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Though he's been one of the three main cast members since the Preview and Issue 1, the Drummer has been almost a complete enigma. This issue, his character at last becomes three dimensional: we learn some of his personal history, something of his true abilities, and some of his personal motivations for being a member of the Planetary organization and field team.
The story opens at a sidewalk cafe, with The Drummer and Jakita Wagner comparing notes on Elijah Snow's recent behavior. (Though it might seem strange to converse so freely out in the open like this, it was established in Issue 2 that Drummer is a "natural anti-surveillance device," a concept that is easier to understand by the end of this issue.) Drummer seems to have observed a great deal of Snow's recent comings and goings, including his recent trip to visit Melanctha (in Issue 22), re-reading old Planetary guides, and his covert removal of the Four's William Leather to an undisclosed location to be tortured. Jakita reaffirms her assertion from Issue 20 that Snow has changed, that his behavior has become harder and more ruthless or vicious, and points to Snow's dooming Jacob Greene to drift out of the solar system as proof. Drummer states that he believed the same, at one point, but has since come to believe that this isn't really the case.
Drummer paints a picture of Snow as a man acting out of concern for his colleagues, and even his foes. He asserts that Snow saved Jacob Greene's life by sending him on a one-way trip out of the solar system--that way he didn't have to kill him. Drummer continues by explaining Snow's secrecy regarding Leather as a bid to protect the Planetary team from reprisals from the remaining members of the Four, Randall Dowling and Kim Suskind. Drummer then goes on to hint that he has figured out Snow's purpose as a Century Baby. Jakita makes a cryptic comment about Drummer's inclination to defend Snow; Drummer responds by saying he has good reason to back action against the Four. And right on cue we learn why.
The story shifts to a flashback of a much younger Drummer, clad in an orange jumpsuit, head shaved, with a group of other kids who seem about his age. They're all seated in a row in front of computer terminals. Each has some kind of electronic collar around their neck, and they work away as a collection of some kind of security force patrol behind them. Even at this point in his life, Drummer has drumsticks in hand. He's clubbed in the back of the head for not putting them down to get back to his (at this point unspecified) task.
We follow the guard who struck Drummer out of the room as he makes his way to the bathroom. There, he finds his urination interrupted by an unlikely and unwelcome freezing of the stream. Snow and Ambrose Chase emerge from two of the stalls, and Snow persuades the guard to part with his gun, knight stick, and electronic key. Freezing the guard's vocal chords, Snow and Chase step outside the bathroom to join up with Jakita.
The three enter the room where Drummer and his cohorts were at work, and Chase locks down time to hold the guards in their tracks. One, just out of Chase's range, fumbles with a small button or trigger. Jakita violently tries to prevent the guard from acting, but it's too late: the button triggers the collars on the necks of the assembled children, and the collars begin exploding one at a time down the row of horrified children. Acting quickly, Jakita manages to save the last child in the row, Drummer, just before his collar explodes.
As time comes back on in the rest of the room, Chase and Snow gun down the remaining guards. Snow tells Drummer, the only survivor, that he's free and can go home. Drummer asks if he can break things before he leaves, and a plainly amused Snow consents. But instead of trying to physically break any equipment, Drummer begins tapping on the terminal in front of him with his drum sticks. As he taps, faster and faster, every terminal fills with warning messages, and the machines begin to smoke. Quickly, the room explodes and catches fire.
The exit apparently blocked, Snow grabs Drummer by the collar, and barks "exit plan B" into a communication device on his person. The three members of the field team, now joined by Drummer, leap/are thrown out an exploding window, which is revealed to be at least 40 stories above street level. A Planetary cargo plane, with a cargo net flapping out of the back bay, passes below them with perfect timing, and the team catches the netting and each other to crawl to safety.
