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Issue thirteen opens in a part of the German countryside, 1919, that's not part of any current map. A nineteen year old Elijah Snow is closing on the castle of Baron Victor Von Frankenstein. He heard about it from some described only as a "man who went to Mars," and he's there on the trail of a worldwide conspiracy. After a brief visit to the lab where Frankenstein's monster was born, and a run-in with a few of Frank's less attractive relatives, Snow finds what he came for: the secret map of the world as seen by the Conspiracy. This section of the story has no dialogue to speak of, but is narrated by Snow as if from the pages of a notebook; certainly, this must be the stuff of which the first Planetary Guides were created!
Cut to Baker Street in London, where Snow tracks an aged master detective to his home. On the surface, this may not seem to be much of an accomplishment, since Holmes was famous in his own time and his Baker Street address had gained a certain amount of notoriety. But the detective is very old, and has been presumed dead by the public. With no one thinking him alive, perhaps Holmes is hiding in plain sight, as it were.
Snow breaks in on Sherlock Holmes, who has somehow clearly been awaiting Snow's arrival.After a brief conversation (during which many famous names are dropped--see Analysis below), Snow informs Holmes that he knows what the Conspiracy has been up to, and that it has to stop. Then Dracula, another member of the Conspiracy, steps from the shadows and prepares to kill Snow. The battle is brutal but brief, as Snow freezes Dracula solid and, ah, gives him a crotch-ectomy.
With Dracula eliminated, Snow and Holmes continue to discuss the Conspiracy. Holmes explains that he and the others (a group including, but probably not limited to, Dracula, Dr. Frankenstein and his creature, authors H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, the original Invisible Man (Griffin), John Carter (the Edgar Rice Burroughs, mars-visiting Carter), and Robur the Conqueror) were dedicated to making the world a better place through eugenics, re-education and a controlled economy, among other measures. They felt they were uniquely qualified to lead man to a better existence. Realizing their ambitions were too radical for the populace, they slowly became a shadow organization whose purpose somehow went astray. (For more on this theme and its reoccurring nature in Ellis' writing, check the essay Ellis and the Creation of Finer Worlds on the Mysteries page.) How the organization went astray isn't specified, but when Snow tells Holmes the Conspiracy needs to stop, Holmes agrees. Seemingly turning his back on the Conspiracy, then, Holmes agrees to share with Snow the secrets of the world and the ways of the detective.
Is there any author out there who manages to create such a deep and complex storyline with so few words? Ellis has once again, with comparatively little dialogue. In its own way, this issue told us more about Elijah Snow than did last issue's revelation that Snow is the Fourth Man. We discover that Snow was an American Southerner, apparently from a lower-income background (if bathtub whiskey and lack of even an outhouse can be considered reliable guides in such matters). While it's easy to assume the characters in an American comic are American citizens, this was by no means an easy assumption with Snow, both due to his world-traveler nature and the fact that Ellis, as a British author, doesn't have the crippling case of cultural myopia that many Americans suffer.
We further discover that Snow is obsessed with discovery, has been his whole life, and the more hard-won the discovery the better. His notebook narrative covers this, with example ranging from licking frozen fire-hydrants in winter (which I'm not sure even existed, at least as we know them, in 1919, but this is a minor quibble) to locating and effectively ending the greatest conspiracy organization of the day. And Snow's speech to Holmes: "I want to know what you know. I want to know secrets. I've seen the shape of the secret history of the world, and I need to follow its traces," is a defining element of Snow's personality.
We see the beginnings of his moral conscience as well, and the elements of his personality that make the greater good an excuse for immoral acts along the way. The example the text presents us with is that Snow disagreed with the way the Conspiracy had turned away from its original, noble goals, but at the same time Snow wasn't above torturing one of their members to find them. But the desire to learn secrets is the overriding force within Snow, as learning at the foot of Sherlock Holmes seemed to be the true goal of the exercise, with the destruction of the Conspiracy representing a bonus in the process. Holmes' assertion to Snow that, "...this is your century, and it needs you," could have been the beginning of the huge sense of responsibility that Snow clearly feels today towards the world. Holmes seems to have passed a torch to Snow.
We are also shown what amounts to a major turning point in the life of young Snow. Only twenty, and a very unpolished youth at the time he met Holmes, he studied with Holmes for the last five years of Holmes' life. After that, he spent another ten years walking the earth, an experience that, by his own description, wiped out his accent. And we know from other events revealed to us in past issues that this was also the timeframe in which Snow learned Japanese (1925), published his first Planetary Guide (also 1925, no doubt funded by Holmes) and had his first contact with a Snowflake and The Bleed (1931, Judgment, Rhode Island). This was a time of tremendous personal growth for Snow. It might also be a safe assumption to state that he began to amass his incredible wealth during this period; it looks like the 1925 Planetary Guide was funded by Holmes, and Snow would have been a logical heir to any fortune Holmes had accumulated during his lifetime.
As for the Conspiracy, the roll call reads like a Who's Who of the literary movers and shakers of the late 1800s and early 1900s, both fictitious and real. The group seems to be Ellis' take on The League of Extraodinary Gentlemen, though I confess to a great deal of ignorance on the title. Site co-host JEF offered this on the League:
The cast this issue is reminiscent of Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Borrowing Moore's idea of an association of 19th century literary heroes banding together for the common good, Ellis turns his now-familiar trick of reversing field - where the LoEG are "good guys" unknowingly working for a master criminal, Holmes' consortium were good guys who slowly and unintentionally became the bad guys (at least in Snow's estimation--at this writing, we don't have specifics on the nature of their activities). The LoEG unwittingly join together to perform a mission for Sherlock Holmes' arch-nemesis and killer, Professor James Moriarty. Their adventures take place several years after the detective's death. The group presented here diverges from the League in this respect especially, then, as Holmes serves not only as a crucial member of his team, but in many ways its last member, and the man who passes the torch to the next generation.
