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Planetary

October 29, 2012 Leave a comment

Comics have been around for a very long time1, but the modern superhero story is a relatively recent invention2, and it’s only since the late eighties that this genre has begun a series of awkward self-examinations. Typically, when people talk about comic book stories that are about themselves, they start with The Watchmen3, but for my mind, a far more worthy and interesting take on what the hero myth means in modern times is Warren Ellis’s Planetary.

Rather than simply setting out to deconstruct comics, Ellis created a solid super-hero story about a small team of metahuman archaeologists who went out into the world looking for the strange and the fantastic. Their tag-line is ‘The world is a weird place, let’s keep it that way’ and the book is a celebration of the fact that the world is a diverse and interesting place. Not just one world though, all worlds. All possible worlds, and perhaps the impossible ones as well.

One of the graphic novels in the series focuses soley on cross-overs. The book’s premise is set-up to explore other worlds in a very specific way, and each story in the book cross-examines the cross-over. Also, they’re great stories.

Of course, as this is a super-hero book, their world is even more interesting than ours, as it features dinosaur islands, atomic babies and darker origin myths. Planetary is set in a reality where the sort of super-science and techno wizardry found in the mainstream comics produced by the likes of Marvel and DC has been deliberately kept secret from the world. This itself was a commentary on limitations of mainstream comics at the time; your average Green Lantern or Iron Man story contains things that should permanently change the lives of many people, and yet never seem to do so.4

It is because of this book that this is less true now, and indeed, the new crop of Marvel Movies do seem to constantly acknowledge that the world is being changed by the presence of superhuman beings. 5. Planetary also examined and discussed how fragile many of the origin stories of super heroes are; for example, the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman both begin their tales with the kindness of strangers. For their stories to work, you have to assume that people are still kind and decent enough to take in lost strangers, and this should set the bar for the nature of the world that the heroes inhabit.

Unlike The Watchmen or even Kingdom Come, the thing that will make Planetary stand the test of time is that it is a story about how the world shapes stories, and how stories shape the world. It’s a lesson in how to make myths, and deserves a place in the list of classic super hero stories.


1: Depending on how you define comics of course, but telling stories with pictures is as old as language.

2: Tales of human beings with remarkable abilities are, of course, ancient. But we only started dressing them in spandex since the 1930’s.

3: Alan Moore’s The Watchmen is seen as a classic simply for its mature approach to superheroes, focusing on the consequences of their actions in a way more in tune with real world events. It is, however, an awkward teenager of a book, a lot of the key themes fumble at points and there seems to be little love for the actual genre. It’s groundbreaking, which also means that as the genre moves on, it becomes more and more dated.

4: It would be dishonest to pretend that mainstream comics didn’t begin this journey on their own. This bit of social commentary predates Watchmen by over a decade (it’s from Green Lantern #76). What Planetary did was turn this commentary in on itself, and encourage writers and producers to make the notion of ‘how does an alien invasion effect the stock exchange’ something that’s worth talking about.

5: Ellis would go on to write for the Iron Man comic book, and ideas from those books are directly referenced in the movie. Another example of Marvel is keeping a track of how the heroes change the world around them can be found in the excellent Marvel Movie One-Shot Item 47.

Categories: Comic Books

Justice League Dark

October 22, 2012 4 comments

Just over a year ago, DC Comics1 rebooted and relaunched their long list of comic book titles so they all began at Number 1 again. In addition to confusing bric-a-brac bargain hunters all over the world as they picked up a copy of the Superman number 1, DC also launched a range of new comic books, including Justice League Dark, which as silly names go, is up there with Green Lantern.

DC have a bunch of ‘supernatural’ heroes whom they’ve struggled to write about in the past. However, they announced that, during the reboot, they’d be moving some of the more obviously occult characters from their more grown-up range of comics back into their mainstream line, and this is why Justice League Dark features one of my favourite protagonists; the Liverpool-born, London-living, dirty-blonde bastard John Constantine2.

