the pulps (allowing their universe to die along with them), and even cost the lives of the pulps themselves, save for Doc Brass. And his unplanned punishment was to lay crippled but awake for 55 years, guarding the portal that he and his team had created. Another desperate attempt to make the world a better place had gone awry, and left many dead in its wake.
The Four Voyagers
This example is a bit more dubious in its inclusion, as it doesn't fit the mold quite as well as the first two, but it still makes a point or two. The Four Voyagers were the accidental (?) outgrowth of a government program designed for the sole purpose of keeping the US ahead of the USSR. The triumph of capitalism over totalitarian socialism is, in a favorable light, a noble goal. In most other lights it is simply the lesser of two evils. (And of course in some views it's the triumph of evil, but to address these issues would be beyond the scope of this piece.) When the result of the Artemis project was the creation of four unstoppable superhumans with a liking for the ways and machinations of the hidden military-industrial complex, well, you don't need to be one of the world's great thinkers to anticipate trouble. But the Four Voyagers, like others listed here, sought to create a better world, with "better" defined by their own beliefs. We can easily disagree with their goals, particularly in light of the fact that they deprived their world of some of the greatest forces for good ever created (with faux-Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern part of the list that we're aware of). But the simple fact is that they were taking the same liberties with the rest of the world that both the Pulps and the Conspiracy sought to take. But to define the world by the wishes of this sinister collection is a poor end result, by any reckoning.
StormWatch was designed to be an independent force to watch over the planet in a manner hopefully above narrow national interest. But here we find excellent proof of the old maxim, "power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." Henry Bendix, never wound too tightly to begin with, became convinced that he, and only he, could change the world in the way it needed to be changed. A master manipulator and tactician, his true ambition was only exposed when a rival appeared on the scene: a rival in the form of...
The Changers were a group dedicated to remaking the world in a way that would render governmental authority unnecessary. They were led by The High, a Superman-esque figure who had essentially been in hiding since the late 1930s while pondering the best way to save the world. With other near-omnipotent figures like the first Engineer and most recent Doctor (whose antecedents joined The Authority), the group planned to give the world answers to its problems in the form of a technologically-created abundance of resources, then leave it up to the citizens of the world to govern themselves in any way they saw fit. This was unsettling news to the existing governments of the world, of course, and literally maddening news for Henry Bendix. He sent StormWatch in to battle The Changers. But the Changers had already begun to realize their own internal corruption and failings. While able to avert the confrontation that could have left them all dead, The High was so distraught by the death of his dream for a finer world that he flew to attack the StormWatch headquarters itself, and died on impact with the raised Storm Shield. So here again, we have dreams of utopia shattered by the failings of the humans who dare to dream it.
Born from the ashes of StormWatch, The Authority was in many ways similar to StormWatch in its goal for a better world. The great improvements with this group were the fact that it was led by 100 year old Jenny Sparks, whose experience and good intentions put the group far ahead of StormWatch from the get-go, and the fact that it was formed deliberately by men and women of similar good conscience. Eyes open, they moved to make the big changes that no heroes had tried to make since The Changers, but in a way that would hopefully be less invasive. Ellis' run on this title was a mere twelve issues, and the group accomplished a great deal in this time. But the ongoing issue the title explored was When is Enough Enough, and When Would They Go Too Far? These characters knew they were playing God with the world, and not all of them were 100% comfortable with it. This issue continues to be explored after Ellis' departure, with growing tension over the ultimate outcome. The biggest casualty during the Ellis run was Jenny Sparks, who died saving the planet from ecological destruction. Another leader, defining the dream of a better world, has fallen. Which brings us to...
So now it's Elijah Snow and his team that are at risk. Snow's hatred for the Four Voyagers and anger with what they've cost both Snow and the world makes a confrontation inevitable. His team's original task to serve as "mystery archaeologists," whose only goal was to uncover the hidden secrets of the word, is very much in danger of being replaced by the task of somehow defeating the Four Voyagers to give back to the world some of its right to self-determination. A quick inventory of the leaders of past groups with such inclinations shows a very definite pattern: The High, Henry Bendix, and Jenny Sparks have all died. Doc Brass and Sherlock Holmes both escaped death as a direct consequence of their attempts to improve the world, but the price was very high for both of them and many died needlessly. Snow looks to continue this tradition, one way or the other, when he finally faces the Four Voyagers. They have already given him the chance to back away from the conflict with as much grace as they felt they could allow, so a fight to the death is the only remaining option.