The scene cuts to a Planetary hospital facility, where an unspecified amount of time (but presumably brief--a few weeks?) has elapsed. Snow is talking to one of the doctors, who explains the Drummer is "an informational black hole" who absorbs and processes the information around him. The doctor describes him as having half of his brain in "informational space," which leaves him in a semi-detached state with reality. Seeming at somewhat of a loss for a good course of action, Snow resolves to return Drummer to his family. But this will prove problematic.
We discover that Snow has enlisted super-agent John Stone to track down Drummer's family. But during a brief, tense meeting in Stone's car, while being chased and fired upon by Sumatran Robot Death Sluts (of course), we learn that Drummer's entire family has died, some under mysterious circumstances. Stone suggests a deliberate attempt to extinguish Drummer's genetic line, and goes on to explain that the room they found Drummer in was populated with some gifted children, but that Drummer was uniquely gifted among them. Stone speculates that someone didn't want more of his caliber in the world.
Snow decides to share this information with the young Drummer, but Drummer mysteriously seems to already know--not just about his own family, but even the details of Stone's involvement in the investigation (and something of Jakita's personal history, and Snow's involvement). Snow decides to offer Drummer the option of staying with the Planetary organization, explaining to him that the organization saves things in the world, and saves the people on it.
The scene shifts back to the present, where Drummer is explaining to Jakita Snow's need to save things. He puts Snow's current obsession with stopping the Four in the context of saving everyone else, saving the Four's information, and perhaps even saving the long-disappeared Ambrose Chase.
Though this issue didn't reveal as much as we might've hoped (only four to go, after all), it did manage to make a lot of things seem to make more sense in retrospect. It might have even given us the perspective we'll need for the endgame. And we finally got to learn a little more about the ever-enigmatic Drummer.
From the explanation by John Stone, it appears that Drummer's ability is the result of a quirk in genetics--yes, Drummer is a mutant--that occurred naturally. Dowling somehow discovered the genetic tendency towards natural affinity for information, and had developed a program to identify the genetically adept and put them to use where he saw them doing the most good: the nascent internet. There was no indication that Dowling's program was designed to enhance this ability, other than the gains that the practitioners would experience through constant, forced-labor use of their abilities. But this issue makes clear that Drummer's ability is unprecedented in this area.
The first few panels of the story give us a brief glimpse of what it's like to see the world through Drummer's eyes: objects and systems give up their information the way books, television, radio, and internet do for the rest of us. Drummer's comment that his PDA device was "bothering him" indicates that there would be a downside to this ability. It would be kind of like everything around you providing visual and auditory stimuli, making the world a much "noisier" place for Drummer than the rest of us.
This is further supported in the flashback sequence at the Planetary hospital facility. The doctor who speaks with Snow (a riff on Marvel's Moira MacTaggert? I first thought old-school DC's Jenet Klyburn of STAR Labs, but friend-of-the-site Chris Nuttall might be on to something here; she's at a hospital with for kids with special abilities, and Dummer is a mutant, hmmm...) describes Drummer as an informational black hole, sucking up and processing any and all information around him, with half of his brain in "informational space." Regardless of the exact nature of the channel, that's a lot of sensory input. This leaves Drummer somewhat disassociated from those around him, "treat(ing) people like they're in a video game." This would be understandable. It explains Jakita's introduction of Drummer to Snow in Issue 1 as a crazy person who talks to machines. An oversimplification, to be sure, but accurate: if he isn't processing the world around him, and therefore responding to it, the way most of us do he would fit a definition of insanity.
The other piece of her introduction that issue, telling Snow that machines do as Drummer tells them, was dead on the money. In this issue's flashback, we see Drummer destroy a whole facility by apparently sending information into Dowling's system. So it's a two way street for Drummer, as we've seen at various other points throughout the series.
