Planetary Book Two (2018)
Reprints Planetary #15-27, Planetary/JLA, and Planetary/Batman
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by John Cassaday (with Jerry Ordway)
While Planetary Book One was all about building & cultivating the mystery, this second volume hits the ground running with revelations. By the end of this collection, we’ll have the origins for all three main characters plus the full explanation for what The Four are up to. The best thing about the vast scope of the story being told here is that writer Warren Ellis can bring it to a very personal focus. Elijah Snow’s primary goal is not to defeat the Four but to bring back his friend Ambrose Chase. Defeating happens to be part of his quest, but his goal is to save a friend. Ellis grounds this by having Snow visit the home of Pierce’s widow, and he meets their child.
In modern superhero cinema, the stakes are often “save the world from X.” This often leads to things like the cliche blue light shooting into the sky trope, and the audience becomes lost in the chaos of Sturm und Drang. Ellis essentially gave the superhero movie screenwriters of today a perfect template on how to tell human-centered epic & fantastic stories. He also moves away from the “monster-of-the-week” format of the first volume and reveals that all those previous issues were laying the groundwork for an episodic story.
The audience is let in on the people behind the Four, and we get a sense of what their experiences in the early 1960s did to them. There is a visually stunning issue (#19) titled “Mystery in Space,” which starts with a large cylindrical object drifting through space towards the Earth. Planetary has been holding what they call “angels” in captivity since the end of the Second World War. These alien beings fell to Earth in an event that sounds like the Roswell incident, and Snow theorizes they were sent by a more advanced race to gather information about the Milky Way. As the crew takes in the discoveries on this strange new world, The Drummer suddenly has a breakthrough about the nature of the multiverse. He explains that realities are stacked like hard drives and that Snow, as well as the other Millenium babies, are part of the multiverse’s security system. In other words, superheroes are created by reality as a safety mechanism against the multiverse’s destruction.
The rest of the issue is told through the eyes of the Angels as they enter the object and discover a host of strange things inside. The interior is forested, with an active ecosystem where life has evolved. They discover a throne the size of Manhattan, it’s occupant is found miles away, dead on the ground. In the time that has passed, the creature’s body has become a part of the landscape, a place of survival, and a religious object. Hunter-gatherers trek across a fingernail. A pride of animals feasts on a single pinky finger. Its foot has become a shelter to a village. Even one of its nipples appears to be the spot of cult suicide, skeletons bowing before the body part. All of this is communicated through images, the crew of Planetary is too stunned to speak as they survey this monolith. What we are seeing is a brilliant re-imagining of Galactus from the Fantastic Four comics.
Further issues spend time elaborating on The Bleed, a space between universes that Ellis helped develop in the 1990s/2000s at Wildstorm and has come back to in the pages of his recent revival The Wild Storm. We get the origin story of William Leather, the Four’s version of Johnny Storm. In the world of Planetary, Leather is the grandson of a Lone Ranger analog and the son of a variation of the pulp hero The Shadow. William has failed to make a name for himself, became a drunk & a loser, which is how Randall Dowling can bring him into the program in the 1960s. The origin of this Lone Ranger-alike even ties back into the stacked hard drives of the multiverse system theory that The Drummer develops. He was inspired to create this idea after an encounter with ghosts in Hong Kong way back in the early issues.
The big finale of Planetary is one of those you can say completely sticks the landing, wraps up all the loose ends, and takes the series out on a fantastic note. Ellis addresses the important cosmic questions but makes sure those are taken care of before the final issue. Instead, he allows the conclusion to center itself on Snow’s quest to save Ambrose Chase. The way the collection is designed, we get two oversized stories for the actual ending. The first is Planetary/JLA, which is an Elseworlds story that puts Superman, Batman, & Wonder Woman in the world of these antiheroes. It’s okay, but definitely not anything that can live up to how good the core series was. The very last story we get is Planetary/Batman, which brings us the Gotham City of the Wildstorm Universe. A fugitive is on the loose who can create reality bubbles around him, accessing parallel universes. The fun here is watching Batman affected by the ripples causing him to become the 1960s Adam West version, the gritty Frank Miller Dark Knight, among others. If you have never read Planetary or don’t even read that many comics, I highly recommend this two-volume collection. I consider it up there with Watchmen as a powerful commentary on imagined universes and a critical examination of genres.