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Death Machine Telemetry/
"Heh. Let's see the freak squad call that decompressed." So said Warren Ellis shortly before Issue 21 hit the racks, after taking heat from some comic readers over the last few issues of Planetary for what some have perceived as a dearth of dialogue in favor of large panels featuring Cassaday's beautiful artwork. This issue was dense, both in terms of the concepts presented and the panel count. The overall story offered only a pair of elements that advanced the overall plot of the series, but given the few issues remaining, the impact could be seismic.
The story opens with Elijah Snow standing outside a building in an unidentified, snowy city. He's finishing a cigarette before his consultation. (He doesn't ever light up in Melanctha's space, a courtesy he did not extend Anna Hark back in Issue 16.) Melanctha greets him in a way that indicates they've met before, and asks him "what he's looking for." When Snow indicates he's looking for a way to take out the remaining members of The Four, a serious look passes over Melanctha's face. She knows The Four.
Snow and Melanctha sit for tea in the center of Melanctha's apartment? office?, an all-black room with no furnishings or decoration other than a few potted plants. This setting mirrors Melanctha, clad in dark robes, sporting dark green dread locks. Snow says he thinks of her as a magician, but she corrects him by stating that she's a scientist, and launches into a discussion of the "microscale of the universe." She touches on Richard Feynman and his theories on the universes that exist on the smallest levels of existence, and the quantum or subatomic level. She then segues to Eric Drexler's theories on nanotechnology, and machines at the molecular level and smaller. She references a 1993 earthquake that scientists believe were caused by strangelets passing through the planet. This was an actual event: scientists have concluded that two mysterious explosions in 1993 were caused by 'strange-quark nuggets' or strangelets. Though a strangelet is only the size of a grain of pollen, each has a density about 10 trillion times greater than lead.
From there, the discussion shifts towards a realm where the lines between science and mysticism begin to blur a bit. Melanctha begins to speak of souls, and the "esoteric scientific research" that has shown that souls are a form of electromagnetic field, bound to the human body. She then goes on to state that these fields are slowly leached out of dead bodies, flowing back into the ecosystem, becoming part of the dirt and water. Plants then absorb some of their properties, and via this mechanism Melanctha links the souls of the dead with hallucinogenic, perception-altering drugs, often used to "communicate with the dead" in certain cultures. She then informs Snow that he's ingested some of these drugs from the tea she has given him.
Melanctha is Snow's guide on a trip that she states will deliver him through "the wall beyond the microscale," a world she describes as heaven, the world of the dead, and the underworld. Though Melanctha isn't physically present with Snow on his trip, Snow can hear her and communicate to her at all times. Snow perceives himself bursting through a bright flower-like structure, floating downwards to stand on a mirror like liquid surface. Though solid enough for Snow to stand upon, there are small, spherical, reflective objects emerging from the surface as though it were liquid. The objects move about as though alive and sentient. Melanctha confirms this, referring to the environment as their home. They hover about Snow, spraying out a gas from purple nodes on their surfaces. Melanctha identifies this as "pneuma," from the Greek word for both air and soul/spirit. Are these structures the things that create the soulstuff of life, or do they merely gather it from former life and collect it for re-use? This is not made clear. But this gas communicates concepts to Snow that he articulates for Melanctha. Snow perceives symbols and concepts ranging from DNA to the Tarot.
After suddenly backing away from Snow, the structures just as quickly return. Snow relays that they are telling him he doesn't belong in this realm, that he is somehow outside the normal boundaries of life and death. Snow protests this concept to Melanctha, saying that despite his status as a "Century Baby" he still lives, and will still one day die. He notes the deaths of other century babies as proof. Melanctha counters that moving between the states of aliveness and death does not mean that he has a soul, which she implies is the measure of a human. Human or not, the realm Snow has been walking is designed for creatures with souls. Bereft of a soul, the realm rejects Snow, darkens, and recedes from him. As a feeling of quiet remorse or loss descends upon Snow, his drug-induced journey ends. He returns through the now-darkened flower barrier as Melanctha informs him of his condition. She tells him that he is a construct, a non-human being of exceptional powers that was created to do a job in the universe. She goes on to tell him that his job must be something greater than a personal vendetta against The Four. His trip over, Snow leaves without saying a word. But he does cast a few backward glances.
VERY interesting story. And very densely packed with a great mix of science, near-magic, a touch of religion, and hallucinogens. This issue got some advance blurbs and quotes that described it as, variously, "the 90s drugs and science issue, " and the "Dr. Strange" issue. Surprisingly, Ellis managed to bring all of this together in a way that didn't seem at all forced.