John Constantine cigarette pentagram

According to his creator, Alan Moore, Constatine’s look was inspired the musician Sting.

Unlike the usual sort of comic book hero, John isn’t a fireball flinging wizard; he’s cast more in the mould of a gritty occultist from an urban fantasy novel. Deceit and information are his weapons first and foremost, and his adventures tend to be very character focused dramas where the supernatural serves as a metaphor for more everyday horrors. So an odd choice for a leader of a what is essentially a version of The Avengers who fight vampires not aliens.

The weird thing is, it sort of works. Don’t get me wrong, the tales are rather silly and there’s nothing in Justice League Dark that hasn’t been done countless times in mainstream comic books. But there’s a charm to seeing a trench coat wearing cynic light up a cigarette whilst the world faces annihilation from this Vampire King or that ancient evil from beyond the stars. This is, perhaps, because we can believe wisecracking bravado from a bitter looking middle-aged man who’s still standing, despite clearly having been through hell.

It helps that the rest of the League are more brightly coloured; we get, for example Zatanna3, a top-hat wearing Las Vegas stage magician who can do almost anything with magic simply by focusing her will and saying what she wants doing backwards.

This has made her tricky to write for in the past, but because she’s in a book that focuses mostly on supernatural menaces, the writers get to limit her by making any threat worth her while resistant to her power. So she can deal with henchmen with a simple “skoom paz” spell, but can’t cut to the chase with a “dab gib tuo ekat” spell. This version of Zatanna is less light and more angry than previous incarnations, but balances out the team nicely.

We also get Deadman, a wise-cracking ghost in a silly costume, who’s been around for ages and is actually quite dull; character growth is limited if you’re a ghost, I suppose. The rest of the team changes, but these three seem to be our core team and they generate enough conflict and bickering between them to keep the book going.

I suspect the problem will be, that in the long run, Justice League Dark can only do a sanitised version of occult horror. These characters had been relegated to the more mature books for a reason, and actually making something scary without going for clichés like ancient evils and hordes of vampire requires tightly scripted, ongoing drama. They are hints that the book is attempting to go in this direction, but time has yet to tell if it can deliver the sort of chills needed to make this book stand out. I hope it does, but I suspect it will eventually yet another footnote in DC’s long list of abandoned ideas.


1: DC gave us Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and The Flash, and happen to be owned by Time Warner. DC’s premier superhero team is The Justice League, who have yet to have a good movie. Not to be confused with Marvel, who own Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and Spider Man, who are owned by Disney these days. Marvel also gave us the The Avengers, and currently top dog, hero books wise.

2: John originally appeared in a 1985 issue of Swamp Thing, as part of a ‘mature minds’ range of comic books which eventually became known as the Vertigo line. The character eventually got his own book, Hellblazer and had some great writers during its long run, such as Warren Ellis and Mike Carey, and is currently in the hands of the under-rated Peter Milligan, all of which needs its own post. Hellblazer also inspired the movie Constantine, which also needs its own post and about half a bottle of whisky to write.

3: Zatanna, alas, doesn’t have her own book, as it keeps getting cancelled, and has been ‘reimagined’ many times. For my money, the best take on her so far has been Paul Dini’s run, who wrote her as stage magician first and a hero second. Though you could argue that Dini is at an unfair advantage as he’s married to professional illusionist, Misty Lee, who also looks good in a top-hat.

Categories: Comic Books

Elementary Mistakes

October 19, 2012 6 comments

A little while ago, Sue Vertue1 expressed her displeasure over CBS’s announcement that they were going to produce a show similar to the BBC’s excellent Sherlock. She need not have worried, the American take on a thoroughly British idea, called Elementary2 does not come within a country mile of Sherlock, especially in terms of quality, plot and originality.

The problem is that it’s more beholden to the rules of American TV than it is to the source material. 3 So rather than a brilliant yet austere man who, by modern standards, may well be considered a danger to society, we get an edgy and cool adolescent who has kinky sex, goes to addiction counselling and admits that he could be wrong. It makes for a great detective show, but doesn’t live up to the promise of Sherlock Holmes.

