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The issue opens with a tranquil scene in China, showing Hark (Ah Lien) in meditation. The tranquility is soon lost, however, when Lo arrives to confront Hark. We quickly learn that Lo is the leader of a rival faction or group, and has killed the other members of Hark's Night Forest School of Martial Arts while attempting to learn the "Night's Stars Attack" technique. At this point, Hark informs Lo that her school was built to ensure that "the sun will always come up," and the battle is joined.
While it had been a joking reference in the months leading up to this issue's release, we know why it had been nicknamed "crouching Hark, hidden plotline." For the next eight pages, a nearly silent battle is fought that features both martial arts and magics. The battle climaxes with Lo getting to experience the Night's Stars Attack firsthand.
The scene abruptly shifts to the modern day, with (Anna) Hark sitting behind a desk in her office. She is speaking to Elijah Snow, who stands in her office doorway. She seems to be concluding a narrative of the story we have just watched unfold, and tells Snow that Hark Ah Lien's final words to Lo were that "there will always be a Hark to ensure that the sun comes up," and affirms that she is the fulfillment of that promise.
For his part, Snow simply announces that he is there as a friend. Hark seems disinterested, but does state that her father knew of Snow. Snow counters by revealing to Hark that he is privy to the details of her father's death, information that not even she possesses. Snow further reveals that he has been in contact with Hark's personal detective. Perhaps feeling threatened now, Hark rises from her chair and quietly presses Snow for information about her father. Snow presses his own agenda, informing Hark that her "extracurricular activities" and sometime-alliance with the four are going to end, but still offering friendship if Hark is willing to join him.
Snow then incents her to join with two reasons. First, because the both share an interest in seeing the sun rise again each morning. Second, because he knows that Hark had betrayed James Wilder, her personal detective and a man she cares for deeply on some level. This clearly affects Hark, but she still tries to counter Snow by stating that her life-span, somewhere around 300 years, requires her to take a longer view of dealing with The Four. Her actions are taken to make matters incrementally better over a long period. Snow, calling her comparing her approach to "crumbs from a very rich table" when compared to all that might be gained, offers Hark the chance to work with Planetary for the greater good. After a pregnant pause, a barely perceptible smile signals her acceptance. Snow rewards her acceptance by calling in a transformed James Wilder. The battle of wills over, Hark shares a personal moment with Wilder.
So... a pretty quiet issue after the last few crossovers, right?
Not so fast.
This was a taut, suspenseful tale that goes a long way towards showing the tremendous subtlety that this creative team is capable of, and the whole team gets in on the act. This issue was really a story of two chess matches between grandmaster level opponents, with parallels between the physical and mental combat that resonate powerfully. This issue is a quiet standout in the series. You might wish it could have been longer, but honestly, don't we always feel that way?
In the first chess match, we see a deep red city, where Hark's school is an oasis of calm green. The calm is interrupted when Lo, a man of violence and darkness, appears in the doorway. He announces his intent to end of Hark's life as he has her students' lives. Even his jewel-carved ruby teeth show his link to the deep crimson of the world outside. As the battle is joined, Hark takes the fight out of the cool green of her school and into the firery-red place outside. As Hark and Lo battle, the fight is like the wirework martial arts movies of the 1960s (enjoying a new resurgence today): a savage but beautiful ballet. Hark begins with the advantage, and there is a certain inevitableness to the outcome. Lo, the intruder, was unprepared to confront Hark on her own territory, despite his earlier success against her school. The prize he came for is the thing that takes his life.
As we join the second battle, the setting has changed to the present. Once again, a Hark is confronted in her sanctuary by a man in her doorway. But this time the nature of the sanctuary has changed. Where it had once been a cool green, it now reflects the orange-red haze of the city outside, suggesting that the Hark family has never really found her way out of the battle joined all those years ago. Her completion of the narrative of the battle with Lo shows that her battle to see the next sunrise, once fought by the Hark family alongside others, is now a battle she fights alone.
Snow, the intruder, is a figure of light. Unlike Lo, who was enveloped in red and seemed a part of it, Snow's lightness is often shown in front of a dark background, suggesting dark actions and intentions suffuse his more noble goals. Unlike Lo's immediate threatening remarks, Snow immediately offers friendship. Still, a battle is joined. But this battle is one of wit and information, where the pacing and wording of each revelation is designed to provide advantage. Hark quickly dismisses Snow as nothing more than a ghost of the past century, and follows this with a light reference to the fact that Snow is not unknown to her or her father. Snow parries with a reference to her father's possession of one of the Planetary guides. Hark tries to deflect this revelation, but Snow presses his advantage by putting it in the context of the details of her father's demise, which Snow knows is a mystery to Hark. This is doubly powerful, because it is clear that Snow has her at a tactical disadvantage to know this much about her. As the tension of the battle rises, Snow freezes one of the flowers on Hark's desk and casually flicks it away. Was this an idle act? Was it a veiled threat? Or was it a reflection of the pressure he is experiencing in this quite combat, a physical manifestation of the effort he's exerting to stay under control, say the right words, and maintain his advantage over his opponent?
