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The Gun Club
A confrontation with William Leather of The Four takes a back seat to a century-and-a-half year old mystery in Issue 18.
The story opens in Austin, Texas, in a park. John Stone, world's greatest spy, is about to put his superspy-cool moves on an unsuspecting blonde when Elijah Snow arrives for their meeting. Stone asked Snow to meet him here to discuss the return to earth of an object that has been in translunar orbit for over 150 years. Stone slips him a note with the probable location of the object's landing (a location that Drummer later assesses as the point from which it must have been launched as well). Stone advises Snow that this is the sort of thing that draws The Four's attention, and that this may be an opportunity to intercept William Leather in a likely-solo recon effort. Stone cryptically advises Snow to accept help on this one, saying there's a whole planet on his side.
Cut forward to a few days later, where we see an object roar with fire and smoke through re-entry, crash landing in a remote field adjoining a mountain range and small lake. It tears through some ramshackle, abandoned structures in the field, past something that resembles a derelict pipeline, and skips to rest in a shallow portion of the lake. It resembles an oversized cannon ball, perhaps 10-15 feet in diameter, wrapped with several metal bands riveted to its surface. As it sits steaming away lake water, Leather flies? materializes? onto the scene. We overhear one half a contentious conversation between Leather and Randall Dowling, and the indication is that the two have a very tenuous partnership at this point. Stone had hinted at this sort of rift in his meeting with Snow, but we learn no more of the cause or possible meaning at this juncture as Leather's conversation is interrupted by the arrival of one of the Planetary organization's helicopters.
As the chopper drops an oversized claw mechanism to lift the object from the lake, Leather flies up to intercept the chopper. Melting through the side of the airship, Leather finds it unmanned and filled with explosives. The Drummer's face is visible on a screen in the fore of the craft, and he has clearly observed Leather's arrival. As Drums announces a delivery for a "Mr. Buttwipe," leather realizes he has fallen into a trap. Too late to flee, he is rocked by the detonation of the explosives. He and the object crash to earth. Another helicopter appears, bearing Snow and Jakita Wagner. Jakita is holding an odd, high-tech looking hypodermic device, fashioned with a pistol grip and trigger, bearing the Hark Corporation's name. As they land, Jakita uses her blinding speed to race over to Leather. She plunges the hypodermic into the back of his head just as he begins to struggle to his feet. Somehow incapacitated by the strange device, Leather is helpless as Snow indulges himself with a sharp kick to Leather's face and orders Leather transported back to the Planetary hospital.
Snow and Jakita asses the cannonball-like object for a moment, and Snow let's his curiosity get the better of him: he has Jakita open it on the spot. Inside are the skeletal remains of three men, still in primitive protective suits and surrounded by the simplistic mechanical controls of their odd craft. Snow takes in the scene and wonders aloud how what he's deducing could be possible: how could an effort to send man into space, launched in 1851, have escaped history's notice? Or his own? Snow determines that the pipeline in the field must actually have been akin to the barrel of a massive gun, originally used to fire the craft into space. While still not understanding how a group from the 1850s could have achieved such a launch with the science at their disposal (there is no evidence indicating help from a more advanced source), Snow accepts the evidence in front of him as proof that it had indeed occurred. He quickly thumbs through a journal he discovers in one of the abandoned structures nearby, and photographic evidence there provides a look at some of the ceremony just prior to launch all those years ago. His supposition is that this secret mission was launched, and the people involved kept a silent vigil waiting on a return that was not to happen in their lifetime, due to the craft accidentally becoming locked in a stable orbit between Earth and her moon. The secret of the attempt died with them.Analysis
Given a successful confrontation with the four and the violent re-entry of a spacecraft into earth's atmosphere, this was a surprisingly quiet issue. But that might be just a subjective interpretation on my part, as a result of being distracted by contemplation of what it must have been like for the occupants of the old spacecraft. Imagine: no windows, no radio, and likely no way of understanding why they didn't either plummet to ground either on earth or the moon. They may have assumed that they simply missed their mark, and were doomed to drift through space until their air supply ran out. How much more would they have been tortured by the knowledge that they were never really far from home, but trapped in an orbit that would prevent them from ever returning?
But I digress.