Here's a bit of a rundown on all the names that were dropped this issue, as best as I can determine. For an in-depth look at these characters and their contemporaries, make sure you check the Links page and its new entries, Pulp and Adventure Heroes of the Pre-War Years and Fantastic, Mysterious, and Adventurous Victoriana; more than thorough character summaries, you'll get a feel for the literary environment around the characters at their inception. Special thanks to Jess for these outstanding links! I'd also like to thank all the contributors to the DC Message Boards who filled in king size gaps for me! The link back there takes you right to the discussion in question (provided you're reading this near to the release date of the issue), but here's the condensed version:
Sherlock Holmes: This character certainly needs no introduction, but there is one fascinating piece of Holmes history that might be referenced in the text. Holmes mentions, "This second life of mine," which some are interpreting as being brought back from the dead by Dr. Frankenstein. But take a look at the history: Sherlock Holmes was first published in 1887 in A Study in Scarlet and quickly became one of the most popular characters of the day. But within a few years Holmes' popularity had begun to wear on Doyle, so he actually killed his character in December 1893's The Final Problem! Not able to keep a good detective down, and due to popular demand, Doyle brought him back. The first return was actually a prequel (and you thought that the prequel was a modern invention!), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), and then actually resurrected him fully in The Empty House. I'm not sure, but I believe that Doyle brought the character back without the aid of convenient clones or an energy cocoon at the bottom of the East River. But I'll need to check a little deeper on that to be sure. For more background on this classic character, see Elementary... Sherlock Holmes Background on the Mysteries page!
Dracula: the vampire created by Bram Stoker. Another character who needs little introduction in general. The version of Drac on the cover seems to borrow from the mid-nineties movie with Gary Oldham, but the interior version is more the 1930s silver screen version. Neither looked like the Dracula from this season's Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, or the current theatrical release Dracula 2000. Thank God. The Rachel Van Helsing reference was a tip of the hat to the original vampire hunter, Abraham Van Helsing. Anthony Hopkins played the Van Helsing character in the nineties version. Rachel is Abraham's granddaughter.
Baron Von Frankenstein: prototypical mad scientist and monster-builder, created by Mary Shelley. No on-panel appearance here, and only a cover cameo by Frankenstein's Monster (that looked a lot like Bernie Wrightson's version, by the way, which is a good thing), but we did get a look at some of the Baron's second-tier work with the creatures Snow faced back at the castle.
John Griffin: the Invisible Man, an H. G. Wells creation, apparently recruited by the Conspiracy for stealth work. He must have found it difficult to hide from a man who could cover everything in the room with a layer of frost...
H. G. Wells himself: while an author of some early science fiction, like the aforementioned Invisible Man, he may also have been a character in his own time machine story. This would make him unique in Planetary, as both a real person made fictional, and a fictional character with a Planetary spin.
Thomas Carnacki: a ghost hunter/investigator of the supernatural. The "The Sigsand Manuscripts" book that Snow leafs through briefly while talking to Holmes was a Carnacki reference; this was his book, kind of a reference tool for his cases. Carnacki was created by William Hope Hodgson.
John Carter: About the only man from around this time to actually visit Mars. John Carter of Mars was an Edgar Rice Burroughs creation. This would be the second Burroughs character to "appear" in Planetary, if you include the Jungle King character from Issues 1 and 5, who was based on Burroughs' Tarzan.
The Frenchman: two good theories on this one. I say they're both good since I have never heard of either. The first is Robur The Conqueror. Robur is from a Jules Verne novel about an UFO sightings in 1897. The Message Boards had a post that described him as Captain Nemo with an airship instead of a submarine. Okay. The next candidate is Jules de Grandin, a ghostbuster type from Seabury Quinn's Weird Tales. Both takes on The Frenchman would fit nicely within Planetary's framework, and unless there's another mention of the character next issue (or if Ellis volunteers the answer) we'll probably not know for sure.
Steam Men: another reference that's a bit difficult to pin down. It could refer to a series by various authors that depicted the adventures of the Reade family who invented a robot and went out west in search of adventure. It could also be a tip of the hat from Ellis to Alan Moore, whose Tom Strong character has a sidekick called Pneuman that is the upgraded from of a steam man created by Strong's parents in Victorian times. Neil Gaiman and Kurt Busiek have also penned stories in recent years that featured steam-powered creations. Another possibility is that the reference is to an Edward S. Ellis' (no relation) story about a boy who invents a steam engine in the shape of a man. It seems clear that many authors around that time were captivated by the power of steam engines, but this makes sense--these were the cyberpunk tales of the time!
What acts were committed by the Conspiracy that originally drew Snow's attention? Could the Conspiracy have been in any way associated with the cult that bred Doc Brass (the eugenics angle fits quite nicely)? Any chance we'll still learn about the 1800s space travel hyped in the advance material on Issue 13, or has that ship sailed? Is Dracula dead, or merely a deformed soprano?
RDG and JEF