Planetary: All Over the World and Other Stories, Volume 1 by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday is for the reader who has a nostalgia for the space explorer- and Doc Savage-style pulp fiction along with a love of futuristic and science fiction settings. Three main characters make up the mysterious group called Planetary. Elijah Snow is about 100 years old, looks like a fit 40-50 year-old, can lower the temperature of a room by walking into it (hence his name), and is about as caring as his name suggests. Jakita Wagner takes lead and is physically strong on what seems to be a super-hero level. Drummer, as Jakita tells Snow, is crazy, AND (not because) he talks to machines — really. He seems to require drumsticks to communicate, tapping into energy flows throughout cities and other odd items that we don’t think of as computers but Planetary does. All three talk fast, talk smart, and grudgingly give each other respect. And then there is the fourth man of what to us appears to be only a “trio” (Perhaps a Charlie’s Angels model here?). But nobody knows who he is, at least in Volume One. You’ll have to read the other volumes to find out about this confusing trio/quartet. Apparently the fourth man has an endless supply of money and maintains staffed Planetary offices across the world so that this secret group can get its job done.
And what is Planetary’s job? Snow, Wagner, and Drummer are “mystery archeologists,” attempting to uncover the hidden culture of the twentieth century. Volume 1 suggests they do it to help others and are up against a group who do the exact opposite: The group of bad guys finds secret, buried cultures and technologies only to hoard them and prevent mainstream society from benefitting from the discoveries. However, the heroes of our story are developed visually in such a way that we see the sparks in their eyes as they get a potential lead and the wonder and awe on their faces when they finally make their discoveries. Often these discoveries lead them to uncover Doc Savage-type people who aren’t just characters from pulp stories. Their archeological work suggests there is some truth behind these pulp tales.
I guess that’s what makes Planetary work for me: The use of stories that almost seem familiar to us in stand-alone issues. The subtitle “All Over the World and Other Stories” makes clear the episodic nature of the comic books, and I really enjoy comics that can be read and enjoyed on their own, even if I don’t read all the comics following it. However, there is an over-arching story about the fourth man and Planetary. If you like Volume 1, the other three volumes are essential. The stories in the six comics collected in Volume 1 trace the following familiar territory and make it refreshingly new again: Doc Savage and multiple universes; novelists as cult leaders and the prehistoric period; ghost legends and Hong Kong cops; sentient space ships and cyborgs; a return to the more fleshed out story of Doc Brass, the Doc Savage character; and the presentation of the arch-nemeses. After these six stories, the trade collection includes the original preview story about jealousy and a Hulk-like cautionary tale cut incredibly short. I know the above list sounds like an insane amount of material to cram into a trade, but Ellis pulls it off by placing focus on the three characters solving a new mystery each week. It has a detective story feel to it. They are, after all, MYSTERY archeologists.
As much as these stories mix the pulp tradition content with the detective mystery model for suspense, they also tackle such a large array of “heady” ideas that it’s hard for me to convey them adequately in such a short review. As an early reader of this review pointed out (Thanks again, Andy!), I haven’t touched on all the conspiracy theories that permeate the book (Pynchon, Eco, perhaps even The Illuminatus! Trilogy seem to echo throughout it). Nor have I discussed Elijah Snow’s symbolic role as “living fiction,” since he was born, along with Doc Brass, on January 1, 1900. He is both the embodiment of the 20th century — the twentieth-century personified — and a person who studies that which he represents, thus emphasizing the metahistorical and metafictional aspects of Planetary. Finally, The Drummer is also attached to these larger ontological issues because Ellis doesn’t define The Drummer’s ability as merely one which enables him to communicate with machines. Rather, The Drummer is connected to information systems at all levels, from computers to popular culture to history to theology to the mystical. According to Ellis, almost everything comes under his domain because information has such a broad definition.
If I haven’t convinced you already that this book takes on weighty subject matter, consider that Alan Moore agreed to write the introduction to volume 1 and Joss Whedon agreed to do the same for volume 2. Moore writes, “[Planetary] is at once concerned with everything that comics were and everything that comics could be, all condensed into a perfect jeweled and fractal snowflake.” I like that he describes the metafictional aspect of the comic book by using a small image that, if seen through a microscope, would take on a cosmic appearance, and it is an image that is used by Cassaday multiple times. I like perhaps even better Whedon’s description since it suggests why the greatness of Planetary is so difficult to convey: “[Planetary] haunts me like a dark, low-budget science fiction movie from the fifties, seen on a black and white TV when I was still too young to deal with it.” I think Whedon’s words explain why I keep coming back to this book: I can’t quite get my head around it. It’s like what Haruki Murakami says about his own work: It’s easy to read but difficult to understand. Reading Planetary is easy to read, but you feel as if there’s a ghost dancing in your periphery vision, and he vanishes each time you turn your head.
Visually, too, this book is stunning, conveying well these overwhelming concepts mixed with an accessible style. Warren Ellis has great dialogue, but he usually allows his books breathing room so that the artists have room to focus on images instead of leaving a lot of room for dialogue bubbles. Ellis, as I understand it, coined the term “widescreen comics,” describing well the fast-paced, large-panel pages that are cinematic in their scope compared to the cramped pages of small, over-lapping panels and over-crowded dialogue balloons. John Cassaday certainly leans toward this mode throughout most of Volume 1. So he keeps the pace moving, but he really takes advantage of large, stunning panels, particularly when he has a mystical or magical image he wants to present. Since I’ve read this book about five times in the past year, I’ll have to give it five stars. It may not have the depth of Watchmen, but it has far more depth than most comics you’ll find (See the note on my rating system below). It’s perfect at what it attempts to pull off, solving some mysteries, leaving others to linger. It remains one of my all-time favorite comic books.
As I type this review, Volumes 1-3 seem readily available, but volume 4 might be difficult to get because Amazon has posted that it will ship in 11-12 days. That’s the problem with comic books: Whether you purchase individual issues or trades, unless it’s Watchmen, they all have limited runs and go out of print. Picking up a used copy later on can be pricey. There is a fifth volume collecting three one-shots: “Planetary / The Authority: Ruling the World,” “Planetary / JLA: Terra Occulta,” and “Planetary / Batman: Night on Earth.” These aren’t essential, but if you like the characters in Planetary, these stories are the only other ones in which they are featured (as far as I know). However, at the moment, this fifth volume is out-of-print. The other option is to check out Amazon digital offerings for the Kindle fire and Comixology. If you’ve read my previous essays, you know that I prefer Comixology’s digital reader to Amazon’s. Sample both to see what you prefer.
A Note On My Rating System: Most of the books I review will be in the 4-5 star range because, unlike this site’s aim to be comprehensive in reviewing as many books as possible by as many important fantasy (and many science fiction) writers as possible, I’m reviewing only the best of the best. For example, it’s helpful for you to know what Philip K. Dick’s best and worst novels are and why, but I’ll just skip Brubaker’s weaker comics. What I consider best is based on what I believe a team of artists is attempting to do in a particular comic book. Ed Brubaker’s Captain America, for example, is supposed to be a fast-paced action-packed comic and not a slow-paced, philosophic work like Daytripper. Basically, I’ll try to judge each book on its own merits. I will not compare every comic to Watchmen. Few writers, thankfully, attempt to write a comic book similar to Watchmen, because very few could pull it off and we already have Watchmen. We don’t need another one.
I want to thank my wife, Adriane, for assistance with revisions and my long-time friend Andy for his continuing role as my personal comic book consultant. On this review in particular, Andy gave incredibly useful feedback on my first draft, making sure I did justice to this five-star comic book.