Planetary is the story of the titular organization, a wealthy private agency dedicated to uncovering the hidden history of the 20th century — the mad science, the alien encounters, and other brushes with the paranormal — “mystery archaeology”, as one character puts it. The protagonists are Planetary’s field team, a squad of three superhuman operatives who get out and delve into the esoteric events uncovered by the agency’s support staff. The title also refers to the global scope of both the organization and the series, as they seek some kind of understanding of the strange world in which we live.
This first collection, All Over The World And Other Stories, contains Planetary 1-6, covering the recruitment of a new “third man” to the field team and his first several cases with the group, and laying the groundwork for the rest of the series.
The premise of Planetary lends itself to stories that range far and wide over the popular genres of the 20th century, a conceit that writer Warren Ellis, penciler John Cassaday, and colorist Laura Martin take full advantage of. For the bulk of the series, each issue stands alone as a self-contained story of Planetary’s encounter with a twisted, funhouse-mirror version of a given genre archetype. In Issue 1, “All Over The World”, for example, the team unearths Axel Brass, a pulp adventurer in the mold of Doc Savage (“the Man of Bronze”), who has spent the past fifty-four years crippled and trapped in his own secret headquarters amid the bodies of his dead comrades, standing guard over an interdimensional portal. This focus on specific subgenres and tropes even extends to the cover designs, which after Issue 1 change to reflect the subject of a given issue.
Once past the cover, however, the creators do not play too much with the visual approach of the series in this volume with the exception of Issues 3 and 5, which I will discuss in more depth later in this entry. Leaving them aside, Ellis and Cassaday’s approach to panel layout and point-of-view is clean, linear, and cinematic, almost standing at odds with the fantastic nature of the subject matter. The reader becomes something of an archaeologist themselves, presented with a neutral lens through which to view the events of the story and left to draw their own conclusions.
This is not to say, of course, that Ellis and Cassaday do not indulge in direction of the reader’s gaze. The opening sequence of “All Over The World”, for example, shows the arrival of field team member Jakita Wagner at an anonymous desert diner, where she headhunts new “third man” Elijah Snow. Each page is one larger panel, an “establishing shot”, with the smaller panels following the action layered in over it. This gives the scene an immediate grounding and sense of place and time, and it is a technique the creators will return to frequently. The smaller action panels are primarily mid-range and close-up shots, giving special attention to the facial expressions and body language of the characters. In contrast to the frenetic, jagged energy of most popular comics, Planetary is a series of ideas and characters, and the subdued aesthetic of the dialogue scenes prompts the reader to linger over them, finding the nuances of expression and emotion that so many artists neglect and Cassaday goes to great pains to include.
When the action sequences in Planetary arrive, however, they make an impression, all the more so because they leap out from what has come before. Ellis and Cassaday often given action beats a half-page or whole page, selecting the single most kinetic, propulsive instant to frame for the reader. In Issue 3, “Dead Gunfighters”, for example, the action smash-cuts from a page of long, horizontal panels on page 13, building the scene’s energy by cutting back and forth between the participants, to a full-page splash on page 14 for the big reveal of the “soul hard drive”. This technique is used again on pages 18 and 19 for the climactic action moment of Wagner dropkicking an engine block out of a speeding car. The rapid-fire panels and “slow-motion” splash pages give “Dead Gunfighters” a similar visual feel to the Hong Kong crime films the story pays homage to. This may be a book of high concepts, but the creative team knows just when to give the story some gas.
The other issue in this collection that experiments with format somewhat is Issue 5, “The Good Doctor”, which centers on a visit paid to Axel Brass by Elijah Snow, at the Planetary medical facility where Brass is recovering from his ordeal. The story cuts between two distinct visual aesthetics — the contemporary setting of the hospital and flashbacks to Brass’ adventures in the 1930s and 1940s. The flashbacks take the form not of comics per se, but rather the pages of a pulp adventure novel, single illustrations accompanied by prose captions. The art team goes so far as to color these pages as if they were yellowing relics dug out of some forgotten trove of decades-old fiction. This incorporation of alternate formats is not something that the series returns to, at least not to this extent, but its inclusion here gives an authentic sense of the history of the world of Planetary, that these really are secrets waiting out there to be uncovered.
I’ve talked very little to this point about Planetary’s narrative structure or its three central characters — Wagner, Snow, and the Drummer. In the latter case, this is largely because we find out only the most basic things about them in this first collection — Snow is older than he looks and can subtract heat from matter; Wagner is strong and fast, and hates being bored; the Drummer talks to machines and might be insane. The backgrounds and motivations of the characters, particularly Snow, remain obscure to this point in the series, a deliberate choice on Ellis’ part to give primacy to the cases the field team investigates rather than to the team members themselves.
That approach starts changing, however, with Issue 6, “Four Voyagers”, which introduces the Four, a pastiche of Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four and Planetary’s primary antagonists. From this point, both the series and Snow become more and more focused on dealing with the Four, and the presence of these archvillains hangs over the entire rest of the run. While the confrontations with the Four provide some of Planetary’s most memorable moments, I have always felt as if the growing dominance of this storyline over the course of the series came at the detriment of its original ambit, a narrative survey of the debris of 20th Century genre fiction. That said, Ellis does a deft job of incorporating elements of many of the seemingly “standalone” stories into this larger narrative, giving a further sense of continuity and history to the book. As I continue this re-read and examination of the series, I am curious to see if my opinion on the Four arc changes one way or the other. I also find it interesting that Ellis gives us the secret origin of the Four right away, minus some bits and pieces to be revealed later, while we are still largely in the dark about our protagonists.
Favorite Issue: My favorite story from this collection is Issue #4, “Strange Harbours”. The visual grandeur of the shiftship uncovered by Jim Wilder and his embrace of his new responsibilities capture me just as much as they do Wagner and Snow. The issue’s last scene also give us the moment where Snow transitions from snarky observer to a more active participant in the series, a trend which gathers further momentum in the next volume. “Dead Gunfighters” and “Island” (Issue #2) are close seconds.