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1. « Que fait l'image ? De l'intericonicité aux États-Unis » / “What do Pictures Do? Intericonicity in the United States”
III/ Jeux et citations : L’intericonicité comme mode de réception

The Circulation of Icons in Planetary - Pictures, Popular Culture and Materiality

Nicolas LABARRE, Laura PERNA et Errol RIVERA


Planetary, série de comics publiée aux États-Unis entre 1999 et 2009, donne l’exemple d’une utilisation de l’intericonicité comme principe structurant d’une œuvre de culture populaire érudite. La série propose en effet au lecteur de découvrir en même temps que ses protagonistes l’histoire « secrète » d’un monde fictionnel, histoire entièrement composée d’emprunts iconiques à la culture populaire du XXe siècle. Le choix d’un personnage central amnésique, qui va simultanément découvrir et revoir ces images, aligne les enjeux narratifs ostensibles du récit avec l’expérience même du lecteur. Cet article entend montrer comment la circulation des images dans la série s’organise autour de la métaphore de l’archéologie, imposant à chaque icône une transformation en artefact dans la diégèse, permettant aux héros-archéologues de mener une enquête de terrain, laquelle aboutit à une revitalisation de l’icône par le biais de la défamiliarisation. Planetary offre donc un contrat de lecture qui s’apparente à celui des récits « métafictionnels » décrits notamment par Patricia Waugh, mais transpose ce contrat dans un médium essentiellement visuel, développant pour ce faire des outils singuliers, en particulier un style graphique de référence qui rejette le pastiche et au prisme duquel sont réinterprétées les différentes références culturelles convoquées. Le texte évoque enfin les plaisirs de lecture que peut procurer ce dispositif.

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1Planetary is a comic book series written by Warren Ellis, drawn by John Cassaday and colored by Laura Martin, published irregularly between 1999 and 2009 by DC Comics/Wildstorm. The 27 issues and the two ancillary crossovers form a 2,000-page narrative in which the circulation and the integration of various images selected from popular 20th-century cultural objects are subjected to defamiliarization and generic realignment. In Planetary, this intericonicity is structured by the metaphor of archeology, which determines how these images are transported, integrated and cited. We will attempt to account for the various pleasures to be derived from this reactivation and exaltation of familiar images, in line with the stated objective of the series’ protagonists: keeping the world strange.

2Throughout the series’ 27 issues, a group of super-powered archeologists led by an amnesiac, Elijah Snow, roam the world in order to unearth its secret history on behalf of the Planetary organization. In doing so, the Planetary team discovers that a mysterious group, the Four, is responsible for the disappearance of this past. The second half of the series focuses on the confrontation between the Four and the archeologists—Snow, Jakita Wagner, a young woman possessing supernatural strength and speed, and the Drummer, who can converse with machines. Planetary eventually triumphs and begins to put to use the potential of the unearthed mysteries, promising to change the world into a science-fiction utopia.

3Planetary purports to present the archeology of a fictional world: the shared universe used in various comics series published by Wildstorm Studio since the early 1990s. Planetary posits that this universe expands beyond the sum of narratives published up to this point and constitutes a “possible world”, to borrow a phrase from Marie-Laure Ryan, rather than a mere collection of stories. It provides this composite universe with a secret history, which borrows from a variety of popular genres and forms. In this dissimulated past, several events described in popular culture have in fact happened, but have been kept secret from the population or have simply gone unnoticed, so that the series’ fictional world superficially resembles our own. The series thus presents a syncretic and all-encompassing approach to popular culture, indebted to Phillip Jose Farmer’s pioneering “World Newton” novels (Tarzan Alive, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, The Other Log of Phileas Fogg, etc.) and presenting many similarities to a contemporary comics series, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999 - ). Like Farmer’s novels, like Moore and O’Neill’s comics, Planetary investigates the “ontological distinction between fiction and fact” (Kukkonen “Ellis’s Planetary” 160) through popular culture. The singularity of Planetary’s approach lies in a specific kind of relationship, which exists between the thematic content and the narrative structure, and is dependent on the circulation of images.

1. Embodied fiction: Island Zero and the Japanese giant monsters

  • 1 For readability’s sake and to account for the various existing editions, references to Planetary in (...)

4An early but telling example of the use of images in Planetary is to be found in the second issue, “Island” (May 99). At the beginning of the story, the team arrives in Japan and discovers that a local cult has mounted an expedition towards the uncharted “Island Zero”. The leader of the cult intends to commune with the decayed remains of giant monsters which are still to be found on this secret island. After a brief confrontation with armed guards, the members of the cult eventually commit suicide, leaving only the Planetary team on the site. A late expository dialogue explains to the reader that the giant monsters appeared immediately after Hiroshima but died without a progeny in the 1970s, on this forbidden island coveted by both Japan and Russia. In the very last page of the issue, however, this explanation is contradicted by the appearance of a bulky pterodactyl-like monster which flies over the team; in a small inset panel, Jakita exclaims “Isn’t that great?” (#2 21)1. These final words openly invite the readers to embrace their enjoyment of the beautifully composed and brightly colored page, in spite of the perceptible ridicule of the creature’s design. Similar to a “reaction shot” in mainstream cinema, this “reaction panel”—a close-up of Jakita’s face accompanied by a balloon containing her rhetorical question—conveys to the viewer what he or she should be experiencing from the specific scene.

