Friday, May 27

Planetary, vol. 3: Leaving the Twentieth Century

By Warren Ellis and John Cassaday, collecting the series #13-18 (2001-2004)

Again, since I started this blog while I was in the process of reading through this 27-issue series collected in four paperback volumes, I'm going to play a little catch-up here. I'm not going to try to analyze the series as a whole. For one thing, I'm not but three-quarters of the way through it. And I don't pretend to have “gotten” all the subtleties, references, and themes in this deep series. Oddly enough, as far as I've found, it has not been annotated fully. There have been a couple of abortive attempts that don't seem to have gotten very far:
The basic overview “blurb” is this, from the back of both the first and second volumes:

This is Planetary: Three people who walk the world for strangeness and wonder, uncovering things others wish were left uncovered. They are the mystery archaeologists, explorers of the planet's secret history, charting the unseen borders of a fantastic world.

Of course, a conflict has emerged. In the first and second volumes great mystery surrounds exactly who the character Elijah Snow is and who the “Fourth Man” behind Planetary is. But there also develops an ongoing struggle between Planetary and a group called The Four that ratchets up in the third volume. Along the way a number of other characters and events appear from the last century or so, basically the twentieth (Planetary launched as a series in 1999; Elijah Snow is a very well-preserved 99 years old, having been born on 1 January 1900). Particularly those other characters (and even The Four) have analogues in various fictional genres and works of that same century … characters from before the twentieth century actually appear under their own names. I imagine much of that had to do with copyright issues.

Anyway, what I'm going to do here is break down the first three volumes by original issue and focus on the main character references:

Vol. 1 – All Over the World and Other Stories

#1: “All Over the World.” First we meet our main characters, put forward here as a three-person field team working for a mysterious “Fourth Man”: Elijah Snow, Jakita Wagner, and “the Drummer.” All three have some kind of super-power: Snow can manipulate and lower temperatures; Wagner is super-strong, -fast, and -tough; the Drummer is some kind of electronic savant who can communicate directly with computers and electronic systems. Then the balance of the issue reveals the existence of a band of super-humans in the 1930s and 1940s who are analogues mainly of old pulp heroes (and villains): The only one who is discovered still alive is Doc Brass [Doc Savage], but there was also one Hark [Fu Manchu], Jimmy [Operator No. 5], an Aviator [G-8], Edison [Tom Swift], Lord Blackstock [Tarzan], and a black-cloaked figure whose name is not given, I believe [The Shadow or The Spider]. All had vanished in 1945, it now turns out defeating an attack on our world by another universe's analogues of the Justice League, individually unnamed but clearly Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, and Aquaman. The issue ends with an exchange that becomes one of the catch-phrases of the series: “It's a strange world.” “Let's keep it that way.”

#2: “Island.” Basically a riff of the old Japanese monster movies, centered around Monster Island and its creatures such as Godzilla, Rodan, and so forth.

#3: “Dead Gunfighters.” An homage to Chinese action movies, in which our heroes meet a ghost cop in Hong Kong.

#4: “Strange Harbours.” Introduces a character named James Wilder (is it a coincidence that this is one of the names postulated by Philip Jose Farmer as the “real” name of Doc Savage in Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life? I doubt it, but I don't know the connection) who is transformed by some kind of interdimensional ship into some kind of science-fiction techno-art-deco Captain Marvel (the real one, i.e. “Shazam!”).

#5: “The Good Doctor.” Juxtaposes a sedate comic-illustrated conversation between Elijah Snow and Doc Brass with prose pages recounting the latter's career in pulp-magazine form. The cover is an homage to the 1960s paperback reprints of Doc Savage, complete with a faux James Bama cover. This issue also brings in a character named Jenny Sparks from the Wildstorm series The Authority (which I've not read – shock – horror!), about the anti-hero Justice League of the Wildstorm universe.

#6: “4.” Introduces the main “villains” - or at least opponents of Planetary (I'm not sure that things are entirely as they seem, and won't be until I've finished the series as a whole. I'm not reading ahead in any of the resources). They are analogues of Marvel Comics' Fantastic Four – Randall Dowling (Reed Richards), Kim Suskind (Susan Storm), William Leather (Johnny Storm), and Jacob Greene (Benjamin Grimm). These are The Four – and at least through the third volume they are portrayed as really bad news. They have powers much like those of their prototypes, the most different being Dowling who can “expand his mind,” i.e. read and influence others' minds as well as being super-intelligent (but with no morals to go with it).