Ellis seems to believe that creating lasting, positive change on a grand scale is an ultimately fatal endeavor. But, to his credit, his writings consistently argue that this is a risk that is not only worth taking, but in fact must be taken by men and women of good conscience. To bring about positive change is a duty, and it doesn't matter if the issue at stake is your comic buying habits, your column in CBR (or The Word!), or saving the world. It just seems to be the case that the higher the stakes, the higher the personal cost. And I'd be willing to bet that he'll continue to write his characters the way he does until one of them finally succeeds in making the world a better place for good.
But meanwhile, understandably, I'm worried about Snow.
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Elementary... Sherlock Holmes Background
Chris Nuttall, a fellow Planetary fan and frequent correspondent with this site, contributed the following background information on Sherlock Holmes for those of you who, like me, have only a casual familiarity with the character. the following information will give you a little more context to Snow's meeting with Holmes in Issue 13.
The information on Holmes is followed by Chris' own feedback on some of that issue's events.
Canon Information: Sherlock Holmes was born, approximately, in the 1860s. Details are sparse, as Holmes revealed little about his origins, save that his ancestors were country squires, and that his grandmother was the sister of the famous French artist Vernet (though he doesn't say which Vernet). Fans have speculated on locations including Sussex and Ireland, but there is no canonical evidence for a precise location. Holmes had one (known) brother, Mycroft, who he described as being smarter than Sherlock, but lazier. Mycroft held a very high place in the British government as an advisor of some kind, probably director of intelligence, and was not averse to using Sherlock as an agent at times.
Sherlock developed his extraordinary skills while at university, although he made few friends and had no close relations with anyone. However, a few acquaintances of his introduced him to his first cases and helped him to develop a reputation as a problem solver. Despite that, Sherlock found himself in financial straights and was forced to share lodgings with a Dr. John Watson. Watson soon became Holmes first real friend and worked with him on many of his cases. By that time, Holmes' reputation was spreading fast, first to the police and later, through Watson's writings, the general public.
Holmes faced his greatest challenge in the shape of Professor Moriarty. The professor, a man bored by respectability and the challenges of his life, formed a massive criminal empire that was largely untouchable by the police, who were unaware that it even existed. Holmes deduced its existence at some point (The Valley of Fear?) and set himself the task of destroying it. Moriarty could not, of course, allow this to happen and challenged Holmes to the greatest contest of his life. Eventually, Holmes managed to gather the evidence needed to convict the professor and his gang, but Moriarty escaped the police net.
Knowing that the professor had nothing left to lose, Holmes and Watson left Britain and headed across Europe. In Switzerland, Watson was decoyed away (with Holmes' grim knowledge telling him that it was a trap) and Moriarty confronted the detective. After a brief talk, the two foes fought on the ledge above a waterfall, and, when Watson returned, he concluded that the two adversaries had plunged to their deaths.
However, Holmes survived the struggle, while Moriarty had fallen to his death. Realising that the other remaining members of the gang would be after him, he allowed Watson to believe his death, and thus convince the gang members. This incident caused Holmes to feel considerable guilt and his subsequent decline in his facilities. After five years, Holmes located the remaining senior member of Moriarty's gang and, resuming his friendship with Watson, captured him.
However, Holmes was no longer the same person. Harsher, he was more withdrawn and handled cases more as a desperate attempt to escape boredom. Finally, he retired to the South Downs in Sussex in 1907, where he kept bees. However, history was not finished with the team of Holmes and Watson, and they came back together for one last case in 1914, when Holmes trapped a German spy just before the start of the First World War (His Last Bow).
Holmes was a cold, calculating, reasoner, although he had flashes of compassion and care for people, most notably Watson. He never developed a relationship with any women, although he expressed admiration for Irene Adler, who was the first woman to best him (A Scandal in Bohemia), and barely tolerated Watson's wives, of which he had at least three at separate times. He was wryly tolerant of Lestrade and his fellow police officers, few of which were unwilling to steal credit for Holmes' successes.