Ellis has once again taken us to a time of heroic fiction that predates the comic book genre, and gives us an alternate take on mankind's first moon shot. Jules Verne is the source of his inspiration, of course, and many of the details of the moon shot resemble Verne's classic tale, "From the Earth to the Moon." Published in 1866, Verne told the story of the Baltimore Gun Club who, out of boredom after the end of the American Civil War, embarked on an attempt to build a gun like device strong enough to reach the moon. Back then, a near-mythic "American Ingenuity" was a super-power for the fictitious protagonists of the day, and science was still looked at as having a n almost romantic allure. Ellis' nod to Verne was cemented by several elements in the story, not the least of which being Verne's name appearing in one of the journals on the final page of the story. The title of this issue, "The Gun Club," was also the title of the first chapter of Verne's book.There is an interesting mix of similarities and differences between Verne's story and the story implied by Ellis and Cassaday. In Verne's tale, the craft was originally envisioned as an unmanned, though hollow, cannonball to be fired at the moon by the Baltimore Gun Club. After one individual volunteered to man the flight, it became a three man crew (like the one we saw from Ellis' American Gun Club), but the shape of the craft was changed from cannonball to something more conical or bullet like. And where Verne's voyage had always been intended as a one-way trip, with the intrepid passengers planning to somehow survive and thrive on the moon without returning, Ellis' take looked to be more about achieving a successful launch-and-return space flight. Where Ellis' crew faced the tragic fate of their failure to ever return, Verne's crew faced a slightly different fate: at the end of his book, the crew slips into orbit around the moon without landing, and it seems uncertain whether they will be pulled to its surface before their air, food, and water run out.
The difference in the timing of the moon shot, 1851 for Ellis and 1865 for Verne, is a classic Ellis approach to the situation. First, it parallels the way Ellis showed us, back in Issue 6, that the first modern moon shot was performed by The Four in secret in June of 1961, several years before the very public Apollo missions. The secret-versus-public motif is repeated here, with a secret mission in 1851 coming before Verne's very public and ballyhooed mission in 1866 (admittedly fictional, even in the Wildstorm universe). It seemed incredible to Snow that he'd not heard about this effort, that no one ever spoke of it. Given Verne's apparent presence at the 1851 moon shot, one might assume that Ellis intends Jules Verne to be a historic figure in the Wildstorm universe as well as our own, and implies that he received his inspiration for his book as a way to almost tell the story of the actual moon shot to the rest of the world.
All in all, it was a wonderful homage to Verne's classic story. And it provided a credible and suitable backdrop for a dustup with one of The Four.
The confrontation itself was another fine piece of strategy by Snow, enabled by Stone's ultimately correct assessment that Leather would probably arrive alone to represent the Four's interest. It does beg the question of how Stone is so well informed--from knowing that a 150 year old orbit would decay, where the ship would land, that Leather would likely arrive to investigate for The Four (consistent with what we saw in Issue 10's spacecraft incident--is Stone aware of that event?), and that Leather was more segregated from the rest of the group these days. Even assuming an association with the Hark corporation (as discussed in past issues, and seen here when the weapon against Leather was of Hark Corporation origin), this is an awful lot of accurate, current information for one man to possess. And maybe it's just me, but does Stone's statement to Snow that, "There's a whole planet on your side" seem to be more than a reference to the Hark Corporation? Is the statement indicative of greater resources in the world arrayed against The Four using Stone to communicate their findings to Snow, the most likely champion for the cause? Hopefully more will develop in this area in future issues.
Snow's strategy was risky: he had to soften Leather up to allow Jakita to get close enough to use her strange weapon on him, and to do so he had to accurately predict Leather's behavior in a given situation. For example, why would Leather invade the helicopter to stop it, instead of simply blasting it out of the sky? Would he need to know, or care, who might be manning it? And would he be so thick as to not notice several boxes marked "Explosives" (although I suspect that this was mostly a visual prop for our benefit as viewers) and bail out before they went off? Perhaps counting on Leather's urge to gloat and make his victims aware of their killer was the line of reasoning Snow employed. At any rate, it was successful. And having Leather as a hostage (held at Planetary's hospital, introduced in the Issue 4 and the current home of Doc Brass) could provide leverage to manipulate other members of The Four in the near future. I'd consider this a very risky strategy also, though. The last time Snow held a member of The Four captive (two members, actually, in Issue 14) Dowling responded with overwhelming force and could have killed the entire Planetary team, had he wanted.
Why DOESN'T The Four just kill the Planetary team? It was a good question back in Issue 6, and it's still a good question now, with the series over two-thirds finished. And while it wouldn't make as good a story, if I were Snow I'd kill Leather now. RIGHT now.
This issue had some odd items and inconsistencies, along with some very nice touches. On the minus side, how would The Four not know that the orbiting object was of terrestrial origin and of no use to them? The Drummer figured this out very quickly, based on what little information Stone provided. And how was this original launch kept secret? Even if no one present at the event ever spoke of it, how is it possible that no one ever stumbled across all of the physical evidence left behind (the launching device, the journals, the photographs)? And how did all of the journals and photos survive so well for 150 years when more or less exposed to the elements for all that time?
On the plus side, it was great seeing Stone again, and seeing Snow disrupt his flirting was hilarious. Cassaday's art continues to grow and refine itself: the details of the 1850s technology were wonderfully crafted. And overall, the story returned towards building momentum for the end game.
Can Planetary keep Leather contained, and keep the rest of The Four from discovering the abduction and coming to get him? Why have The Four become fragmented, and can Snow leverage this into a successful divide-and-conquer strategy? Where is Stone getting his information? And by the way, how does he flick a cigarette butt so hard that it can kill a pigeon at a distance of 10-15 feet?