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Night on Earth
The third Planetary crossover opens with a helicopter ride into Gotham City--the Gotham City of the Wildstorm, not DC, universe. Snow narrates aloud for Jakita and Drummer on the way in, describing Gotham as having been designed by Masons on opium and architects drunk on absinthe.
One senses that any past visits to Gotham have not been pleasant, and this one will prove no different.
On the roof of Gotham's Planetary office, the team meets the local crew of Dick Grayson and "Jasper." The field team quickly appraises the local office of the purpose of their visit: John Black, the child of a Science City zero survivor, may have inherited some superhuman abilities and Planetary needs to find him. A recent murder confirms this, as apparent duplicate versions of a man were killed where they were forced to occupy the same space at the same time. Snow claims to have seen this phenomenon before, in 1986, when a "partial multiverse collapse" merged several Earths into one space. He doesn't elaborate on the possible cause, or why he knows about it.
Investigating an area in which Black was recently spotted, they quickly stumble across their quarry standing near a half-skeletal corpse. Before they can act, Black seems to have some sort of attack or episode that generates an expanding, shimmering sphere around him. As it subsides, Jakita observes its similarity to the field Ambrose Chase used to generate, describing it as having "sectioned off a chunk of the world" to rewrite it.
Snow quickly notices that their location ("Crime Alley," as identified earlier by Grayson) is no longer the same; key details have changed. Drummer concurs, and painfully reports that even the local information patterns (electronic signals) have changed.
Suddenly, a physically imposing man dressed as a bat swings onto the scene with the intention of taking Black in himself.
Jakita fights the newcomer to a draw while Snow and Drummer chase Black. As they close on Black, he has another seizure, and reality is warped once again. Jakita's opponent, along with some of the surroundings, is changed into a much less imposing figure, but still dressed in a bat-themed uniform. With an oddly formal and mannered speech pattern, he talks to Jakita long enough to reach a can of... Bat-Female-Villain-Repellant spray? With Jakita temporarily choked by the spray, the Bat-figure rushes to capture Black.
As the strange figure catches up to Snow and Drummer, who have captured Black, another seizure explodes from Black's body and the strange, bat-garbed figure changes once more--this time, into a huge, hulking iteration of the last two bat-persons. Identifying himself as "The Batman," he issues a voice command for a bizarre, tank-like vehicle to intercept Black. Much more imposing than the last Batman, Snow must nearly freeze his brain to break his grip. Snow deduces that Black is shifting himself and the filed team from one parallel universe to another, and the Batman is at this crime scene in each as they rotate through. Unlike the Planetary team, which is being carried along with each shift, The Batman is different--he's the "local Batman" for each universe visited.
Recovering from Snow's attack, The Batman escapes after hurling a set of small, bat-shaped projectiles and small explosives. Flooring Drummer in a single punch, he closes on Black just as another dimension-shifting seizure sweeps the area. A new Batman, smaller and more self-possessed but still imposing, captures Black with the intention of taking him to jail or an insane asylum. Snow and Jakita have recovered, and have caught up to the action. They explain Black's background and malady, as well as the multi-dimensional quality of the situation. Curiously, The Batman inquires into the fate of Black's Science City Zero parents, and seems to hesitate over the news that they had been killed.
At that moment, another seizure-shift hits, and the more reasonable Batman is replaced by a more simple-looking version, but one who is armed with a pistol and appears ready to shoot Black to insure justice is served. At that moment, Drummer is able to interpret the information in their location and realizes that The Batman's parents were killed at this very location.
Another shift leaves another strange iteration of Batman, this one a cross between the last simple version and one from a very different and futuristic world. This one looks both retro and somehow science-fictionesque at the same time. But apparently recalling Drummer's mention of his parents' death as well as those of Black, he elects to reason with Black, calming him, and bonding with him over their shared personal tragedy. The Batman turns Black over to the Planetary team, just as another shift takes the team back to their own universe.
Snow still doesn't like Gotham.