Image 1. From Planetary n°2 (May 1999), p. 24

Image 1. From Planetary n°2 (May 1999), p. 24

By Ellis, Cassaday and Martin © DC Comics

5The imported visual tradition in this story is explicitly that of the Daikaiju, the Japanese monster movies, or at least the Japanese monster movies as seen from the Western world; the story even refers to the often unreliable subtitles accompanying these films by having a character implausibly declare: “It does us good to have our genitals frozen into small blue dead things” (#2 1). The story of the island itself echoes the content of the films (Godzilla is awakened by an atomic explosion, a similar island exists in Gojira, Ebirâ, Mosura: Nankai no Daiketto, 1966, etc.) but also follows the history of their reception in the West: a tremendous popularity, then a slow decline over the years until the point of exhaustion. According to film journalist Brian Thomas, the genre reached its nadir in the mid-1970s, the date given for the extinction of the monsters in “Island” (Thomas 354). Prior to the release of this issue, Daikaiju films experienced a revival in the 1980s, which was largely confined to Japan. However, there are no story elements which reflect this in issue #2. Such an absence suggests the drawing of a boundary where the circulation of images is concerned: Planetary is culturally located in the western perspective, and temporally within the limits of the 20th century.

6The narrative and structural strategies at work in the series play out more openly in this early issue than they do later, as Warren Ellis and his co-creators seek to convince and seduce potential readers. The reliance on archeology as a structuring metaphor is thus unusually explicit here. Karin Kukkonen has convincingly argued that Planetary puts into practice Foucault’s notion of “the archeology of knowledge”, the examination of discourses (Kukkonen “Ellis’s Planetary” 158-60). However, the metaphor of archeology also operates at a more literal level, with archeology understood as the analysis of the material evidence produced by previous cultures and civilizations. The emphasis here is on materiality: the metaphor can only be applied to popular genres and images insofar as they are transmuted into artifacts, material traces. This process of transmutation is the underlying structure of most Planetary stories: an imported image is gradually historicized, localized, materialized and finally reintegrated into the series’ overarching narrative.

7In “Island”, this emphasis on materiality leads the series to invest the physical remains of Godzilla, a notoriously unrealistic monster on the screen. In Planetary, Godzilla has become a gigantic corpse, which is meant to be seen, but also explored, smelt and even tasted by the members of the sect. This overwhelming materiality is put forward explicitly in a dialogue between a doubting disciple and the cult leader:

-It’s a huge dead monster and you’re standing in its lungs!/ It’s not holy!/ It’s a bunch of scales and rotting meat and it’s not real and it’s dead!

-These are our Dreams [...]. They lay here sleeping. They offer us welcome with their very bodies. (#2 15)

8There is of course a certain amount of irony in having a “mad” character provide an explanation that resonates with the structure of the series. In his enthusiasm for the troubling materiality of icons, he also plans to have his disciples eat the flesh of the monsters, in a ceremony, which takes literally the rituals described in Frazer’s The Golden Bough.

We have found a widespread custom of eating the god sacramentally, either in the shape of the man or animal who represents the god, or in the shape of bread made in human or animal form. The reasons for thus partaking of the body of the god are, from the primitive standpoint, simple enough. The savage commonly believes that by eating the flesh of an animal or man he acquires not only the physical, but even the moral and intellectual qualities which were characteristic of that animal or man; so when the creature is deemed divine, our simple savage naturally expects to absorb a portion of its divinity along with its material substance. (Frazer 138)

9The character and the episode thus call attention to one of the fundamental mechanisms at work in the series: it identifies a visual form, Godzilla here, inscribes it into the diegesis as an artifact which may be subjected to archaeological (or culinary) enquiries, then reaffirms its evocative power once it has been sufficiently de-familiarized. The de-familiarization achieved through the archeological process plays the same role as in postmodern narratives or meta-fiction, it is “a means of renewing perception by revealing and denouncing the usual and the conventional” (Waugh 65).

