guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

February 2006

Warren Ellis, John Cassaday, et al., Planetary (Wildstorm, 1998- ). irregularly published. $2.95

 by Alex Boney

I stopped reading Planetary in January 2000.  In issue 7, entitled “To Be In England, In the Summertime,” the Planetary team is introduced to Jack Carter, a shadowy London magician in a familiar brown trenchcoat who cons ghosts before smoothly disappearing into the shadows, leaving only a trail of cigarette smoke behind.  Carter is obviously patterned on John Constantine, and the issue is devoted to deconstructing the entirety of DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint.  A graveyard scene features characters reminiscent of the Doom Patrol, Animal Man, Black Orchid, Swamp Thing, and the like.  The Sandman (Morpheus) and Death are portrayed on a bench feeding pigeons.  The Vertigo characters have apparently gathered in a graveyard for a communal death, and Planetary leader Elijah Snow quips “None of them look exactly happy, even for a funeral.”  Abandoning the gloomy Vertigo introspection at the end of the issue, the Constantine character shaves his head, reveals a spider-like tattoo on his chest (an indulgent nod to Ellis’ Transmetropolitan), and fades into the shadows again.  Too cute and too clever by half.  Perhaps because the issue was published too soon after the demise of The Sandman (then a sacred cow of mine), or perhaps because every issue of Planetary prior to #7 had also cribbed liberally from other recognizable comics genres, I decided that the book was too derivative and unoriginal to keep reading it regularly.  Recently, though, I decided to start again at the beginning and read through the entire run, and I realized that the book’s method of derivation was precisely what makes it original.

Planetary, which has been written by Warren Ellis, illustrated by John Cassaday, and published by Wildstorm Comics since 1998, features a team of characters whose avowed mission is to excavate the secret history of the universe.  No small, modest task, that.  It’s a modernist project in a postmodern, post-Watchmen age.  Elijah Snow, Jakita Wagner, and the Drummer are self-proclaimed archaeologists of the twentieth century.  They investigate and examine extraordinary events, and Snow documents them all in a series of yearbooks called Planetary Guides.  He saves the past.  More specifically, the team tries to understand and preserve the unique snowflake pattern that connects a multiverse of 196,833 distinct dimensional spaces.  The book’s mantra, spoken in some form at least every other issue, is “It’s a strange world.  Let’s keep it that way.”

But the world the team investigates is not really so strange.  It contains and redirects echoes of every era, every influence, and every genre of comics that have emerged since the 1930s.  Planetary is a metatextual playground rooted firmly in the diverse, extensive past of comic book history.  The first issue focuses on—in Jakita’s words—a “secret society of superheroes”:  a team comprised of seven characters pulled straight from the pulp fiction of the 1930s.  The only surviving member, Doc Brass, is patterned on Doc Savage, and his compatriots are clear reflections of Tarzan, the Shadow, Tom Swift, and even reformed pulp villain Fu Manchu.  These characters die a literal and symbolic death during a superhero incursion in 1945.  The superheroes who enter the dimension gate (represented throughout Planetary by an ornate snowflake) are variations of the heroes that comprise DC Comics’ Justice League of America—specifically the “big seven” used in Grant Morrison’s relaunch of the JLA in the mid-1990s (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, J’onn J’onzz, and Aquaman).  Superheroes killed the thirties-era pulp heroes during World War II.  Superman paved the way for flashier, more powerful characters to emerge from their pulp prototypes, and Ellis’ dramatization of this shift early in the series indicates the type of excavation the Planetary team pursues throughout the book.

The central villains of Planetary, patterned on Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four, signal the next major shift in the development of superhero comics.  “The Four”—comprised of physicist Randall Dowling (based on Reed Richards), pilot Jacob Greene (Ben Grimm), flight engineer William Leather (Johnny Storm), and Kim Suskind (Sue Storm/Richards)—is a team that apparently acquires transformative powers when they pilot a rocketship into an interdimensional rift called The Bleed.  Fantastic Four was the first ongoing superhero series launched by Marvel Comics in the 1960s, and the popularity of Marvel’s characters and books eclipsed DC’s by the end of the decade.  In Planetary #10, the Four capture a rocketship launched from a dying planet, an intergalactic officer with a colorful lantern, and a woman who is on her way to America to spread a message of peace and hope.  The Four kill the three familiar characters, perform autopsies on them, and use their talents for their own benefit—a pattern that parallels Marvel’s usurpation of DC during the sixties.

