When Words Collide

Mon, August 16th, 2010 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

BLEEDING BETWEEN THE LINES: A BIT OF WARREN ELLIS VERTIGO

Zuda has closed up shop. DC Focus is long gone. Minx is fading from memory. Helix is even more distant. But Vertigo and Wildstorm have proven to be DC's most durable imprints, all these years later. Sure, Vertigo has recently lost its ability to use some of its debut characters, as Animal Man has since been reclaimed by the DC mainstream and the Swamp Thing and pals have been ripped from China Mieville's grasp so they could eventually be written by the likes of J. Michael Straczynski, but with "Scalped" and "Northlanders" and "American Vampire" and "I, Zombie" and "Daytripper," the imprint is in pretty great shape, creatively speaking.

Wildstorm has..."Tom Strong and the Robots of Doom?" But there was a time not so long ago when it was the place to be for cool comics, comics that ushered in the new millennium with attitude. These were mostly comics written by Warren Ellis, and one of them was called "Planetary."

This isn't yet another review of the "Planetary Absolute Editions," because (a) Augie already covered that territory quite well, and (b) Wildstorm didn't send me any copies of those books to review. Hear that, Wildstorm, I totally would have reviewed those massive, gorgeous, expensive books if you'd sent them my way. Instead, you're getting this. Me talking about "Planetary" anyway, even though you didn't even lift a finger to help me out. Seems like your sneaky plan is working, Wildstorm. Now crack the whip and get Chris Sprouse back to work drawing robots.

Okay, "Planetary."

I've said it before, probably in this very column, sometime in the last two years, but the Modern era of comics – the one that kicked off with "Marvelman" or "Watchmen" or both, depending on your angle of intercept – ended in the late 1990s, and Warren Ellis helped to usher in a new age with his "Stormwatch" and "Authority" comics. No, it wasn't a radical shift, but the Joe Quesada Marvel line would look a lot different today without Ellis' late 1990s work. So would Geoff Johns' DC. Grant Morrison may have helped initiative the "widescreen comics" in "JLA" that Ellis would perfect by the end of his "Authority" run, but even today, in the realm of mainstream superheroics, we're living in the latter days of the Age of Ellis, even if he's mostly moved on to other things.

And there's one issue of "Planetary," in particular, which acts as a metatext on the shift from the Modern age – or the Age of Moore – to the Millenial Age – or the Age of Ellis. It's "Planetary" #7, a comic entitled "To Be in England, In the Summertime." It's completely about Alan Moore, even if it never mentions his name. And it's completely about Warren Ellis.


"Planetary" #7 is the infamous "Vertigo" issue of the series. The first issue to get negative letters from readers. The issue which explores the funeral of John Constantine, in a Wildstorm comic book. Except it's not John Constantine, it's Jack Carter. And he's not really dead.

The cover of the issue, by series regular John Cassaday, mimics the Dave McKean photo montage covers of Neil Gaiman's "Sandman," the comic that was literally the poster child for Vertigo in the 1990s. (I know, because I had that poster on my wall, and it made me feel like I was reading something "sophisticated." Compared to the "Hawk and Dove" comics of Chris Wozniak, it was.) After a series of "Planetary" issues that had not only introduced the team – Drummer, Jakita Wagner, and Elijah Snow – but had also romped through an array of genres like Doc Savagey pulp, Japanese monster movies, John Woo action flicks, golden age sci-fi spectacles, and the Silver Age by way of Lee and Kirby, the creative team looked a bit more inward, to something a bit more immediate, the imprint next door, and provided a 22-page pastiche of everything Vertigo.

The title of the issue, by the way, comes from the song lyrics "To Be in England, In the Summertime, with my love, close to the edge," which is the only actual full line that can be heard in the song "Close (To the Edit)" by the eighties band Art of Noise. It's a fitting title for the issue for many reasons. In a comic about the influence of the 1980s, an eighties synthpop band makes for an appropriate allusion. But it's also a title that evokes the, some might say, pretentious story titles that blossomed in the Alan Moore and post-Moore era, when a comic would be titled after a William Blake poem, or feature an epigraph from John Donne. "To Be in England, In the Summertime" sounds like something out of Robert Browning, but it's not. It's from a song that features a video in which the band members, wearing masks and business suits, destroy classical instruments with power tools, while a punk girl looks on (and participates). If any music video embodies the Vertigo, or proto-Vertigo sensibilities of Alan Moore comics, it would be the video for "Close (To the Edit)," a video that visibly destroys and deconstructs the past while creating a new sound for the future. A sound that, like so many cutting edge comics of the 1980s, feels dated and silly.