Image 2. From Planetary n°2 (May 1999), p. 15, panel 3

Image 2. From Planetary n°2 (May 1999), p. 15, panel 3

By Ellis, Cassaday and Martin © DC Comics

10The process of de- and re-familiarization may also be understood in terms of “the remix”, as described by Tom McCarthy’s Transmission and the Individual Remix. In his short essay (section i), McCarthy performs a reading of the operational nature of storytelling in all media, using the vocabulary of broadcasting. He indicts the notion of originality in literature, instead suggesting that the creative act is not the originating of an idea, but the process of individualizing an idea from previous ideas. McCarthy describes this process as “listening” to the differing transmissions of history (both factual and fictional), remodulating and remixing what is received, and then rebroadcasting. The result is a neither wholly original nor unoriginal idea, but an individual one. It may be worth considering the de-familiarized Godzilla image not simply as a fiction that acknowledges another fiction, or points to itself as a fictional artifact, but rather as a fictional work that locates itself in relation to the fictions of the past. The ontological interrogation of the distinction between fact and fiction may be understood as an exercise that is temporal in nature (as the metaphor of archaeology suggests). The interrogation, then, is one that is applied to the distinctions of the past and present simultaneously, connected by history, and potentially providing an archaeology not of fact or of fiction, but an archaeology of the individualization of ideas.

11However, this particular reading would require further analysis of the entirety of Planetary’s fictional timeline, leaving Waugh’s metafiction as an apter tool for the examination of singular issues, pages, and panels. What is clear is that the textual explanation regarding the island appears very late in the issue, which means that the negotiation and de-familiarization of previously existing narratives happen mostly through images. These images also supplant the text again, as the pleasure of the spectacle replaces a proper denouement. The presence of the pterodactyl-like monster, an allusion to Honda’s Rodan (1956), is never explained, mentioned or used again.

2. Metacomics and memory

12Collage and metatextuality permeate contemporary popular fiction, from post-Scream horror films (Hills 182-197) to the whole steampunk genre. Similarly, Planetary belongs to a powerful current within superhero comics, one which could even be called a genre, with its own coterie of authors and its own horizon of expectations. Since comics is first and foremost a “predominantly visual” form (Groensteen 12), it makes sense that these collages in the superhero genre should consist primarily in an importation of icons, costumes and visual codes. Douglas Wolk has coined the term “metacomics” to describe this sub-genre and mentions Planetary specifically among his examples: “[The point of metacomics] is a commentary on the conventions of superhero stories or on familiar characters who are represented in a sort of thinly disguised roman à clef” (Wolk 105). These metacomics, or “revisionist” superhero comics in a more genre-centric approach (Klock 25)—including works such as Animal Man (Morrison and Truog), 1963 (Moore and Veitch), Astro City (Busiek et al.), Marvels (Busiek and Ross) or Warren Ellis’s own Stormwatch—established the existence of a category of sophisticated readers for reflexive and metafictional comics, which “capitalized on the critical achievements of postmodernism” (Kukkonen “Ellis’s Planetary” 163). Planetary builds upon this familiarity to bring the metatextual material to the fore, and tells a story centered on the meaning-making process. The position of its readers and of their interpretive tasks is indeed constructed in the first episodes, in the form of a demanding but rewarding readerly contract.

13Thus, the first episode begins with a recruitment sequence: Snow is being convinced to join Planetary, the organization, and the reader to follow Planetary, the series. Snow pronounces a total of eleven words over the first three pages (“Yeah”/ “Maybe”/ “If I could change anything, it’d be that [referring to the coffee]” #1 1-3), as Jakita suavely presents him with his job description: “You have an idea of what’s really been going on this century. The Secret History. Help us uncover the rest. That’s the job.” (#1 3) Through Snow, this is an appeal to the reader, who has to be convinced to join the adventure and accept the role of an archeologist. The identification process is further reinforced by the fact that Snow has no prior memory of his own existence and must therefore reconstruct his own past: the cognitive gap between him and the reader is reduced almost to a point of nonexistence. The structure of the series and its plot become intertwined, with the main character and the reader both seeking to reconstruct two pasts at once. The series soon reveals that Snow was born on the first day of the 20th century: his own past soon merges in the “master narrative of 20th-century popular culture” (Kukkonen “Ellis’s Planetary” 162), and the reader discovers that his or her own ignorance is one of the mysteries Planetary intends to explain.

14Further into the series, through the continued coordination of structure, thematics, and circulated imagery, the very nature of Elijah’s amnesia becomes integrated into the story and into the reader’s experience. About halfway through Planetary, the protagonist (and the reader) discovers that his memory loss is in fact artificial. In issue 11, “Cold World” (Sept 00), Elijah meets with an old colleague. Their conversation triggers fragments of memories, disrupting his unexplained amnesia. Finally, Elijah remembers that, in a twisted game, the Four gave him a choice of either placing a series of memory blocks in his mind or killing his team members (#12 17). The progression (or survival) of Planetary as both organization and fictional work depends on Elijah and the reader performing the same act simultaneously: remembering that we have seen these images before. This may even be considered a definitive aspect of the work, with regards to its contract with the reader. While such a narrative device encourages the notion that Planetary could support a McCarthy-based reading, what is pertinent here are the themes of memory, familiarity, and significance, all of which are crucial in the act of intericonicity.

