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The Torture of William Leather
The story opens with a few images of William Leather (one a flashback from Issues 6) followed by an extreme close up of his eyes; we can't see his surroundings. All we hear is Leather's calm, surprisingly even voice as he narrates his family and personal history.
It starts for us at some point in the old west in the late 1800s. John Leather (William Leather's grandfather) and his older brother Paul are Texas Rangers who also happen to have inherited a silver mine from their father. The Dowling Gang, a group of thieves and extortionists, wanted the location of the mine. They captured the Leather brothers, and tortured Paul to death trying to learn the mine's location. John escaped, but with perhaps mortal wounds, and it didn't appear he will survive a night in the Texas wilderness.
Then a mysterious, nameless rouge Potawatami shaman stumbles across John Leather. Sensing a greater importance to the chance meeting, the shaman decided to test this wounded man to see if he was worth saving. He force-fed John an unknown hallucinogenic herb. After John survived the experience (one with some remarkable similarities to the one Snow experienced last issue), the shaman treated his wounds and was not seen again.
John, driven by grief and revenge and, possibly, the perception-altering experience the shaman had forced upon him, plotted his revenge. He forged silver bullets in the family silver mine, tipping them with the poisonous mercury byproduct of silver mining. Wish a mask of ashes, clad in black head to toe, and astride a black horse, John became the Dead Ranger. He hunted down and killed the Dowling gang, and continued delivering a ruthless brand of justice until the end of the 1800s.
On January 1st, 1900, he had a son named Bret. William Leather now shifts the narrative forward in time to explain that Bret moved to Chicago in the 20s and founded a newspaper. But more significantly, Bret was a Century Baby who donned the identity of The Spider, a masked vigilante who went on to join Dr. Brass and his group (as shown in Issues 1 and 5). Here, William Leather relays a violent tale of The Spider defending the lives of a judge and his family by taking on a group of hit men. In the process of violently dispatching the men, The Spider showed the ability to transform himself into a mass of spiders and re-form himself at will. Though we've seen The Spider in past issues, this is the first indication of any superhuman ability we've been given.
At this point, William Leather's narrative shifts once again, this time to himself. Though he grew up thinking that Bret Leather, The Spider, was his father, William discovered that this was not the case. After The Spider died in the Adirondacks with Brass and his group, Leather apparently discovered that he was really fathered by one of The Spider's underlings. This discovery, and the realization that he was not heir to The Spider's incredible abilities, set the stage for a meeting with Randall Dowling. Dowling, a distant relative of the Dowling who fought the Dead Ranger, convinced Leather to throw in with him in a quest for power and greatness, things that fate had seemingly denied him.
Now the flashbacks end, and we're back with Leather. We finally pan back from his eyes to begin to see his surroundings. Leather concludes his tale by explaining that he finally realized that he and the other members of the Four (with the possible exception of Kim Suskind) were nothing more than pawns to Dowling, tools to be used for his own ends. Leather split with Dowling and the group (just as Snow had suspected for the past several months), and sought to achieve greatness on his own. We see his success: he's strapped and shackled to a strange platform, his skull penetrated by rods attached to large spheres of indeterminate purpose (presumably some kind of siphon to drain his amazing energy). And Snow is standing over him.
Snow informs him that Jacob Greene is stranded, and that Leather's capture is a secret; his location is a secret even from the rest of the Planetary field team. Snow acknowledges the counsel that Melanctha gave him (last issue, our time), but announces he's going to choose to ignore it. He reminds Leather of an incident on the Nautilus, and that Leather shot someone close to Snow. Then Snow takes a pair of needle-lined goggles and presses them down into the same eyes that have been the larger-than-lifesize focus of Leather's narrative throughout the issue. Without Leather making a sound, blood begins to pour out from beneath the goggles.
On the first read-through, this issue seemed not to live up to its advance billing. Ellis had said :"You're going to find out all about the Century Babies. You guys wait until you see the direct connection between Snow, the Pulp Heroes In The Adirondacks, the flight of the Four and why William Leather has no friends. "
At first it didn't seem like all of these elements were really brought up, particularly the reference to the Four's fateful early moon shot. We did finally find out why it's seemed like Snow was forgetting that he had Leather captured. It was simply a matter of security, and making sure than no one else knew about it. Still, to not trust people like Melanctha or some of the Planetary location managers... it still feels like Snow had someone in particular in mind he wants to keep this from.
At any rate, on subsequent readings, and after reviewing past issues, I think that this may have been the most revealing issue of the series so far, perhaps even more than Issue 12's revelation that Snow was the Fourth Man. It's possible that Ellis told us everything he said he would this issue.
Or he's left false clues to send us off in the wrong direction. Hard to say, really.
