Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Planetary - a decade to tell the tale... and worth it.


Written by Warren Ellis, Art by John Cassaday, Colours by Laura Martin, David Baron

DC Comics / Wildstorm

Although it started in April 1999, various problems with the series meant that the final issue; 27, was eventually published in 2009. It took a decade to finish the series and it was well worth the wait.

I love it perhaps more than I should. It’s something I go back to regularly, and will always re-read it at least once per year. This year, as a special Christmas present to myself I decided that, even though I had the whole series as Hardbacks, I really, really wanted to get the beautiful Absolute editions.

Expensive but oh so worth it. My Boxing Day was spent engrossed, yet again, in a wonderful world created by Ellis, Cassaday, Martin and Baron. The huge pages make the art so much more impressive than it already was at normal comic size and Ellis’ ideas fly even greater at this scale.

(John Cassaday’s beautiful cover to the final issue of Planetary)

Warren Ellis’ Planetary is a beautiful, optimistic, humanist, sentimental masterpiece, a magnificent superhero fantasy mythology with each self contained chapter taking some aspect of genre fiction and spinning a tale of awe and wonder. This love story of 20th Century fictions just has so much going on- Doc Savage’s pulp heroes, John Woo style Hong Kong action cinema ghost stories, giant irradiated Japanese monsters, Steranko era Nick Fury super spies, Sherlock Holmes and much more. But taken as a whole, as one supremely interconnected, expansive story it becomes Ellis’ masterpiece with it’s signature style of vast, open storytelling, tech obsessions, fast, witty dialogue and far reaching ideas of optimism and hope.

And every step of the way artist John Cassaday’s classical artwork perfectly visualises every wonderfully strange idea. It may have taken many, many years to complete the series’ 27 issues and many of these delays may have been art led. But never has the concept of “good or on time?” been proven.

Planetary is absolutely full of ideas – wonderful, incredible ideas. But the first idea is the greatest of all; making Planetary an organisation dedicated to uncovering the secret history of the 20th Century – “mystery archaeologists”, dedicated to uncovering the secret history of the 20th Century. At a stroke this allows Ellis free range over every incredible facet of the 20th Century, all the weirdness, all the impossible tech, all the amazing adventures and all the wonderful characters of it’s fictions.

(More fabulous Cassaday artwork from the softcover collection Planetary Volume 1: All Over The World)

New recruit Elijah Snow is 100 years old, one of the group of century babies, born at the dawn of the 20th Century, superpowered, but a broken man, his memory shot to hell. Planetary allows him to tortuously piece together his mysterious past and uncover the secrets his team-mates are hiding from him about the identity of the Fourth Man, Planetary’s mysterious backer.

With the Fourth Man problem solved in the first half of the story, Snow then turns Planetary’s attention to the 4; Ellis’ dark and twisted version of Marvel’s Fantastic 4, reimaged as malevolent, secret masters of the world. Over 50 years they’ve made the world mediocre, robbing it of wonders and costing millions of lives in the process. It’s Snow’s obsessive mission to save his planet from their yoke that drives the second half of Planetary, although there’s still time for interludes and one off stories, that somehow never fail to impress as they reveal some tiny bit more in Snow’s mission to save the world.

In the end, Snow’s purpose is revealed, simply and profoundly, as a man who saves things; people, information, experiences, the wonders of the world from the straitjacket of the 4. And it’s Snow’s final obsession, to save his dearest friend and team-mate, dead following a Planetary encounter with a fictional reality, that gives the book, always full of wonder, it’s beating heart. This is Ellis’ goodbye, to his readers and most touchingly his father, who died during Planetary’s troubled 10 year genesis.

Planetary starts out as Ellis’ love letter to the world of genre fiction but finishes as a hugely poignant and affecting story of loss and redemption. Planetary is a call to arms to make a finer world, and stands as one of the greatest superhero fantasy series ever told. It’s a book I’ll return to regularly, and every time I read it through I never loss any of the sense of wonder and excitement I had that very first time I picked up issue 1. From first page to last, I love it.

It’s a classic and should be in your library. If I had to pick one series that I loved more than any other this would be it.

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