Tommy Lee Miller as not really Sherlock Holmes

Less the Great Detective, more the great big man child.

It is a huge shame; the roles are superbly performed. Johnny Lee Miller is an excellent Holmes, and injects manic intelligence and dispassion into the role. Lucy Liu4 is a superb Doctor Watson, being sharp and hard enough to be the great detective’s companion. However, this is a dynamic familiar to many a crime drama, and it doesn’t evoke the classic work. Given that it’s meant to be a direct re-imagining, it seems a bit of a waste.

What I wanted was a Holmes style version of Person of Interest (which is also produced by CBS) and what we got was something more akin to House than Sherlock; it’s a clever remix of old ideas, and though this makes for a good show, it doesn’t make for a remarkable show. TV is moving on from the tired old formulas of crime drama, and it’s sad to see such talent go to waste on something that could have been much, much more.


1: Her productions credits include Mr. Bean, The Vicar of Dibley, Coupling and two small boys with her husband, Steven Moffat. The pair of them are responsible for Sherlock, of course.

2: Elementary, as in “Elementary my dear Watson”, a phrase that Sherlock Holmes never actually says in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original work (and isn’t really his catch phrase). But then the writers of the show wouldn’t know that, as they clearly haven’t read any of the books. In many ways, it’s quite a regrettable name, especially as it sounds a little bit too much like alimentary, a part of the digestive tract.

3: You could argue that CBS has made these changes to avoid conflict with the BBC. I doubt that; the changes look more like the inevitable consequence of altering something to fit the market.

4: While we are at it, why have they changed Watson’s back story so much? It’s another change from the source that doesn’t makes sense, if you assume they’re drwawing inspiration from the original. Elementary’s version of the good doctor isn’t a former member of the military, which is rubbish. Is it because Watson is a woman? I sincerely hope not. It could be that American audiences don’t like to be reminded of Afghanistan. Both reasons aren’t good enough.

Categories: TV

The Big Bang Theory

October 15, 2012 6 comments

The American sit-com The Big Bang Theory1 is not the show many people seem to think it is. On the face of it, it seems to be a mainstream comedy aimed at geeks, and given that shows such as Spaced, Futurama and The IT Crowd exist, you’d be forgiven for thinking that The Big Bang Theory is of the same ilk.

It isn’t, and this is why it confuses nerds. Though the show is about a small band of science geniuses who are heavily into super-heroes, Star Trek2, table top gaming and all the other sort of things one can find at a comic-book store, this is not a show about any of those things. Despite the WhiteBoards covered in equations and an apartment covered in all sorts of merchandise, this is a sit-com about socially awkward (but clearly intelligent) men not having the first clue when it comes to relationships.

Almost3 all of the characters have critical social flaws and weaknesses, and though some are more self aware than others, this is a romantic comedy first and self-referential treat for the easily obsessed second. Take, for example, Penny4, who is neither a science nerd or sci-fi geek and seems to be the most switched on character on first glance. However, she’s a huge mess, not knowing exactly what she wants (or needs) from relationships or indeed, life in general. All the characters are equally flawed, and these flaws are large and cartoonish, because it’s a mainstream sit-com and you have to squeeze in the gags somehow.

As cool as this prop is, the TARDIS is still better.

The main plot of each 22-minute episode is almost always about one character being unable to communicate their emotions to another character. Often one of these characters is Sheldon5, who is most obviously flawed character, being a super-genius with a laundry list of disorders and obsessions. However, every person in this drama has problems, and these are mined for comedy. The Big Bang Theory does not have a go at nerds, instead it makes it clear that relationships can be hard work, regardless of how smart you may think you are.

In the background, they’ll be a science conference, comic-book signing or we’ll meet a celebrity such as Stan Lee or Stephen Hawking, but all of this is just window dressing. The show owes more to Friends than it does to Spaced, and that’s a good thing, because it what that means is these things are as much an obvious part of society as sports or soap opera, even if some people haven’t noticed yet.