In an immediate callback to the themes of Issue 21, we see the character standing in for Tonto in this re-imagined origin of The Lone Ranger force-feed John Leather a powerful hallucinogen. Like the hallucinogen Snow ingested last issue, this one gives John Leather the hallucination that he's moving towards a flower. It's interesting to note how each man's surroundings dictate some of the nature of the beginnings of their trip. Where Snow was listening to Melanctha talk about plants, and then sees the flower image in her eyes, John Leather sees his flower in the nighttime clouds over his Texas wilderness.
While we don't get to stay with John for his entire experience, the differences between his and Snow's experiences hinted at in the four panels we are shown are striking, and potentially full of implications for the series. First, there are the fetal-positioned figures who appear around the surface of the flower. The last time we saw something like that in the pages of Planetary was way back in Issue 3, when Jakita and Drummer uncovered something Drummer described as "a big stack of hard drives... a huge information repository." When the Ghost Cop calls it God, and describes it as having more than one hundred thousand different angles, Drummer asks if the number is 196,833. This is a reference to the description Hark gave to the snowflake that Brass' crew created in Issue 1: "A theoretical snowflake existing in 196,833 dimensional space. The snowflake rotates. Each element of the snowflake rotates. Each rotation describes an entirely new universe. This is the multiverse."
In the next panel of John Leather's trip, we see elements of the flower, the fetal figures, and an erupting snowflake to boot. This connects three disparate concepts presented across the the series that may be sewn together by something Drummer put together back in Issue 19. While trying to work the two-dimensional, information-based universe theory into other things uncovered over the course (for us) of the preceding eighteen issues, Drummer notes: "The computer we found in the Rockies generated a working model of the universe, right? A snowflake in 196,833 dimensions. What if that snowflake existed in actual three-dimensional space? Not the 3-D we perceive... actual 3-D space. And every facet of the snowflake... is a 2-D plane. The multiverse is an arrangement of flat informational planes, like a stack of hard drives." The Drummer then goes on to hypothesize the existence of Century Babies, or "constructs" in Melanctha's words, represents a safety feature or self defense system in the multiverse.
Fetal Figures, Issue 22 and Issue 3
So based on the visual evidence this issue, and the links the Drummer made, some correlations might be drawn. There may be some kind of link between the multiverse (as embodied by the snowflake), the fetal figures in the Hong Kong "hard drive" and in front of John Leather's flower, and the floral barrier between here and the afterlife. Last issue, Melanctha wondered aloud why the Ghost Cop did not believe there was an afterlife, and why, though he had died, he had not seen the realm Snow was visiting. While Snow was in the realm, the beings inhabiting the afterlife told Snow he did not belong there, that he was outside the system. Perhaps the Ghost Cop, though not a Century Baby, was blocked from the afterlife because of the spot at which he died. Remember, the stack of hard drives was uncovered at the spot in Hong Kong where he, and two other cops before him, had been killed and had come back as ghosts. Drummer said the location was "junction box... (with) several information flows meeting" right before he uncovered the hard drive. Perhaps dying at that location prevents a soul from attaining the afterlife due to the interference from the information flow there. Perhaps the "stack of hard drives" at that location is a repository for those fetal figures, which represent more of these outside-the-system "constructs," collecting at that location. Perhaps that's why John Leather saw similar fetal forms on this side of the flower: these are more constructs that are denied the other realm. These are constructs that can never leave the snowflake, the multiverse. They are outside the system. Could they be constructs that have been, or will be, Century Babies? Do they represent the "information" that the multiverse stores away, periodically installing or positioning them throughout itself to serve as the defense mechanism Drummer has hypothesized?
As a final note to this section, it was interesting that after his hallucination/snowflake encounter, John Leather became an almost preternatural killing force. Knowing that snowflake exposure gave The Four their powers, one wonders if the type of exposure John had might have given him some powers of his own. Or could it have somehow triggered his ability to sire a Century Baby (Bret Leather, The Spider)?
The Lone Ranger Legend Re-envisioned
In terms of mining old genres, this issue gave us a double shot, featuring both a Lone Ranger take and an amalgam of pulp masked avengers. First, The Lone Ranger. From radio serials to Big Little Books to movies to television to comics to novels and to the Wold Newton universe, The Lone Ranger has had a great deal of history, not all of it consistent. Many statements about The Lone Ranger could have their veracity heavily debated. But, with that said, a rough-cut comparison of the basics of the Lone Ranger legend compared to Ellis' version shows clear parallels.