First, we meet Melanctha. Visually, she's based on one Meredith Yayanos, violinist, theremist and background vocalist of The Vanity Set. Ellis has commented:"We've used a friend of mine, the violinist/thereminist Meredith Yayanos, as the visual inspiration for that issue's central character. Mer is enjoying being Dr. Strange. I had a bunch of loose ideas floating around for that issue that didn't come into focus until Mer sent me a camphone shot of her in her then-new forest-green dreads, looking like the only Brian Froud faerie in Brooklyn. This is how it works, sometimes -- a single visual, a single line, a minute of music can suddenly nail down a pile of chaotic notions into a story. Ditko, Dr. Strange, Terence McKenna and his DMT exegeses, the Ghost Cop from #3 and the Century Babies, magic as something creeping and primal and destabilising and intertwined with reality... And then that picture, and remembering her playing a theremin solo in London last summer, mesmerised Mer plucking notes out of thin air, wide-eyed and sorcerous." --WEllis had stated that Dr. Strange was Ms. Yayanos' favorite comics character, so she gets to "play" him this issue. We learn very little about Melanctha, but there is a great deal to question about her. She knows who The Four are, and by name, without further explanation. She last met Snow who knows how long ago in France, while Snow pursued Irma la Phantom. Through some tips and research, we might suppose that "Irma la Phantom" is a reference to Irma Grese, a.k.a. Irma the Ghost, a Nazi SS guard at the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Tried and convicted of numerous atrocities against the prisoners at Auschwitz, she was hanged in 1945. Her ghost allegedly haunts the old camp where she committed her crimes. But why would a German ghost turn up in France ? And when? How old might Melanctha be? If the reference to Irma matches the one put forth here, it raises more questions than it answers.
Melanctha seems to know that Snow had been to The Last Shot bar in Kazakhstan. This is a topic Ellis has explored before. In Planetary and earlier in the Ellis-penned Stormwatch series, we have been to The Last Shot, a bar where the living drink a last toast before having their souls, electromagnetic fields, destroyed with an underground nuclear blast. Snow met John Stone there for a drink in Issue 11. During the consultation this issue, Snow did a pretty good job taking in stride the sight of Stone and himself standing at the bar there!
Melanctha knows that Snow met a ghost in Hong Kong who denied the existence of an afterlife. This is the Ghost Cop from Issue 3. Though Melanctha seems to know him, and that Snow has met him, she doesn't seem to know how the ghost came by his belief that there's no afterlife. Given everything else she knows, this would be an odd omission, unless she's somehow only sensing things that Snow knows, reading his mind to better divine the answers he seeks. But this is somewhat contradicted by the fact that she didn't know which of The Four had been "painted out of the picture." So how does she come by her knowledge of Snow's recent history?
Most astonishingly of all, Melanctha knows that Snow is a century baby, knows of the others like him, and had even presupposed that Snow was neither dead nor alive. Her bombshell suggestion to Snow is that he's "... a thing created to do a job... and that job cannot simply be to hound four people who did you wrong... can your task be so small a thing?" Snow is obviously not sure what to do with this information, and leaves without saying a word. His backward glances as he moves away from Melanctha's space would seem to indicate that he may have as many questions as we do at this point!
Melanctha protests Snow's reference to her as a magician. She prefers to think of herself as a scientist. As if to underscore the notion, she launches into a discussion of the microscale wonders of the universe, touching on nanotechnology, picotechnology, femtotechnology, chromotechnology, and theoretical forms of matter and energy. From there the science becomes more hypothesis or conjecture than fact as she begins to discuss the souls of the dead. This leads her to connect soulstuff with hallucinogenic drugs, and those drugs to ancient traditions of speaking to the dead and predicting the future. Though she still speaks of the world of the microscale, she references Aldous Huxley's 1954 book The Doors of Perception, a work that reintroduced the world of the so-called psychedelic drugs to the public at large. She equates a hallucinogen-induced trip with a visit to the microscale, and after unknowingly sipping some drugged tea Snow is on his way.
