Re-evaluating the end of “Planetary”

“You’d love this,” said Scott. “I know you liked ‘Transmet’–” that’s the sprawling journalist-meets-dystopia Transmetropolitan “–and this is even better. And the art is amazing.” With this recommendation from my comic shop, I picked up the first and only “Planetary” collection: All Over the World and Other Stories.

Over the years, I read the rest of the stories Warren Ellis and artist John Cassady created about this team of “mystery archaeologists”. The titular team operates in a world complete with analogs to copyrighted pulp-fiction heroes. The series is a single story formed by the intersection of pocket-sized tales, and contains some of the best writing in superhero comic books. (Don’t even try to call “Planetary” a graphic novel; the story’s too firmly rooted in the pulps for that.)

The story was continued in the second book, The Fourth Man, which had a detour into Elijah Snow’s past as well as a reinterpretation of the entire story to date. However, the story wasn’t even halfway finished when Ellis seemed to lose interest in the tale, and Cassady–then becoming more well-known–started taking on other projects. Whatever scripts Ellis tossed his way probably ended up on the back end of the priority queue.

It was a decade after the release of the first issue that issue twenty-seven ended the story. The last few issues seemed fairly anticlimactic, but was that because they were of lesser quality? Or did our waiting months and sometimes years in-between issues rob us of momentum?

Huge spoilers below, yadda yadda.

All Over the World

The first few issues of any title often look clumsy compared to what came later on, as the writer found the characters’ voices and the artist got a handle on the faces and body language. Jakita Wagner is an empathic if violent woman, with a habit of dressing in leather; I never noticed until now how awkward and twisted she looks in the first two issues.

The Planetary corporation is funded by a shadowy figure known only as “The Fourth Man”, and has a mandate to uncover the secret history of the world. After Jakita recruits Elijah Snow to their field team, they jump into a big piece of that shadowy history: In 1946, a small group of superhumans built a computer that generated the multiverse as a computational data structure–nearly destroying the Earth in the process.

After some moster-movie and action-flick-inspired tales, the series truly gels with issue six, the last one in this volume. We attend a briefing on a distorted, black-ops space program parallel to the NASA/USSR public moon race. Four astronauts encountered a phenomenon that transformed them into superhumans. This group has been amassing technology and committing vague atrocities ever since.

When Elijah Snow first reads of the Four, he starts after them with a noble if slightly hasty motives. This chase is the start of a story that will be the backbone of the title, and it’s where all the characters really come into their own. The Drummer in particular seems more competent and controlled in this story as he narrates his presentation on the Four.

The Fourth Man

This second volume of “Planetary” contains vital information. The first story, a sendup of John Constantine and Vertigo, is the weakest on the book. I always assumed the artist was different, but that’s not the case–Laura Martin has colored every issue of the series except this one, and her absence here demonstrates how vital her contributions are to the look and feel of the title.

Even the weakest stories in this volume are still quite good. The tone is very even, and it now feels like a single story, even if how all these odd bits fit together is quite unclear. (Some of it will be resolved, but far from all of it.)

There’s a seeming detour into a story about fictional universes, showing us how the Four slaughtered analogs of Wonder Woman, Superman, and Green Lantern. We also meet Ambrose Chase, killed many years before Jakita “found” Elijah in issue one. Ambrose’s death affected the characters enormously, and it echoes down the rest of the story. (It’s even referenced obliquely in the first issue.) Both of these seemed odd and out of place at the time, particularly the grand superhero sagas, but I see now that these are vital to the pacing of the overall arc of “Planetary”. The unresolved elements in this big, cosmic story also serve excellently to distract the reader from the revelations to come.