The Reid brothers, Dan (the older brother, and grandfather to Britt Reid, The Green Hornet) and John (who would become The Lone Ranger) live in Texas after the American Civil War and, through their prospecting efforts, find a silver mine. Dan becomes a Texas Ranger, and John joins that force for a time. John, Dan, and several other Texas Rangers were attacked by members of the Butch Cavendish gang. John was the only survivor, nursed back to health by his long-time Indian friend Tonto. John became the Lone Ranger, with trademark black mask, white hat and horse, and a six-shooter full of judiciously-fired silver bullets that were forged in the silver mine he and his brother had found. Ultimately, The Lone Ranger avenges his brother's death by eliminating Cavendish and his gang. The Lone Ranger appears to have cleaned up much of the West, and retired before 1900. Shortly after 1900, John's nephew Dan Jr. has a son, Britt Reid, who would go on to become the Green Hornet.
The Leather brothers, Paul (the older brother) and John (father of Bret Leather, a.k.a The Spider, and grandfather of William Leather of The Four) were both Texas Rangers. They had inherited a silver mine from their father, and the Dowling gang decided they wanted it. Paul died at the hands of the Dowling gang, but John escapes. In Ellis' rework of the legend, it's an unnamed Potawatomai Indian who saves John's life. It doesn't appear that they ever met again. But changed by the ambush, the death of his brother, and a powerful transforming experience with the Indian, John became the Dead Ranger to avenge his brother's death. With trademark black mask, hat, and horse, and a pair of six shooters blazing liberally away with silver bullets that were tipped with poisonous mercury (making even flesh wounds eventually fatal), John avenged his brother's death. He went on to clean up much of Texas, and retired before 1900. On January 1, 1900, his wife gave birth to Bret Leather, a Century Baby who would go on to become The Spider.
Despite the similarity of Ellis' work to the original, Ellis' Dead Ranger was a dark and terrifying vision compared to the original. As has been the habit with this series, it's these re-imagined legends that can be the most compelling elements of the story!
The Spider/Shadow/Green Hornet Amalgam
In his original notes to the first issue, Ellis described the Spider as follows:"THE SPIDER -- THE MILLIONAIRE: Like The Shadow, only without supernatural powers, and far, far crazier. A genius, but possessed by the need to save the world. Batman with guns and no mood stabilisers. Long leather coat, slouch hat, guns visible. A Spider design down one breast of his longcoat, in grey against the black. "So even in 1999, the basic character of The Spider was set. But at the time, the character seemed to but cast from a mold much closer to The Shadow, and no Green Hornet reference was suggested. Furthermore, Ellis makes no mention of another pulp character actually named The Spider, though the influence of that character is visible in the way Cassaday rendered him.
The pulp character The Spider was another disguised figure, with a hat, coat and cape, and facial disguise, all designed to help frighten his opponents. Though typically not depicted this way on the pulp covers, he wore a fake nose, fangs, a longish wig, and sported a hunched back. The Ellis/Cassaday's take, the fangs and disguised nose survive in the form of a metal mask covering the bottom half of The Spider's face (an interesting reversal of the cape-and-cowl set's tendency to mask the eyes).
Pulp Spider and Ellis' Spider
Ellis ties in the Green Hornet legend by lineage, as mentioned earlier. Britt Reid, grand-nephew to The Lone Ranger, was a publisher in the newspaper business, and another example of a wealthy masked man taking on the criminal element of his day. Ellis' Spider is also a crime fighting, wealthy newspaperman with ties to an old west hero (anti-hero?). But in most other respects, Ellis' Spider is a great departure from The Green Hornet. Where the Hornet was a well-to-do, brilliant chemist who used a souped up car, smoke screens, and a sleeping-gas gun to fight crime, Ellis' Spider is a maniacal Century Baby with a greater reliance on striking fear into his enemies. Oh, and shooting them to pieces with his big, oversized pistols.
This Spider also tops his thematic ancestors with his powers as a Century Baby, which appear to include the ability to dissolve his form into insects. On the other hand, though, The Shadow (in some parts of his legend) was said to have the power to "cloud men's minds." Perhaps that's what we're seeing here: perhaps the insect-trick is just an illusion The Spider uses to outmaneuver, and frighten, the opposition. Either way, we saw it used to devastating effect here. And while this shows that the cadre of assistants, informants, and sidekicks that were used by The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, The Shadow, and The (original) Spider were probably superfluous, this Spider had them anyway. We only know this, of course, because one of them turns out to have been the father of William Leather.
Century Baby Update
For everyone keeping score at home, we've now got solid confirmation on at least three of Brass' group having been Century Babies: Brass, Lord Blackstock, and now The Spider. Some folks have assumed that the whole group is composed of Century Babies all along, and The Drummer seemed to echo that sentiment in Issue 21. Drummer also included Hark, specifically, in that class, but I still maintain that the "turn of the century" remark that Brass made in Issue 5 disqualifies Hark as a 1/1/1900 Century Baby (but there's always 1/1/1800, I guess...). It does help explain how that group was able to defeat the Justice League-esqe group in open combat back in Issue 1; this would have been a very tall order indeed for a group of men who's primary assets were merely fists and small arms.
