illustration (c) Josť Villarrubia 2000 digital
illustration (c) Josť Villarrubia 2000
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Past Glories

Art by Chip Zdarsky. Copyright 2002.

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"Who is Number 1?" has been replace with "Who is the Fourth Man?" in the comics lexicon.

Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: John Cassaday
Colorist: Laura Depuy w/ Dave Baron
Letterers: Ali Fuchs and Bill O'Neil
Published by DC/Wildstorm 1999 (trade paperback 2000)
$2.50 single issue, $14.95 trade paperback

Reviewed by Aaron Veenstra.

They say postmodernism is dead. If that's the case, you'll have to excuse Warren Ellis for taking its corpse for one more spin around the block. With PLANETARY, Ellis and artist extraordinaire John Cassaday have created an incredible vehicle for examining genre fiction in all its forms; the icing on top is the conspiracy arc that serves as an undercurrent.

Planetary, the title organization, is a powerful underground force that explores, keeps quiet and occasionally does away with the incredible, supernatural underbelly of the world. What the audience sees is the three-member field team, operated by the mysterious (and as yet unrevealed) Fourth Man. There are remote installations all over the world, many of which don't even know the field team exists. This collection includes the first six issues of the series, each of which detail one of Planetary's investigations and each of which include another piece to the overall puzzle.

The story begins as Jakita Wagner and The Drummer ("First name The, second name Drummer."), two of the field team, recruit Elijah Snow, once a superpowered government agent and now a superpowered hermit, to join them. Snow is something of an ornery, cynical bastard (one of Ellis's trademarks) but he eventually agrees. Their first mission takes them to a secret cave structure in the Adirondacks, discovered in the way of a new train tunnel. That's when the postmodern hijinks begin.

In the caves they find a man called Alex Brass, a not-so-well veiled analog of pulp icon Doc Savage. His legs have atrophied beyond recognition; he's been in the same spot for 54 years. "I eliminated my need for food and sleep in 1942, stopped aging in '43 and learned to close wounds with the power of my mind in '44." He proceeds to tell the story of how he and several others (also designed after pulp icons) had come together with the purpose of unilaterally ended the second World War. To that end, they designed a mechanical brain, which manifested itself as the shape of all possible realities. Not knowing what they were doing, they found themselves attacked by otherworldly superheroes (modeled after the Justice League) and nearly wiped out.

This is just the first of Ellis's ongoing meta-commentaries on the state of fiction and the comic industry. In chapter six, for instance, the story features a reflection of the Fantastic Four, played as a group driven purely by greed and lust for power. Ellis is closing the book on superheroes by asking the questions no one else has -- why would worlds filled with near-omnipotent creatures still have cancer, poverty, hate, strife of any kind? In doing so, I can only hope he opens the eyes of some of the readers keeping comics married to the superhero formula and shows them something better.

As if Ellis's brilliant scripting weren't enough, along comes John Cassaday on line art and the incomparable Laura Depuy on colors. Cassaday has gotten mostly garbage to work on in the past (Marvel's ridiculous X-MEN/ALPHA FLIGHT and UNION JACK spring immediately to mind) and I'm overjoyed to see him making the most of PLANETARY. His dark style evokes both the late 60's evolution of Neal Adams and Jim Steranko and the British invasion of the late 80's and I can only hope it catches on; the man can make anything look real.

Depuy's colors (especially on the third chapter, where she was assisted by Dave Baron) are truly unbelievable. While her work on Ellis's THE AUTHORITY was top notch, the PLANETARY stuff is something else entirely; it's cinematic, it's multi-dimensional. I don't have the superlatives to describe just how amazing this color work is. See it, read it, let your eyes water.

A decade from now, I believe PLANETARY will be looked at in the same light as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's WATCHMEN and Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Where those two opened new corridors into mature superheroes, PLANETARY is paving roads to the end of genre fiction. And once you get there, it's time to mark your own path.

Highly Recommended

Aaron Veenstra is a regular contributor to PopImage.

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