“It’s a strange world. Let’s keep it that way.”
This is the motto or mantra of Planetary, the story of three spacetime archaeologists in search of all things weird. It stars Elijah Snow, a man born in 1900, who, despite his years, still looks fabulous in all white; Jakita Wagner, the strong, silent supermodel who likes to punch things; and The Drummer, the cool nerd who can hear and interpret signals emitted from just about anything that emits signals. Deep secrets haunt the team--when the series begins, Elijah has gaping holes in his memories--and the Planetary organization is funded by a shadowy figure known only as The Fourth Man.
Together, the teammates initially chase bizarre mysteries and conspiracies in done-in-one chapters. It feels a little like a super-heroic X-Files, except Planetary has an overarching plot that eventually coalesces into a coherent and satisfying conclusion. As Elijah stares deeper into the undercurrents of his employer, villains grow sharper and pronounced, namely The Four--evil-doers who seek global control through the suppression of knowledge and human advancement. The Four rose to the heights of global villainy thanks to a mind-bending space mission that warped their physiology and sense of morality. If this sounds like the Bizarro version of The Fantastic Four, then it’s time to give Planetary a chance, as writer Warren Ellis makes a point of winking at familiar comic tropes and archetypes. Planetary is full of clever nods to Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Godzilla, and in one chapter, John Constantine and many of the characters who inhabit DC’s Vertigo imprint.
Ellis is firing on all of his best cylinders: characters who aren’t quite anti-heroes but wouldn’t be caught dead in capes; dialogue that jumps between banter and high concept Sci-Fi proclamations (“So we create a closed loop of light, make it incredibly powerful, and it’ll do the same thing, only locally--supermassive frame-dragging.”). But none of this would be anywhere near as successful without artist John Cassaday, whose details and care for expressions only become more refined as the series progresses. In later chapters, Jakita eventually relaxes her steely demeanor, and Cassaday is able to play more with her reactions, especially when she sarcastically digs at The Drummer (“Why do we keep you around, again?”). It looks and feels as if she's more comfortable in the book.
This month, the final half of Planetary arrives in the series’ second Absolute Edition, which includes introductions by Alan Moore and Joss Whedon. Colorist Laura Martin offers commentary on her interpretation of the famously complex snowflake image, and a few pages are devoted to toys and other Planetary esoterica. The first Absolute Edition, collecting the initial half of the series, went out of print several years ago. But in a show of good faith to longtime fans, DC’s Wildstorm imprint has reprinted the first Absolute Edition to give symmetry to collectors’ bookshelves everywhere.
Ellis and Cassaday’s Planetary ran for 27 issues, beginning in 1999 and ending in 2009. While that’s not a very expedient production schedule, it’s difficult to find fault elsewhere with the book, especially when read as a whole and on the Absolute scale. It’s that rare type of series: one that closes at the top of its creators’ abilities and narrative. Like Elijah Snow, it never grows old--no matter how many years pass in its storytelling. “Let’s keep it that way.”
P.S. Also recommended: Planetary: Crossing Worlds, a collection of somewhat outside-continuity Planetary tales.
P.P.S. Graphic Novel Friday is on vacation next week, August 6th, as I brave the Canadian wilderness.