This column marks the beginning of a new 27 part series exploring Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s Planetary as part of Comics Bulletin’s The Full Run. Together, Chase Magnett and Ray Sonne will be exploring this seminal series together. The first ten columns will run on a weekly basis every Tuesday before switching to a bi-weekly schedule for the second half of the series.
Chase Magnett: It has been just over fifteen years since Planetary #1 debuted on April 27, 1999. Created by writer Warren Ellis and artist John Cassaday, the series was an instant critical and commercial success. Planetary collected multiple Eisner Award nominations throughout its run, along with a devoted fan base that followed the series through many delays. It was one of the most important series published by DC Comics (albeit under its WildStorm imprint) in the modern age of comics.
Planetary has a fine pedigree, which is part of why DC Infinite is hosting a column to discuss each of its twenty-seven issues individually, but it’s more than that. Planetary is a story about stories. Ellis and Cassaday used each issue to simultaneously examine genres and archetypes while crafting a grander story. The comic calls upon readers to evaluate their relationships with stories in a diversity of ways, as well as critique the comic book medium and its history.
Talking about Planetary is talking about comic books as a whole, and we have a lot to say.
Ray Sonne: It is apt to categorize Planetary among Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons as well as many of Grant Morrison’s works, such as Final Crisis. All of these narratives contain very metafictional aspects that directly reference other comic book series and characters. While they are enjoyable as standalone stories, they make a more fulfilling experience after readers learn what elements from comic book history fed into them.
Warren Ellis’ disdain for the superhero genre is no secret, and Planetary often has a cynical take on the genre’s characters and common (some may say tired) story tactics. While Planetary is not quite Watchmen where nearly every character is unlikeable, it leans even less toward the traditional superhero story.
To start the series, Elijah Snow is in a nearly-empty diner in the middle of a desert. A few panels in, his drinking of dog-piss coffee is interrupted by the entrance of Jakita Wagner. Blithely dismissing his threat to kill her, she offers him a position in Planetary, an undercover organization that deals with the weird things that happen in the world. Both Elijah and Jakita are weird things themselves, with Elijah having the power to control cold and Jakita having standard super strength and durability. There’s also the Drummer, which we will learn more about later.
CM: The beginning of Planetary is a strange thing, starting with the cover. I will praise most of Cassaday’s covers for capturing the essence of each issue and relating to the genres they exemplify, but this one doesn’t do that. Rather than commenting on the transition from pulp heroes to superheroes (which we will definitely dig into later), it simply presents the team and could easily be mistaken for the start of just another superhero title. The only thing on the cover that hints at what the story is about is the appearance of the snowflake, which is only understood after reading the issue.
The first half of the story is similar in that regard. As the series progresses, each issue tackles its topics right from the start. Here in Planetary #1, Ellis and Cassaday are required to establish their universe first. The plot and central cast are all explained through quick exposition. Snow and Wagner’s back-and-forth of questions exposes a lot of the series’ central mysteries and the premise of what Planetary is. Ellis writes the dialogue in a believable enough manner, but his writing never attempts to hide that he is walking through mandatory exposition. I get the sense that he squirming in his seat waiting to get to the second half of the issue where he can explore Snow’s first mission with Planetary.
However, the first half does do a great job of establishing a tone for the issue. There are definitely grungy aspects to the story. Like you said, Ray, it starts with Elijah commenting that his coffee tastes like dog pee and the waitress’ response doesn’t exactly deny the plausibility of this. Yet it’s a world that grows very quickly. The first shot of a helicopter landing is a great call back to so many iconic moments, like the landing on Isla Nubar in Jurassic Park. It fills the page with a sense of wonder that doesn’t quit building. Concepts like a one million dollar salary and speaking with machines are cast out and accepted instantly. Despite the initial sense of dreary realism found in the cafe, the world that these characters occupy is quickly shown to be fantastical. The bit that really does it for me is when Jakita Wagner leaps from the helicopter to leave a crater beneath her feet. Cassaday draws her to overlap the panels above and below emphasizing the surprise and drama of this action. When she lands, the world is suddenly a much more interesting place.
