[reprinted from Onder Magazine Issue#1]
Once you get past the beauty of John Cassaday’s art, the thing that strikes you the most on the cover of the first issue of Warren Ellis’ Planetary is the tag-line “Archaeologists of the Impossible.” It’s juicy and tantalizing, pregnant with the promise of great reveals to come once you open the cover.
And great reveals do come. Boy howdy, do they come.
Over the 25 pages of this issue, and during the course of the remaining 26 issues of the series – not counting the cross-over graphic novels and the preview short story – we meet pulp heroes battling invasions from alternate universes, visit an island full of monsters, witness the vengeful ghost of a policeman engaged in John Woo-vian ultraviolence, feel insignificant before the nigh-omnipotence of gazillionaire science-villains and their extra-dimensional masters, and gaze in wonder at the majesty of the multiverse. Ellis throws higher concept after esoteric math after obscure pulp references at us and we shrug and run with them even if they fly 30,000 feet above our heads at Mach 2 because, maybe by the fourth panel of Page 2, maybe by the end of Page 20, or maybe even after the first panel, we have become invested in the mission of the titular Planetary organization – keeping a strange world, strange.
Before we delve into the first issue, and with it, into the weird and wonderful world Ellis has created, let’s put the series in context of the universe it is set in – the WildStorm Universe.
Century Babies and Fascist Superheroes
WildStorm was one of the constituent studios of Image Comics, a collective of artists who started the ‘creator-owned comics’ revolution in 1992. Jim Lee, a superstar artist who’d drawn – and co-written, with Chris Claremont – X-Men #1, the best-selling comic book of all time according to the Guinness Book of World Records, founded the studio to publish his signature title WildC.A.T.S. Other books, sharing the same continuity, followed. And before long, the WildStorm Universe was a living, breathing, comic book universe, populated by quirky characters like Grifter, Voodoo, Zealot, Jackson Dane, and Spartan. There were super-powered beings, warring alien races, androids, vampires and other supernatural creatures, the works.
And then there were the Century Babies.
A creation of Warren Ellis, Century Babies are individuals born on 1 January 1900. They are all extraordinary, possess superhuman strength and scientific genius, and don’t age. Some of them use their powers for evil, most of them are heroes. Century Babies play crucial roles in the WildStorm universe: one of the most important, Jenny Sparks, the Spirit of the 20th Century, goes from being a member of Stormwatch, a UN-sponsored metahuman organization to one of the founders of The Authority, a team of metahumans who protect the WildStorm universe by any means necessary – said means included invading an alternate Earth and wiping out a sizeable chunk of its population. They also overthrew the US government and took over the country when they felt the seating administration failed its citizens. So, definitely not the Justice League, even a tad fascist, and quite ground-breaking at the time.
Lee sold WildStorm to DC in 1998 and the imprint became part of the DC Comics line, along with the DC Universe and Vertigo.
This then is the backdrop against which Planetary plays out – a world of demigods and monsters, of sentient inter-dimensional ships and government conspiracies, a world into which ”hundred years of superhero history [is] just slowly leaking out” as Ellis put it in his proposal.
And speaking of Ellis’s proposal…
The proposal Ellis sent his editors represents his clearest thinking up to that point on the state of superhero fiction and his mastery of pop-culture. It also brings out his soaring imagination and the depth of his vision.
According to Ellis, the current WildStorm Universe existed in a continuum: metahumans had existed throughout history, but no one remembered them anymore. Why should they when they have heroes like Apollo and Midnighter, villains like Kaizen Gamorra, and invasions by alternate universes to occupy their attention? He wanted to bring these forgotten people back into the spotlight, to expose their lives – and deaths – and in the process, explore the superhero genre. To Ellis, Planetary was less about superheroes, more about the tropes of superhero fiction. The excerpt below encapsulates his thinking:
What if there were huge Jack Kirby temples underground built by old gods or new, and ghostly cowboys riding the highways of the West for justice, and superspies in natty suits and 360-degree-vision shades fighting cold wars in the dark, and strange laughing killers kept in old Lovecraftian asylums…
Ellis also wanted Planetary to be fun, with a capital F. He wanted readers shaking their heads in wonder, picking up their jaws from the floor, laughing, forgetting to breathe as they immerse themselves in “the revelations and splendours (sic) and dangers and bastards tied up in it all”.
Did he succeed? If the first issue is any indicator, resoundingly.
Diner, Drummer, and Doctor Brass
The first issue opens with Jakita Wagner tracking down Elijah Snow and asking him to come back to the Planetary organization. Snow agrees when Jakita lists her sweeteners – $1 million per year for the rest of his life, and expunging of the few records remaining of him in the databases of various organizations and governments. The duo goes to the Planetary headquarters. Jakita reveals that the Fourth Man – who could be Hitler or Bill Gates for all she knows – foots the bill for everything.
Snow then asks what happened to the previous Third Man. “Tell you some other time,” says Jakita, “when we’ve worked it out for ourselves.”