15The framing narrative, this hypertext in which collages are made possible, is thus structured at once as a quest for hidden connections and clues. It promises to reveal and inspect the multiple textual and iconic imports which it weaves together: intericonicity is not a surface effect, a mere “matter of style” as in some Steampunk comics (Jones 101), but the narrative itself. Planetary, in that sense, presents the reader with an intensified version of the metafictional readerly contract, as defined by Patricia Waugh:

Metafiction is fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. In providing a critique of their own methods of construction, such writings not only examine the fundamental structures of narrative fiction, they also explore the possible fictionality of the world outside the literary fictional text. (Waugh 2)

16Laura Perna and Errol Rivera as well as Karin Kukkonen have demonstrated that Planetary fits strictly within this paradigm of metafiction or postmodern narratives, and even goes beyond postmodernity in adopting a non-ironic stance (Kukkonen “Ellis’s Planetary” 155). Another key difference between the series and the texts discussed by Waugh is its reliance on images. “Text” is an inclusive notion in Waugh’s quotation, but the word does not account for the specific modus operandi of the various forms it encompasses, such as the dominance of the visual in comics (Groensteen 12). Because of this dominance, postmodern intertextuality in Planetary—the “echo of past texts and contexts” (Hutcheon “Historiographic Metafiction” 3)—is first and foremost an instance of intericonicity. Images, rather than written texts, become the objects of the ontological explorations and reconfigurations in the series.

3. A “master style”

  • 2 The constraint meant that delays of up to three years ended up separating consecutive issues, as ar (...)

17Though Perna and Rivera have suggested that there is little hierarchy between the multiple storyworlds within Planetary’s multiverse, the series does offer a point of reference, a core story around which the multiple narrative and iconic imports are organized. While it is highly unusual for modern comic books to retain a creative team for more than a few months, the team responsible for the series remarkably remains almost unchanged between 1998 (#0) and 2009 (#27).2 Thanks to this stability, the series is able to offer a unified style, a remarkably resistant crucible in which the various imports are melted and assimilated: the styles, genres and icons used by Ellis and Cassaday are not imported as such or pastiched; they are reinterpreted within a distinctive style. The sources are de-familiarized notably by their integration into a framing narrative and a framing graphical style. Again, Waugh has pointed out that metafictional works need to offer the reader some sort of fixed point (64); in the case of Planetary, the existence of this fixed point is made possible through a certain break from the economic strategies at work in the comic book industry.

18Cassaday and Martin’s graphical work gives this fixed point a visual identity. The backgrounds are usually kept sparse, composed of simple clear shapes colored in luminescent hues. Thus, the various places are often kept ill-defined, appearing in details only when they play a specific role in the plot. Meanwhile, the faces of the characters are adorned with stark but limited shadows, leaving much of the modeling to the colorist. The lines are precise and thin, the characters’ morphologies, physiognomies and expressions aim for realism, even in fantastic settings. The layout of the pages, which include a limited number of panels (less than 5 on average, even in the densest issues), is also kept simple and legible. These choices result in a clear, luminous and uncluttered world, which nevertheless comprises areas of impenetrable darkness; this graphical treatment is also highly accomplished, again as a result of the series’ refusal to adopt the dominant norms of productions in the comic book industry. Some of the characteristics of Cassaday and Martin’s work are, however, present in other titles they worked on, either separately or together, and are therefore not unique to Planetary. To attribute the totality of these characteristics to a narrative intent would therefore be a teleological fallacy, yet the two artists do create a limpid but nearly empty world, which appears well-suited to the integration of pre-existing images. Karin Kukkonen has argued that the originality of Planetary is its ambition to reinsert its critical exploration of existing texts into a post-postmodern “master narrative”, which acknowledges its own status as a fictional and subjective construct (Kukkonen “Ellis’s Planetary” 160-2). This “master narrative” is also a “master style”, which goes beyond pastiche to integrate its influences and references into a coherent whole, a coherent world: the borrowed images are redrawn, recolored and, in the process, they are appropriated, while remaining recognizable.

Image 3. Cover of Planetary n°8 (February 2000)

Image 3. Cover of Planetary n°8 (February 2000)

By Ellis, Cassaday and Martin ™ and © DC Comics

19Planetary’s sparse use of visual pastiches is all the more significant since they are the dominant mode through which North American comics tend to address their own aesthetic heritage, as exemplified notably by Dan Clowes’s graphic novel David Boring (Schneider np), Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Tom Strong (Kukkonen Contemporary 88-126) and even Warren Ellis’s previous series, Stormwatch. In these comics, the pastiche extends to peritextual elements such as the paper-stock or the printing process, which are more or less faithfully imitated so as to integrate not only traces of the referenced narratives and genres (“silver age” superheroes in David Boring, pirate stories in Watchmen, etc.) but also echoes of the cultural objects through which these narratives were originally disseminated. By contrast, most references in Planetary are entirely transposed into the series’ visual system. The most notable exception is to be found on the covers, drawn by John Cassaday and designed by Richard Starkings—a role so important Starkings’ name eventually appeared on his own covers—which embrace pastiche and simultaneously contain it on the periphery of the book’s content. These covers use familiarity as an entry point into the story, a gateway for potential readers, yet they are disconnected from the narrative sequence; they regularly eschew any representation of the main protagonists, use a variety of contrasting styles and even omit the series’ title at times. Unlike the narrative itself, they quote and do not transpose, as exemplified by the cover to issue 8, “The Day the Earth Turned Slower”. The title references the horror/science-fiction films of the 1950s in the United States—such as Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)—and the cover presents a collage of iconic images from the genre: the giant from Attack of the 50ft-Woman (Corman, 1958), the insect from The Deadly Mantis (Juran, 1957), Robby the robot from Forbidden Planet (Wilcox, 1956), an alien from Earth vs. Flying Saucers (Sears, 1956), etc. This cover and others explore the joy of pastiche, the pleasure of recreating artifacts with exuberance and a form of demonstrative fidelity. They also serve to highlight by contrast the existence of a master narrative and a master style inside these covers.