William Leather seemed to know quite a bit about the whole situation. Surprisingly, it appeared that he knew about it long before the accident that gave him power of his own. He even seemed to know, or at least assume, that his acting father had died in the Adirondacks with Brass and the rest of that crew. And he wasn't alone in this kind of knowledge: when he met Randall Dowling, right after World War Two, Dowling already seemed to know quite a bit about the Century Baby concept, even down to the probable gifts of power and near-immortality that a true child of a Century Baby would likely possess. While this seems a highly fertile area to explore in the text, Ellis didn't give us much else to go on in terms of reasonable assumptions to make about such extensive knowledge on the part of Leather and Dowling.
What Ellis does give us is some insight into the character of both Leather and Dowling. Through Leather's narrative, we learn that Dowling was always aspiring to greatness. He approached Leather shortly after The Spider's death and seduced Leather with talk of reclaiming the greatness that was Leather's birthright. (Apparently there were no hard feelings over the violence between their ancestors.)
That Dowling would be a manipulative individual, only looking to advance his own cause, wasn't much of a revelation. But the level of success he found with Leather was a bit surprising. The logic that The Spider should have been William's true biological father is somewhat flawed; even if the same egg would have been fertilized in the womb of Leather's mother, the child would not have been William Leather. It would have been 50 percent different genetic material. Even if it were a boy, and were named William, it wouldn't have been the William Leather we see now. But so embittered was William by the failure to inherit a great power, and so convinced of being a part of some great Leather family destiny, such logic escaped him and he threw in with Dowling.
And at first, Leather thought that he and the rest of The Four were to be a part of the greatness that Dowling sought. But, in hindsight, he realizes that it was manipulation by Dowling to ensure he had folks around to manipulate on his own journey to greatness. Leather talks about how he and "Jakey" (Jacob Greene) were pawns to Dowling, hired muscle to handle his dirty work. When Leather finally realized this, he apparently left to make his own way. This explains some of what we've seen since Issue 6, where Leather seemed to be creeping about in the group's lab in Four Voyagers Plaza, and in Issue 18's contentious phone conversation between Leather and Dowling. Earlier issues like Issue 10 and Issue 14, flashbacks to the 60s (perhaps) and 1995, respectively, show Leather still in the fold, but with strains on the relationship.
All in all, Leather comes off as a much more sympathetic character than one might have though possible, based on the atrocities we've seen he and the rest of The Four commit. His narrative of his life story even has its charming points: the way he referred to Jacob Greene as "Jakey" showed an element of familiarity and perhaps even affection. And, on the whole, his entire delivery this issue was a calm, personable one. But still, you have to consider the circumstances. His power has obviously been neutralized by the freakish contraption to which he's attached. Powerless, captive, and perhaps under the influence of some drug or process that has taken the fight out of him, he's shown to be a weak and somewhat pathetic character.
This all helps provide a background of greater contrast to the cold splash of reality that Snow delivers at the end of the tale. Though Snow acknowledges the counsel that Melanctha provided last issue, he can't forget what The Four and Leather have done. He reminds Leather of an unspecified act of cruelty that Leather perpetrated on a companion of Snow's on the Nautilus. The expression of Leather's face, one of recognition and guilt and fear, is priceless. But it's all washed away a panel later, as Snow presses needle-lined goggles down over Leather's eyes. In a time in comics history where wide screen violence (that Ellis pioneered) showing acts of unimaginable destruction to living things is almost commonplace, the final two-panel sequence is somehow more disturbing than all of that. Is it because of Snow's emotional coldness? Is it the fact that Leather is so pathetic and helpless? Is it the lack of sound (Leather doesn't cry out as it happens)? Is it the way it was drawn, so close to Leather's face? Is it context, given the current headlines regarding prisoner abuse in the war in Iraq?
It was a bit disturbing.
Is it possible that it was exposure to a snowflake that caused John Leather to have a Century Baby as an offspring? Were all of Brass' crew really Century Babies? Is it possible that Dowling is truly unaware that Greene has been exiled and Leather has been captured? What would Jakita's and Drummer's reaction be if they knew of Leather's torture? Why is Snow ignoring the powerful advice that Melanctha gave him last issue? What happened between Snow and Leather on the Nautilus in '59, and who did Leather shoot? How did Dowling know so much about the Century Babies way back in the late 1940s? And hey, if Leather knew that his father died in the Adirondacks in 1945, how is it possible that The Four never found and raided the location to steal the snowflake-generating computer (or, as I now believe, the shiftship from Issue 4, buried at that location)? And if they did find the location, what are the implications for Doc Brass and his role in all of this?