That's what "Planetary" #7 is about. It's a tribute to the comics that influenced Warren Ellis, the comics that were the precursors to "Planetary" and the other late-1990s Wildstorm renaissance series. But it also points out how ridiculous it all was. It's a memento of the past, filtered through the then-present. Drummer, Jakita, and Elijah as archeologists of the not-so-distant genre past. And like many of the early "Planetary" issues, the protagonists do almost nothing, as the story washes over them.

In this case, the story is about the death of Jack Carter – the obvious John Constantine analogue, complete with cigarette and trenchcoat and ominous charm. As Jakita Wagner puts it, "Jack was everything you wanted London to be." We see Carter in flashback, presumably from Jakita's point of view, as she's talking about him, though in the Cassaday-drawn panel, it's as if Carter/Constantine is talking to the reader. Emerging from the shadows with an "All right, squire?" Charming, but dangerous.

Drummer provides some context: "He was our window on England in the eighties. Lots of strange stuff went on here. Even without the costumed stuff." And then Elijah Snow gets political. Elijah Snow, who seems to remember nothing about the secret workings of the world at this point in the series, riffs on England in the 1980s. The spawning ground for the comics of Alan Moore and his literary children.

Elijah contrasts the doddering senility of Ronald Reagan in 1980s America with the true madness of Margaret Thatcher: "She wanted concentration camps for AIDS victims, wanted to eradicate homosexuality even as an abstract concept, made poor people choose between eating and keeping their vote…ran the most shameless vote-grabbing artificial war scam in fifty years…England was a scary place. No wonder it produced a scary culture." Certainly so many of Alan Moore's early comics were specifically written as reactions to the culture in which he lived. His work for "Warrior," such as "V for Vendetta" or "Marvelman," directly responded or commented upon the political nightmare of England during the Thatcher years.

Moore's work on "Swamp Thing" was maybe less so, but in "Swamp Thing" #37, he gave birth to John Constantine, a character created, he says in a 1993 "Wizard Magazine" interview, solely because Steve Bissette and John Totleben wanted to draw Sting. Though once he decided to actually write such a character into the series, he had to figure out what to do with him to make him interesting. "I have an idea that most of the mystics in comics are generally older people, very austere, very proper, very middle class in a lot of ways," says the Alan Moore of 1993. "They are not at all functional on the street. It struck me that it might be interesting for once to do an almost blue-collar warlock. Somebody who was streetwise, working class, and from a different background than the standard run of comic book mystics. Constantine started to grow out of that."

As a streetwise warlock, John Constantine was the perfect foil for commentary on the Thatcher years when his solo series, "Hellblazer" premiered in 1988, even if Alan Moore wasn't scripting. But there's little doubt that "Hellblazer" has come to embody the Age of Moore, even if he never had anything to do with the actual series. "Hellblazer" is the longest-running Vertigo series, and it has been the crucible through which so many famed Vertigo writers passed. Not everyone made their mark because of "Hellblazer," but look at the names of some of the writers who did write stories for that series (in the order in which they contributed, beginning with the writer who kicked off the ongoing): Jamie Delano, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis, Eddie Campbell, Paul Jenkins, and of course, Warren Ellis.

(Post-Ellis writers would include another who's who list of contemporary Vertigo voices, like Brian Azzarello, Mike Carey, Andy Diggle, Jason Aaron, and Peter Milligan. This doesn't have anything to do with "Planetary" #7, other than the point that after that issue hit, even until today, "Hellblazer," and the John Constantine character most closely represent the essence of Vertigo, even as the essence of Vertigo has shifted away from the Age of Moore.)

