Getting Graphic: Planetary by Daniel Reynolds
For many, the world of comic books remains a vast, messy universe filled with a lot of spandex, continuity and confusing history. In the interest of inclusion, I've decided to start a monthly introductory series of articles highlighting a comic book series or graphic novel that is worth discovering and embracing. My goal is to try to make the world of comics a little less intimidating and a lot more welcoming. Now, this doesn't mean I'm not going to write about Superman and the like (I totally will, All-Star Superman is awesome) but I hope to, at the very least, convince some of you out there to maybe take a second look at comics and check out some cool books.
All that being said, let's get started: I think Planetary is one of the best comic books ever made and I'd like for you to give it a chance.
Still with me? Here we go.
Some context: Planetary is a comic book series, written by Warren Ellis and drawn by John Cassaday. It was published for ten years between 1999 and 2009 by Wildstorm but only 27 monthly issues were produced over that period of time. It essentially told the story of some good people banding together to defeat some bad people but (and I'm sure you knew there was a but), to be called “the best”, it would have to be about more than that. I mean, there would have to be some brilliance in there, right?
The book introduces the reader to three characters, the good guys: the super powered and saucy Jakita Wagner, to meet the spandex quotient; the innocent slacker known as The Drummer, an information sponge; and of course, the mysterious and powerful Elijah Snow, the 'getting too old for this shit' leader. The bad guys? An evil cabal referred to as the Four, a sinister foursome of cosmically powered individuals (sound Fantastically familiar?).
As is gradually revealed, the Planetary organization is concerned with the discovery, preservation and documentation of all that is strange, wild and unexplainable in the universe. Essentially, we are following a team of super powered archaeologists. Elijah, grousing and enigmatic, is the founder of the group and our eyes into the story since it turns out he has a case of selective amnesia that prevents him from knowing his true self. We journey along with him as he reconnects with his past, his old friends and enemies, and the history of the Planetary. Now, as he re-discovers the mysteries of the universe, here is where the brilliant part kicks in. Ellis uses this conceit (and really, what a great idea) as a way to explore every bizarre, crazy, compelling and other-worldly element of our own fiction and popular culture. Rather than digging up the bones of dinosaurs, Ellis concentrates on digging up the bones of Godzilla.
Throughout the course of 27 issues we get introduced to an island graveyard for monsters, a Yakuza ghost story, the creation of Captain Marvel, mutant ants in Area 51, a history lesson on Golden Age characters, a mini-treatise on comics in the 90's, and more. That's right, and more! In each issue Ellis offers up a different strand of alternative history that weaves together to build the tapestry of the collective fictional universe we embrace in a multitude of forms today. And, along with the words, Cassaday ably provides dynamic and inventive illustrations that offer up slightly askew takes on familiar archetypes while working in vastly different thematic elements to establish the disparate nature of each issue.
In the end, the villainous Four, are not attempting to take over the world, or destroy it (merely a modest goal in comic book terms), they are attempting something far more insidious. They are trying to control our stories, dreams and imagination; they are trying to keep the world a boring and normal place. And the Planetary organization, as Elijah puts it, are just trying to keep the world weird.
So why start our entry level series with Planetary, admittedly, a very dense, in-the-know, type of comic book? Well, as I've briefly attempted to assert, it is wildly inventive, fun, complex and enthralling, but also, it is this: an exultation of the unknown and mysterious, an exploration of those zones of humanity and the universe that make life worth living. Elijah Snow's reaction, as he remembers his old life and odd history that had been blocked from him, is not one of overwhelmed resignation but rather, that of a welcoming embrace (and some furious anger). Once he and his compatriots are able to see these wonders of the world, their response isn't fear or disbelief but rather, a desire, an overwhelming crushing desire, to expose and share with all, the beauty contained therein.
The hope with this column is to do just that.