1: Now in its sixth season with no sign of stopping. I have to confess that only until very recently have I actually watched the show. I tend to store up series and then binge, rather than faithfully tuning in every week. The exception to this is Doctor Who; as someone in my mid-thirties I can’t shake the deep-seated fear that if I stop tuning in every time it’s on, then the BBC will cancel it.

2: Recently I was looking at the back of the box of Star Trek: Catan (A Trek themed Settlers of Catan game) and noticed it was licensed by CBS, which also owns the rights to The Big Bang Theory and that is perhaps why the sit-com favours Spock and chums over other aspects of geek culture.

3: I’d argue the parents have a clue, which can also be a source of conflict and thus humour.

4: Played by actress Kaley Cuoco who is, in real life, a bit of a geek, being into things like Game of Thrones, Harry Potter and Doctor Who (well, Matt Smith). She isn’t the biggest nerd however, that goes to Mayim Bialik, who plays Amy Farrah Fowler (and is also known for her role as the lead character in Blossom. She has a PhD in neuroscience (as does her character in the show).

5: ‘Sheldon’ is also going to be the show’s legacy. Not the character, but the practice of using the name to describe someone who is rude, socially awkward but actually a good person. The show’s producers have trademarked the word ‘Bazinga’ (which means ‘gotcha’), but this isn’t as useful as using Sheldon as short hand for describing a certain sort of person.

Categories: TV

Person of Interest

October 12, 2012 Leave a comment

Once in a good long while, you get a crime drama series that does something different with the basic premise of ‘they fight crime’. Alongside the many variants of Law & Order and CSI we now have Person of Interest, a show that owes more to classic crime fighting action heroes such as The Shadow and Batman than it does to the usual formula of “the law always wins”.

The premise is very comic-book like. A reclusive billionaire genius has access to limited information on forthcoming crimes. He recruits a down-on-his-luck ex-CIA agent to help him to get more information, and together they fight crime. The agent, John Reese, is a one man army with his own problems. His motivations for doing the things he does are complex, but you always get the feeling that he’s always one step away from being a true villain without that being played up a clichéd, angst-driven way. Actor Jim Caviezel1 does a good line in gritty voiced, hard boiled bad-ass, and it’s hard not to like this hero, who’s known to the police as ‘that guy in the suit’2.

The Shadow Radio Cover

The Shadow is a grandaddy of crime dramas featuring people with unusual abilities, and a clear source of inspiration for Person of Interest.

He’s supported by Harold Finch3, a crippled genius who has access to all the surveillance systems ever, and an unusual way of predicting crimes. I’ll avoid spoiling exactly what that is, but this element lends a further air of the fantastic to the whole show; it’s entirely believable, and yet incredible at the same time, making a Person of Interest less of a cop show and more of a super-hero story where nobody has super powers or wears a cape. It might not surprise you to learn that the producer is Jonathan Nolan, who co-wrote the relatively down-to-earth Batman movie The Dark Knight alongside his brother Christopher.

As the show progresses, the cast grows; we meet further heroes who again are regular people with an interest in keeping the streets clean and saving lives. Indeed, they’re introduced so subtly that it takes a while for us to realise that actually these characters are remarkable crime-fighters in their own right. Of course, they are recurring villains as well, and they are exactly what they need to be; real people, with real motivations doing bad things for reasons that they can justify and feel righteous for doing.

Person of Interest is now in its second season, and it keeps getting better and better as it goes on. I have high hopes for this show and I hope it inspires a renaissance in good solid story telling which features not indestructible action heroes, but remarkable people doing amazing things.


1: As badasses go, he’s an excellent choice. He’s also played incredibly powerful humans in the past; he was Jesus Christ in the The Passion of the Christ.
2: A regular suit, not a superhero costume. Though it may as well be.
3: Played by Michael Emerson, who’s made a career out of playing the quirky and off key. Previous roles include clowns and serial killers, which I’d argue is almost the same niche.

Categories: Comic Books, Reviews, TV