But Drummer does apparently have his limits. This issue saw Drummer make the provocative comment, "What you all forget about me is -- I know everything." The implications of that are staggering, but the reality is a bit more limiting. If Drummer really knew everything, the arc of this series would have been very different. Perhaps a more accurate statement about Drummer would be that he has an almost unlimited ability to accumulate the information around him. That's different than actually knowing everything; if he hasn't been exposed to something, he won't have any knowledge of it. Even the impressive piece of anticipating Snows' revelations to him during the flashback were all made possible by his exposure to the computers in the hospital facility--he wouldn't know anything of the Planetary computer system had he remained in Dolwing's facility, for example.
The thing about having the ability to absorb all information is that you still need to be in a position to gather it (though proximity, apparently, or via a network like the internet), process it, and organize it before you can make sense of it all. Drummer may absorb the information around him, but he's got to separate signal from noise and then figure out what it all means. He may find his coffee volunteering its temperature, but this isn't particularly useful. Even an unusual change, like the temperature suddenly rising or falling 100 degrees, wouldn't mean anything to him in a vacuum. In this, he's not omnipotent. And there are obviously other limitations to his ability. In Issue 3, he sensed a "junction box" of information flow at the location inhabited by the Ghost Cop, but he couldn't make sense of it right off. Further, even though he has the ability to talk to machines, he needed Jakita to provide some kinetic energy to the location to cause a reaction that would better enable him to detect it. In Issue 4 he jumps up and down on a travelstone, unable to communicate with it or understand how to activate it. And again in Issue 7, he detected an information signal (magic, in this case) but needed help from Snow to slow down the signal to get a grip on it.
Even Drummer admits his own fallibility this issue, when discussing Snow's demeanor with Jakita, and whether or not Snow had changed. Drummer says that, at first, he thought Snow had changed, but later reconsidered--not something you'd need to do if you were omniscient. He also says that all Century Babies have a purpose, and has been vocalizing his theories since the Planetary/Authority crossover, but he'd missed Snow's purpose even though it was "staring (him) in the face all along." Some Century Babies are defenders, some are pioneers, but Drummer announces that Snow's purpose is to save things. Drummer builds a fairly convincing argument that this is the motivator for Snow's recent actions, from avoiding having to kill Greene and Leather of the Four; for visiting Melanctha; for taking steps to keep the rest of the Planetary organization and field team out of the line of fire, even if it means keeping secrets from them.
All that said, you've got to believe that Drummer has an amazing upside. From the notion that that we live in a two-dimensional, information-based universe (as introduced by Dr. Kwelo in Issue 19) to Melanctha's comment that "everything is information" (in Issue 21), it looks like the only limit to Drummer's abilities are the availability of information and his own ability to make sense of it all.
Century Babies, and the Implications for the Endgame
Assuming the Drummer's assessment of Snow's role is accurate, it provides an interesting prism through which to view Snow's activities as we know them. "We save things. We keep the world strange... and we save the people on it." This would explain his aversion to actually killing the Four, though we know that he's not averse to inflicting pain or even killing if the need arises. But in the light of this role, Melanctha's message to Snow in Issue 21 becomes more clear: if he is here to save information, people, etc., then taking out the Four isn't his job. Snow feels, as perhaps we do, that taking out the Four is a means to an end: he will be better able to save things if they are out of the way. And so far, Snow's treading a fine line to try to achieve his true mandate without having to kill the four; perhaps his meeting with Melanctha was not as unproductive as it first appeared, given the first thing we saw him do after the Issue 21 meeting was torture Leather in Issue 22. Given this new context, it at least makes a little more sense.
In fact, if you remove the conflict with the Four from your assessment of the series, Snow's role has been that of a collector (no, not at all like the old Marvel character The Collector--the similarity ends at the white hair), a record-keeper, and an explorer to find pre-existing treasures. His pre-Four existence was one of traveling the globe and discovering its' mysteries, from the Open Conspiracy of Issue 13, to Okak-Re in Issue 17, to the alien/bleed invasion covered in flashback and the present in the Planetary/Authority crossover, to his involvement with Carlton Marvell's incursion into the Bleed at Ayer's Rock in Issue 15... all of the wonders he has seen and cataloged have been as observer. He doesn't spearhead new efforts or exploration, he simply uncovers the hidden and keeps track.
