“After this, there’s nothing,” explains the ghost of the murdered Hong Kong cop. There is, he assures Planetary’s “mystery archaeologists,” no afterlife awaiting them, or indeed anyone else, when death arrives. Something has brought the assassinated Detective Shek Chi-Wai back to the world of the living, but his resurrection finds him doomed, if not precisely damned, to hunt down and murder those “bastards” who “need to be cut out of the world.” His is an atomised, joyless, and blood-drenched pseudo-life, where even the prospect of a conversation with a breathing human being is beyond hoping for, and where all he has “to look forward to is killing … scum until some other poor bastard gets betrayed and wasted here and takes over for me.”
The ghost story set in a world with no apparent after-life has a long tradition of its own, but it’s still a relatively rare occurrence in the pages of the super-hero book. That absence of any traditional sense of the World Beyond in Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s “Dead Gunfighters” transforms the way in which the figure of the narrative’s indomitable hero makes sense to us. Detective Chi-Wai is as unstoppable, as deadly, as implacable as any of the most extreme examples of his type. A ghostly retributer who deals out his always-fatal punishments with a characteristic fusion of spectral dead-pan misery and pyrotechnical excess, Chi-Wai certainly fulfills the criteria for the protagonist of a playfully grossed-out, hi-tech revenge fantasy. And yet there’s strangely no catharsis to be had from his killings at all. He’s risen from the dead, but there’s no divine sanction of any kind to legitimise his massacres. He’s an avenging spirit, and yet he seems to have no choice at all about his bloody-handed mission. Whose name is he fighting in, and what good does he do? He strides towards his victims clasping a police badge, but that obviously doesn’t represent the authority that’s he’s serving. As such, it’s impossible to be sure that justice really has been served by the revenge that Chi-Wai’s shown ruthlessly dealing out, because the universe that’s being described in “Dead Gunfighters” is so meaninglessly cruel, absurd, and disorientating.
It’s not just that Chi-Wai clearly has no choice where his campaign of extermination is concerned, though that in itself leaves him seeming far less like a heroic figure and far more like a puppet “condemned to avenge murder.” There’s also not the slightest sense that Hong Kong will be fundamentally changed by all that slaughter. The excesses of blood-letting certainly look effective, but they clearly aren’t. A few criminals will be executed, and yet, the very curse which drives him suggests that another cop is soon to be deceived and dispatched, another police officer who wanted “to see … the right thing done” liquidated and then raised for an indeterminate existence as a phantom executioner. All this succession of dead gunfighters, one after the other, can ever do is wipe out a relatively inconsequential number of what seems to be an eternally numerous class of “killers and rapists.” Indeed, we’re told that there’s always been “the ghost of a betrayed cop in Hong Kong,” which says a great deal about how successful these on-going campaigns of ghostly revenge have been. Ultimately, all that Chi-Wai’s endeavours seem to do are suggest how futile the whole killer wraith project is. Whatever other solutions there may or may not be, this unheavenly programme of “Vengeance. And not just for me. For all of us.” is clearly not working very well.
And what a terrible world it is that Ellis’s script describes, in which there’s perpetually such an excess of crying-out-to-be-culled evil. Beyond the self-evident joys of the brilliantly-worked homages to Hong Kong thrillers in Cassaday’s artwork, there’s nothing that seems worthy of being celebrated in Chi-Wai’s victories. In a ludicrously godless, purposeless universe, even sentencing the worst of criminals to oblivion is ultimately a profoundly unsatisfying act. Their deaths led to nothing more distressing for them than nothingness, their lives were just something which happened and then didn’t. Yes, there’ll be a number of blameless individuals whose lives will be improved by the removal of their persecutors. But the apparently absurd and conflict-ridden world of Planetary will go on largely as it always has, and the ghost lynchers will keep being called from the grave and then dismissed into the abyss regardless of their own desires, and what will change?
“Dead Gunfighters” may, at first glance, seem to be a story revelling in the conventions of the pitiless, unearthly killer bringing justice to the lawless streets of the helpless town, but it’s also a tale which utterly undermines the same traditions.
