Greetings, Maniacs, and welcome to another edition of The No-Fly Zone—Mania.com’s weekly alternative comics column. This week, we’re going to hit on a series that’s been wowing readers for 10 years, but with only 27 issues and a handful of one-shots. Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s Planetary finally concluded a couple of weeks ago. We didn’t review it as soon as #27 came out, because it demands a read-through. Even, then it’s a tough nut to crack. At once brilliant, thrilling, and confusing, Planetary requires a lot of patience. But, you’ll be rewarded in the end with something really special. It’s unlike almost any other superhero comic that’s come out in the past few years. Those that have stuck it out will find the journey worthwhile. Needless to say, there are some spoilers in this week’s NFZ.
Reviewing Planetary presents a lot of challenges. It is difficult to summarize. It is impossible to appreciate the depth and breadth of the series in one reading. Parts of it simply will not fall into place the first time through. The best this reviewer can surmise is that, through the lenses of genre fiction—especially superheroes—Warren Ellis asserts that everything is connected as information. All events and ideas—both real and imagined—are made of information. And, while our dreams are not material in the same sense as, say, your dining room table, they exist in their own right. As all of those things exist on some level, they are available to discover and explore. This makes the job of the artist one of even greater weight and responsibility as a creator of not just stories, but new informational constructs. And, with all of those creations existing on some level—often literally in the world of Planetary—it becomes the job of the titular team to explore the strange world and, in their words, “keep it that way.”
With that, Ellis and artist John Cassaday have taken readers on a genre-hopping comic book opus that pits the Planetary group—self-declared “Archaeologists of the Impossible”—against the villainous Four. The Four are, without a doubt, modeled on Marvel’s Fantastic Four, but their goals are far less noble. They travel between parallel worlds and realities in search of technologies far beyond those on our own world. But, they keep it for themselves, both out of the greediest sort of academic curiosity and simple megalomania. Envious of those few real superhumans living on our Earth, Randall Dowling took his crew to another universe during an early botched attempt to reach the Moon. When his crew returned with special powers, they used them to cross through space to new worlds, hoarding knowledge and technology. In the process, they cut a deal that sold out the planet Earth to another world.
But, there are superhumans that would oppose the Four. Every child born on January 1st, 1900 has special powers and a mission. Elijah Snow is nearly immortal, and can manipulate temperatures. His mission is to save others at all costs. In his personal war with the Four, he recruits Jakita Wagner—daughter of another of his generation, and possessed of super-strength, speed, and invulnerability; the Drummer—an eccentric who can speak to machines; and Ambrose Chase, who can bend the laws of physics at will. At the series’s start, Wagner and the Drummer find Snow living near a diner with his memory altered, where he does nothing but keep to himself and drink coffee. They reveal his past with the Planetary group bit by bit—and the tragic fate of Ambrose Chase. With that, the series begins a genre-hopping odyssey that effortlessly moves between pastiches of Japanese monster movies, American westerns, Victorian science-fiction, and many others. Planetary is, above all, a love letter to the fantastic in art and literature.
The above summary doesn’t do justice to a tenth of the series. There’s so much more to it than that. It makes you want to run up to those that haven’t read it screaming about nanotechnology, fictionauts, the Bleed, and Multiverses. Or, it might make you want to slowly lower an issue, whispering, “What…the…fuck?” But in our opinion, Ellis somehow ties it all together. It occasionally feels like the threads are a bit thin, especially given the delays between issues. Ellis has an unfortunate tendency to start series and then leave them in limbo for months or years. Remember Fell and Desolation Jones? Planetary is probably the most notable victim of this tendency. For all his brilliance, it’s really hard to get into the man’s work when one never knows if the series will even conclude. Remember that the series began in April of 1999. The earliest issues have ads for Nintendo 64 games in them. And, it only concluded its 27 issue run a couple of weeks ago. Anyone reading the series all these years would do well to read it again from the beginning. Ellis introduces scientific concepts, characters, subplots, and alternate universes in rapid-fire succession. It almost collapses under its own weight, but everything ties up in the end. But, it almost seems like Planetary gives the reader a view into Ellis’s imagination without filters or restraint—as if his mind has exploded across the pages for the entire world to experience. Sometimes, it’s almost too much, and the book becomes as confusing in places as it is brilliant in others. Much like Grant Morrison’s epic Seven Soldiers, you can read it through in one sitting and still miss a lot. But, Ellis has a knack for letting his characters provide more concise takes on some of the concepts he introduces. After a block of heady expositional dialogue, another character will chime in with, “In other words, the Four just traveled…” But, the delays plaguing the series have hindered it the most. Planetary simply has to be read through in one sitting. Doing so any other way—much less with months and years between issues—means missing something.
John Cassaday’s art brings a stunning level of accessibility to Planetary that keeps it grounded. For all of Ellis’s brilliance and excess, it always looks like a clean, attractive superhero comic. While that may seem contrary to the series’s more involving themes, it lends a sense of clarity that might otherwise be lacking. Cassaday’s a damn fine artist, and reading the series over the years reveals a gradual refinement in his work. It’s interesting to see some of the conceptual changes that emerge as well. We know that Elijah Snow is an old man from the start, but it’s really only towards the end that Cassaday makes him look the part. It’s good stuff.
Planetary is easily one of the best series of the past ten years, but it’s a lot to chew on. It demands multiple readings and a lot of patience. But, those that give the book the time it needs to unfold will find a rollicking, compelling, and intriguing journey into the fantastic worlds of genre fiction. The 27th issue came out a couple of weeks ago, so drag out your long-boxes and get started again. It’ll be worth it.
You are now exiting The No-Fly Zone.
Kurt Amacker is the writer of The No-Fly Zone, Mania’s weekly alternative comics column. He is also the author of the comic miniseries Dead Souls, published by Seraphemera Books. Dead Souls is available from the Seraphemera Books website, Amazon.com, and at comic shops everywhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.