4. The iconography of “Magic and Loss”

20“Magic and Loss”, the much discussed 10th issue of the series, demonstrates the efficiency of the appropriation strategies at work in the series, by applying them to the ubiquitous icons of the superhero genre. The episode also illustrates the way in which Planetary navigates between pastiche and re-creation, using images as enigma around which the story revolves. The existence of a clearly defined readerly contract can be used to generate meaning, beyond the mere pleasure of recognition and/or rediscovery.

21Reflecting the construction of the series after its first few episodes, “Magic and Loss” recounts how the Four captured potential superheroes over the years in order to steal their powers and reinforce their own, functioning at once as an independent story and as a piece of the larger narrative arc. The cover, a bleak cemetery in silhouettes, for which Warren Ellis had provided only minimum guidance—“doom, sorrow, monochrome, abstract, Joy Division. Yes. Joy Division” (Ellis n.p.)—provides little information as to the content of the issue, although it does create an atmosphere not unlike that of the famous monochrome and geometrical cover of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures (1979). The founding image of the issue is thus to be found on its first page rather than on its cover.

Image 4. From Planetary n°10 (June 2000), p. 1

Image 4. From Planetary n°10 (June 2000), p. 1

By Ellis, Cassaday and Martin © DC Comics

22This first page is divided into four horizontal panels, in which three objects are introduced separately, appearing to fall in front of an abstract background, before appearing together in the last panel, on the bottom of the page. These objects are a red cape, almost identical to Superman’s, a blue lantern, almost identical to Green Lantern’s, and a pair of golden bracelets, again almost identical to those worn by Wonder Woman.

23It is worth mentioning that the “ideal reader” for Planetary is familiar not only with the narrative compact established in the first issue, but also with a large section of the popular culture of the 20th century in the western world. The publication history of the series suggests that there was a correspondence between this ideal reader and the series’ actual readership during its initial publication, not to mention a significant support from the series’ publisher in spite of fairly low sales (the series was later republished in an expensive and oversized “Absolute” edition, a distinction reserved to a small number of works). After the first few issues, the sales of the series remained constant, with around 30,000 copies ordered by retailers each month (as a point of comparison, a best-selling title might reach 100,000 copies a month). This pattern is significantly different from the regular decline observed on a vast majority of titles published by major publishers: the existence of a core of faithful readers means that they are more likely to perceive the overall structure of the series and to be aware of the compact established earlier. In the letter column in the comic book, readers regularly praise the fact that the series asks them to “think”, to read a given issue several times before understanding it entirely. Although these comments flaunt the reader’s own image as a selective cultural consumer—an element of willful “distinction” as described by Pierre Bourdieu—it is difficult to imagine that this faithful reader, willing to spend time over the page, cognizant of his role as an investigator and in all likelihood familiar with the dominant superhero genre, may fail to recognize the three items portrayed on the opening page of “Magic and Loss”.

24These three identifiable icons are juxtaposed over an abstract background, which the last panel identifies as a floor—a choice that opens up the possibility of reading the fall of the objects as an allegory rather than as an actual movement. Furthermore, the absence of demarcation and interstitial space between the panels tend to weaken our perception of these images as a sequence. Taken separately, each of them would be ambiguous, and it is only when examined as a whole that they become nearly transparent references as a network of mutually reinforcing signifiers. The third panel, in particular, is open to a multitude of readings in itself, but acquires a definite meaning once replaced in the paradigm created by the first two images. Superman and Green Lantern are both among the iconic superheroes published by DC Comics, and in this fairly limited catalogue, the golden cylinders cannot refer to anything but Wonder Woman. The use of the first two icons—the cape and the lantern—is therefore tantamount to the importation of the whole narrative system of DC Comics superheroes. As Karin Kukkonen points out, superhero comics have seized on the role of iconography in ancient and Christian mythology to develop a complex iconography of their own, which works as a “shortcut to the reader’s knowledge of [a] character and the narrative world [it] inhabits” (Kukkonen “Navigating” 163). Here this identification through iconography is framed by the allegory of the Fall. The grey cemetery on the cover informs and complements this reading, by suggesting at once a possible explanation for the disappearance of the heroes who usually wield these artifacts. Finally, the title of the episode, which appears for the first time, on the bottom of the first page, solidifies and confirms this reading.

