by Brendan Hodgdon. This is RETROGRADING, where it’s still a strange world, and we’re all working to keep it that way.
THE STORY: Planetary
THE TEAM: Warren Ellis (writer), John Cassaday (penciller/inker), Laura Martin with David Baron (colors), Ryan Cline, Ali Fuchs, Michael Heisler, Bill O’Neill, Richard Starkings,Wes Abbott (letters), John Layman (editor). Published by DC Comics.
THE YEAR: 1999-2003, then intermittently until 2009. A period of great transformation in popular culture, as postmodernism, pulp fiction and niche geekiness blended together in a messy brew whose flavor still lingers on the tongue of mainstream entertainment today.
RECOLLECTIONS: Think back to what your introduction to fandom was like. You find something new to you, something flashy and exciting that resonates with you and opens your eyes to the world in a different way. Once you get a rush like that, you want to pursue it wherever it goes. And it turns out that this thing you love so much—say, superhero comics—isn’t new at all, but has actually been around for decades. There’s dozens upon dozens of stories and characters you haven’t met yet, and dozens more stories and characters inspired by those stories, and then there are the stories that inspired your original favorite story, and then…
It can be overwhelming, but also exhilarating. And it was that experience, of diving into new fantasy worlds and sifting through years and years of stories to find something of value, that Warren Ellis sought to examine in creating Planetary. According to Ellis, “A lot of Planetary came down to my having to learn the superhero genre… as I was never particularly a student of that genre… I found that I just wanted to try and scrape away all those barnacles to see the thing that charmed and fascinated people right at the start.”* Looking at the completed story over a decade after its completion, it’s clear that Ellis and artists John Cassaday and Laura Martin succeeded in crafting a seminal study of the history of the superhero genre in the form of a blisteringly beautiful comic book.
Throughout the first two-thirds of Planetary, homage and satire were the names of the game. Many issues saw the heroes of the Planetary organization—Elijah Snow, Jakita Wagner, and the Drummer—seek out instances of metahumans, super-science and mystical power that the rest of the world didn’t know about. Many of these issues are wholly self-contained and work without any larger understanding of the series; even as Ellis was helping to create the trend of decompressed widescreen comics, he was countering himself with the structure of Planetary. Though even as he focused on these little one-and-dones, Ellis made sure to slowly advance the larger plot of the series, dropping little breadcrumbs within the pastiches that were often the series’ bread-and-butter.
In trying to form an all-encompassing pop universe—one where Sherlock Holmes, kaiju and lookalikes of Doc Savage and John Constantine all share space—a whole lot rode on the talents of artist John Cassaday and colorist Laura Martin (assisted by David Baron), but in their hands this burden seemed to weigh no more than a feather. Not only did they handle everything from epic superpowered confrontations to a quiet match of wits, they often replicated the relevant visual aesthetics to further the series’ sense of connection to the topic du jour. Issues like #16 (where they echo the fluid choreography of wuxia fantasy stories) or issue #25 (where they mix in some obligatory-yet-essential Kirby homage) demonstrated their ability to replicate the storytelling aesthetics of multiple subgenres. And left to their own devices in building the Planetary-specific parts of the world, they often created beautiful things whole cloth. The excellence in craft also extended through the coterie of letterers who contributed to the series, who helped differentiate the myriad forms of communication in Planetary‘s world without losing sight of the emotions behind them.
Through it all, the examination of superheroes and similar sorts of pulp fiction is both exciting and contemplative, celebratory and critical. In these pages, we see the progression from Lone Ranger to Green Hornet to James Bond to the present day, and we are forced to consider the questionable ideologies that have surrounded such stories since the beginning. The echoes of eugenics and colonialism that live at the heart of many classic pulp heroes are frequently addressed, even as Ellis has no qualms poking fun at the 1980s deconstruction of those same sorts of heroes. Planetary feels like an ideal summation of super heroes as a concept, both in cheering what makes them great and acknowledging what they’ve gotten wrong. It burrows down to the core of what makes their fandom so enthusiastic in the first place.
But there’s another side to fandom, the ugly rejoinder to the thrill of discovering these new worlds. There’s the feeling that the people who were there ahead of you don’t really want you there. That no matter how much these characters and stories resonate with you, no matter how earnestly passionate you are about them, you will be seen as an interloper, a poser, a “fake geek” who doesn’t belong. These fans, who carry themselves like they have tenure even when they don’t, define their fandom by possessiveness and exclusivity, and try to hoard it for themselves. And Ellis, Cassaday & Martin, being the geniuses they are, made sure to reflect on this aspect of fandom throughout Planetary in the form of the villainous Four.
The Four, an unapologetic twist on Marvel’s First Family, are power-mad scientist-adventurers in direct competition with Planetary to uncover the secret history of the world. They consider the world as theirs by right of might, and consider everyone else beneath them and unworthy of fully knowing that world. In this antagonistic sense of superiority, Ellis has basically constructed a team of superpowered fanboys, and woe betide any who seek to share in what they know.
But Planetary doesn’t stop there in addressing this cultural friction, which has only gotten worse since the series concluded. Rather, it offers the heroes of Planetary as a firm counterpoint to the Four’s possessiveness. In them, the series celebrates action for the sake of the greater good. It celebrates not just acquiring knowledge as tallies in a ledger, but as an actual guide for more fully living in the world and contributing to it. It’s not enough to know or control something, you have to understand it, and this is the ideology that guides Planetary through its entirety.
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? If Planetary were just the ultimate pastiche adventure comic, it would still deserve a strong recommendation. But with its ethos of being a part of the world instead of lording over it, and of seeking to learn and share instead of control, it’s become an essential read for today’s geekdom. Warren Ellis, John Cassaday, and Laura Martin launched an all-time great piece of comics fiction twenty years ago, and it still has much to teach us.
RETROGRADE: 9 out of 10