The internet has delivered some negative buzz on all the Planetary crossovers and one-shots so far, and this installment is no exception. But this one felt much more complete than its predecessors, perhaps due to the fact that Ellis was already working on a regular issue that would deal with a Batman analogue when first approached by DC about doing a full-blown crossover. And unlike Planetary/JLA , Ellis wasn't encumbered with plausibly reinventing a whole universe with a limited number of pages to work with. Instead, he could work with a series of established universes that needed little introduction. Even those readers who don't have decades of Batman lore under their belts could recognize and appreciate the myriad of Batmen offered up, since Ellis kept each true to the central theme of Batman.
Ironically, it seemed that the only people in need of an introduction was the Planetary field team. The Batman, a fixture in the DC Universe(s), was a complete unknown to Planetary. Their universe apparently never developed a Batman; perhaps their Bruce Wayne never existed, or chose a different path without a Superman to emulate (their universe's Superman was killed upon his arrival on earth by William Leather of the Four, as shown in Issue 10).
DC Universe Elements
But all is not unfamiliar in this version of Gotham! The Planetary field office here is staffed by one Dick (Robin/Nightwing, in DC's universe) Grayson, who is ably assisted by a fellow named Jasper. Jasper is Wildstorm's Joker, of course. The fact that Jasper kept "hugging himself when he looked at the homicide pictures" was a good, subtle way for Ellis to indicate what might lie under this version's more tame surface. Another similarity here is the location of the murders, Crime Alley. As is shown later in the story, and as most of the Western Hemisphere already knows, this is where Batman's parents were gunned down. So while there's no telling what drew Black there, it would be a sure bet that Batmen in other universes would turn up there.
During the briefing with the Gotham team, Snow remarks he saw an example of the grotesque merging of identical human bodies once before, in 1986. While he explains the mechanics of merging universes, he never identifies his location or purpose for being in a position to witness this. 1986 was of course the year the Crisis on Infinite Earths concluded, where DC's surviving multiple universes were supposedly merged into one. This was initially an effort to consolidate DC's sprawling, multi-universe (Earth 1, Earth 2, Earth 3, Earth X, Earth Prime, Earth S...) into one cohesive unit by destroying some universes outright and merging the rest. (Red skies were a characteristic of that tale... were we to read anything into Gotham's red skies in this story?) While this attempt at a house-cleaning revisionist history unraveled over time, and multiple universes (and "hypertime") crept back onto the scene, Ellis gives us an interesting take on how such a merging might go wrong. It also opens the door to the possibility that Snow has visited the mainstream DC Universe, at least in theory, though his failure to recognize any of the Batmen would cast doubt on that theory.
Another DCU reference from Snow came fairly early on, when he referenced having visited Gotham once while working with the "Conquerors of the Uncanny in '59." This is most certainly a reference to DC's Challengers of the Unknown, a team of adventurers who premiered back in 1957. Another, more oblique reference to the DCU is embedded here: Bill Finger was the original writer for creator Bob Kane's Batman, and Snow's Conquerors/Challengers reference is given in the context of the "Finger Street District." A wild place, indeed.
Snow also called himself "Mr. Freeze," without a trace of irony, to mock Batman's self-referential "I'm the Batman" remark. And this might be reaching a bit, but when Snow comes across Drummer, who has just been punched into unconsciousness, he expresses his irritation that he wasn't there to see it; this echoes a scenes in the "funny" Justice League series from Giffen in the early '90's, when Black Canary was similarly irritated at having missed Batman knocking out Guy Gardner with "one punch" (bwahahahaha-ha!).
How much fun were the Batmen? The first on the scene was the Batman of current DC continuity, who was impressive in holding his own against Jakita. And the dialogue! Jakita's various comments and statements were some of her best dialogue yet ("leatherboy," "severely beating men dressed as fetish bats," calling herself "Mistress Jakita," saying "Tell me you're single.")!
Jakita's libido was cooled by the next Batman, however. The Batman of the mid-sixties television series, apparently, is alive and well in some other pocket universe. You could almost hear Adam West's voice while reading the lines--Bat-apologies indeed! Kudos to the creative team on the little touches here: colorist David Baron laid simple, period colors over artist John Cassaday's simpler, more cartoony backgrounds. Ellis engineered Batman's escape with Bat-Female-Villain-Repellant, a callback to the abysmal Bat Shark Repellant that the old TV series trotted out to help Batman in a surfing contest... ah, never mind. Let's just say it was a great touch! Drummer's characterization of this Batman as a "transvestite hooker" may have been a bit much. (But hysterical!)