Back to Warren Ellis.

So here's the thing: Warren Ellis was writing "Hellblazer" at the same time he wrote "Planetary" #7. Jack Carter and John Constatine were parallel characters from two different DC imprints, written by the same person at the same time. Ellis' tenure on "Hellblazer" may not have lasted long, as he resigned before "Planetary" #7 actually landed in comic shops, so his pastiche of the Vertigo sensibility in that issue was perhaps a way to signify that he, too, was attempting to break away from the Alan Moore influence while still being inevitably influenced by Alan Moore.

The anxiety of influence is strong when you're writing a character created by the object of your influence.

So "Planetary" #7 acts as a commentary on the Alan Moore approach to comics and superheroes (I'll get to that part in a minute), and a parody of the past-their-expiration-date Vertigo characters who were all so series and meaningful less than a generation before. It's the most obvious literal division between the Age of Moore and the Age of Ellis, but it also shows why that line is so blurry, and so difficult to define. Because in the act of mocking the comics of Alan Moore in "Planetary" #7, he also writes a comic that couldn't have existed without the work of Alan Moore, in content, as well as style.

Ellis and Cassaday give us plenty of visual jokes in the issue. Dream and Death, looking rather shabby, sitting on a park bench, feeding the pigeons. The lineup at Jack Carter's funeral, with seedy looking versions of Vertigo mainstays like Animal Man and Swamp Thing, with Black Orchid, the Demon, Grant Morrison himself and Shade the Changing Man (or "The Shifting Man" as he's referred to in the issue) lingering at the edges. Elijah points out the severity of the group: "None of them look exactly happy, even for a funeral," to which Jakita replies simply, "They're eighties people." The protagonists joke about how ridiculous the Vertigo characters look, and talk about changing fashion and bellbottoms, but its all a sad affair. The sophisticated comic book characters of the Age of Moore look like relics from the perspective of the very Ellisian Planetary trio.

Jack Carter exists outside such ridicule, though. And Ellis writes his story – in flashback, recalled by Jakita Wagner, but somehow narrated by Carter himself – in the same style he was using for "Hellblazer." While other Planetary issues were Ellis riffing on other pop culture artifacts and genres, this was his inter-imprint crossover, in more ways than one. His Carter narrates in that post-Moore style that was so popular in the Vertigo line throughout the 1990s (because, remember, though the work of Alan Moore surely inspired the Vertigo line, under the direction of Karen Berger, Moore had left DC well before the Berger comics became officially rebranded as "Vertigo Comics" in 1993).

Carter says, his words against a field of white, with silent panels accompanying (just like the style Ellis and John Higgins used on the "Haunted" arc in "Hellblazer" written within the same year): "The sky was black and orange when I left Mad Lindsay's gaff above the shoe shop in Carnaby Street. I didn't look back. I knew she'd have her chops pressed to the window, screaming her guts out and pulling weird faces. Sealed in brick and glass."

The style, poetic and vernacular, recalls the work of Alan Moore on "Swamp Thing," and the implicit violence of the language, "screaming her guts out," contrasts powerfully with the austere imprisonment of "sealed in brick and glass." Few writers before Moore had ever used language so evocatively in the captions of a mere comic book, and Ellis tapped into that sensibility for his "Hellblazer" run and for the pastiche in "Planetary," and yet the climactic moment in the issue isn't to celebrate Moore, but to bury him.

As the Planetary team investigates further into Jack Carter's death, they find a sigil which the Drummer, with his ability to read machine language and break digital encryption, attempts to decipher. As he explains, "Magic is the cheat codes for the world. Sending a signal to reality's operating system." They begin to realize that Carter faked his own death. With another visual gag, placed by Ellis or Cassaday or both, the street sign during this moment of awareness reads "Moorcock," as in Michael Moorcock, the author of Jerry Cornelius and Elric, the foster grandfather of Vertigo, an important influence on Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and, probably to a lesser extent, Neil Gaiman.

