I’ve been re-reading Warren Ellis and John Cassady’s Planetary lately, and reaffirming not just its quality, but the sense of wonder that’s in every single issue. Ellis doesn’t speak publicity much about the book, because, he says, it’s a project he associates with dark times in his life. It certainly wasn’t an easy story to complete. Planetary was plagued by illness-related delays throughout its run. It’s only 27 issues long, but it was 10 years between the debut of the series and the publication of its final issue in the fall of 2009. Though it was certainly no picnic for its creators, the difficulty of production enchanted Planetary for many readers. It became a cult comic without even trying. Patton Oswalt declared one of its stars – Elijah Snow – the best superhero in comics on live television (really, he did). By the time the final issue dropped and Ellis and Cassaday walked away from the project, they had both become comic book rock stars all over again.
Warren Ellis has since described the series as an effort to “download” from his head all of the superhero knowledge he had amassed through his years as a writer for Marvel and DC Comics. But Planetary doesn’t traffic in superhero stereotypes. There are hints of those old mythologies, but Ellis – ever the original – went deeper. He made the heroes of Planetary a kind of meta-archeological team, trying to break the skin of the world and get at the hidden universes lurking beneath. It doesn’t play by any of the rules of the genre, but I’d venture that Planetary is simply the finest superhero story written in the last 15 years.
The idea of Planetary seems to be to set up a scenario through which the whole world, indeed whole universes, can be explored with easy explanation. Planetary is a worldwide organization dedicated to investigating the weird and the just plain epic things that humans don’t generally have the capacity for comprehending. They have offices around the globe manned by associates, but the real team is only three people. Elijah Snow: one hundred years old but doesn’t look it, specializes in heat subtraction and, well, freezing things. Jakita Wagner: joined because she was bored; super speed, strength and stamina. The Drummer: has the ability to talk and listen to machines. They are funded without question by the mysterious Fourth Man – who, as Wagner notes, could be anyone from Bill Gates to Hitler – and spend their days tracking down everything from extradimensional beings to vengeful ghosts to magnificent monsters.
Nearly every issue of Planetary’s run is almost completely self-contained, and each features a completely unique cover design. In his original proposal for the series, Ellis is pitched each issue as though it were a three-minute pop single. Having already done his great joined epic (Transmetropolitan), he wanted to explore the power of a self-contained issue once again, and the result is a comic that’s both immediately satisfying and lingering. Every issue of Planetary is its own adventure, and yet the body of work as a whole is another experience altogether, a kind of portrait of a superhuman universe.
So many superhero comics rely on formulas, and even when the tale is told well you get a sense of pattern, of tradition, of stale template following. Planetary isn’t like that. It’s an homage to the best of the superhero genre that contains none of the bland predictability of the worst. It’s Ellis and Cassaday each in top form, and it’s a breathtaking kind of comic book. It may be a collection of single servings, but you can’t stop with one.