The next Batman was Frank Miller's Dark Knight, from the original '86 series, and not the post-2000 follow-up. This iteration looks to have had the most direct swipes, from both snippets of dialogue to props. The voice-activated, tank-like Batmobile was straight out of the Dark Knight miniseries, as were the small Baterangs and thermite explosive capsules. The quote, "From this position, there are nine ways to take you down..." was lifted in format from the first issue of the DK mini, and Cassaday's take on Frank Miller's artistic style in that series was very well done. Baron contributes a much more subdued palette, in line with the gritty and gloomy DK series.
Batman number four is perhaps the nearest and dearest to my heart: the 70's Batman, with Cassaday's take on a classic, often-imitated Neal Adams shot of Batman sprinting forward. Neal Adams, often inked by DC's longtime artist and one-time editorial lead Dick Giordano, was largely responsible from helping begin to clear the cartoony, kitschy image of the television Batman from fandom's collective perception by drawing a darker, more dramatic Batman. Adams and Giordano, working together and separately, defined the look of the '70's Batman more than anyone else. (Carmine Infantino, an editorial director at the time and an artist in his own right, is another one of the forces that championed this direction, and is credited on the inside back cover.) Baron hits his target again, with the more muted purples and grays of that era's Batman backgrounds. The 70's Batmobile makes a single panel appearance in the background.
Batman number five is the original, after Batman creator Bob Kane's original style (often inked by Jerry Robinson, one of several artists acknowledged on the inside back-cover). While much cleaner than Kane's primitive pencils from '39-'40, Cassaday gets the style and the feel right with the costume details, carefully placed yellow moon, retro-'30's architectural details, and the giant red Batmobile. Even the gun is right; back then, a lot of characters started their careers with a sidearm that quietly disappeared as comics quickly went from small distribution to national phenomenon.
The final Batman is something different. There's been some debate on the internet, and I myself have missed enough of Batman's continuity for the last decade to have possibly missed this iteration completely, but I think it's Cassaday's own take on Batman. The only evidence I can point to is the fact that of all the Batmen featured after the first, this one doesn't appear too far off Cassaday's natural style. This Batman evokes the past, the future, and something alien.
Throughout it all, no matter how gruff, angry, comical, businesslike, or combative the Batmen became, they were all focused on the same thing (in their own ways): bringing criminals to justice, and sensitivity to the deaths of one's parents. While the second element was perhaps a bit overplayed, it was an effective way to tie some disparate characters and universes together, and brought a warm touch to what could have been another improbable comic book slugfest between heroes over a misunderstanding. Ellis was able to introduce the Planetary team to more than just today's Batman, but indeed, the core themes behind a character who has seen quite a few reinterpretations over the last 64 years.
Ellis was able to work a lot of standard continuity elements into this issue. While the issue didn't do anything to really advance the broader Planetary story line, it is firmly rooted into the background we've come to know. Snow and Drums traded barbs, Jakita avoided her boredom, and another Planetary office (the first in a long time) was introduced. Ellis, in an interview for CSN #833, agreed to the assertion that this story was a part of regular continuity, probably taking place prior to issue 10. There's no Elseworlds logo on this one, so I guess we can count it.
Other series continuity was followed, notably another character in John Black whose origins stem from Science City Zero (first explored in issue 8). Like Ambrose Chase, he had a parent subjected to experiments in the infamous laboratory. The visual effect Black displayed was less like Chase's field and more like a faded, shimmering, spherical Snowflake. Jakita references the Snowflake theory when she tries to tell the '70's Batman of the 196,833 universes that make up reality. And the Snowflake effect has appeared throughout the series; the issue that introduced us to Science City Zero also featured a character whose brain had been replaced by a Snowflake. That same issue showed one tortured individual with dozens of hands reaching trough his body, not altogether dissimilar from the corpse of merged duplicates shown in Planetary/Batman.
Since it's unlikely that elements from this story will be referenced again in the regular series, there are only two or three questions left at the end. How disturbing is it that Drums tuned a television to pick up alien insect porn? Did Jakita totally beat up Batman, or was it a draw? And, most importantly, will Jakita miss her special Bat-friend?
Tune in next week, same bat-time, same bat-channel!