Sunday, 18 August 2013
What if the Fantastic Four turned bad? We’ll come back to this…
Planetary is a comic series published by Wildstorm comics from 1998 to late 1999. Despite that lengthy period it consists of only twenty-seven regular issues, three crossover issues and an introductory short. It was written by Warren Ellis, drawn by John Cassaday and coloured by Laura Martin. It’s set in the Wildstorm Universe (which has since been assimilated into the DC Universe) but in actuality has very little to do with the company’s established characters or titles. It’s a thematic successor to Ellis’s run on Stormwatch and The Authority.
The series focuses on the Planetary field team. Comprised of Elijah Snow, a man who can subtract heat form the atmosphere, Jakita Wagner, a woman blessed with super strength, and The Drummer, who has complete control over all technology, they’re tasked with uncovering the secret history of their world. That sounds a little broad, and it is. It’s basically the creative team’s excuse for the team getting involved in the plots they do. They have unlimited resources and answer only to the mysterious Fourth Man, the identity of whom becomes one of first of many mysteries in the series.
This is a completely accurate summary but it also fails to do Planetary justice. There’s so much more to the title.
The central conceit of Planetary is Ellis’s use of history to create a world of wonder. There’s an ongoing plot threat and a few loose arcs but all but two of the issues are self-contained stories (the two that aren’t are a two part story). This allows Ellis much more creative freedom than the traditional approach does. There’s no regular base or lengthy, convoluted explanations about how bad guys that were definitely killed last time we saw them are able to return.
Ellis makes use of a number of literary sources for Planetary. Issue two, for example, draws heavily on the tradition of Japanese monster movies. Issue eight is a cross between Cold War paranoia and fifties B movies. Australian creation myths are the basis of much of issue fifteen, although John Carter of Mars is also a source of inspiration for that issue. That should hint at how broad the series can be even within one issue. Action movies, Sherlock Holmes, The (Steed and Peel) Avengers, Norse mythology, and the X Files all provide ideas for Ellis at various points too. It’s an eclectic mixture of literature, pop culture, TV shows, and, of course, comic book history.
It sounds incredibly busy but it’s all perfectly judged, the sources never overshadow the central plot or the characters Ellis has created. Ellis uses the fiction we’re all familiar with as a storytelling shorthand. It’s a little like Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, only broader in its reach and less focused on using the sources it uses as the centre point of its tale.
And I’ve yet to mention the comic book sources Ellis draws from. Throughout the series characters appear that are clearly based on characters from Marvel and DC, names changed partly because of legal reasons and partly because Ellis presents them, to a greater or lesser extent, as alternate versions of those established characters. He’s more interested in subverting the known aspects of the characters than the characters themselves, which is a healthy approach to take. We see Nick Fury, Captain Marvel, John Constatine, and Spider Jerusalem reimagined, and the work of several comic book greats referenced, most obviously and frequently Jack Kirby.
And then there are The Four. They’re the Fantastic Four done as though they were bad guys. The starting point for the idea was an issue Ellis has with the Marvel version of the group: they have great powers, resources and inventions but use them only to fight bad guys. There’s no attempt from the group to better mankind. That becomes a central idea of Ellis’s Four.
We see them slaughter the population of an entire planet just so they have somewhere to store their immense weapons collection. We discover that they created they internet (although it’s never actually revealed why). Most notably we see them eliminate Wildstorm versions of Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern before they can have any positive influence on Earth. And none of this is done for the sake of it. By the time Planetary finishes we know exactly what motivated The Four and how and why they’ve done what they’ve done.
Understanding all of this in relation to the source material is obviously fun and adds another level on which to enjoy the book. If you don’t recognise something enough to know what the source material was you stil follow what’s going on within the context of the tale. You aren’t isolated because of ignorance but knowledge and understanding of pop culture and comic books specifically is rewarded.
I would like to add that the creativity is not limited to the stories told within Planetary. The covers are an integral part of the book’s experience, mirroring as they do the chief themes and inspirations of their contents (see the selection posted at the top of this review. Issue 23, for example, is the pulp heroes story, its cover done up to emulate a cheap disposable paperback from the thirties. The John Constantine issue perfectly replicates the original style of Vertigo titles. Meanwhile issue fifteen evokes ancient Australasian tribe art. The covers alone contribute more to the stories Ellis and Cassaday tell than most authors pack into twenty-plus page issues.
Cassaday’s artwork is just as important to the book’s success as Ellis’s writing. A lesser artist (and there are many) would have been incapable of transferring Ellis’s more outlandish ideas to the page. There are few artists who could have produced work that was one moment awe inspiring and the next detailing the unspoken emotions of an office drone. Cassaday perfectly captures The Drummer’s neuroses and skittishness, Jakita’s confident swagger (just look at the perfect panel at the bottom of issue eight’s twelfth page), and Elijah’s deliberate pondering. In lesser hands this could have become just another superhero book. Cassaday helps it to become something incredibly special.
The links to the Wildstorm Universe start out infrequent and vague and are pretty much gone by the halfway point of the series. That’s no bad thing. Ellis does more to create a cohesive history for this fictional universe in Planetary than everyone else had done combined. Instead of trying to make everything tie together he focuses on threads he’d started up in other books. Such as the century babies.
Anyone who’s read The Authority will be familiar with the idea of a group of people with special powers sharing the birthday of January 1st 1900. That’s elaborated on in Planetary, although ultimately we’re left with more answers than questions on the topic. The concept could very easily support a comic series in its own right. It’s a testament to Ellis as a writer that he hasn’t ruined the mysterious air he worked hard to cultivate by taking on such a project. The idea works best when used as an unresolved thread in the background.
With Planetary Ellis wanted to reintroduce wonder and discovery into comics, something he (rightly) felt had disappeared from comics throughout the course of the late eighties and the nineties. He essentially writes Planetary as a creator owned title and uses the Wildstorm Universe as little more than a backdrop. It’s not something that could have been done with the continuity heavy worlds of Marvel or DC. It works here because Wildstorm is (or was now, I suppose) so much younger as a company. Ellis gave it an identity of its own with this title, and wrote a series that will be enjoyed for a very long time. You could not hope for a more inventive comic.