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Planetary!

November 11th, 2009

With the release of the long, long, looooong-awaited (the last issue was published in 2006!!) 27th and final issue of Warren Ellis and John Cassiday’s comic book series Planetary last month, I took the opportunity to re-read the entire series from start to finish.  This only renewed my long-held love for and admiration of this brilliant series, one of the best comic book works I have read in the last decade.

Elijah Snow, Jakita Wagner, and the young man known only as “the drummer” make up the field team of an enigmatic world-wide organization known as Planetary.  They are the “archaeologists of the unknown,” traveling the globe to uncover the secret history of the world.

In each issue (at least at the start of the series, before an even more fascinating larger story came into play), Elijah and his team would investigate different bizarre phenomena.  The core idea behind this series — and its brilliant hook — is that the phenomena that Planetary was investigating were Ellis and Cassaday’s versions of familiar sci-fi, adventure, and fantasy creatures from movies, TV shows, and comic books.  An enormous part of the fun of those early issues was in paying close attention to the clues in the artwork and dialogue to try to figure out just who or what Ellis and Cassaday were referencing each time.

In issue #2 (an issue which, by the way, boasts what is almost certainly the greatest opening line I have ever read in a comic book), the Planetary team investigate “Island Zero,” a small island on the far north-western tip of the Japanese archipelago, on which are found the skeletal remains of numerous enormously large, bizarre creatures.  (Yep, it’s Godzilla, Mothra, and other monsters from those films!)  Issues #1 and #5 delve into the 1950’s adventures of bronze-hued super-intelligent superhuman adventurer Doc. Brass (who canny readers will note bears a remarkable similarity to Doc. Savage!).  Issue #6 covers the truth behind the spaceflight in which four adventurers were gifted with fantastic powers (sounds a whole like Marvel Comics’ FF to me!).  Then there is my favorite issue of the series, #11, in which the Planetary team learns of three super-powered visitors to Earth: a baby rocketed through space from a doomed planet, a member of an intergalactic police-force powered by lanterns, and the emissary from a secret island of Amazons.  If those descriptions remind you of three of DC Comics’ core pantheon of heroes, then good for you — except that here in Planetary, those three adventurers met most unfortunate ends.

As in 100 Bullets (the fantastic crime series by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso which I recently reviewed), Planetary probably could have coasted through to the finish based purely on the power of that original “hook” to its stand-alone stories.  But as with that series, the stand-alone tales in Planetary gradually made way for a much-more epic, continuing story that makes up most of the series’ second half.  I won’t spoil the details here — suffice to say that the Planetary team find themselves facing a group whose aims run quite contrary to their own, and the century-long past of the mysteriously long-lived Elijah comes to the fore.

This series is absolutely magnificent.  Mr. Ellis’s scripts are endlessly clever — packed full-to-overflowing with astounding ideas and references to everything from super-hero comics from the 1960’s to today’s most cutting-edge scientific theories.  Ellis knows when to pile on the exposition (in which his characters spill forth in a wonderful torrent of words that can be pored over, again and again, by the reader to try to suss out all the levels of meaning), and when to let the action unfold, for pages at a time, in total silence, carried along by Mr. Cassaday’s magnificent art.  Cassaday is an artistic genius, and I bow before his planet-sized talent.  He can pack more detail into a single tiny panel than any artist since Dave Gibbons (of Watchmen fame), and yet he’s not above giving one of his characters an occasionally cartoonishly simplified expression.  The man can also, apparently, draw just about anything.  This is quite a critical ability when working on a series such as this in which he is called upon to depict locales as diverse as the streets of Hong Kong, the Australian outback, African jungles, Frankenstein’s castle, or Sherlock Holmes’ study from issue to issue.  The man is an artistic giant.  (I also praised his exemplary work in my review of his collaboration with Joss Whedon on Astonishing X-Men from a few years back.)

Each issue of Planetary is a wonderfully complete little gem all its own.  What struck me as I was re-reading the series all at once (as opposed to reading it issue by issue as it was published, with months if not years passing between issues due to the series’, er, somewhat erratic publishing schedule since it launched back in 1999) was how well the issues fit together into the remarkably intricate over-all story that Ellis was crafting.  Each issue is a small piece of a much-larger puzzle (an idea made literal in the cover image of the series’ penultimate issue, #26) and I was very surprised and pleased by the way that ideas set up in the first handful of issues paid off in the final handful of issues.

Planetary is a true masterpiece, and not to be missed.  If you’ve never sampled the series, start with the first collection All Over The World and Other Stories (there are four volumes that collect the entire series, plus a fifth volume that collects three stand-alone crossover specials).  I guarantee you that you’ll be hooked.

So what did I think of the final issue, #27, that was FINALLY released last month??  Check back on Friday to find out!

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