Having just written a review of Volume 1 of Planetary by Warren Ellis, I didn’t think I’d feel any need to write a review of Volume 2; however, I just finished reading Planetary: The Fourth Man, Volume 2 again and feel that it certainly deserves a review of its own. Please read my first review to get a full picture of the complex nature of this profound yet quickly-paced comic book. To summarize briefly, the title refers to a three-person team of mystery archeologists who attempt to uncover the secret history of the twentieth century. That secret history ranges from popular culture to haunted cities to mad scientists to conspiracy theorists of all types to space exploration and to alien cultures.
The team consists of Jakita Wagner, who has superhuman powers and seems to take lead position in the group; The Drummer, who understands all communication systems in the broadest sense from computers to cities to the planet itself; and the mysterious and most recent recruit, Elijah Snow, who, born on January, 1, 1900, seems to represent the very century the Planetary team is interested in studying. He has the ability to make the air cooler or even turn anything around him into ice. In this trade collection we see him smash to pieces everything from a table to a villain he has frozen solid.
In a comic book, of course, images are key, and the appearance of the three main characters does tell us something about their relationships to one another. Elijah’s extremely white hair and white suit are contrasted with Jakita’s black, tight-fitting wardrobe and black hair. They seem to be the two dynamic poles in this trio. The Drummer is odd-man-out and his look reflects that status: He is always dressed in a plain, solid-colored jacket or hoodie (heavy or light depending on weather) over a plain, solid-colored shirt. Both the jacket and shirt can vary from orange to green to purple. Jakita and Elijah are well-groomed, but The Drummer has long, shaggy brown hair and a poorly kept goatee. They keep him around almost as they would a pet, never asking his advice but finding him amusing when not a nuisance. He’s only there because he’s good at what he does and discovers hidden communication and knowledge when asked to do so.
And did I mention the fourth man, the man referred to in the subtitle of this trade collection? And what about the mysterious villains Planetary battles? As I said in the last review, one of the reasons I like Planetary is that each comic is written as a wonderful stand-alone story. However, there are two main mysteries: 1) Who is the fourth man of the Planetary group, the ultimate leader, financial backer, and invisible presence of the team? 2) What is the nature of the team that acts as Planetary’s enemy? How powerful are they, who exactly are they, what are their goals, and what are their motivations? These two sets of mysteries create the overarching suspense that connects all 27 issues of Planetary (collected in four volumes). Volume 1 consisted of an excellent introduction by the clearly impressed Alan Moore (and he’s a hard man to impress), the first six issues of the series, and the introductory story that was used to spark interest in Planetary before it was published regularly as a monthly comic (that did fall frustratingly behind schedule). Volume 2 consists of issues seven through twelve and has a great introduction by Joss Whedon, creator and writer of the brilliant television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse. He also recently wrote and directed a little-known, low-budget Marvel film. The best part of Volume 2 is that not only is it as good as Volume 1, it’s probably better.
I think it’s better for a few reasons. First, it’s better because it answers a question that’s been building since issue #1: We find out who the fourth man is, hence the subtitle of the book. That might not sound very exciting if you haven’t read Volume 1, but if you have, it’s great news. And the way Ellis leads to the reveal makes the most of the suspense without over-delaying the delivery of this key moment. So many television shows and comic book series seem to think so highly of a single point of suspense that they can go years without a resolving that suspense. It’s almost like somebody (maybe the writers themselves?) don’t have enough faith that new suspense points can be created to keep audiences tuned-in or readers subscribing to a monthly comic. Ellis can write, and he knows it. And his readers know it. If he gets us hooked with a bit of suspense and resolves it, he knows he can build more suspense. So, in twelve issues we find out who that fourth man is. And the result? The comic kicks into higher gear and the suspense is now even greater: What will the fourth man do with the knowledge he has (and we as readers now have)?
