Planetary Book One
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by John Cassaday
This was the first comic book work from Warren Ellis I was ever exposed to, but at the time, I wasn’t able to keep up with the series. However, what I did read was so powerful it has resonated with me for 20 years, and I decided it was time to go back to Planetary and read the series in its entirety. The dominant pervading feeling you get from the opening issues of Planetary is Mystery. The protagonist is shrouded in mystery, and the world as it unfolds one chapter at a time is mysterious and wondrous. This is a place where superheroes, monsters, aliens, and everything fantastical exists, but it has left a dark toll on humanity.
Planetary is a global organization that calls themselves “Archaeologists of the Impossible” with the goal of uncovering the secret history of the world. The group is funded by an unseen Fourth Man, but the face is primarily Jakita Wagner and The Drummer. In the opening pages of the first issue, Wagner recruits Elijah Snow, a Millennium baby, one of a select few humans born on January 1, 1900, that were imbued by the planet with extraordinary powers. As the series unfolds, we learn bits and pieces about the history of Planetary, and by the end of this volume, the identity of the Fourth Man is revealed. In the meantime, Warren Ellis uses his premise to explore comic book/fantasy/science fiction tropes from a critical viewpoint.
The first issue of Planetary is probably one of the best tone-setting comics I’ve ever read. In its pages, we get the recruiting of Elijah Snow as well as his first case that takes the team to a strange lair hidden away in the Adirondack Mountains. Ellis almost begins our journey with a chronological start point for superhero comics, a visit with one of the pulp heroes of the Wildstorm universe. Planetary finds Axel Brass, an analog for the classic Doc Savage character, himself an inspiration for a long line of super-intelligent & strong masked heroes (see Batman, Reed Richards, Iron Man, etc.). Brass has spent the past fifty-plus years guardian the Snowflake a rift in space-time he and his cohorts of the era created as a means to reach out across the Multiverse.
Ellis immediately plants the seeds of pre-history to his world, populating it with obvious nods to classic pulp characters like Tarzan, The Shadow, and Fu Manchu, to name a few. He also lets us know his major thesis statement that unchecked power in the hands of so many will lead to disaster through the appearance of another universe’s superhero team. They happen to bear a striking resemblance to DC’s Justice League. Axel Brass learns firsthand that his leaps in science have opened the door to dangerous things and he sacrifices his life to hold the evil back, that is until Planetary come and relieve him. This could be a one and down, throwaway issue, but everything in issue one is planting the seeds of what is to come. Not only will Axel Brass become a crucial recurring character and someone Elijah bounces ideas off of, the background supporting players in flashbacks become core parts of Planetary’s mythology.
This is followed by one-off stories that take on the Toho Godzilla canon, John Woo movies, the Shazam character, and pulp short stories. All of it seems isolated, but as you get into the second volume, the threads come together. Issue six signals the first significant shift in the series with the introduction of The Four. This team of antagonists is obviously based on the Fantastic Four but with Ellis’ trademark dark twists. Instead of optimistic all-American scientists, these people are the result of experiments done by former Nazi scientists forced to work in the United States. The Four is also not a public-facing entity, preferring to operate with distance from mankind. Ellis amps up the mystery and horror factor here by keeping the villains in the shadows, only allowing the audience to get to know William Leather, the twisted take on Johnny Storm.
The most haunting issue in this first collection is chapter 9, “Planet Fiction.” This is a flashback to before Elijah joined where we meet his predecessor Ambrose Chase. Planetary investigates an experiment that involved bridging the gap between reality and fiction, allowing a vessel with three astronauts to enter an utterly fictional reality. The problem is that sensors show a fourth being on their ship when it returns. The issue as a standalone piece is unsettling and creepy, but when seen through the lens, the entire series may be the most critical piece of Planetary. I’ll wrap up my look at this series next week with a review of Book Two.