Snow then meets the final member of the team – “First name ‘The’ second name ‘Drummer’,” says the wise-ass whose superpower turns out to be that machines obey him.
The trio then embarks on their first mission: exploring a man-made complex in the heart of the Adirondacks Mountains – a complex whose entrance has been ingeniously concealed by a hologram. According to the Drummer, the complex could be the last known destination of Doctor Axel Brass, an adventurer, an inventor, a true-blue Renaissance man, who was born on January 1, 1900 and disappeared on January 1, 1945.
After a few character beats – more on them later – the trio arrives at the complex. They spot mementos from Doctor Brass’s previous adventures – skeleton of the Raven King, hull of the Charnel Ship, vestments of the Black Crow King et cetera. And then – Doctor Axel Brass himself, alive, holding a gun pointed at Jakita and Snow.
He says he eliminated his need for food and sleep in 1942, stopped aging in 1943, and
learned to close wounds with the power of his mind in 1944. He asks Jakita and Snow to listen and understand. And then he tells an extraordinary tale. A tale of a group of adventurers and scientists and men of vision and genius – who are WildStorm Universe’s version of Doc Savage, Fu Manchu, Tarzan, the Spider, Edison, G-8, and Operator 5 – who created a quantum computer that could perform calculations across the multiverse. Which they believed they could use to reshape the world, ending the Second World War, and creating the “best possible world society”.
When they ran the computer, realities sprang to life in multiverse in seconds – which was in the shape of a snowflake of 193,866 dimensions – and died just as quickly. And from one of those dying universes, a super-powered team launched an invasion of this reality, intent on killing everything to make room for their doomed populace. Doctor Brass and his friends fought the invaders and defeated them. But all save the Doctor were killed.
And so he has remained, awake for over 50 years, standing guard over the Snowflake, lest more invasions come through.
As Snow and Jakita supervise the rescue operation, he asks about a mysterious third chopper. Jakita refuses to elaborate.
The issue ends with Snow saying “It’s a strange world,” and Jakita concurring. “Let’s keep it that way.”
Mystery and Hope, Compressed in 25 Pages
The issue is set-up. We meet the three members of the Planetary organization, come to know what it does, and see an instance of it in action.
It also introduces us to the secret history of the WildStorm Universe, foreshadows an amazing plot-point, and, most importantly, tells us the series’ central theme, albeit in a very low-key manner.
An amazing feat to pull off in 25 pages, considering Ellis’ writing style.
But before getting to that, let’s talk about those character beats we hinted at in the previous section.
During the helicopter ride to Brass’s hideout, in the course of a conversation between The Drummer and Snow, we get to know three things: first, Snow is a cranky SOB; second, Jakita Wagner has super-strength; and third, The Drummer is firmly in the “make love, not war” camp. Ellis conveys all these information through a few lines of dialogue. Later, we see Jakita dropping off the helicopter without a parachute; when asked about her motivation by Snow, she says that she gets bored easily and Planetary keeps her from getting bored.
And what about Snow’s own powers? Right on Page 1, the waitress says, “[…] Goddamn air-conditioning always freaks out when yew (sic) come in”. So, Snow’s powers have something to do with temperature.
All crucial bits of information, doled out in small pieces to reel the reader in. The pay-off comes in later issues when we find out that Snow can reduce the temperature of his surroundings and Jakita gets her restless nature and super-strength from her parents Lord Blackstock [the Tarzan of the WildStorm Universe] and a scientist from the Lost City of Opak-re [the stand-in for Wakanda].
This pithiness, this ability to spin a yarn without dragging it down, is known as compression. And Warren Ellis is a champion of its very opposite – decompression.
In today’s terms, decompressed comics are like a Netflix series. Since all episodes are released at once, there’s less pressure on the writer to rush through a story in 22 pages; they can afford to spend more time on key beats and not worry about how to end the book with a cliff-hanger. So, your typical decompressed comic book may have a couple characters spend two pages just talking to each other – something unthinkable in a standard comic that has to recap what happened in the last issue for regular readers; introduce the characters to new readers, and tell a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end.
Decompressed grew with the rise of trade paperbacks or issues of a series collected in one book. While single-issues have little shelf-life, trade paperbacks can, and do, become collectors’ editions. And so the reader is assured of getting the complete story in between two covers, even if the pace is a bit slow between individual pages.
Warren Ellis was one of the earliest champions of the trade paperbacks. And he wrote for the trades. In the article “Planetary and Decompression”, published in the book Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide, Patrick Meaney quotes Ellis, “When I write serials in single now, I’m always writing with the eventual collection in mind.”
Yet, he was pragmatic enough to know that the single-issue comic has not gone away. Meaney writes in his article:
He [Ellis] said, “The single isn’t going away because comic shops are convinced they can’t survive without it.” With the move towards original graphic novel happening slower than anticipated, he began a series of projects tailored towards the singles market.
