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The story opens in 1969, with the closing moments of a confrontation between John Stone, agent of S.T.O.R.M., and Bride, the veiled evil supergenius and world terrorist. After a battle featuring gadgets that would make James Bond green with envy, Bride is stopped by being frozen solid by a very hip-looking Elijah Snow. This is the first meeting between Stone and Snow, and it ends with the death of a common foe who had killed friends, and even a lover, of our protagonists.
Fast-forward to today, and a remote bar in Kazakhstan where Snow has arranged to meet with Stone. The conversation quickly turns to Snow's memory loss, and Stone is astounded by both the extensive nature of the memory loss and by the elegant, seamless way it was performed. Snow remembers Stone and some of their shared history, but not all of it. And Snow has not detected these flaws. Stone hypothesizes someone is "running a game" on Snow, deleting parts of his memory, and leaving behind framework behind that is strong enough to hold up under pressure. During their conversation, however, Stone mentions a Planetary Guide from 1931, and this reference seems to open the floodgates of Snow's memory. Bits and pieces of past adventures rush painfully through his mind, and Snow realizes the extent to which his past has been blocked from him. More importantly, he knows the architect of his loss: Dr. Randall Dowling of the Four Voyagers.
Visibly shaken, but filled with a new sense of purpose, Snow indicates that he has more specific questions for Stone. Then he drops the bomb: he knows who the Fourth Man is!
As I have said to site co-host JEF, this is the issue I've been waiting for since issue six. This issue has it all, from fantastic revelations to beautiful art (with a fine tip of the hat to Jim Steranko!). Almost every page serves to further link characters and continuity, reaffirming themes from throughout the storyline to date. And even though we learn more about Elijah in this issue than we have in all the others combined, it still leaves you more interested in the character than ever: somehow, the best is still to come!
First thing's first, though. After a couple of months of speculation, we now know that John Stone is more of a James Bond type than a Nick Fury. It actually looks as though the Wildstorm Universe's Fury had worked for Stone, if the eye patch and stogie of the poor soul executed by Bride in the opening panel is any indication. And the mustachioed hostage on the same page is only a pot belly and Bowler Derby away from Dum Dum Dugan, Fury's longtime associate.
We learn that Stone, aside from being a super spy, has almost stopped aging since 1954 (an almost sure ticket to being christened another one of the Century Babies out there on the message boards. Don't do it! There isn't enough evidence! And it's just a reference Nick Fury's slowed aging anyway!). This has given him the opportunity to amass the kind of knowledge few others could have about the goings-on in the world, and he looks to have done it while remaining a virtual unknown to the world at large. Snow confirms for us that Planetary is unaware of Stone, and this is the organization that managed to hunt Snow down! Yet somehow, he manages to have recent assignments with the UN, the Hark Corporation (!), and various other covert assignments. Stone also had indicated while talking to Bride that he had met "the daughter of a man very like you," and this most certainly is a reference to Hark and his daughter Anna. Stone is aware of both of them and knows at least some of their history. Snow ends the issue by indicating that he'd want to know more about his dealings with Hark, so let's hope we get to be present for that conversation!
S.T.O.R.M. itself seems to be Wildstorm's S.H.I.E.L.D.. Bride could be an analog of Viper/Madame Hydra, right down to her one covered eye and Hydra's uniformed minions. As an organization, it looks like S.T.O.R.M. was the predecessor or branch of StormWatch, and with the barest suggestion of this possibility Ellis further binds his creation to the Wildstorm Universe. But the action of the flashback seems more like the type most people associate with James Bond films. Stone's cool-under-pressure demeanor and formal attire is pure Bond, as is the inspired gadgetry. The Blitzen Suit and the Rip-Round bullet were terrific. And I haven't seen a CD that lethal since Andrew Ridgely launched his solo recording career!
Snow meets with Stone at The Last Shot, a bar first introduced in the pages of StormWatch, giving Planetary one more link to Wildstorm. As much fun as the first part of this issue was, this is where things get interesting. Stone informs Snow that Snow was present when he almost killed one of the Four back in their pre-omnipotent days (on the Nautilus, a nod to Jules Verne's Captain Nemo?), and this gives us our first instance of Elijah having to confront a specific missing memory. To this point in the series, his memory loss was only spoken about, and Snow himself couldn't tell if he really had gaps or was simply being lied to. And we haven't been privy to any of Snow's likely introspection on the topic. In terms of its treatment in the series, the memory loss subplot has almost dropped off the radar. But here, Stone's mention of the Planetary guide unleashes an avalanche of memories in Snow, from some Indiana Jones-like adventuring to encounters with someone who could be Sherlock Holmes, and Dr. Randall Dowling himself. The memories indicate, and Snow later confirms, that it was the Four Voyagers who altered his memory.