Versions of Marvel characters are scattered significantly throughout Planetary.  The preview issue of the book (originally published in GEN 13 #33, September 1998) presents the story of David Paine, a scientist who develops an integral design theory that, concentrated into a gamma-style bomb, eventually transforms him into a large green monster.  The first Planetary investigation Ellis presents, then, is a retelling of the Incredible Hulk’s origin.  In a later storyline (Planetary #s 19-20), Elijah Snow sends a group of angelic pioneers into space to investigate an unidentified gigantic vessel drifting toward the edge of the Milky Way.  When the angels enter the vessel, they find an ecosystem growing in and around an enormous deceased body that looks curiously like Galactus.  Ironically, the devourer of worlds has now become a wellspring of life for various bands of primitive humans and primates.  “City Zero,” an experimental concentration camp set up in the desert amid post-WWII Cold War hysterics, is a testing ground where X-Men-style mutants are created.

The emergence of Marvel as the dominant force in superhero comics is reflected throughout
Planetary.  But Ellis’ positioning of the Four is the most interesting and most revealing strategy of the book.  By presenting the first and longest-lasting superhero team in Marvel’s reign as the villains of Planetary, Ellis seems to suggest that Marvel’s grip on the superhero genre has crippled and paralyzed the development of the genre.  In the most recent issue (#24), Elijah Snow says that “Randall Dowling [Mister Fantastic] and Kim Suskind [Invisible Woman] need to be stopped because they’re withholding glory from the human race.”  The Four need to be stopped because they’re not allowing a broader palette of human experience to emerge.  The stagnation and decline of comics in the 1990s, therefore, is traced directly to Marvel Comics.  Curiously, Warren Ellis is currently writing several high-profile books (Ultimate Extinction, Nextwave) for the very company he’s critiquing in Planetary.

In a sense, I’m glad I stopped reading
Planetary when I did.  The book has taken seven years to unfold because its publication schedule has been sporadic and infrequent.  One of the most commonly-voiced criticisms of the book is that the time between issues is far too long to give it any buzz or momentum.  This was especially true during 2001-2003, when only six issues saw publication.  Planetary isn’t a book that rewards monthly reading.  But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  By taking their time and going to press only when they’re absolutely sure they’ve told the story they’re ready to tell—one that provides advancement and cohesion of the story as a whole—Ellis and Cassaday have maintained a consistency that’s lacking in many current periodical comics narratives.  Cassaday’s illustration is an integral part of Ellis’ strength as a writer on this book.  The only digressions Planetary has made from Cassaday’s pencils (Planetary/The Authority: Ruling the World and Planetary/JLA: Terra Occulta) have resulted in diminished storytelling.

The other common criticism of Planetary is that it is too burdened with extensive exposition.  But this is actually one of Ellis’ important technical accomplishments.  Only when a text is guided by measured, even pacing can a rocketship crashing into a farmhouse (#9, “Planet Fiction”) have any significant impact.  Two issues in particular (#21 and #24) have been guided primarily by exposition, but both provided moments that allowed the Planetary team (specifically Elijah Snow) and the reader to pause and gather their bearings before launching into the climactic phase of the book’s development.  In issue #24, Snow announces an offensive shift that will presumably move the book forward toward a foreseeable conclusion:  “I spent my life saving information, knowledge and experience….  It’s what I do.  Yeah.  I don’t much care who has to suffer for me to achieve that.  I’m not playing anyone’s game but my own anymore.”  These are the moments that bring weight and consequence to the book’s infrequent action, but they’re also the moments that set the book apart from most of its peers on comics shelves.  This is a superhero book that is so steeped in its origins that it transforms them into something unique and distinct.  Ellis is derivative only insofar as he derives meaningful codes and patterns from a genre that has felt stagnant for decades and reformulates them in a way that offers useful commentary and redirection.  Planetary is ultimately a book about perspective.  Ellis isn’t trying to tear apart the past.  He’s not trying to repeat it or beat it into the ground or bring it to an arbitrary crisis.  Instead, like Elijah Snow, he’s trying to understand and preserve the strangest, most valuable parts of the past so that the future can become a little more interesting.