Planetary was one of these projects. Ellis designed the series like a network TV show: a mystery of the month plus forward movement towards an overarching story arc. And he does a bang-up job throughout. Since we’re reviewing the first issue here, extending the TV show analogy, we can compare this to the pilot episode. Ellis sets up the characters, gives them just the right amount of mysterious air, establishes the team dynamic, and hints at the bigger picture. All in all, a masterful performance from one of the masters of the craft.
Let us now talk about what the issue tells us about the series’ central theme. And come to think of it, what is the central theme of Planetary?
The central theme of Planetary is…saving. Saving people. Saving civilizations. Saving technologies.
As the series progresses, we find the team engaging more and more in rescue missions – from enabling a sentient spaceship to return to its home in another dimension to liberating technologies hoarded by the Four, the series’ Big Bads, to saving the original Third Man Ambrose Chase from a time-loop. Because that’s what Elijah Snow does. He saves. And he’s the leader of Planetary, the Fourth Man, a reveal that comes later in the series.
And in a subtle manner, Ellis communicates this theme to us when the team locates and rescues Doctor Brass. Take away pulp-tastic nature of the hideout and the over-the-top reason for Brass’ voluntary incarceration and you have a “save the individual” story. Even Brass and his compatriots indulge in saving – they save their world from the other-dimensional invaders. And those invaders were also trying to save their own people from certain extinction. Because that’s what heroes do. They save.
None of this is, of course, apparent to all but the most discerning reader. The average reader is simply awe-struck by the gorgeous set-pieces. That snowflake itself is worthy of being framed.
And that is the magic wielded by co-creator and artist John Cassaday and made more extraordinary by Laura Depuy, whom Ellis calls “colorist and computer effects witch/separator”. The covers are very important in Planetary. Ellis wanted the cover of each issue to reflect its contents. Thus, the cover of a story set in Japan should look like the cover of a manga magazine. In this issue, the story is all about introducing the team and showing how bad-ass they can be. So, the cover has the word “Planetary” encompassing a globe thereby informing us of the globe-trotting nature of the series; our three heroes are presented according to their personas – Jakita Wagner, the femme fatale in a cat-suit; Elijah Snow, the cynical bastard aloof from everyone; and The Drummer, the smart-ass giving us a look brimming with arrogance and disdain.
Legacy of Planetary
Planetary remains one of the seminal works of superhero comics in terms of story-telling, structure, art, and design. But it was never central to the WildStorm Universe. Since the team resided in the fringes, nothing they did affected the course of events in the world.
Nevertheless, it remains an integral part of the Universe, able to hold its own against a plethora of very strong titles – WildC.A.T.S. 3.0, 21 Down, Point Blank, and Sleeper, to name a few.
As for its creators, both Ellis and Cassaday have been phenomenally successful. Both have won a number of Eisner Awards and have branched out to other media – novels in the case of Ellis and TV shows in case of Cassaday.
So, is a series like Planetary possible today?
As far as the Big Two are concerned, not likely. They are too focused on events. Every few years, universes get fused, break apart, get reborn, or go through crises. It’s becoming nigh-impossible to keep track of continuity, and the foreground keeps changing. As Ellis put it in his pitch, “without a known foreground, there cannot be an unknown background.” If a Universe gets changed so much so often, it’s not feasible to sustain a series like Planetary. And, WildStorm doesn’t exist anymore: it was folded and some of its characters like Grifter, Apollo, and Midnighter absorbed into the New 52 Continuity in 2010.
On the indie, creator-owned front, however, there may be room. Companies like Image and Dynamite and Avatar give carte-blanche to the creators to do as they please. There’s little or no editorial supervision, no mandate from on high to change things at the last minute and shoe-horn a creator’s vision into a rigid corporate structure. Therefore, creators like Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, and even Ellis himself, have flocked to these companies and producing some of the best work of their career. And these works have the known, stable foreground that makes a series like Planetary possible.
A similar thing seems to be happening in television already. Hit shows like Arrow and The Flash routinely develop backstories of their principal characters– the flashback sequences in Arrow are great examples. Agent Carter bridges the gap between Captain America: The First Avenger and the present-day Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Marvel Netflix shows explore the grim, poverty-ridden ruins of New York City after the Chitauri invasion. Fear the Walking Dead is a straight prequel to Walking Dead. Slowly but surely, these shows are developing their universes in such a way that their present is getting strongly interlocked with their past – their history is now leaking into their young, modern world.
But these things are by no means certain. Vicissitudes of publishing, audience apathy, and sudden shifts in market – a thousand things can derail the creators’ plans. We can only hope for the best.
And read Planetary. The first issue is currently free on Comixology. Download, read it, get your appetite whetted, and buy the other issues – or you can buy the trades. Either way, you’re in for a treat.
- Planetary fan site: http://home.earthlink.net/~rkkman/frames/pageMain.htm
- The section on Planetary on Warren Ellis’ site: http://web.archive.org/web/20000619231700/http://www.warrenellis.com/planetary.htm
- Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide, edited by Cody Walker, available on Amazon, part of Kindle Unlimited.