Hark presses him for more details of her father's fate. Not yet knowing if Hark will join him, Snow continues the fight, referencing Axel Brass and the fact that Hark's father may not have told her everything. He continues by stating that he believes Hark is in fact afraid of him, that she does suspect Snow's awareness of her actions in the last 70 years, and that her association with The Four is going to be accounted for. Changing tactics, Hark inquires about Wilder. The physical strain is showing on her as well, as the once-smooth desk near her hands is now scarred with deep scratches. When Hark Ah Lien "taught" Lo the secret of the Night's Stars Attack, her hand was briefly transfigured into a claw. Is Anna Hark marshalling this power again, or simply trying to contain it?
Snow elects to move this contest into its endgame. He flatly refuses to disclose more information about Wilder, and reaffirms his offer of friendship. His offer is conditional, though, pending Hark's willingness to renounce her association with The Four and to join fully in Snow's effort to defeat them. A last thrust from Hark comes in the form of defiance. Snow uses his last two weapons, by showing that they share a common goal, and then showing that Wilder could only have experienced the events that befell him (back in Issue 4) if they were orchestrated by Hark.
With checkmate looming, Hark's tone changes. After a few personal revelations and offhand comments (more on this shortly), she offers a last defense of her actions, stating that someone of her longevity has a greater responsibility to long-term human survival with incremental technological gains than the alternative, presumably the end of all sunrises. Snow offers her an alliance one last time and, with nothing more than a slight smile, Hark accepts. Snow then calls Wilder to invite him into the room, and Wilder enters with a glorious hint of his newfound powers. For the first time since Snow entered the room, the crimson that has framed every view of Hark finally gives way, and her solo battle is temporarily forgotten as we see a caring, human Hark embrace the innocent Wilder. She talks to him as a mother to a son.
Snow gazes out into the red-haze world, smiling. The larger battle still awaits, but today's victory seems to have made him all the more certain he will win it. Where the prize Lo sought ended his life, the prize Snow came for may save his.
That's the story I saw, anyway. Ellis, Cassaday, and Martin all combined their talents brilliantly to pull off so much subtlety so seamlessly!
There were a lot of references here to things we've had shown to us going all the way back to the very first issue. Issue 1 introduced us to Hark's father, and showed us how he had died with the rest of Axel Brass' associates (though not Brass himself). The same location was referenced again as recently as Issue 15, where it was revealed that there was a Planetary Guide at Brass' headquarters--this was the nearby copy Snow mentions to Hark. Issue 4 told us the origin of James Wilder's still-undefined powers, and gave us indirect contact with (Anna) Hark herself, via one half of a phone conversation. It was here that we first saw Hark's genuine concern for Wilder.
Issue 5 told us a little more about Doc Brass, and still more about Hark's father. Interestingly, in winning Hark over in the current issue, Snow used a similar line of reasoning to the one Brass used to convince Hark's father to join Brass' mission: he argued that they have the same essential goals, as they share the same planet. We also first met (Anna) Hark that issue. "She imagined herself a beautiful snake on a brightly patterned rug," we were told. I suspect very few longtime readers failed to notice the snake-emblazoned rug on the floor in her office in the current issue! (Okay, it was a little more dragon than snake... but still...!) Issue 5 went on to say that Hark would grow rich in America and wait... for what? This predates the existence of The Four as we know them. If we assume a benevolent agenda, what could she have been waiting for in the 1920s or 1930s?
Issue 6 Introduced us to The Four, and to Snow's outrage over the wonders they've suppressed from the rest of humanity, a theme revisited to great effect with Hark in Issue 16. The same theme was expanded upon in Issue 10, as we saw how The Four prevent the rise of "silver age" heroes. Issue 8 introduced us to Science City Zero, referenced this issue as a known link between Hark and The Four. Issue 11 linked John Stone to Hark, and Issue 12 showed Snow building upon that knowledge to formulate the theory of Wilder's betrayal, used to devastating effect in the current issue.
Still, one of the most intriguing references this issue was forward-looking, not backward-looking. When Hark mentioned Wilder's status as an orphan, Snow's response prompts her to mention Snow's relationship to Jakita Wagner. The implication was that Snow took in Wagner as an orphan. This shouldn't come as too big a shock, as Snow referenced changing Jakita's diapers back in Issue 12. But the bombshell here is the timing: Hark says that her father always suspected (something...what?) about a relationship between Snow and Jakita. But Hark's father died in January of 1945 (as seen in Issue 1). Even if Jakita was an infant at the time, that puts her at almost 60 years old today! This explains Snow's sarcastic remark in Issue 15, where he told Jakita she was no spring chicken. No indeed! And it also begins to explain that issue's reference to Opak-Re and it's importance to Snow and Jakit'a relationship. It's been implied for a while now that Issue 17, while showing us the jungle city of Opak-Re in 1938, would also give us clues into Jakita's origins. That timeline just got easier to reconcile!
Will Anna Hark work overtly or covertly with Planetary against The Four? Does she have the same mystic and martial arts prowess as Hark Ah Lien? Will Wilder discover Hark's betrayal, and if so, how might he react? Why does everyone in the Planetary cast seem to know the story between Snow and Jakita but us?