25This page conforms to the graphic norms of the series—abstract background, precise thin lines, spotted blacks, a limited number of panels in an unambiguous layout—and illustrates at once the delicate mechanisms used to import a genre through its icons, by relying on the reader’s capacity for interpretation and inferences. There is at once a mystery to be solved and, on this first page, the absence of any visible protagonists delegates this task to the reader.

26The following pages in the sequence inscribe these imported images within Planetary’s overarching narrative. A vast panel reveals a devastated futuristic background in which employees of Planetary and Snow himself are at work. The first dialogue in the issue occurs on page 3, as a couple of secondary characters provide the necessary exposition, in a device reminiscent of Shakespearian plays. The exchange brings to the fore simultaneously the necessity of explaining the mystery of the episode and the organizing metaphor at work in the series.

[McEwen] “What’s he [Snow] doing here?”

[Nash] “Guess he’s supervising the dig.”

[McEwen] “This ain’t a dig. I see no trench.”

[Nash] “Okay, whatever you want to call it, McEwen. He’s supervising, I guess.”

[McEwen] “Word is the field team saw some action here. Bet he didn’t give Jakita any back-up at all. Creepy old goat.” (#10 3)

27While there is no actual trench, this is still a form of abstract archeological work. John Cassaday incidentally also playfully gives McEwen the face of notoriously grumpy comics creator Harvey Pekar, lest the reader give too much credit to his criticism of Snow.

Image 5. From Planetary n°10 (June 2000), p. 3, panels 4-5

Image 5. From Planetary n°10 (June 2000), p. 3, panels 4-5

By Ellis, Cassaday and Martin © DC Comics

28The conversation then rapidly focuses on the three objects on the floor, in a panel that nearly reproduces the last panel of the first page. This time, however, the picture is localized, inscribed in a recognizable diegetic world. A radiation detector appears in the foreground, the floor has a texture (and the reader has been provided with a view of the locale) and the point of view is clearly Nash’s. The abstract assemblage has thus become a vestige, a localized artifact and the enquiry into its history is primed to begin with a double question: “Where the hell do you suppose the Four found this stuff from? And why bother keeping it?” (#10 3). Crucially, the word balloon could represent the words of either secondary character. What matters is not who is asking the question, but to whom it is asked, and once more the reader is invited to accept the responsibility of answering.

29What follows is a series of three short narratives, retelling the origin stories of the three superheroes, making use again of various meaning networks created within the comics or with preexisting images, while seeking to retain the evocative powers of some of these borrowed images. The best example is to be found immediately after the page-break which follows the aforementioned questions (#10 4). Again, the page is divided into four horizontal panels, the first of which is entirely black. The device recalls the effect of a fade-to-black in a movie, which conventionally signals a temporal disjunction of some sort. In the following panels, we are presented with a starry sky, a speck of light with a trail and finally a grey planet seen from space. The importation of codes and references in the first page of the issues primes the reader for interpreting this non-specific sequence as a retelling of Superman’s origin story: an infant sent away on a spaceship, from a dying planet. This network of meaning retrospectively elucidates the role of the black panel, which can only imply a travel back in time, since the origin story necessarily predates the existence of the cape. Various strategies of graphical matches later confirm that the other two origin stories are more or less simultaneous with that of the pseudo Superman. There are actually several clues allowing the reader to reconstruct the chronology of events, from the fade-to-black to the multiple verbal and visual elements which suggest the prologue happens after the main events (“Word is the field team saw some action here” #10 3). However, the keystone to the system is the correct identification of a genre and its archetypal schemes on the very first page.

Image 6. From Planetary n°10 (June 2000), p. 24, panels 1-2, image 1

Image 6. From Planetary n°10 (June 2000), p. 24, panels 1-2, image 1

By Ellis, Cassaday and Martin © DC Comics

30After the end of the embedded narratives, on the final page, Ellis and Cassaday reuse the last panel of the first page for the third and final time. This time, it is cropped, heavily framed in black and re-contextualized not so much as a mystery to be solved but as a memento mori. Though viewing position is identical to that of the first page, we now know this to be Snow’s point of view. Thus, the trajectory of the images in the issue is complete: the abstract and context-free icons on the first page have become the end product of a narrative within Planetary’s diegesis. They now have a location, a history and are even associated with the subjective worldview of the series’ main protagonist. The icons first work as synecdoche for a genre, but they are subsequently transformed and assimilated. Moreover, we have attempted to demonstrate that these icons are essential to the structure of what would otherwise be a deliberately lacunar narrative, which resorts to hypotexts and “hypoimages” in order to fill its own gaps.

