“It’s a Strange World”

“Let’s keep it that way.”

So ends the first issue of the comic series Planetary, script by Warren Ellis and art by John Cassaday, published by Wildstorm comics.  Planetary started in 1999, and I’ve been reading it since about 2001, just in to the second trade’s materials.  The 27th issue and series epilogue was released today, and now the series is officially complete.

For those who don’t know it, here’s the premise:  John Elijah Snow is recruited by the Planetary Organization, a rich and influential group that acts as Mystery Archaeologists, uncovering and documenting the secret history of the 20th century.  In the first six issues alone, they find 1) the sole survivor of a pulp-era superteam who just barely stopped a cross-dimensional Justice League analogue from conquering our planet 2) A Hong Kong ghost cop seeking vengeance 3) the Monster Island where the remains of Godzilla-style monsters are treated as sacred relics by a Japanese terrorist and his sychophants, 4) Radioactively mutated people and giant ants, and much more.

Part of why I love this series is the way it interfaces with genre.  The series takes the popular literature/culture of the 20th century and says ‘what if this were all true, but it was secret?’ A sense of wonder and deep fascination with the past permeates the book, and in this case, the past is our cultural heritage, and most specifically the cultural heritage of the superhero genre (since the series is published in the medium associated with supers, by a publisher known for superhero comics) — even though in the world of Planetary, superheroes don’t exist in the public eye (Well they kind of do, as Kevin says, but that depends on how much one considers it to be in synch with other Wildstorm continuity).  Snow and the other members of the Planetary Organization go around the world and discover the wonders that were and those that could have been.  Popular literary genres are positioned as thrusts and ripostes of cultural warfare to control the earth.

Each issue tends to focus on one of those genres, with a cover stylized to match.  Atomic SF here, Hong Kong action there, and then over to silver age superheroes and back to pulp mystery.

So if you haven’t read Planetary, you might give it a chance, especially if you like any of the following: 1) genre studies, 2) superheroes, 3) deeply intertextual literature.

I received no free copies of anything from this series, so don’t bother trying to fine me, ok FTC?

4 thoughts on ““It’s a Strange World”

  1. Kevin

    “John Snow is recruited by the Planetary Organization, a rich and influential group that acts as Mystery Archaeologists, uncovering and documenting the secret history of the 20th century.”

    Elijah. John Snow is from a different book 🙂

    …even though in the world of Planetary, superheroes don’t exist in the public eye…

    That’s not entirely true. Even though as Planetary moves on, the premise ceases to play well with others, the book was launched as an actual part of the Wildstorm universe and is packed with references to the rest of the super-hero universe and WildCATS, Stormwatch, the Authority. While it eventually goes “out of synch” with Wildstorm continuity, due to assorted publishing conflicts, even the last issue gives some throwbacks to Ellis’ Stormwatch. For the first couple of years, it was very much “the secret history of the Wildstorm universe”.

    Of course if issues of continuity bother you, obviously you can say that Planetary, which is a magnificent beast on its own, was “further down the Bleed” from the core Wildstorm U.

    Actually speaking of the Bleed, it’s really interesting how Planetary/Batman and Planetary/JLA went from “inter universe crossovers” to strangely in continuity in recent years (just like JLA/WildCATS) with the absorption of the WSU into the DCU.

    Which lead to certain bits of Planetary cosmology getting used in Final Crisis. (But you know me, everything leads to Final Crisis.)

  2. Re: Jon/Elijah Snow — Can you tell which other long-delayed series I’ve been thinking of lately?

    —-

    I tend to think of Planetary as being out of synch with other Wildstorm stuff, especially because it makes more sense out of the Night on Earth story — where Elijah Snow doesn’t have the term ‘superhero’ in his world’s vocabulary to assign to Batman — I think that the Planetary world works better if the term ‘superhero’ was never allowed to exist, mostly due to the Four. That and I find it hard (and not terribly useful) to conceptualize Authority and Planetary as being useful to think of as happening in the same continuity.

    I did finally get to read Final Crisis, and while I was obviously not the ideal audience (being about 5-10 years too young and several orders of magnitude of comic geek insufficient), but it was still damn powerful stuff.

  3. Kevin

    I agree that Planetary works best on its own (especially as the Four plot spins into motion) which creates a bit of cognitive dissonance with me because early on the book goes to great lengths to tie in to at least Stormwatch and the Authority.

    It’s worth noting that until fairly recently, (Say, Joe Casey’s Majestic and the later integration with the DCU) the SWU *didn’t* really have the idea of a superhero. No one ever calls the Authority that, Stormwatch were “posthumans”, no one knew about the WildCATS. You’ve got books that stray way into the traditional superhero stuff, but the core of WSU still had plausible deniablity towards the idea of a superhuman.

    That said, especially in light of what the WSU turned into, Planetary takes place in a version of the WSU containing only Ellis books — at least in my mind. From a continuity aspect, all the Ellis WSU books are deeply interrelated, but I see your point about how the Authority doesn’t add to your project. It’s a damn fine bit of standalone work, if you take it that way. But know about the tight continuity in the first half of the series really fleshes out some things.

    And I don’t think you’re too young for FC. I tend to think that younger comics types take to it more than fatbeards. And… you know… the secret origin of Shiftships 😛

    Wait… did you read RIP first?

    • I read the first part and skimmed the rest, though I thought I’d heard enough about it from second-hand people’s recountings. I intend to give it a thorough read-through, and then do FC again.

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