For those of you who haven’t been reading ‘Planetary’, please stop reading this article, and throw away all your comics. You clearly have no taste. Your collection must be crap. ‘Planetary’ is not only one of the greatest comic series ever made, it is the last word in comics and pop culture.
On the surface, ‘Planetary’ is about an organization dedicated to exploring and exposing the bizarre secrets of the world. All the monsters, superhumans, ghosts, aliens, and events that no one else knows about are its business. The Planetary organization is lead by its founder, Elijah Snow. He’s over 100 years old, can create intense cold, and is cranky as hell. He also visits every new discovery with Jakita Wagner, a woman stronger, faster, and less patient than anyone else on Earth, and Drums, a madman ho can talk to machines more easily than people. They’re learning just how strange the world can be and trying to keep it that way.
On a deeper level, ‘Planetary’ is the ultimate positive deconstruction of comic book culture. For the past 20 issues, Ellis and Cassaday have presented their own takes on The Hulk, Godzilla, pre-comic book pulp heroes, Captain Marvel, the multiverse, James Bond, and the Fantastic Four. Ellis takes these familiar characters and plot devices and shows us why they’re strange; why they became popular; why they endure; why they’re a part of our collective culture. We’ve lived with these stories and characters for so long, we take them for granted. The power they once had to inspire wonder and excitement had faded. Ellis breaks them down to their core, to their most basic essence, and reminds us why they were, and are, so amazing.
Usually deconstructive comic books break down a character and concepts to demonstrate the inherent flaws in the idea. They show why the fantasy cannot work in the real world, (‘Watchmen’ being the best example). ‘Planetary’ does the opposite. It takes a story, strips it to its core, and shows us why it’s a great story! Ellis and Cassaday remind us of the power of stories-To fill us with wonder and fear; to shake our dreams with visions of mighty men and deadly monsters. ‘Planetary’ presents the big, mind-bending ideas at the heart of stories so common, they’ve become cliché.
One cliché that ‘Planetary’ cannot escape is the arch-enemy. Where Snow is dedicated to exposing the secret beauty of the world, The Four are trying to hide it. The Four are best described as the evil Fantastic Four. They are four astronauts caught in an unknown reality event in 1961 that gave them superpowers. Since then, The Four have secretly been trying to keep the world mediocre. They’ve stolen and hidden technology. They’ve killed aliens and ambassadors from more advanced worlds. They’ve visited other dimensions and conquered them just because they could. As one member put it, “We’re adventurers, my crewmates and I. On the human adventure. And you can’t al come along.” The Four are everything Snow hates. They do everything he’s fought against. He will kill them all because to let them live would be as evil as they.
Issue #20 is the second half of a 2-part story, which is unusual for the series. Until now, ‘Planetary’ has always been a series of individual stand-alone stories. They’re part of the larger “superstory” but you could read a single issue without needing to read others. Last issue, an unusual object entered the solar system. Snow sends out three aliens he’s held in captivity to explore it. These aliens absorb and transmit information the way we breathe. They find an entire world inside the mammoth object. The interior houses as much land and water as a planet. Life has evolved, and continues to evolve inside. Cro-magnons live at one end, with simple Homo sapiens living at the other. Bizarre animals thrive all over. And in the center, bigger than a mountain, lies the grey body of a giant. What it was and where it came from will always remain a mystery.
Marvelites will recognize the inspiration from Galactus and his Worldship. Here, it truly is a “world ship”. Lee and Kirby’s original intent with Galactus was to create a cosmic entity so powerful, so awe-inspiring, he would be like God. Here, Ellis and Cassaday succeed in that intent, thanks to Cassaday’s sophisticated artwork, Laura Martin’s coloring, and Ellis’ unlimited imagination.
The ship is sure to attract The Four. Snow expects them to send Jacob Greene to investigate. Greene was turned into an indestructible behemoth in the “event”. No longer human, he is never seen in public. The Four only use him as “inexhaustible cannon fodder”. Greene does arrive, looking more like an inhuman thing than Ben Grimm ever did.
Then Snow does something no one expected; something so shocking and so terrible that Jakita wonders if Snow’s the same man he used to be.
Just when you thought you knew where you stood with the characters, Ellis knocks you in the side of the head. I’ve read every issue of the series twice and I didn’t see this coming. The fight between Snow and the Four is sure to be a bloody battle.
And there’s more to the story.
Elijah Snow was persuaded to join Planetary because they knew he’d look for answers where you’d think none could be. Because he’d go out on a limb to achieve their aims. Because he’s been around, seen it all, and knows how to plan for every contingency. He’s also one ruthless son of a bitch.
Jacob Greene is one of The Four, an unkillable, unstoppable, undefeatable man-machine.
Put the two figuratively together head-to-head, and it’s brains vs. brawn, it’s intelligent vs dumb strength, it’s David and Goliath, where David has one heck of a pebble up his sleeve.
For people reading this in trades, I envy you. You get none of the agonising wait between issues (#21 due out in October), you get to see Cassaday’s lush artwork in huge chunks….coming soon is Absolute Planetary, an oversized HC of the first twelve issues, an essential purchase for even people who’ve been buying the trades. But if you have been buying the trades, you’ll have the latest one taking you up to issue eighteen – how have you managed to stop yourself from buying issues 19 and now 20 to get up to date?
Excellent work by all concerned – this is Warren Ellis’s best work of his career. Unmissable.
There is no better incentive to enjoy back issues of Planetary than the release of a new issue of Planetary. Where this comic will fit into the annals of comic book classics remains to be seen. For the time being, it’s classic right now.
This is part two of a tale that began almost five months ago, so it’s almost mandatory to go back and read Planetary #19 to re-familiarize yourself with Warren Ellis’ story. In #20, one member of an alternative-universe-Fantastic-Four-gone-bad has found his way into an immense alien spacecraft. This character is not there in peace. He’s out to kill, and does so quite graphically. Elijah Snow, leader of Planetary, is intent on getting this Thing-like monstrosity out of the way, even at a tremendously tragic cost to the alien spacecraft.
John Cassaday’s artwork is simply mesmerizing as we watch winged angels Snow has sent to record the inter
ior of the spacecraft move from unique section to unique section of the huge vessel. (Angels? you ask. You really have to start with #19.) There are wonderful alien landscapes (one so alien it’s impossible for me to describe) and dramatic sequences throughout the issue.
I read “Rendezvous” the first time and thought, “Gee, that was a quick read.” Then I read it again and thought, “Boy, there’s a lot going on here.” Then I went through it page by page and enjoyed the artwork alone. Then I started reading it backwards. Then I read it from start to finish again. Then I started pulling out the back issues and began reading them. I’ll be reading issues of Planetary all weekend. Come Monday I’ll be anticipating the next issue, and we all know how long that anticipation is going to be!
Planetary made its reputation on the incredible pastiches it made of old action heroes and movies. We saw versions of Doc Savage, Godzilla, the Fantastic Four and Hong Kong action movies. There was also a complex underpinning of a deeper plot and view of the universe that tied the issues together and made then uniquely satisfying when read collectively.
Issue 20 is a payoff to many of the underpinnings of the story. It’s really a pretty baffling story when read on its own, but when read with footnotes or after reading previous issues, this is a very powerful issue. Warren Ellis rewards long-time readers with some interesting surprises and twists, and artist John Cassaday brings some stunning work.
If you haven’t read the comic, wait for the trade. If you’re a fan, this is a must have.