While discussing this, Stone raises the very questions that have plagued readers for months now. First, how could Snow not notice he had missing memories? Outside of the one encounter with Leather, Snow has seemed wholly and totally unaffected by memory loss. It makes much more sense that his memories were removed or altered by design; this explains things much better than some sort of trauma-induced memory loss. It also makes sense that a focused look at some gaps, aided by someone Snow trusts, would be able to begin to tear down the walls.
Second, and most importantly, why would the Four go to the trouble? The only logical explanation might be that the Four are using Snow and Planetary for their own ends. Nice to be in agreement with the world's greatest spy, but we still need to discover what the Four's real agenda is. What makes this more confusing is Leather's reaction to his meeting with Snow back in issue six. Snow asks Leather how he knows his name, and Leather says, "So it's true. Heh." The implication here is that Leather didn't know about/believe Snow's memory loss. Since we now know Dowling caused it, what are we to surmise? That Leather didn't believe Dowling did it, or was capable of doing it? Or simply that Leather was aware of it but somehow thought that all memories of the Four Voyagers wouldn't be eradicated, and that Snow would remember him?
While I prefer the latter explanation, I think either one points to a weakness (the only weakness?) of the Four: they don't work well as a team. The miscommunication evident here, like the one that resulted in the premature death of a possible superman in issue ten, shows that the Four may be susceptible to a divide-and-conquer strategy. This is, admittedly, an optimistic thought. At any rate, this all lends credence to Stone's assertion that it's the Four who benefit from Snow's memory loss. These tiny pieces of the puzzle may truly fit together. But this raises the question, why would Leather actually give Snow questions that could lead to real, useful answers? If the Four have need of Snow where he's at, in the condition he's in, why rock the boat?
Okay, Ellis gave us a lot to work with this issue. But he didn't give it all away...
He did make another reference to the Planetary Guide, this one a copy from 1931. The first reference, made by Dowling in issue ten, identified a 1949 copy. But it now appears that Snow was the author of the series, an ongoing look at the mysteries of the world that Snow encountered in his adventures. This would explain why Dowling spoke of something "our old friend wrote." The Four already knew Snow. And the "old friend" remark could be either genuine or a bit sarcastic, it could still go either way at this point.
Perhaps this is how in 1939, in the Planetary/Authority crossover, the Lovecraft character knew to turn to Snow after his encounter with the Bleed; he'd read the Planetary Guide, perhaps one of the 1931 vintage. With copies of this book still floating around out there, though, it's a bit surprising that the Planetary organization hasn't come into possession of one of them. Of course with Ellis, it's possible they do have a copy and we just don't know about it yet. We have established Jakita and Drummer know more than they've let on so far.
The Bleed makes yet another appearance. Though Bride calls it the Universal Border and speaks of 4-Dimensional space, the visual effect is unmistakable. The prevalence of the Bleed in the overall storyline is starting to become a bit unsettling. Chronologically, we can trace the Bleed's presence back to the 1930s (courtesy both the Charnel Ship from issue one and the recent Planetary/Authority crossover). Readers of The Authority know that Earth was first invaded by a parallel dimension around this time, and was saved by a young Jenny Sparks. The Bleed means trouble; Ellis confirmed this not long ago on his Delphi forum. This issue gives Ellis the opportunity to make this point yet again.
Another instance of Ellis pulling in concepts from other titles is the inclusion of The Last Shot as the bar in this issue. First introduced in StormWatch, it's the watering hole of choice for those about to die in an underground nuclear blast, all for the sake of depriving the afterlife of the electromagnetic field that constitutes their souls. This would dovetail nicely with the human hard drive concept Ellis explored in issue three, Dead Gunfighters. There, souls were trapped after death in a giant hard drive, stored as information. To extend the hard drive metaphor, they were stored as electromagnetic information.
Snow's rescue of Stone is notable is its viciousness; Snow freezes, then shatters, Bride. While he had originally come aboard only to make sure Bride was captured, this was fine revenge for the murder of an old lover, and the most ruthless use of his power of heat subtraction we've seen yet. Snow stayed in character with his trademark white suit, albeit a bit more mod that the one he wears today.
Who was Snow's unnamed tattooed lover, and was she the one killed by Bride? Did Snow really learn investigation from the Wildstorm Universe's Sherlock Holmes? Will we learn more of Stone, his history, and his relationship to the Hark Corporation?