Twenty-two pages fills up fast. There’s no denying that. Action sequences often eat up huge chunks of a book, and you can only fit so much dialogue on the page before it becomes cluttered, not to mention how much of the probably excellent art you’ll be covering up by doing so. So, understandably, most writers will have their stories run in arcs, often using well over 100 pages to let it unfold. It’s not hard to see why, but the tendency to keep expanding the story is part of what makes it so rewarding when you come across a single issue that manages to not only exemplify what it is you so love about that particular book, or even comics in general, but that manages to do so with an impressive economy of storytelling. One Shot is meant to take a close look at why those issues work as well as they do, the way they do.
Almost every single issue of Warren Ellis’ Planetary could qualify for this column. For much of the series, Planetary dedicated a single issue each month (… okay, almost never each month) to exploring a different, fascinating aspect of popular culture. Described as, essentially, ‘super archaeology’, Planetary dug up the remnants of popular culture and turned them into something new again, reminding us all, at its best, why we once loved them. It touched on everything from Japanese daikaiju movies to 50’s atomic age sci-fi, but “Magic and Loss,” the tenth issue of Planetary, and it turns its sights on three major icons of the DC Universe: Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern.
Between those three franchises, I think it’s fair to say that millions of pages have been written. Obviously, something about them captured the public’s imagination in a big way, once upon a time, and while none of those characters command quite the popularity they once did (there’s no way any character could maintain anything resembling quality or coherence over 50 years of continued publication), they all still touched something primal in society. Movies, TV shows, critical articles, song references – obviously, a lot of people have thought about these characters. Ellis decides to do it in a fairly novel way here: he gives us one issue to cut to the heart of who they are and what they mean… and what their absence heralds.
One common reason for choosing an issue for this column is because that issue somehow manages to exemplify the series as a whole. “The Nearness of You” saw Busiek using concise, allusive storytelling to heartbreaking effect; “The Sound of Her Wings” was a measured, uplifting meditation on death and responsibility that would inform the rest of the series; “Coyote Gospel” used the trappings of a cartoon to tell a story about sacrifice and what we demand of our heroes. “Magic and Loss” doesn’t seem to follow that pattern at first glance – of the core team of heroes, only Elijah Snow appears, and only as a bookend, and none of the other characters introduced here return. But then, Planetary was rarely, if ever, really ABOUT the struggle between Planetary and the Four. It was about the joy of popular culture, past, present and future. And “Magic and Loss,” rooted firmly in the past, takes that joy and turns it into something bittersweet.
Ellis introduces his Superman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman analogues only enough to give them each one character-defining moment. To the Wonder Woman stand-in, we get quite possibly the most perfect WW line of all time as her mother bids her farewell with a heartfelt, “You are a wonder, my daughter.” The Green Lantern stand-in gets a monologue that cuts through all the bullshit the Guardians have been put through lately: “Be the best kind of policeman; the one who serves justice, the one who works not for laws or authority structures… but for finer worlds. Be the light in blackest night.” And Superman, only just born, arrives and gets cut down as an infant, a true innocent.
And therein lies the magic of the title, and one of the strengths of Planetary. Like Astro City, Planetary often got away with using pop culture shorthand to establish characters and situations quickly. The issue’s three deaths should be essentially meaningless to us, after all. The characters are unnamed. Wonder Woman stand-in, with her three pages of dialogue, is the only one we hear from at all – the other two are completely silent. They do nothing heroic, and their deaths are trite and off-panel.
But, just like Astro City was able to convey the stakes and excitement of an epic, company-wide crossover in five pages, Planetary makes us really FEEL those deaths by making us connect them with three icons. It doesn’t take much – a core element (baby sent from a doomed planet), image (a lantern held against the dark), or phrase (You are a wonder, my daughter) that makes us instantly realize what’s being said and how. In the three pages each character gets, decades of mythology are built up in our heads, and we know exactly what kind of story we’re reading. Until we don’t.
“Magic and Loss” is essentially plotless, a series of three vignettes that end before they should. No one knows the significance of the cape, lantern, and bracelets they found, and they never will. And that’s the point, the ‘loss’ of the issue’s title. Some particularly maudlin stories – like the overly simplistic JLA: The Nail – posit that the loss of any one of those characters would very nearly destroy the world, that without Superman, the world would be a grim, dark, perilous place. We know that isn’t true – we live in a world without Superman, after all. Warren Ellis suggests something different: without Superman, without Wonder Woman, without our heroes, the world wouldn’t be any more dangerous, really. People would step up. We’d make new heroes.
But the world would be just a little bit less magical.
– Cal Cleary
One Shot 4: Fantastic Four #60, “Inside Out”
One Shot 3: Astro City #1/2, “The Nearness of You”
Coming Up Sept. 26th: Batman Chronicles #16, “Two Down”
Coming Up Oct. 10th: Immortal Iron Fist #7, “The Pirate Queen of Pinghai Bay”