Life on Another Planet:

Because the Options Here Don’t Look Great

The notion of discovering intelligent life on another planet and discovering new worlds in space might initially seem to be an exciting field of exploration rife with optimism. However, Will Eisner’s Life on Another Planet eschews such enthusiasm in his science fiction / Cold War spy hybrid in favor of a darker form of social commentary. From its very beginning, Life on Another Planet explores the political, financial, and social implications of the discovery of intelligent life from another planet… and they do not speak to the higher intelligence of mankind.

In “The Signal,” it becomes clear that mankind will not be able to unify as a collective society to respond to a signal from the planet Barnard. Instead, scientists squabble over the potential for personal glory through discovering, decoding, and capitalizing on the signal received at the Mesa station. The interest other nations have in making such a discovery also clear as well through the revelation of Cobbs and Miss Bowen as Soviet spies. Cobbs is murdered, Bludd is assaulted and left for dead, and the secrets are taken to the U.S.S.R. Politics supersedes discovery as Cobbs succinctly points out: “This information belongs to the world—not for some hustler …or one lousy capitalist nation. Just think of the history of man’s dealings with new territories…we’re barbarians! No, at least if two major nations share in it they will have some check on each other” (Eisner 9). And of course, Cobb’s colleague promptly bludgeons him to death with a rock eight panels and a few moments later. Politics trumps rationale, and the reader should not forget the old adage that one who forgets history is doomed to repeat it.

“The First Émigré” provides a bleak picture of how one company aims to man their space program with the members of a deluded cult. The cult itself is born out of the response by the crazed—but harmless—Marko who reacts to the news of a possible extraterrestrial contact with a desire to voyage to the planet Barnard with anyone who is willing to follow him. Eisner certainly does this cult no favors in portraying them as a reactionary, mindless mob that acts without questioning. It is this reason that Macredy is able to easily plant Grebe into their midst as a means of taking advantage of the Star People to man his experimental flights into space. This episode also highlights the problematic nature of world governments that can be so easily prompted by business into conflict:

Harley: “Then it is the sense of this board that we push the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. into a space race!”

Macredy: “By whatever means, Harley!” (Eisner 25)

Eisner creates a half-splash on the final page of this episode that serves as a sort of twisted perversion of the Holy Family. In this instance, Marko and Cora represent Joseph and the Virgin Mary while the squat, bald, and plotting Grebe parallels a sinister baby Jesus. All three stare out the window towards the star; however, instead of a star leading to Christian notions of salvation—something Cora and Marko no doubt believe to be the case—Grebe understands salvation to truly equate to wealth, power, and exploitation as will be seen at the end of the novel.

The infection of greed continues to grow as seen in the somewhat ironically named episode, “A New Form of Life.” Spurred by news of his pending death, Dr. Crowben urges his colleagues to begin experimentations focused on mutating human and plant cells in order to develop a new form of life that could withstand life on another planet. Lacking sufficient funds, however, leads these scientists to appeal to the Star People, who have recently grown wealthy from their associations with Grebe (and the private research and development industry). Once again, others target these unsuspecting cultists for their financial benefit. This episode is equally disillusioning when taking into account the corrupting influence of money and power. The once innocent and delusional Marko now he complains to Cora: “What do we want to give them money for when I need a Cadillac?” (Eisner 42). The ideal voyage to a new world ripe with possibility from only ten pages earlier is already shown to be losing ground to the material ways of the world.

The “Pre-Launch” episode is a particularly problematic entry in Life on Another Planet, both in what Eisner points out as well as the way in which he makes his argument. General Ami, the dictator of Sidami—modeled in the likeness of African dictators such as those found in Somalia, Libya, and Sudan—finds himself hundreds of billions of dollars in debt and unable to repay his Western debtors. To ease himself of his burdens, he cedes his country from the world, and presents a viable testing grounds for the Western industries to exploit free of government influence. Eisner is clearly jabbing at the exploitive nature of Western powers and industries as they colonize (politically or economically) developing nations, particularly those in Africa for their own benefit and with little thought to the inhabitants. On the other hand, Eisner’s portrayal of the leadership of this African-like country is particularly problematic as the dictator is shown to be larger than life with overly emphasized characteristics of a stereotypical representation of persons of color[1]. Readers should see his declaration as mad; however, they should also question why he is visually represented as a grinning, big-lipped man with crooked teeth and big ears—hardly a dignified image that would be taken seriously, even if he had shared an intelligent and thoughtful plan for saving his people. Eisner’s argument about exploitation is a worthwhile one, especially when considering the murderers and crooks about to descend upon this poor tribal country; yet, his use of such tropes does not strengthen the cause and demonstrates a lack of conscientiousness that the Western powers he criticizes employ on a greater scale.

In “Blood” and “Abort,” the various plot points begin to converge into a fever pitch, as the question of a human space launch in Sidami grows eminent. From a technical standpoint, Eisner begins to overload each page with an increasing number of text and speech balloons and mini-panels. This has a crowding effect, which increases the amount of action required on the part of the reader to finish reading each page. There is more to read, more imagery to process, and more points to connect. When compared to the earlier pages in the novel, there are fewer splash and half-splash pages used, which often provide the reader a greater ability to focus on the pictures at hand since it isn’t as busy. However, this increased use of space in these later episodes mirrors the fever pitch the characters experience as each subplot moves towards the overall conclusion of the novel. In fact, it isn’t until the final episode of the book in “The Last Chapter” that the panels become less crowded, and more splashes and half-splashes are used to convey the narrative. Not only do the decreasing number of pages tell us that the story is nearly over, but the pacing of art and text slow us down as well. The story literally brings us to a slow halt as the narrative comes to a close. Amidst the analysis of what Eisner is saying, it is equally important to take note of how he conveys his ideas.

The book ends unsurprisingly with those in power remaining in power, while many of those without power receding into obscurity—either being killed off (such as Jones, Hoad, Rocco, Marko or Nadia) or being written out of the picture (such as Argano, Malley, and eventually Bludd). Although Eisner enables Bludd with the ability to destroy the rocket with the remote black box, the world is not changed for the better from this mere delaying tactic. Macredy[2] marries Cora, a corrupt politician is still president, and big business is only delayed in its aims. Although Dr. Hoad is no longer an asset and Dr. Blud refuses to be one, the research is still there to be exploited by another scientist eager to stake a claim to fame and willing to sell his or her soul for the chance to join the ranks of the elite. Dr. Blud destroys the second message from outer space, but how long can he continue to delay the inevitable? The writing on the pad in front of the ex-CIA agent states: “The Last Chapter,” and yet, the bottom half of the page is still left blank as though it was still waiting to be written. Clearly, the last chapter has not yet been written, and perhaps it is too soon to join Blud in smiling with satisfaction at the end of the novel.

Works Cited

Eisner, Will. Life on Another Planet. New York: Norton, 2009. Print.


[1] It is worth pointing out that this isn’t an isolated issue with Eisner, as his portrayal of The Spirit’s sidekick, Ebony White, was often criticized for continuing racial stereotypes of African-Americans.

[2] Also spelled Macready in various locations of the novel.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Forrest C. Helvie lives in Bristol, CT with his wife and two sons. He is an assistant professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. He received his Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he wrote his dissertation on the influence of canonical American literature on the development of the comic book superhero. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@fhelvie) discussing all things comics related.

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1 Comment

  1. Another really strong article, Forrest. And about an often-overlooked but worthwhile work. Great to see this. And to see Eisner on Sequart! Thanks!

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