The volume ends with the “Planetary Preview” which was actually published first, as an insert or backup to other Wildstorm titles: “Nuclear Spring.” Basically tells another version of the story of Marvel Comics' The Hulk. As always, it's given its own twist in this setting. My main quibble is the placement – right back to back with another Marvel Comics riff. Obviously it couldn't go first without diluting the introduction of Elijah Snow in issue #1, but if I were editing this collection I would have put it in immediately after, between #1 and #2. Oh well.

Vol 2 – The Fourth Man

#7: “To Be in England, in the Summertime.” Other than its cover's resemblance to the style of Wildstorm's sister imprint published by DC Comics, Vertigo, I can't make any real connections here beyond the name of a character introduced here, Jack Carter. That was the name of the character played by Michael Caine in Get Carter, a 1971 British crime-revenge film.

#8: “The Day the Earth Turned Slower.” As is obvious from the title, it's a riff on 1950s science-fiction films. The issue cover's great – fifty-foot woman, giant ants, Martians attacking – all at once.

#9: “Planet Fiction.” Tells the story of an earlier Planetary mission in which a previous field team member (whom Snow replaced – well that's the implication) Ambrose Chase was killed. (He also was super-powered, able to disrupt reality.)

#10: “Magic and Loss.” Members of The Four wipe out analogues of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern before they can emerge on the Earth, appropriating their technologies for themselves. (This sounds very much like the plot for Planetary/JLA: Terra Occulta, which I already increasingly want to forget I ever read.  [Note:  I did read it a few days ago and had a blog entry for it, but frankly don't consider rewritng it worth the trouble.])

#11: “Cold World.” John Stone, Agent of S.T.O.R.M., is obviously Marvel's Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. - complete with a Steranko-esque cover. In this story, however, Elijah Snow announces, “I know who the Fourth Man is.

#12: “Memory Cloud.” Elijah Snow reveals that he himself is the Fourth Man. He was rendered amnesiac by The Four, sacrificing himself to save his team, but was found by them. He is now recovered and ready to take on The Four. The issue (and volume) ends with him projecting a huge icy “4” spanning Central Park in New York City – symbolically the opposite of the traditional flaming “4” left as a trail in the sky by the Human Torch.

Vol. 3 – Leaving the Twentieth Century

#13: “Century.” Retrospective of Elijah Snow's early adventures including his becoming an apprentice of Sherlock Holmes and kicking Count Dracula in the nuts. Really.

#14: “Zero Point.” Another retrospective, in which the Mighty Thor's hammer Mjolnir leads Snow into the confrontation with The Four that left him amnesiac.

#15: “Creation.” Plays off Australian aboriginal myth, centering around Ayres Rock and the concept of the Dreamtime.

#16: “Hark.” Amanda Hark, the daughter of Doc Brass's 1940s ally Hark, enters into an uneasy alliance with Snow.

#17: “Opak-Re.” Equals the lost city of Opar – this is a tale of a younger Elijah Snow encountering Lord Blackstock in a mysterious lost city in Africa – which hosts a super-scientific but reclusive people. We find out that Jakita Wagner is actually Blackstock's daughter by a woman of Opak-Re, rescued by Snow.

#18: “The Gun Club.” Tells the real fate of the crew shot into space in Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon. Their capsule was lost in a 150-year orbit that eventually came back to its point of origin – and brought it to the attention of The Four, which gives Planetary the chance to capture one of their number, William Leather.

And so the third volume ends.

But I can't let this blog entry end without praising the art of John Cassaday.  He is one of the most technically perfect draftsmen working in comics today, and he can tell a story too.  To illustrate this, I've chosen two images:  One of the main characters, basically the cover of issue #1, and one big montage that is also available as a wallpaper:


(And with that, thank God, I've reconstructed more or less what this blog looked like before I carelessly deleted everything.  Luckily, for this last entry I had it saved, html and all, as a separate file.)


  1. Thanks for namechecking (and linking to) my annotations and mini-essays. They stalled after a depressing computer crash, but more are coming, with up to issue 11 now annotated (plus the Batman crossover). Nice synopses!

  2. You're very welcome. Thanks for reading and the kind words. I still have yet to go back and finish the fourth, final volume of Planetary. And now classes have started back up for the fall so it may be a while. So many books, so little time!