Ellis and Cassaday are certainly exceptionally careful to make sure that the gruesome retribution which poor Chi-Wai’s driven to deliver doesn’t pass as a statement in favour of frontier vigilante justice. In fact, quite the opposite effect is achieved. The apparition himself is a tortured creature, and his essentially kind and decent nature has been perverted by the horror of his death and the mission he’s been so mysteriously subverted and corrupted by. This isn’t the knowingly poker-faced, can’t-lose killer with a secret loving heart and an endless appetite for community-serving conflict. Instead, he’s a helplessly broken soul irrevocably separated from the woman he loves and lacking the capacity, let alone the will, to do anything other than occasionally rage. It’s a point accentuated by the fact that Chi-Wai’s seen only in largely deserted and apparently endless darkened streets, on tarmacked open spaces surrounded by houses where the only evidence of life is the sight of laundry hanging out of windows. He doesn’t so much serve the society of the living as he does skirt its edges in order to hunt down the criminals he’s compelled to kill. Cassaday’s wonderfully lonely, agoraphobic backdrops repeatedly present us with nothing of the everyday at all, and so “Dead Gunfighters” feels refreshingly clear of the message that modern life would be better if only a pale rider or two would round up all the scum and do away with them. Although Planetary #3 has a hang’em-all vigilante at its centre, and although it shows him succeeding in wiping out all of his intended victims, Chi-Wai’s campaign of righteous terror actually seems to have little to offer the world of Hong Kong at all. No virtuous status quo is being restored, no better world beckoning beyond the corpses. Revenge, killing, terror; these don’t seem to be the tools to make the Hong Kong of Planetary anything of a lastingly better place beyond the culling of a few cancerous individuals.
Perhaps the most playfully existential super-hero comic book that I can think of, Planetary #3 doesn’t just provide a smart story full of audacity and innovation. It also constantly suggests to the reader that they’re experiencing a relatively conventional tale while simultaneously undermining any such sense of the familiar. We feel that Chi-Wai is a heroic figure because he’s been terribly wronged, and because he’s killing off the impossibly despicable bad guys, and because he seems to fit our expectations for the role of nobly suffering tragic hero. And yet, when he murders the entirely depraved Mok on the last page of “Dead Gunfighters,“ it’s also obvious that he’s anything but a hero. Forced to adopt his mission, empty of anything of empathy for his victims, Chi-Wai’s killing for no better reason that we can see than revenge. This indomitable hero hasn’t actually been representing the good at all, although his victims were undoubtedly reprehensible. Choice doesn’t seem to have come into it at all, and so, virtue hasn’t either. The traditional ending of the tale has arrived, and all the familiar conventions appear to have been played out, and yet there’s a great and deliberate lack of closure at the heart of the story. The more the reader thinks, the more difficult it is to work out how we’re supposed to feel, which is, of course, an equitably godless way for a team of creators to behave. And so, the tale’s penultimate panel shows us nothing but the villainous Mok’s dead body and an absence of any other markers on the page to tell us what it all means. There’s certainly not the slightest trace of jubilation, or even relief, in what’s effectively a brief, two-panel epilogue. Is this really what life reduces itself to, a process of one terrible murder following another? “There’s just us,” Ellis has had Chi-Wai declare, meaning of course that it’s up to the folks who are lucky enough to be briefly alive in a universe lacking any discernable moral purpose to work out what they ought to be doing with their time. So, has there been anything of justice in the events we’ve seen? Have we been watching a character whose means and ends are in any way likely to help create a better world? And if there’s no-one but ourselves to make sense of things, then what sense are we supposed to make?
“Dead Gunfighters” isn’t telling, which is, of course, the point. For a comic that’s been woven from the conventions of a series of genres that have traditionally been associated with cheap thrills and easy answers, that’s a perversely challenging way to close a story. “You decide” is not what readers are used to being faced with at the point at which good traditionally wins, evil falls, the innocent express their gratitude, and a moment’s peace is secured before the next crisis can appear. And that expectation that events will play out mostly as they always have is particularly challenged when it comes to the figure who’s occupying centre stage for most of the tale, who’s shown exterminating villains and cutting an intimidatingly dour figure from the first to last page. In the normal scheme of things, we’d expect to leave this story feeling satisfied that the ghost of Detective Chi-Wai has been laudably serving some greater purpose while acting to a greater or lesser degree in the general good. But in Planetary #3, there seems to be no obviously greater good at all. Whatever virtues might be exalted, whatever actions might be seen as praiseworthy, they’ve been deliberately kept away from the closing of Ellis and Cassaday’s work and left for the reader to chew on.