31This episode also allows us to explain the singular pleasures provided by Planetary. Formally, this is a successful work. The sense of wonder (“Magic”) promised in the title is created through pages filled with flamboyant architectures and colorful extra-terrestrials, all the more easily since these striking images are removed from any narrative continuity and need only be drawn and colored for a few panels, while conventional serialized narratives have to aim for reproducibility and coherence. The cognizant reader is also rewarded on several occasions, with different clues, cameos (Hawkman’s wings on page 3, for instance) and playful variations on familiar stories (the parents of this “Superman” cause the destruction of their planet by sending their child away). This calls to mind what Linda Hutcheon identifies as the pleasure of adaptation, “repetition without replication” (A Theory of Adaptation 7), a pleasure reserved to readers who have access simultaneously to both texts. Finally, yet a different pleasure is provided by the structural elements at work here, from the symmetry of the issue to the imaginative use of the archaeological metaphor. This is an architectonic pleasure, in which familiar genres and images are made to participate in an ambitious and all-embracing narrative, emphasizing all along the participative nature of the work in which prior knowledge enriches each narrative segment without being strictly necessary. By constantly enriching its own past, Planetary invites its readers to reconsider what they think they know about its present, the final state of a long causal chain, which is rewritten episode after episode.

5. Generating icons: the snowflake

32Indeed, after “Magic and Loss”, the series turns to other popular narratives and icons: with a few exceptions, the intericonic relationships created in the series rarely extend beyond a single issue. Among the examples we have used so far, Godzilla, American Cold War horror films and DC superheroes all appear in just one episode. The major exception to this rule is an icon which features prominently in the work, reused several times and to several ends, and without pop culture associations: that of the snowflake.

33The snowflake icon first appears in issue #1, “Archaeologists of the Impossible” (April 99) (as well as on the front inside cover of each Planetary trade paperback). The character Axel Brass tells the Planetary team about the World War II-era secret society who created the super-computer (“the brain”) that generates the snowflake (#1 13-18). In doing so, he also contextualizes the image for the reader, elaborating on the theme of multiple universes, and allowing the Planetary story, as well as the pleasures to be derived from reactivation and exaltation of familiar images, to operate. Particularly within the next several issues, the reader, along with the team, encounters the snowflake again and again, pointing to its centrality in the secret history of the world, not to mention in the mystery of Elijah Snow’s past.

34When the protagonists encounter an analog of the snowflake in issue #3, “Dead Gunfighters” (June 99), the team puzzles over the massive structure full of data they have unearthed, and an intericonic character supplies: “It’s God. It’s the only word for it that fits. It’s... unimaginably huge. It is an object with more than one hundred thousand different angles" (#3 14). In the following issue, “Strange Harbours” (July 99), the team discovers a ship that travels “the bleed”, the interstitial space between the worlds that make up the snowflake. In narrative terms, the snowflake is part of the story’s frame as well as the physical structure of the fictional universe.

35The snowflake is repeated thematically as well. By no means coincidentally, Elijah’s last name, Snow, and his apparent power to freeze matter (#12 Jan. 01), situate him squarely in a relationship with the snowflake, and it is soon revealed that Elijah was instrumental in its discovery. Finally, in the untitled final issue of the series (Dec. 09), the Planetary team discovers their own snowflake nature, as they come face to face with an infinite number of unique versions of themselves from different possible futures, or rather different universes.

36The snowflake as icon, acts like the other images circulating throughout Planetary. However, its departures from narrative patterns and functions also create the potential for a different kind of meaning. The snowflake may not have the pop cultural currency of a giant lizard or a red cape, but it does come with its own associations and cultural significance: that of individuality. In the infinite repetition of snowflakes in the natural world, no two are exactly alike. However, unlike the other images which circulate through Planetary, the snowflake’s significance is not simply carried over from cultural associations and discretely reactivated, but instead reconstituted through repetitive and varying narrative acts which are cumulatively referential, self-referential, philosophical, and operational. This repetition and variation (or perhaps, remix and retransmission) imbue the snowflake with new significance and give rise perhaps not to intericonicity, or even iconography, but what we might even call intra-iconicity.

37Additionally, the snowflake emphasizes by contrast the near-absence in the series of visual motifs not generated by popular culture. In spite of its obsessive cataloguing of icons, the series shies away from reusing images of the Vietnam War or of 9/11, for instance—two events among others which have now been integrated into the reservoir of icons available to contemporary popular fiction. These exclusions reinforce the idea that Planetary is not concerned with the circulation of images in general, but with specific images delimitating a bounded culture. It highlights the breadth and depth of 20th-century popular culture, positions it as a tool for empowerment through imagination (especially in the second half of the series), but also establishes strict boundaries for these investigations.


38Planetary’s narrative relies until its very end on various strategies of acculturation and indigenization of images from a variety of popular sources, of which the examined issues are but two examples. It articulates the posture of the fan with that of the hermeneutist, popular genre fiction with erudite metafiction, without appearing to favor one over the other. Following Karin Kukkonen, we would like to suggest that Planetary thus goes beyond postmodernism, by refuting the idea that images can exist as pure signs, to insert them in a “master narrative”, manifested through what we have called a “master style”. The series also insists on “reinserting abstracted ‘modern myths’ into their cultural contexts” (Kukkonen, “Ellis’s Planetary” 155) but it also emphasizes the material manifestation of the images in these contexts. This materialization is the organizing principle of the narrative, and brings to the fore the elaboration and the construction of images, but it does so in order to use them for its own purpose; the absence of pastiche is one of the strategies used to force the readers to appreciate these images anew. The circulation of images follows the logic of the crucible rather than the masquerade.