Melanctha doesn't ever mention Terence McKenna (though she may have been quoting Jim Morrison when she told Snow to, "break on through to the other side" of the flower), but Ellis did when talking about the issue. This reference wasn't lost on some who frequent the various message boards that have Planetary threads. A fellow by the handle "inactiveman" posted the following Terence McKenna quote on the DC Message Boards that neatly sums up what Snow saw on his trip:"This was dimethyltryptamine, DMT, and I smoked it and I saw... a swirling, floral mandorla form behind my closed eyelids, and as I moved toward this mandorla, I realised I was going to penetrate beyond it, and I burst through into a kind of other-dimensional superspace... what happened was there was an encounter with what can only be described as an elf hive, a colony of self-transforming, hyperdimensional machine creatures that came bounding forward with joyful squeaks to dribble themselves like self-transforming jewelled basketballs on the floor in front of me, and I was dumbstruck with amazement." (http://www.deoxy.org/h_twha3.htm)
So Snow's trip through the flower, first shown in Melanctha's eyes, then as a wall in Snow's perception, matches McKenna's, as does a superspace inhabited by bouncing machinelike creatures. A visual addition to these creatures in the story was the inclusion of the writing on one of them in close up (which made it look a little like the character ball used in the old IBM Selectric typewriters, for those of you who remember devices as archaic as "typewriters"). The quartet of letters ACGT are repeated over and over in different combinations. These are the letters used by Watson and Crik to describe the structure of DNA. The base-pair rule that requires A to be paired with T and C with G is apparently violated, but I'm not about to argue with Ellis and Cassaday on this point. Or with pneuma-exhaling DMT machine elves from the microverse either, for that matter.
While Melanctha seems to be telling Snow that there's more to his task than battling The Four, the narrative arc of the story seems to have brought Snow to a point from which he can't go back: he's engaged them, exiled one and captured another, and can't help but expect reprisals from the remaining pair. And if Drummer's theory that century babies are the universe's antibodies (from the Planetary/Authority crossover) holds any truth, then it seems like Snow's job would still include taking on threats like The Four. So while that might not be Snow's only responsibility, it seems like it's still an area of general responsibility, and one whose moment is very nearly at hand, thanks to the events Snow has put in motion.
Once again, Snow avoids mention of the capture of William Leather. The capture took place back in Issue 18, but Snow seemed to not acknowledge this in Issue 19, 20, or here in Issue 21. If we assume that issues 18-21 are presented in chronological order, then what might the purpose of this evasion be? Could Snow be seeking to keep the information to as few people as possible to prevent, or perhaps detect, leaks? This would explain his failure to acknowledge the capture around Kwelo or other crew persons in 19-20. But there were at least a dozen crew persons, besides the field team proper, on hand for the capture itself. And surely some others at whatever location Leather is being held know the identity of their captive. This issue Melanctha seemed quite capable of knowing Snow's dealings without having them formally disclosed to her--why would Snow avoid mention of the capture, very nearly lie about it outright, around someone who seems completely capable of divining the information without Snow's consent? There's something going on here. Stay tuned.
Jakita Wagner's observation last issue, that Snow had somehow changed since he's returned, is something that Snow himself may now appreciate without having Jakita say it to his face. It will be interesting to see if his behavior changes accordingly, and if he reveals any of what he's learned to the rest of the field team. It will be particularly interesting to see if Snow discusses what he's learned with Axel Brass, another century baby.
Speaking of the century babies, who can we say has been definitively identified as century babies (as defined by Ellis alone) at this point? Snow, Jenny Sparks (late of The Authority), Axel Brass, and Lord Blackstock were the only ones specifically named until recently. While many folks around the various message boards had speculated that Brass' whole crew was composed of Century Babies, the closest we have to confirmation is Drummer's comment in Issue 19 that "probably the rest of that whole crew" have a similar pedigree. Snow, in this issue, talks about century babies who have died, and in reference to Brass' crew he says that, "Hark died, Blackstock dies, all of them..." implying that the entire group was made up of century babies. Interestingly, during that segment of 19 and here in 21, Hark is referred to as having been a century baby as though this were common knowledge, even though there's been nothing concrete mentioned before. We must assume these references are to the elder Hark, and not Anna. First, Hark is always brought up in the context of Axel and his group. Second, Melanctha states this issue that while the century babies can die, they're functionally immortal; if that's true, then why would Anna estimate her lifespan to be only some 300 years?
Assuming Hark was a century baby and that Anna Hark, with half of her genetic material coming from a century baby, really does have a 300 year lifespan, then there may be implications for Jakita. Is she going to live a span similar to Anna's, given her father Lord Blackstock's century baby status? Jakita is already around 70, after all.
Given the revelations of this issue, is there reason to call Axel Brass' status as a century baby into question? It would seem that some outside force is responsible for century babies, where Brass' origins were explained away as the result of generations of eugenics and special diet and exercise. So is he really a century baby who happened to be born into an environment where his abilities would merit no special notice, or is he simply an extraordinary specimen who happens to share a significant birth date with the true examples of the form?