Planetary rotates around three characters: Elijah Snow, Jakita Wagner, and The Drummer. It’s very clear who these people are by the end of the first issue — Snow’s sullen attitude, Wagner’s boredom, and Drums’ eccentricity. Ellis’ dialogue and Cassaday’s character designs and facial expressions provide a very clear sense of who these people are and what they may want. What the start of this comic does is to make it clear what the entire series will be about. It crafts an understandable world very quickly, so it can begin to deal with big ideas by the end of Planetary #1. Considering the premise is three super-powered adventurers funded by a mysterious organization traveling the Earth, which contains aspects of almost every fictional genre, and conducting spacetime archaeology…that’s a pretty impressive feat.
As Planetary lands in the Adirondacks, they make a big discovery. What are your thoughts on what they discover beneath the mountain?
RS: I just have to quote this: “The world isn’t black and white, on or off. It’s made of situations that stand in all points between on or off. Shades of gray.” If that doesn’t sum up the ideas of morality in Planetary, I don’t know what does.
The members that make up Doctor Axel Brass’s team are pastiches of pulp heroes Doc Savage, Fu Manchu, Tom Swift, Tarzan, The Spider, G-8, Operator #5, and The Spirit. Almost all of these characters pre-date Superman with their first appearances ranging between 1910 and 1940. If labor unions didn’t exist when some of these characters were invented, I don’t think I want to know what kind of trouble their creators had to put up with from publishers.
Ellis, by the way, is particularly fascinated with this era of comics history, as he recently stated while promoting his upcoming Project Superheroes reboot at Dynamite. This shines through here with all these early 20th century references and more noir-esque atmosphere, which John Cassaday’s pencils and Laura Depuy’s colors beautifully render. What looks even more thrilling is that Multiverse Snowflake, which is what Planetary is all about.
The first individuals to come out of the bridge between universes are pastiches of the Justice League. They go on to murder every single one of Brass’ teammates, a strong metaphor for the superhero genre taking over the comic book medium and squashing the pulp magazines. The chosen year here for this plot point is 1945, the end of World War II. This is interesting, given that pulp magazines were still being published right into the 1950s, but a lot of the archetypes you see here are based on characters from the occult and horror genres. As you know, the 1954 Comic Book Scare wasn’t very kind to that type of literature.
Fun Fact: the appearance of Justice League facsimiles are not unique to Planetary. Another full Justice League pastiche, Stormwatch #0, was Apollo and Midnighter of The Authority’s original team. Versions of the DC Trinity are the protagonists in the Planetary/JLA: Occulta crossover. There’s also The High from The Changers and the owner of posthuman hub Clark’s Bar, both of whom show up in Ellis’ run on Stormwatch.
I always suspected Ellis had a secret penchant for Batman because of the Planetary/Batman crossover, plus Batman is easier to mold into the technological, sci-fi elements that he is comfortable using. But damn, five Supermen? Connecting this back to Ellis’ interest in the Golden Age, it makes sense. Superman singlehandedly brought on a new era of the American comic book, which is the reason why we’re all here today.
Speaking about superhero foundations, something very awesome about Planetary is that it, along with The Authority, helps build the foundation for what becomes the best parts of WildStorm’s continuity. Using the snowflake as a theoretical base, Ellis describes the multiverse. In his version, it is not constrained to 52 universes, but is constantly reproducing. It is sometimes the reason why Planetary must get involved in defending the planet and it shapes the characters’ understanding of their own existence, which is about as meta as Morrison’s general work without the characters turning to stare the reader straight in the face.