This does raise some small questions in my mind regarding some past behavior. In Issue 4, at the blast site, Snow asks Jakita if they ever get to see things as they happen instead of "mopping up after." After Jim Wilder takes them aboard the shiftship, Jakita tells then then-still-memory-blocked Snow that the Planetary organization has only an investigative mandate. Snow responds by railing against what he perceived as a "investigating, unreactive, plodding operation," and concludes by saying, "It's time Planetary stopped watching things and started doing things." And in Issues 6 and 16, Snow makes reference to the cost inflicted on humanity due to the Four's hoarding of information and technology. So there may be a small disconnect between some of Snow's behavior and his role. It might be possible to explain these away as part of the effect of the memory blocks, or perhaps by pointing out that there's a difference between making things available to the world (i.e. exposing the hidden) and actually being the one to give things to the world. Are these small quibbles with a long story arc, or are these events designed to foreshadow Snow ultimately turning his back on his true mandate in favor of action? We'll find out in the remaining four issues, I suppose.
What does Snow's official role, as revealed this issue, mean for the endgame? Will Snow remain true to his role and avoid killing the Four? Will this mean another Century Baby will have to step up to take on that job? Perhaps we'll get to see Axel Brass come out of a crippled retirement for the job--his history is one of Defender, so the shoe fits. Perhaps Anna Hark will be revealed as a Century Baby and take an active role, though the mandate of her family history (revealed in Issue 16) would seem to more closely mirror that of Snow than Brass. Ellis has promised to more completely resolve the mystery of the Century Babies, so these questions should be answered before long.
A late-blooming theme (this is a pun, one that I won't apologize for--it will make sense in a minute...) for the endgame is the sudden focus on the microscale as symbolized for three issues in a row now, by the appearance of a floral mandorla. In Issues 21 and 22, the flower structure was shown in the context of hallucinogen-induced spiritual journeys. This issue, Drummer is holding a flower with the exact same physical appearance as he drops the bombshell that he believes that Snow is trying to find a way to save Ambrose Chase. This cannot be an accident. Is the implication that Chase is trapped somewhere in the world of the dead that Snow visited in Issue 21? Does Snow believe that the Four have the technology he needs to access that realm in a way that would allow him to retrieve Chase?
In this same area, we know that Drummer has theorized (most recently in this issue, and in Issue 19 before this) that the multiverse creates Century Babies to protect itself, apparently with different functions. But in Issue 22, we saw John Leather seem to gain power after visiting the microscale universe. His child was a century baby, theoretically a creation of the macroscale universe. Was this a fluke, a convergence of power between competing structures from opposite poles? We know that Snow's visit to the microscale saw him sort of rejected by its inhabitants, told he didn't belong, that he was outside the system.
Or is it a case of the two structures, large and small, both being linked and carrying out different roles in maintaining a balance between realms, one a collection of separate universes, the other a common realm of afterlife outside of the universes, but vital to the universes nonetheless?
Ellis has promised to "describe the above and below of the protective systems existing around life on Earth." More to come, no doubt.
Pulling back from the bigger picture, this issue had plenty of other treats and surprises. Thematically, it was a bit of a sendup of some of Jerry Bruckheimer's action films of the 90s. Millarworld poster MPNeeb noted that John Cassaday had explained the "tribute" to Bruckheimer at Wondercon 2005. Another poster there, Mark Gonzales, linked to the Armageddon movie poster, and the similarity to this issue's cover is very on the nose.