The second reason I think this trade might be better is because of issue #10: “Magic & Loss.” This issue is so good, it’s worth the entry price alone in my opinion. And let me explain why. Alan Moore required Watchmen in its entirety to provide commentary on DC’s universe of superheroes; Ellis does it with a single issue. Once again, as I must say in all my qualifications in my reviews when using Watchmen as a comparison point (which I will often do), I still hold Watchmen with the highest regard and don’t mean to say this trade collection surpasses Watchmen in its entirety. Rather, Ellis shows that he’s on the level of Moore in that he can accomplish as much as Moore can in a single issue of a comic. And just like Moore (and Grant Morrison, another “BIG IDEA” man in comics), he can walk across the room and discard metaphysical concepts onto the floor that would be worthy of another comic book writer’s greatest work of a lifetime.
But back to Issue #10: What makes “Magic & Loss” so good? First, let me explain how impossible it should be for him to fit what I’ll discuss in the next paragraph into such a small space, much like the heady concepts John Donne manages to fit into his metaphysical sonnets: Issue #10 is 23 pages long (including the cover). Six of those pages have no words (other than credits and title). Of the remain 17 pages remaining, 4 pages have seven words or fewer on them. One more page has only thirteen words on it. Twelve pages are left with substantial dialogue. I give this description to show that the idea of the “widescreen comic” I mentioned in the previous review is being used here as well: Large panels and minimal dialogue take precedent over cramped pages with small, overlapping panels and images taken over by word-balloons with a full-to-bursting appearance. Ellis is a man who gives his artists — in this case John Cassaday — room to tell the story along with him instead of forcing his artist-partner to work around his words.
In Issue 10, he manages to take on the DC myths of Superman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman. In. One. Issue. Wow. And THEN Ellis takes those stories and the central concepts behind them and fits them into his own story about Planetary. Let me say that again: He comments on three major DC characters AND incorporates them into his own story. He’s not borrowing the characters because he can’t come up with his own; he borrows them because he has very specific ideas about those characters that he wants to express in his own comic. The Superman character is a baby shot from a dying planet that did not heed the warnings of the father-scientist who talked about the self-destructive nature of his planet’s technology; the Green Lantern character is part of a coalition of space police whose guiding light and symbol is a blue lantern; and the Wonder Woman character comes from a hidden women-only island and will be an ambassador to our world with its warlike mentality and phallic-shaped rockets. Ellis and Cassaday are so good at storytelling, you could understand these characters and their backgrounds even if you had never heard of Superman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman. They are that good. Planetary, of course, gets involved. And so do their arch-nemeses. I won’t tell you who gets there first. I won’t tell you what happens. But I want to! You’ll have to read it yourself.
I just spent three paragraphs writing about one issue out of six in Volume 2 of Planetary. You can imagine that I’m more than willing to give five stars to this volume. But what about the other five issues collected in this trade? The first issue deals with the death of an old friend of Jakita’s and gives us a peek into the super-powered people inhabiting the underground of which Planetary is a part. This first issue also makes visual reference to journalist Spider Jerusalem, the main character of what many people consider Ellis’s masterpiece: Transmetropolitan. I’ll write a review of that series eventually, but basically it is a very political one about a Hunter S. Thompson-like character in a near future, hinting, of course, what ours might look like if we continue down our current path to environmental and political doomsday (according to the beyond-liberal Ellis, of course).
Here’s a brief run-down of the remaining issues: The second issue deals with the cold war, mad scientists, and horrific human experimentation. As awful as that one-sentence description sounds, Ellis gives it a needed touch of humanity. The third issue adds suspense about team Planetary because we go back a few years to see Jakita and The Drummer with a third member of their team who is named Ambrose Chase. We don’t know where Elijah is, but visually we are teased by the fact that Ambrose is dressed in white like Elijah and vanishes into thin air at the end of that issue. What was that all about? Perhaps in another issue we’ll find out. Issue eleven tells a story of a younger Elijah Snow, including his meeting with Sherlock Holmes. There are revelations in the final issue of this trade and declarations of war are made. And if I haven’t described something that makes you want to read this book, I am at a complete loss.
Read this volume and the one preceding it. You won’t read them just once. And you won’t be happy until you read the other trades. And also, like me, you won’t be able to rest until you tell as many other people as you can about Planetary. Spread the word. There’s much to discover out there in the world. Much that we don’t yet know. I’m just glad to know that Planetary is on the case.