CM: I think you bring up a really interesting point with the snowflake. It reveals a world of infinite possibilities, but one of limited realities. Although both the pulp heroes and superheroes found in this issue can exist in the multiverse, they cannot co-exist. They face off and most of them are destroyed leaving only a single one left who cannot even stand. It’s possible to say that one side won, but it’s a hollow victory. There were initially fourteen interesting characters in that cave, but only half of one remains.
So perhaps the idea that they cannot co-exist is merely an illusion. It falls in line with what happened in the world of publishing during the 1940’s, but this could serve as a criticism. Pulp magazines and comics were filled with many genres, but over time and due to various historical influences (like the Comic Book Scare), they just became books about superheroes. That is slowly beginning to change thanks to publishers like Image, Dark Horse, and Dynamite, but the effects of eliminating other genres for one to survive almost crippled the comic medium in the United States, shrinking it to a very niche market. Ellis and Cassaday seem to be pointing out that in a world of endless possibilities, there’s no good to come from limiting one’s scope or dismissing any particular genre, that such a tact only cripples a reader much like Doc Brass.
It’s possible that I’m reading into the ending too much, but I don’t think that’s the case. The final exchange of Planetary #1 seems to bear out this idea too. Elijah and Jakita are left watching the sunrise and commenting on how strange the world is. It’s a clear visual metaphor for a new beginning, a brand new day that is set beside a celebration of what has come before. Planetary is here not to limit the world, but to explore all of its facets. Considering this world is composed of modern literature, it seems like a pretty clear endorsement of variety and diversity in storytelling.
Any last thoughts on Planetary #1? How does that final panel work for you as a thesis statement for the series?
RS: Just like how waking up for the beginning of the story is seen as a cliche most writers must avoid, a sunrise representing a new day has as similar level of cheesiness. But I think Ellis and Cassaday pull this one off. We don’t get many cheesy moments in Planetary,so to end the first issue on a positive note speaks to the rest of the series’ potential along with comic books’ overall potential.
A few panels before this, Brass is wheeled off to recover from the terrible injuries he has sustained for decades. That he is a damaged individual, one that represents a genre, about to be healed infers that the genre is about to be healed. Through Planetary’s celebrations of literary diversity, genre is a success. The series contains a positive outlook for the medium and pointing to genre comics recent successes emphasizes Ellis and Cassaday’s points. There are so many original, experimental series being published right now — a number of them created by Ellis’s own proteges — and because of that, the industry has a level of diversity that it hasn’t seen in decades.
Watchmen, purposefully or not, set off such elements as realism and the antihero across the superhero genre and changed the face of it forever. Planetary may not be the sole catalyst, but it was surely part of a movement to bring fresh stories into the comic book medium.
– These pieces are taking some formatting cues from the reviews at The Onion A.V. Club. It’s a great way to examine stories and a fine source for criticism and analysis. I’d just like to thank the writers there for setting a fine precedent.
– Planetary is filled with all sorts of fun details illustrated by Cassaday. The trophy displays in this issue are great, especially with names like “The Murder Colonels”. I want to read a story about The Murder Colonels.
– The Shadow kills The Batman in this comic. I find that to be an incredibly sly comment on behalf of the creative team, considering Batman’s earliest appearances are obviously replicating the appeal of The Shadow. The latter became more popular, but the original gets a little revenge here.
– It’s interesting how the multiverse is represented as a snowflake while the main protagonist’s name is Elijah Snow. With his involvement in the Planetary organization and his cold-controlling powers, this is likely meant to infer that he is the symbolic gatekeeper of the Multiverse, or at least his tiny portion of it.
– Look out for that Superman pastiche in later issues. Ellis and Cassaday were clearly planning ahead from the very beginning. The symbol on the character’s torso, angular and unfriendly, is quite a good design on Cassaday’s part. I would love to know his thought process as he designed these characters.
– Taking a closer look at that last panel, Laura Depuy’s coloring is fabulous. If there’s any colorist DC should start giving royalties and cover credit to in order to lure them back from Marvel, it ought to be her.