But that's not the climactic moment. The climactic moment is the next bit, when a superhuman monstrosity in red and blue lands petulantly in the street, shouting "No! I won't have it! I won't have it! I killed him!" The character is all muscle and filth and spittle and rage, and he's not quite an analogue of Alan Moore's Marvelman, but he's close. He's more an amalgamation of all of the grim and gritty superheroes of the 1980s. The Alan Moore/Frank Miller spectrum of tainted heroes.

And he, or Warren Ellis, have plenty to say on the topic. "I should have been noble! Clean! Single!" shouts the sordid superman. "I didn't want to find out that instead of getting my powers from a transcendent scientist-mentor, I was grown from the DNA of Aryan super-athletes and Hitler's personal sex midgets." Like Marvelman, who in Mick Anglo continuity was an innocent superhero with an origin to match, this Ellis pastiche of the dark age of superheroes was spawned from genetic testing of the less-than-pure kind.

"I liked my life! There was nothing wrong with me! I wasn't hip, I wasn't trendy, I wasn't edgy, and you know what? That was okay!" says the grotesque mockery of the superhuman. "I didn't need the split personalities, the nervous breakdown, the shift in sexual orientation, my life being a lie – if you didn't want me, you should have just bloody ignored me!"

But with that ultimately useless declaration (because the damage had already been done, hadn't it, nearly two decades before?), the defiled superman's bloody intestines blast out toward the reader. Behind him, a bald Jack Carter with a shotgun. He takes off his trenchcoat to reveal a sports jacket over a shirtless torso covered in tattoos.

Jack Carter/John Constantine has been reborn as Spider Jerusalem, Warren Ellis' manic Hunter S. Thompson-inspired future journalist. Published by Vertigo.

"The eighties are long over," says Jack Carter/Spider Jerusalem. "Time to move on. Time to be someone else." And with a glance and a "Cheers. Be seeing you," he turns away on the final page of the issue and strides into the darkness, with only the wisp of cigarette smoke visible in the distance.

In a single comic, Warren Ellis takes Alan Moore, nods to him, blasts him apart, and declares official arrival of the Age of Ellis. Of course, it had already happened by the time "Planetary" #7 rolled around, but this is the issue that marks the passage from the old to the new, even if the new looks a lot like the old, draped in a new fashion. John Constantine, signifier of Alan Moore, signifier of classic Vertigo, literally changes his hairstyle and his clothes and becomes the new Vertigo, the embodiment of the new era. It's Warren Ellis' statement about the transformation of culture and the impermanence of narrative while acknowledging that it's not all that different, underneath.

Though he may not have known it at the time, it was also a statement about his break from John Constantine, as he quit "Hellblazer" shortly after writing "Planetary" #7 over the "Shoot" incident, where the already-written-and-drawn "Hellblazer" story of a school shooting was cancelled because of the media attention surrounding the Columbine massacre, which occurred after "Shoot" was written and drawn, but before it scheduled release. In an earlier interview with the "Hellblazer" fan site, "Straight to Hell," Ellis had spoken of his intention to do a four-year run on the series that he only ended up writing for ten issues. And he talked of a conversation he once had with original "Hellblazer" writer Jamie Delano: "Jamie once pointed out to me over dinner, many years ago, that ‘Hellblazer' is an excellent ‘voice,' a terrific vehicle for opinion and observation, particularly in political terms. This is something I was and am very sympathetic to."

"Shoot" was too political, too full of the wrong kinds of opinion and observations, and Ellis resigned from "Hellblazer" because it would not be published as he had written it and he was unwilling to compromise. In other words, John Constantine couldn't, ultimately, provide an outlet for Ellis' voice. That, he would find in Spider Jerusalem and "Transmetropolitan" a series that began before his "Hellblazer" run and lasted, at Vertigo, for a few years after he left John Constantine behind.

"Planetary" #7 is where all of this happens, right in front of us, on the page. Warren Ellis saying goodbye to Vertigo and hello to Vertigo, running in the shadows of Alan Moore while putting him to rest. The king is dead, they say. Long live the king. But sometimes the king isn't the king. Sometimes he's just Sting in a trenchcoat and he turns into Hunter S. Thompson with tattoos. And sometimes that matters more than you might expect.


In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

TAGS:  when words collide, warren ellis, planetary

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