May 10, 2010

, , ,   |  

Planetary Volume 1

Written by Warren Ellis
Illustrated by John Cassaday
Wildstorm

Elijah Snow is a man of his time--literally. Having lived the entire length of the 20th Century, he sits at the edge of the millennium a broken old coot drinking terrible coffee in an old diner. For whatever reason, he's a destroyed man in a world that's crumbling, bit by bit.

Enter Jakita Wagner and an organization built to explore the mysteries of the world, bit by bit. They've got funding and offices and lots to do. When Snow agrees to be part of the plan, he's about to start digging around where others fear to tread. He's going Planetary.

I've spent some time this year revisiting old favorites, and with the release of the 4th and final volume of this series, I felt I had to go back and do a re-read. I can't think of a Warren Ellis comics I didn't like, and this pairing with one of my favorite artists, John Cassaday, is high on my list of favorites.

From start to finish, this first volume has everything that makes a Warren Ellis comic so good. We have cool characters, a concept that feels original (even if it may not be), lots of pseudo-science that might just work, a heartless villain, familiar riffs given new life, and of course, the trademark foul mouth of just about anything non-code that Ellis puts to paper.

Let's start with the characters. Snow is a man who acts like he knows far more than he'd admitting to, and that confidence grows with each adventure. He's old, so he gets to be Ellis's snarky mouthpiece about modern culture, humanity in general, and of course the absurdity of the situations we see in the comic. Jakita is a strong-willed woman who gets high off action and takes no crap from anyone. The Drummer is a sarcastic, possibly drug-addled slacker who wants to look for newer and better technology to interface with, giving us a pretty good fetish to play with for comedy. Add in the side characters who all have the jaded attitude that makes Ellis comics sing, and you're in for a good outing no matter what the story.

But oh! These stories! Ellis uses Planetary to riff on pulp novels, Hong Kong action flicks, Godzilla, and the Fantastic Four, just to name a few ideas that are either skewered or homaged, sometimes at the same time. When you turn the page and see what Ellis is doing with the idea you figured out a few pages back, it's often time to just stop reading and admire a master at work. Ellis's references never feel ham-handed or forced. They fit right in to whatever narrative he's going for, whether it's mystic archaeology (as in this case), hardboiled detective fiction (Fell), or an insane romp through the Marvel Universe (Nextwave).

I remember being amazed by the things Ellis fit into Planetary the first time I read it. They don't get any less spectacular in a second reading. When Snow faces off against the main villains of the piece, the thought of how others might treat their new powers--not everyone wants to help humanity--is treated in such a way that while I'm sure I've seen it before, Ellis makes me think he's the first one to do it. When you see how he starts to link things together, you'll be impressed, as the disparate parts start to come together by the end, setting up plans for the even more complex stories to come.

Even when Ellis is hinting at the obvious (there's an evil version of the JLA early on), you'll find it feels like a cool easter egg rather than a fanboy moment. About the only other series I can think of that has the same idea is Alan Moore's Top Ten. But while Top Ten is a restrained look at dealing with crime in a superheroes-only world, Planetary is in your face about the idea that if there was true power in this world, it wouldn't want to share with you. For whatever reason, Elijah Snow does. It's a question that haunts this first volume and drifts into the stories to come.

I'd have loved Planetary regardless of the artist, but John Cassaday knocks this one out of the park. He draws whatever Ellis comes up with, and can make a familiar set of heroes just as easily as he can show the essence of ghosts in a jar or the representation of a set of thousands of different worlds coming together at a nexus point. Each page has a level of detail rare in comics these days. You can see wrinkles on the characters' faces, the lines in their teeth, and the paneling in the windows of a space ship. I know we'd have fewer comics if everyone worked like this, but it would be worth it. Cassaday is one of the best artists working today, and his efforts on Planetary are outstanding.

Needless to say, I like Planetary. It's one of the best comic series I've ever read, and it has all the little touches to show what a good comic can do. We have superpowers and super science, but at the end of the day, it's about the characters and the plot. Ellis gets that it takes more than capes to make for a good comic. I wish others would follow his lead more often, but I'll take what I can get when I can get it. If you haven't tried Planetary yet, I strongly urge you to do so right away. You'll be glad you did.