Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s Planetary

All Over the World and Other Stories (Wildstorm/DC, 2000)
The Fourth Man (Wildstorm/DC, 2001)
Leaving the 20th Century (Wildstorm/DC, 2004)
Spacetime Archaeology (Wildstorm/DC, 2010)
Crossing Worlds (Wildstorm/DC, 2004)

ellis-planetaryPlanetary is a comics series that ran from 1999 through 2009, with gaps. Created by writer Warren Ellis and artist John Cassaday, it’s what I can only call an archaeological thriller. Planetary is an organization that investigates “incidents” that don’t seem to have ready explanations. There is a field team composed of three members. The story opens as Jakita Wagner is recruiting Elijah Snow to become the new Third Man. The other member of the team is the Drummer — as he says, “First name ‘The,’ second name ‘Drummer.'” Jakita is supernaturally fast, strong, and apparently indestructible. The Drummer senses information flow, whether it be psychic trails, the residue of magic, or whatever leaks out when computers are working. He also manipulates that energy. (Well, I’m calling it “energy” — I can’t think of a better word.) Snow, aside from having the ability to draw the heat out of anything, happens to have been born on January 1, 1900 — along with a number of other remarkable people. There is a mysterious Fourth Man who funds the operations of Planetary.

We are first given a series of short stories, episodes that only gradually begin to fall under an overarching narrative. And it’s all about history, but a particular kind of history — it’s not exactly the history of comics, nor is it really the history of popular culture in the twentieth century. Call it pulp history — not only superheroes, but their predecessors — Tarzan shows up, or a version of him, along with someone who looks suspiciously like Fu Manchu, the inimitable Holmes, Doc Savage, just to name those immediately recognizable. Japanese science fiction movies of the 1950s, ’60’s and ’70s are part of the terrain. Hong Kong action movies. Of course, we can’t leave out the science-fiction B movies — Joss Whedon, in his introduction to The Fourth Man, seems captivated by the giant ants. How about a quantum computer that creates universes that it then destroys as it tests the possibilities? (I wouldn’t be so cruel as to suggest a dig at Marvel’s plethora of alternate universes — or for that matter, DC’s.) What if the inhabitants of those universes object?

And just who the hell is Elijah Snow, anyway? You see, that’s really the story.

I’m only scratching the surface. (Hey, there’s five volumes of it!) If you check back through my accumulated reviews, you’ll discover that I almost never say this, but I’m going to say it this time: Warren Ellis’ script is brilliant. It’s loose, it’s lean, it’s spare, it builds layers of references and associations, and he doesn’t tell you too much. The dialogue is just too wonderful to describe. Did I mention that the members of the field team don’t really get along all that well? Especially Snow and the Drummer, who spend a fair amount of time throwing zingers at each other. Jakita’s not exempt, either. And it’s all very low key, a series of throw-aways. (I was talking to a neighbor about this series and said, “Here, read the first two pages. You’ll see what I mean.” He read the first four pages before he caught himself, and then looked up with a big grin on his face. See what I mean?)

John Cassaday is the reason I wanted to read this series — I wasn’t familiar with Warren Ellis at that point (I’m going to be, trust me on that one), but I remember Cassaday’s art from Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men: Gifted. One of the advantages of artist and writer working together like this is that there’s room in the script for Cassaday take it and run. He doesn’t tell you too much, but he has a tendency to throw in visual asides and byplay that are simply priceless — the introduction of the giant ants is only one example: picture the field team deep in discussion with their latest contact as the helicopter that brought them to their rendesvouz gets sucked under the desert. Nor does the narrative rely on words to progress — the images carry their share. Cassaday also has an enviable gift for catching fleeting expressions — I’ve noted a number of times how various artists produce images that are “expressive” — Cassaday kicks it up a notch. And Laura DePuy Martin, who did the color for almost the entire series, deserves high praise — it’s flawless, never obtrusive, always apt.

There’s a pendant volume to the main narrative, Crossing Worlds, in which the team runs into — or perhaps I mean “has run-ins with” — first, the Authority (“Ruling the World,” art by Phil Jimenez), then the JLA (“Terra Occulta,” art by Jerry Ordway), and finally, Batman — or an amalgam of the history of Batman, all the way from Bob Kane’s original through Adam West’s somewhat camp interpretation to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight (“Night on Earth,” art by John Cassaday). It’s a hoot.

Frankly, if you haven’t read Planetary, you should. In fact, I think I may just settle in and read it again.

Robert M. Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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