Holmes, however, seems to have treated the dual with Moriarty as a game, with fixed rules, hardly the best of attitudes for dealing with a ruthless crime lord. He clearly becomes aware of his existence, considering him his problem, but, when the battle begins, clearly both players considered the game to be worth playing to the end, without taking short cuts. Moriarty, however, is perhaps the first to realise that aspect of the game.
The contest, therefore, takes on the attitude of a game of chess. Moriarty visits Holmes at Baker Street and challenges him to give up or die. Holmes, of course, refuses to give up and Moriarty leaves, following which Holmes is attacked on several occasions and barely escapes with his life. However, Moriarty appears to make no attempt at attacking Watson or blackmailing Holmes with deadly harm to others. Further, Moriarty chases Holmes in person, not sending Moran or another of his agents, and is indeed the person who challenges Holmes at the waterfall. None of those actions fit the profile of a crime lord.
Planetary Information: Holmes at some point realised that there was indeed supernatural beings in this world, including Dracula and the Invisible Man, and became involved with them to change the world. Holmes, who had defended the anti-superstition ideal (The Hound of the Baskervilles), may have been slightly unbalanced by this discovery, prompting a remark to Snow that his Ôsecond life', his miraculous survival, had been unfulfilling.
The 'Open Conspiracy', however, held ideals that were too dangerous for the people to accept and therefore they went underground, into the darkness. As might be expected, they grew darker too, and caused the young Snow to realise that they needed to be stopped. Holmes manipulated the young Snow to come to a meeting at Baker Street, so that the two could talk, however, the conspiracy members insisted that Dracula came with Holmes. Dracula attempted to kill Snow and was frozen and--presumably--killed by Snow. Holmes believed that the conspiracy would not survive his death, so he gave himself the task of teaching Snow, who would be his successor. Holmes died soon afterwards, perhaps leaving his money and tools to Snow, starting Snow's vast fortune.
Something that bothers me about the first encounter between Snow and Holmes is the ease with which Snow found the detective. Snow comes to 221B Baker Street, where he discovers Holmes (and Dracula). Now, it may be a complicated double-bluff on Holmes part, but is it not a little bit obvious that that is where Holmes lives? Holmes may be hiding in plain sight, as it were, but that would require a certain level of intelligence on the part of the person looking for Holmes to even get to the conclusion that Holmes would not hide in the obvious place. In real life, people who should know that Holmes was not real still write letters to Baker Street; therefore, Holmes hiding place would be found by anyone who simply went to where they knew Holmes could be found, without bothering to think about it.
There are several possible explanations. The first is that Holmes knew that Snow was looking for him (as evidenced by his discourse on Snow's activities) and he therefore decided to stage the confrontation on his own ground, allowing snow to find the information that led to Baker Street. The second is that Holmes needed to meet Dracula and--not trusting the vampire--decided to meet him at Baker Street, where their meeting was interrupted by Snow. The third, which may be disturbing to Holmes fans, is that Holmes was being too clever (or theatrical) by far, a trait that often causes him problems. One example was the 'Adventure of the Yellow Face', in which Holmes deduces blackmail, kidnap and bigamy, but the outcome reveals a child; the women's former marriage having been to a black man in America. Further, Holmes had a theatrical touch, often revealing the culprit or the lost object to the police with a flourish:"When our visitor had disappeared, Sherlock Holmes's movements were such as to rivet our attention. He began by taking a clean white cloth from a drawer and laying it over the table. Then he placed his newly acquired bust in the centre of the cloth. Finally, he picked up his hunting-crop and struck Napoleon a sharp blow on the top of the head. The figure broke into fragments, and Holmes bent eagerly over the shattered remains. Next instant, with a loud shout of triumph he held up one splinter, in which a round, dark object was fixed like a plum in a pudding.That Holmes is (was) well known in the Planetary universe is clear. Snow refers to him as the world's most famous detective, an accolade hardly granted to an unknown figure, and, indeed, why would a team including such beings as Dracula and John Griffin (the invisible man) want an ordinary human? I therefore deduce that Holmes was very well known in his time.
"Gentlemen," he cried, "let me introduce you to the famous black pearl of the Borgias."
Lestrade and I sat silent for a moment, and then, with a spontaneous impulse, we both broke out clapping, as at the well-wrought crisis of a play. A flush of colour sprang to Holmes's pale cheeks, and he bowed to us like the master dramatist who receives the homage of his audience." (The Adventure of the Six Napoleons)