Imagine a world in which most of our incredible fictional sci-fi, pulp and comic book characters were, in fact, real. Where clever men actually created monsters and bred vampyres, terrorized from giant airships and steampunk submarines, utilized giant guns to launch themselves to the moon, solved incredible crimes, fought alien armies, developed superpowers and penetrated alternate dimensions.
Then imagine one group doing everything it can to hide those facts from the world, for its own selfish ends… opposed by another group doing what it can to bring those incredible secrets to light.
And you have the premise of Planetary.
Now imagine a science fiction fan who grew up on pulps and comic book superheroes, who loved Classics Illustrated and adores the sequential art format. And you know why I’ve always had such a hard-on for this series.
Planetary, created by writer Warren Ellis and artist John Cassaday, existed in a unique fictional world of its own. It centered around three mismatched adventurers with incredible powers who share a love of uncovering the mysterious and impossible, trying to document and reassemble the pieces of the secret world around them.
This comic was not, strictly speaking, a superhero book; Planetary was really a science fiction comic, featuring sci-fi tropes from multiple eras and media types to create one overarching saga. But superpowers are included in those sci-fi tropes, so yes, there were superpowered characters throughout Planetary.
And not just the default and ultimately boring power mixes, which is just one of the things that was so fascinating about the series. The main character, Elijah Snow, for instance, had the power to freeze water… he didn’t run around covered in ice, or fire bolts of icicles at baddies, but he was capable of freezing living beings almost instantly, or condensing the water around him, turning a lethal gas, for instance, into a harmless snowfall. He was also a master detective, trained by none other than Sherlock Holmes.
There was an uber-powerful character… not a musclebound man, but a woman, Jakita Wagner. And the third man of the group, known as The Drummer, could probe information out of something, including digital data and even magic, merely by drumming on it with his drumsticks.
There was a fourth man, Ambrose Chase, a black man who (refreshingly, it seems) didn’t command lightning like so many other thinly-conceived black superheroes; instead, he could warp time and space, using his abilities to speed up or slow down realtime interactions, manipulate gravity and alter reality around him. Ambrose was perhaps the most fascinating character of all, so it’s sad that he got so little exposure in the series; but he represents an important capstone at the beginning and end of the series, making him especially significant to the overall narrative.
Three things in particular made Planetary such a great series for me. One was Ellis’ incredible characters, masterful dialogue and fascinating stories, creating an intricate mosaic that never grew tedious, silly or inconsistent… but was always strange. To me, he stands as one of the best writers in comics today, more imaginative than most, capable of finding clever solutions to problems and unexpected consequences to characters’ abilities and actions that make his stories so much fun to read.
Two was Cassaday’s incredible art. Cassaday’s style isn’t typical of superhero comics, maybe not as smooth or polished as some of the more popular artists’ styles on the major imprints. But his layout and execution is strong, expressive, often intricate, and it fits the weirdness of Ellis’ premise to a T. When combined with the understated but natural-looking palette of Laura Martin’s colors, the overall effect was a fantastic and unique atmosphere to the series. The sense of normalcy in the art and colors helped communicate a greater excitement when major events or significant actions did occur; instead of the typical superhero comic, which can feel jaded at times by constant action, Planetary brought me in like a calm voyeur, to be properly surprised and amazed when something major did happen.
Three was the fantastic mix of characters and events that made up their secret world, courtesy of a multiverse of every possible reality that the series frequently accessed. The Wildstorm imprint was a subsidiary of DC comics, and Planetary took advantage of the connection in paying homage to various DC superheroes, plus a journey through the multiverse to meet, and tussle with, various incarnations of the Batman, and an encounter with another Wildstorm team, The Authority.
And though some of the many characters in the overall series were well known to readers, most notably public-domain characters like Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, others were thinly-disguised versions of characters from novels, pulps, movies and comic books, including Tarzan, the Lone Ranger, Doc Savage, Flash Gordon, James Bond, The Shadow, the Green Hornet, Nick Fury, the Justice League, the Fantastic Four and others. Some of these characters were drawn from the parallel realities of the multiverse, opening up an endless supply of character possibilities and forcing the imagination to run wild with the possibilities.
Put together, these characters made up a world of the weird and incredible, with world-altering stakes. Much of the series was quietly intellectual and understated… which made its action, perhaps nothing compared to modern superhero action, but nonetheless all the more impressive for its brevity and punch.
The stories had a knack of challenging me to recall what fictional characters were being referenced to or homaged by Ellis’ depictions. Some, like Axel Brass, a clear copy of Doc Savage, and John Stone, an homage to James Bond, were obvious. Other stories suggested connections to the early SF of Wells and Verne, contemporaries of superheroes from the major comics imprints, legends from American history and Australian mythical lore. Reading Planetary was never, ever boring.
On top of all that, Ellis made clever extrapolations, based on the potential of many of those sci-fi and comics characters and elements, and wove them into his tapestry. Suddenly the potential for some of my favorite sci-fi and comics concepts to create hitherto-unexplored miracles—or nightmares—were there before me, concepts that typical comics either just missed… or maybe were deemed too much for the average reader to grasp. It made the series so much more unpredictable, and therefore more exciting, than the average comic book, making over-the-top moments feel significant, never just another crazy scene before you turn the page for the next one.
As much as I enjoy a good superhero dust-up, science fiction is still my favorite genre, and SF-based comics and graphic novels will always be my preferred light entertainment. Planetary perhaps comes closest to the perfect blend of comics and multi-genre sci-fi that I’ve ever read, from a creative team that helps it stand head and shoulders above the crowd. It heads a very short list of high-quality science fiction comics and graphic novels, a list which would include the likes of Akira, The Incal, Martha Washington, Appleseed, American Flagg! and Watchmen, and precious little else.
It’s one of a very few series for which I, myself, have penned a potential story (and even drafted an illustrated version, should I ever get drunk enough to pick up a pen once more). It remains a high water mark in sci-fi comics, a mark that will be very difficult to surpass.