And if you stand back and look at some of the action and character interplay this issue, it does seem a bit more like a 90s action flick than a typical Planetary adventure. The over-the-top escape from the exploding lab via death-defying leap to a cargo plane's net, the banter between Snow and Chase as they take turns saving each other, even John Stone's car chase and attack (by the Sumatran Robot Death Sluts. Who must be fought off with your on-board Atomic Death Biter. Of course) are all a little more amped up and funny than usual for this title. Honestly, have you ever seen Snow smile so much in a single issue? I don't feel like all character continuity was abandoned, I'm not complaining here. It's just a Planetary adventure, before the bad times, filtered through a popcorn action flick. Fun stuff. Seriously, any story that brings back the old Nick Fury/S.H.I.E.L.D. hover car is okay in my book!
The conversation between Dolwing's goons about the nature of the internet, and their failure to understand its importance (shared by Jakita, surprisingly) was a good humorous point. The prescient work to control the internet, and Dowling's (apparently failed) explanation of it to his goons sets the date of the story anywhere from the mid 80s through the very early 90s--after that, certainly the internet was gathering enough of a public awareness that the confusion evinced by the goons would have been very out of place. But Drummer's hilarious, Simpson-esque comment, "Worst. Rescue. Ever." recalls Fat Comic Book Guy, which might place this story well into the 90s. The timing of the story could be important in terms of figuring out Drummer's actual age. He looks like he could be anywhere from 7-10 years old in this issue's flashback. Issue 14 was set in 1995, and Drummer looks to be a few years older, between 13-16 years old. That might set this issue's flashback to sometime in the late 80s, depending. Hard to say, really.
(I sit here wondering why such things seem to demand to be figured out, since they're not that critical to understanding the story. I suppose that, when a title has as many mysteries as Planetary, any facts you can piece together suddenly have magnified importance---and being able to figure anything out can be a relief!)
Note that this issue puts the lie to Jakita's statement back in Issue 1, where she claimed she'd been part of Planetary for four years. That was 1999; Issue 14 took place in 1995, theoretically her first year. But now we've seen her doing field ops before 1995, perhaps as early as the late 80s. Not that big a deal for someone of her age, but it does make you wonder why she lied about her tenure in the organization when she did. Why four years? What would the harm be in claiming a longer association? Perhaps it was to help hide her true age, or to cause Snow to more easily believe that much of the organization was a mystery to Jakita. (Funny, then, that she was almost tripped up two issues later in Hong Kong by a Planetary operative who claimed a 6 year history with the organization.)
It's interesting to note that all three members of the Planetary field team--Jakita, Chase, and Drummer--were all orphaned at one point in their lives, and we're saved or taken in by Snow. And two of the three were directly or indirectly made to suffer from the actions of Dr. Dowling (with or without the Four). Thematically, heroes have long taken in wronged orphans to fight alongside them; it's a tradition in comics that's as old as Batman and Robin. But Ellis has pulled a hat trick with Snow in this area, and has made it a part of the Anna Hark/Jim Wilder dynamic as well. Will the remaining issues explain this theme?
As a final note, grab your issue and re-examine the background cityscapes, both in the "live" and flashback portions of the issue. There's extensive use of photo-background, not just a panel or two, and with a more seamless integration to the story than I remember seeing in any comic at any time. Not that I've seen every comic that has ever used this effect, but amongst the ones I have seen, this one takes the prize. (It's appropriate that this would turn up in an issue with a John Stone appearance, as groundbreaking S.H.I.E.L.D./Nick Fury artist Jim Steranko was one of the technique's early pioneers.) I'm not sure whether the final, excellent presentation was more the result of Cassaday's efforts or Martin's application of color and digital effects, but it was simply outstanding.
How does Snow think he can "save" Chase, when the last time we saw him he was mortally wounded? Will Snow remain true to his mandate to save things, or will he start killing the remaining members of the Four? Given the events of this issue, can we expect Drummer to play a larger role in the course of the remaining issues? How long do you suppose it took for that guard to thaw himself away from the urinal? WHY DOES DR. DOWLING STINK?