Warren Ellis is one of those authors whose work is so prolific and imaginative that you suspect his writing acts as a release valve for the myriad ideas that constantly spawn in his brain, whether he likes it or not, and that if he ever stopped he’d be a dribbling lunatic before long.
Consistently at the forefront of comics writing for many years now, he’s created or worked on a plethora of titles, and has influenced countless other authors. If asked to pick out his most significant work, many people might cite his demented cyberpunk masterpiece Transmetropolitan. Ellis also wrote Planetary, however, a series which could be described as the X-Files meets superheroes meets everything else you can imagine. It took the somewhat tired themes that mainstream comics often rely on and reinvented them, giving the genre a much-needed shot of adrenaline in the process, and it’s Planetary that has always left a particular impression on me.
Although only 27 issues long, the epic series by Ellis and artist John Cassaday ran intermittently for over a decade, from 1998 to 2009, due to various delays. To explain in detail the plot would probably take almost as long as reading the comics themselves. Suffice it to say that the main character, Elijah Snow, is a cynical, century-old badass with cold-based superpowers, and a member of the highly secret Planetary organisation. Elijah and his team-mates Jakita Wagner and the Drummer are mystery archaeologists – they seek out and investigate the strange, otherworldly and unexplainable.
In Planetary Ellis presents a world in which secrets and wonders of all kinds exist but are hidden behind the scenes, invisible to humanity at large. The series’ main antagonists are the mysterious Four. Where Planetary seek to use the mysteries they find in the service of humanity, the Four have conspired for decades to secretly control the world and hold back its progress for their own gain. In their selfish pursuit of knowledge for the sake of their own power they are a dark reflection of Elijah and Planetary. Astronauts who gained superhuman abilities during a space flight, they also bear a distinct resemblance to Marvel’s Fantastic Four. And throughout the series we see analogues of other characters, ideas and stories, taken not just from comics but from everything from ‘30s pulp fiction to Japanese monster films, seen through the warped prism of Ellis’ imagination. Planetary is much more than just pastiche, however, and Ellis weaves these together with concepts like time travel and parallel universes to create something entirely new.
The series opens with Elijah’s recruitment into Planetary by Jakita Wagner. Possessing superhuman strength and toughness, she’s something akin to a female Captain America with more of a sense of humour. Elijah is introduced to the socially maladjusted Drummer, whose rather vaguely-defined powers are control over computer systems and a kind of sixth sense involving information. He’s the traditional nerd who hacks into the bad guys’ computers while the action heroes kick ass and take names, essentially. Thanks to his abilities and knowledge, Elijah is to be the new third man of their three-person team. What happened to the previous third man isn’t revealed. Also unknown is the identity of the enigmatic fourth man, who founded Planetary and provides its vast resources.
The team’s first mission reveals a secret cave complex in the Adirondack Mountains. Inside, they discover the last survivor of a secret group of superhumans who built a quantum computer in the 1940s, and things only get stranger from then on. The central plotline of the series follows the conflict between Elijah and his allies and the Four. Along the way, however, we meet Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Dracula, and see the Nautilus, the lost African city of Opak-re, a Victorian space-probe, a ship built to travel between universes, and too many other strange sights to list. Meanwhile the many other mysteries of Planetary are gradually revealed. As the series progresses we learn the fate of Elijah’s predecessor, Ambrose Chase, the identity of the fourth man, and the secrets of the Four’s origin and Elijah’s own past.
Finally comes Planetary’s ultimate confrontation with the Four. Here might be one of the very few areas in which it’s possible to criticise the series, in that, after spending so long establishing the Four as its seemingly all-powerful antagonists, Elijah’s ultimate victory feels a little too neat – too easy almost. But in fact that final battle happens in the penultimate issue, and what comes after it is the series’ real conclusion.
I think it’s fair to say that Warren Ellis has a signature style, as most comics fans will know, which leans heavily on cynicism and dark humour. Compared to much of his work, Planetary might be considered Ellis-lite, in that it lacks the uncompromising bleakness of Transmetropolitan, for instance. For me this is Ellis at his best, however, combining his trademark razor-sharp wit with his ability to convey mind-expanding ideas. While there are moments of darkness, these don’t overshadow the whole series. Instead, Ellis focuses on telling a great story with compelling, believable characters, all while showcasing the seemingly unlimited power of his imagination.
The quality of the writing is matched by John Cassaday’s art, which is impressive from the start and, as you’d expect, matures over the series’ ten-year run to become stunning. His skill with faces and expressions helps make the characters real, and his clean, simple page layouts convey action sequences perfectly. Thanks to Cassaday, Planetary has a very cinematic feel, and a much greater sense of mood than most comics. Moments like Elijah and his team’s investigation of a huge alien artefact found in space have a real sense of tension. Cassaday is also a master of the one or two-page spread reveal, something which suits Ellis’ writing particularly well. There are some truly breathtaking images of the inside of the artefact, for example. Laura Martin’s colouring work is also superb, and helps give the series its distinctive noirish-yet-spectacular look.
For those who follow mainstream comics, concepts like superpowers, aliens and other universes have become so familiar as to be nothing special. What I love about Planetary is the way in which, while it deals with the same familiar themes, it makes them new and exciting again. Ellis melds ideas like these seamlessly with cutting-edge real-world science, along with his own wild ideas and theories. Helped by Cassaday’s art, his writing reminds you how amazing such concepts are, and makes you think about what it would be like to actually live in a world where these things are possible. As such, Planetary embodies what for me is at the heart of all good science fiction – a sense of mystery and possibility, a desire to look beyond the tedious, mundane world we see every day to the wonderful and terrible things that might exist outside it. “It’s a strange world”, as Elijah Snow often says, “Let’s keep it that way.”