39An interesting point of comparison is provided by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of the Extraordinary Gentlemen, which attains similar goals through the aesthetic of saturation and imbrications. By contrast, Planetary is often sparse, graphically and narratively, opening up its pages, panels and stories, the better to invite readers to imagine what is not shown, relaying this invitation through multiple instances of addresses to the readers, through rhetoric and/or disembodied questions. In Planetary, images and icons are embodied and historicized but never exhausted.

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Ellis, Warren (w.), John (p.) Cassaday, and Laura Martin (color). Planetary #0-27 (September 1998-December 2009). La Jolla: Wildstorm. Print.

Ellis, Warren. “(Some of) My Favourite Planetary Covers”., 29 January 2013. Web. July 2014.

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Kukkonen, Karin. “Warren Ellis’s Planetary. The Archeology of Superheroes.” Goggin, Joyce and Dan A. Hassler Forest ed. The Rise and Reason of Comics and Graphic Literature. Jefferson, London: McFarland, 2010: 154-163. Print.

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List of images

Image 1. From Planetary n°2 (May 1999), p. 24. By Ellis, Cassaday and Martin ©DC Comics

Image 2. From Planetary n°2 (May 1999), p. 15, panel 3. By Ellis, Cassaday and Martin ©DC Comics

Image 3. Cover of Planetary n°8 (February 2000). By Ellis, Cassaday and Martin™ and ©DC Comics

Image 4. From Planetary n°10 (June 2000), p. 1. By Ellis, Cassaday and Martin ©DC Comics

Image 5. From Planetary n°10 (June 2000), p. 3, panels 4-5. By Ellis, Cassaday and Martin ©DC Comics

Image 6. From Planetary n°10 (June 2000), p. 24, panels 1-2, image 1. By Ellis, Cassaday and Martin ©DC Comics

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1 For readability’s sake and to account for the various existing editions, references to Planetary in the text will mention the issue number and the page number, including only comics pages.

2 The constraint meant that delays of up to three years ended up separating consecutive issues, as artist John Cassaday in particular tried to fit the series into his schedule.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Image 1. From Planetary n°2 (May 1999), p. 24
Crédits By Ellis, Cassaday and Martin © DC Comics
Fichier image/jpeg, 368k
Titre Image 2. From Planetary n°2 (May 1999), p. 15, panel 3
Crédits By Ellis, Cassaday and Martin © DC Comics
Fichier image/jpeg, 340k
Titre Image 3. Cover of Planetary n°8 (February 2000)
Crédits By Ellis, Cassaday and Martin ™ and © DC Comics
Fichier image/jpeg, 556k
Titre Image 4. From Planetary n°10 (June 2000), p. 1
Crédits By Ellis, Cassaday and Martin © DC Comics
Fichier image/jpeg, 244k
Titre Image 5. From Planetary n°10 (June 2000), p. 3, panels 4-5
Crédits By Ellis, Cassaday and Martin © DC Comics
Fichier image/jpeg, 220k
Titre Image 6. From Planetary n°10 (June 2000), p. 24, panels 1-2, image 1
Crédits By Ellis, Cassaday and Martin © DC Comics
Fichier image/jpeg, 169k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Nicolas LABARRE, Laura PERNA et Errol RIVERA, « The Circulation of Icons in Planetary - Pictures, Popular Culture and Materiality »e-Rea [En ligne], 13.1 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2015, consulté le 16 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Université Bordeaux Montaigne
Nicolas Labarre is Associate Professor in American society and culture at University Bordeaux Montaigne, in France, where he researches comics, genre and adaptation. His most recent publications include “From Columbine to Xavier’s: Restaging the Media Narrative as Superhero Fiction” in Ages of the X-Men (2014) and “Alien as a Comic Book: Adaptation and Genre Shifting” in Extrapolation (Spring 2014). He also writes children books and maintains a comics blog.


Independent comics researcher
Laura Perna is an independent comics researcher whose focus areas include Italian language comics and memory in comics. Most recently, she has contributed to ImageTexT and the upcoming Comics through Time: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas. By day, Laura is the communications director of a disability public policy organization in Austin, Texas.


Freelance academic researcher for Edinburgh Napier University
Errol Rivera is a freelance academic researcher for Edinburgh Napier University in Edinburg Scotland, specializing in pedagogy with a focus on creative industries practice. He has taught creative writing at Master’s level, and leads writing workshops for academic conferences and the community. Prior to receiving his MA in Creative Writing and teaching qualification, Errol was an independent comic creator for seven years, and is currently developing a full-length fictional novel.

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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