Ellis has dropped hints that William Leather may be a century baby, but this would seem to contradict some other points. First, in the conversation about century babies in 19 between Jakita and Drummer, they state that The Four aren't century babies (though one could suggest that they may not have all the facts). Second, if Leather was really the Aviator from Brass' group, wouldn't we have heard by now that there weren't enough human remains in the cave where they found Brass to account for everyone who supposedly died there? Third, while Leather and The Aviator both sport facial scars, they are not in the same configuration on the two men's faces. Sure, Ellis could have made this decision after the initial issues were drawn, or just left Cassaday out of the loop. But when it's all we have to look at in the way of physical evidence.... Ellis himself made the following statement back before Issue 19 hit the stands:"Is William Leather a Century Baby? Oh, that is a very good, very astute question. Thereby hangs a tale, and it's called PLANETARY #22: 'The Torture Of William Leather.' You're going to find out all about the Century Babies."
Hopefully, then, we'll have our answers soon enough.
Since this issue was such a departure from recent issues in terms of story density and panel count, let's take a moment to look at the visual storytelling employed this issue. Cassaday may not have had any full splash-page treatments to offer this issue, but he still got a lot of narrative punch into the story. Ellis wrote recently about the 16-panel grid as a comic format (in his regular article over at Comicon's Pulse) and talked about how difficult it can be. He's also noted that while many of us associate the nine-panel grid with Watchmen, it was also a staple of the old Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Dr. Strange stories. Cassaday starts the issue with a fairly strict nine-panel grid. At first, it receives an almost cinematic treatment, as the title and some "opening credits" alternate space with the story on the opening page.
The next few pages stick with the nine panel format. But as Melanctha speaks and Snow continues to drink his tea, the grid begins to loosen; the panel count drops to six per page. (This is still fewer panels per page than has been typical since the series came back from hiatus around issue 16, though--Cassaday has been using a format that relies heavily on four to six panels per page, many of them stacks of page-wide horizontal slabs.) At the point Snow is informed that he's ingested hallucinogens, the panel count drops to three, and the panels are now full page width, echoing the beginnings of Snow's about-to-be-expanded perceptions. As his trip begins in earnest, the panels are three to a page, with full bleed on the left and right edges. While Cassaday often uses full bleed for his splash pages, and for other points of emphasis, he seldom uses the full bleeding edge this often in a story, favoring actual panel borders. But here it's applied relentlessly, perhaps to underscore the wide-screen, broadened perception that Snow is experiencing.
As the trip draws to a close, we see Snow reverse his path (though he himself is stationary on his knees), as he passes once again through the flower membrane. This time, the flower is black. And as it explodes around Snow, the intrusion of white space in the panel causes the flower petals to adopt a pattern that matches the outline of the lights and darks of Melanctha's face, shown fully at the top of the next page. No accident, this, as one translation of Melanctha from the Greek is "black flower." Back on the floor of Melanctha's room, his perception is still widened and we still see three horizontal panels per page, thought the final panel is no longer a full left-right bleed. The next page starts as a six panel grid, with two panels on each of the first two rows, but concludes with three panels in the final row, as Snow leaves Melanctha's and returns to what would be a nine panel format once more. His consultation journey has ended.
So who says Cassaday has to rely on big, pretty, full page pictures? He can tell the story in many ways, regardless of the panel count. That said, his big, pretty cover was a great homage to many great 1960s rock art posters (the tie-in to this issue? "Cover = Sixties. Prime Dr. Strange years," says Ellis). A search through several poster archives showed that he was dead on capturing the pallet, and re-imagined art-nouveau sensibility, of the period. It somehow enhanced the Medusa-like quality of Melanctha's appearance, to great effect.
I vote we let John Cassaday finish the series. He ain't bad.
What is Snow's purpose as a century baby? Who constructs the century babies? Do they have a collective purpose, or are they independent of each other? If Snow's purpose is greater than simply defeating The Four, could he possibly achieve that purpose without first defeating The Four? Why does Snow persist in avoiding the mention of the captured William Leather? Will Snow share his status as a being outside of the normal flow of life and death with the rest of Planetary? How old is Melanctha, and how does she seem to know so much about Snow? And was it just me, or did Melanctha's odd door emblem and air-drawing with tea both somehow evoke memories of the window in Dr. Strange's sanctum sanctorum, without looking anything like it?