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Planetary Book 1: All Over the World and Other Stories. Written by Warren Ellis. Illustrated by John Cassaday. New York: DC Comics, 2000. 1v. (unpaged). $24.95; $14.95pa. ISBN 1-56389-777-6; 1-56389-648-6pa.

Planetary Book 2: The Fourth Man. Written by Warren Ellis. Illustrated by John Cassaday. New York: DC Comics, 2001. 1v. (unpaged). $24.95. ISBN 1-56389-776-8.

Superheroes; science fiction; popular culture (sort of)

Adults, teens, older kids; violence, horror imagery, some gore, mild language

NOTE: Book 1 collects Planetary issues #1-6 and Planetary preview; book 2 collects issues #7-12.

Planetary is an "archaeological" organization dedicated to digging up the secret history of the Earth. Note that this isn't our Earth but a kind of warped mirror image of a superhero/sci-fi/pulp fiction Earth. Planetary, which comes with not a few secrets of its own, is run and funded by the mysterious Fourth Man. The stories open with Jakita Wagner, a self-confident and extremely strong woman, recruiting Elijah Snow, a crotchety, slowly-aging centenarian with cold powers, to be the Third Man in their little investigative team. The other member of the team is The Drummer, a hippie-type flake who can read and interpret all kinds of data flows, including magic. They investigate such things as:

  • A hidden cave in the Adirondacks that contains a supercomputer and one of the men who helped create it--Doc Brass, who has waited, crippled, unaging, unsleeping, unhungry, since 1945 for the good guys to discover him and take control of the computer;
  • An island briefly inhabited by giant monsters that are now all dead;
  • A ghost policeman in Hong Kong out to get vengeance on his murderer;
  • A destroyed skyscraper with a lonely alien spaceship underneath it, looking for a new crew;
  • The death of Jack Carter, a mystical Londoner;
  • The ruins of U.S. Science City Zero, a secret place where scientists experimented on dissidents, ostensibly to combat the Red Menace but really just to test the limits of the human body.

But Planetary is hot and heavy into quite a bit of considerably dangerous secret stuff, some of which is already known to Elijah Snow. He has some shared history with Doc Brass, who led a team of heroes who fought strange, secret wars in the years before World War II. The Hark Corporation, run by the daughter of one of these heroes (a villain-turned-hero, actually), has roots everywhere. And overshadowing everything are the Four, a set of secret astronauts who went up in 1961 and came back.... "not entirely human."

As Elijah Snow and his companions dig deeper into the secrets of the world, Elijah's own memory loss becomes more and more troublesome to him. Why can he remember some things and not others? Who benefits from his lack of memory--and what do his teammates know that he doesn't? And who is the Fourth Man? By the end of Book 2 we have a few of these crucial answers, which, of course, only bring up more questions.

This is one of the best mainstream comics I've read in a long, long time. Ellis has taken practically every well-known bit of superhero lore, sci-fi lore (movie monsters, mad scientists, etc.), and pulp fiction lore and put it all together in a dark, disturbing, twisted, logical, rather plausible, and utterly fascinating way. Familiar origin stories become nightmares. For example, the well-known origin story of the Hulk becomes a frightening and pathetic tale of a man who, caught in the blast of a bomb designed to reshape reality, either shaped himself to survive it or was shaped by it into a horrific creature. It took the army 24 days to contain the creature, and then they dropped it into a pit and buried it alive.... it died after more than 20 years down there. Or the Four, a warped and evil reflection of the Fantastic Four--completely amoral and bored, playing games with humanity. Or Science City Zero, which ruthlessly created all kinds of beings straight out of our cheesy 1950s sci-fi movies--except that these beings are largely helpless, tormented victims. And the fates of the parallel Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern... well, let's just say that the Four are jealous beings.

Some of the title's conceits are original concepts, however. The snowflake, for example: the representation of the multiverse, it plays an enormous part in what goes on and appears in most of the stories.

Against this absorbing background is an equally absorbing story with lots of interconnected mysteries that I'm just dying to see resolved, or at least partially resolved. It helps that we care about at least two of the characters. Elijah Snow, crotchety, distrustful, is nonetheless rather likeable because he's trying to be proactive in an organization that, in the first book at least, is rather passive. Whatever he may think about individuals, he has a sense of responsibility for humanity and a deep dislike for the Four and others who seem to be holding humanity back. Jakita Wagner, somewhat less developed, is nevertheless attractive for her self-confidence, as well as for her obvious enjoyment of what Planetary does. The Drummer has yet to be well fleshed out; he's less of a character than, say, Doc Brass or Jack Carter or even Ambrose Chase, the man who preceded Elijah Snow as the Third Man and who only appears in a flashback.

It does help if the reader knows a lot about the various forms of "lore" upon which much of the book is based. For example, the Jack Carter chapter is a huge satire/take on 1980s British comics heroes and sentiments. (Jack Carter is, of course, a John Constantine reflection.) Also, the first book moves a tad slowly, not because the stories aren't paced well but because (as Elijah complains a lot) the Planetary people usually show up after all the interesting stuff has happened. However, there's a reason for this "passive voice" behavior, and the characters become a lot more involved in the second book.

Cassaday's art is quite nice, relatively subtle for action art, filled with soft colors (though the imagery is sharp), arty angles, and a real feel for sequential storytelling. I appreciate the subtle expressions on his characters' faces that say quite a bit about their mental state. The occasional flashback scenes, sometimes presented as illustrated pulp fiction pages, are equally impressive. There are a lot of very striking images here.


An eerie image of the birth of the Four

Jakita remembers Jack Carter

Copyright 2000-2001, Wildstorm Productions

Warren Ellis is rapidly becoming this century's Alan Moore, and Planetary is a superb example of his work. Absolutely recommended for most older audiences. The imagery might on occasion be too intense for kids, and they won't understand most of the references. But adults and teens should love it. They also might like Lazarus Churchyard, which is considerably more mature in tone and probably much harder to find. (I should be getting to Transmetropolitan pretty soon--another excellent title from Ellis.)


Copyright 2001, D. Aviva Rothschild


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