Agent John Stone is a freelance double-oh-seven of sorts, and he has known Elijah since 1969. The two have a chat about the Four, and we confirm that Elijah’s memory has gaps. When Stone knew exactly what to say to poke holes in the superstructure suppressing Elijah’s memories, I first thought this wondrously mysterious. Now, it seems obvious that Stone had to know how the memory blocks were set up to do this. And: He now knows he is the shrouded Fourth Man. I’m still amazed at how surprising this was when I first read it, as it seems so obvious now.

Leaving the 20th Century

We learn about Snow’s past as a protege of Sherlock Holmes; Jakita’s origin; and we finally see the story of how Snow finally ran afoul of the Four and had his memory wiped, under the threat of killing Jakita and The Drummer. That latter contains what is probably the best art in the entire story.

The entire book feels as if it’s bringing us up to date while starting to put the endgame against the four in motion. We also get more backstory about the relationship Snow has with Ambrose Chase’s widow and child, foreshadowing Elijah’s subsequent obsession with retrieving him.

This is still the first “modern” of the “Planetary” collections to me, as I first read these stories in a friend’s issues. It’s still my favorite of all these books.

Spacetime Archaeology

After dealing the Four several minor blows in the previous volume–with the help of John Stone–Elijah is now flexing his muscles as the leader of Planetary. He’s starting to keep secrets from his team, although–to be fair–his memory is still dribbling back. The return of Snow’s confidence has been building slowly since the first book, something that’s much more obvious when reading the entire run of “Planetary”.

The two-part “Mystery in Space” that opens this book feels like a side story. The mystery of Jacob Greene’s inhuman appearance, the Four’s grotesque, invulnerable foot soldier–is solved, but it’s a bit of an anticlimax. The subplot of aliens who sustain themselves with information doesn’t really sit well alongside the tale of getting Greene out of the picture. (The “science” behind this becomes relevant near the end of the book, but that’s too late for this story.) The character moments with Jakita fighting against what Elijah is becoming feel forced, as does Elijah’s “consultation” with a magician of sorts.

The book takes a turn for the better with The Drummer’s tale, “Percussion”. The Ambrose Chase-era Planetary field team rescue him from a Manhattan skyscraper on Park Avenue (the same one my father worked at, incidentally). The way his story leads into a confrontation with John Stone works better than it did when I first read it; the tone is remarkably consistent.

However, the endgame of the story still feels rushed. The hold that Snow has over the Four isn’t quite believable. While it seems unlikely that a fall and subsequent impact with the shiftship would kill them, it does. The return of the bleed shiftship from the first book is a bright spot in the tale, but this issue needed to be fleshed out more and made believable. The epilogue issue concerns the rescue of Ambrose Chase–who dissolved, Obi-Wan style in the “Planet Fiction” story–is handled well, but it too feels rushed. And the science is badly explained, making the whole “resurrection” unbelievable and shallow. The implied changes to the world set in motion by the release of the Four’s technology are dealt with and dismissed over a page or two.

Conclusions

The last half of “Planetary” reads better when you consume the work as a whole, but the ending still feels rushed, as if Ellis just wanted to be done with the tale. I still enjoy reading the work as a whole, but it’s a pity that the writer didn’t take more time getting it right.


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2 thoughts on “Re-evaluating the end of “Planetary”

  1. I this this is one of the all-time great stories told in the superhero genre. There are so many wonderful ways in which he revisits classic characters and tropes with a post-Watchmen eye to “what would these things mean if the story were inhabited by psychologically real people”? And yet it’s always in the service of telling his own story, not simply another Watchmen-redux story.

    For example, the way he interprets the quintessential oddity of the Fantastic Four and similar comics — Reed Richards invents and discovers a never-ending array of cool things for their use, but none of it ever has any impact on the non-superheroic world at large — as a fundamental character flaw that turns Richards into a villain that threatens the entire world.

    I actually really liked the ending. Once we understand the full scope of the story, and what’s going on, punching out the bad guy ultimately isn’t that interesting anymore. It violates every rule on how to construct a traditional action thriller plot — and that’s completely okay, because it’s entirely appropriate thematically.

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