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Absolute Planetary, Vol. 2 (Review)

With Wildstorm being officially folded into the relaunched DCU (the “DCnU”), I thought I might take a look at some of the more successful and popular Wildstorm titles that the company produced. In particular, Planetary, the which will apparently inspire Paul Cornell’s Stormwatch – easily one of my more anticipated titles of the relaunch.

“We keep the world strange because that’s the way it’s suppose to be.”

– Elijah Snow outlines Planetary‘s mission

I really do love Warren Ellis’ Planetary, a love letter to pulp fiction in all its forms, about a team of crack pop culture archeologists, tracking down and preserving many of the weird and wonderful fictional specimens that we see all too rarely these days, from cowboy vigilantes to kung-fu epics. There’s a genuine love poured into the series by Ellis and his artistic collaborator, John Cassaday, as the pair celebrate some of the truly wonderful fiction of the twentieth century, as we brace ourselves for the twenty-first.

Little drummer boy...

What’s really remarkable about the second volume, in contrast to the first, is that this collection feels consciously more story-driven. While the vast majority of chapters are still stand-alone tales, there’s truly the sense that these are episodes on a long-running narrative rather than individual stories in their own right. The first collection did offer any number of slow-burning plot threads (the identity of the Third Man, Elijah Snow’s memory, the Four), but here the story is driven by Elijah’s personal journey and his plot against the Four, an attempt to take the world back from the sinister cabal with their fingers around its throat.

That doesn’t mean that the series has become any less magical. Indeed, with the narrative driven by Snow’s personal development, the themes and the story-telling styles become a lot more personal and intimate, as we focus on our lead and what he’s trying to accomplish. In particular, it affords Ellis to offer his observations on the nature of personal existence. “We contain universes,” Melanctha, a consultant, advises Snow, with the suggestion that his own observation and curiosity should be focused inwards rather than solely outwards. “In this consultation, I want you to consider the microscale. The invisible forces that hold us together.” There’s more than a hint of what cynics might sarcastically describe as “consciousness expansion” while Snow trips out on laced tea – he passes through a  giant flower as he is urged to “break on through to the other side” – but that would ignore some of the rather profound realisations that Ellis peppers throughout his work.

Up the river...

Indeed, Snow seems to come remarkably close to grasping his nature as a fictitious comic book character. “There’s a theory that the universe’s underpinning is information, not matter and energy,” Doctor Kwelo suggests at one point. “That means that the universe is two dimensional.” We’re presented with a ship powered by this information – and while the ship stationary, the story moves around it, literally powered by plot. Extrapolating from that, Elijah observes, “In the long run, we are three-dimensional side-effects of a two-dimensional universe existing in a multidimensional stack.” In sort, these are two-dimensional comic book panels given depth by the reader’s own perception. Nice stuff.

Elijah reflects on the Aboriginal belief that the very tapestry of reality is passed down from generation to generation in song, the universe kept alive by the very act of singing. One can sense Ellis’ approval. “Everything is song, out here,” Elijah explains. “It’s sacred law that each Aboriginal family is responsible for singing these creation songs for the rest of eternity. If the song is not passed down to the next generation, or if it is not sung, that aspect of the world that they’re responsible for ceases to exist. Fascinating, really.” Much like all these fictional worlds die if they aren’t written and read to be kept alive, if they aren’t celebrated and preserved.

Having a blast...

Of course, the series has always leaned rather heavily on meta-fiction, and understandably so, given the core themes that Ellis returns to, time and time again. It still seems a little bit more apparent this time around, with the collection opening with an homage to Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, using public domain characters. Indeed, Ellis features Dracula and Sherlock Holmes, two characters Moore didn’t include in his own work for fear of overwhelming the narrative (instead, both characters have their presence felt).

And, as per usual, Ellis has a great deal of fun with his fringe science, trying to concoct clever alternative rational explanations for conventional superhero quirks (something the author also attempted in his Ultimate Fantastic Four run). I quite like the suggestion that Thor’s hammer is “a quantum thread” and the observation that, due to the fact her irises turn invisible, the Invisible Woman would need special goggles in order to be able to process light (“I often wondered how you could see, since light would pass right through your eyes”). It’s clear the author is taking great enjoyment in playing with these tropes, and it’s quite difficult to see where the suggestion that Ellis “hates” conventional superheroes might have come from. He might be a little cynical and skeptical, but his criticisms are certainly fair, and never vindictive (unlike, say, Garth Ennis).

Out of this world...

After all, despite the fact that his antagonists are very clearly based on the Fantastic Four… well, so are his leads. It’s telling that the collection ends with the four members of Planetary back together, reconstructed and ready to make the world a better place. The four do, to be fair, each possess superhuman abilities. While the science may be slightly different, Elijah Snow’s powers are quite close to any number of ice-based superheroes, Jakita is super-strong and super-fast, etc. Although they don’t wear capes or tights, their clothes are more like distinctive costumes rather than uniforms (even the Drummer seems to seldom change).

Hell, Snow recalls Jakita’s adoptive parents in a manner quite similar to another tragic orphan. “They were childless,” he explains, “a farming couple who’d had an alarming experience with a crashed space vessel the year before. Good people. I told them a little of the story; that she was an orphan, in extraordinary circumstances.” It isn’t quite Grant Morrison’s eight words, but it’s close enough. Together, this group of plucky individuals even fight evil.

Has quite a kick to it...

The biggest difference between Planetary and conventional superheroes is the fact that they think. Ellis doesn’t blindly condemn all superhero fiction, just the vast majority that exists to smother the genre in a dull mediocrity. Snow dismisses the Four as violent reactive folks, who are too eager to use force and conflict to resolve matters, rather than embracing or exploiting new ideas. They use “knowledge towards destruction”, which is a waste. In fact, despite the group’s relatively high threat level, here Ellis dismisses them in a fairly passive manner, in the penultimate issue – the finale reserved for far more important matters. As Snow assures Dowling near the climax, “Ultimately, you are too small to matter to me.”

It’s telling that Dowling’s powers are a twisted reflection of Reed Richards, on a more conceptual level. “Anyone who’s been within a hundred feet of Randall Dowling, Elijah,” Stone warns his friend, “probably is Randall Dowling.” The character can stretch himself, replicate himself, he’s able to “able to stretch [his] mind into other people’s heads.” He can infect and spread like some sort of idea bomb or conceptual virus. Perhaps much like the idea of the modern superhero, which is the same pattern reconstituted over and over and over again. That’s rather terrifying, and fiendishly clever.

Just the three of us...

However, it’s just a good story, well told. And I think that’s what stands to Planetary as written by Ellis. It feels so… enthusiastic and optimistic, beneath the cynicism radiating from Snow. “It’s a strange world,” is a sweet mantra, and one that reminds the reader of the breadth and power of the human imagination – something that shouldn’t ever be lost or allowed to fade away. Stories are stories are stories, they are powerful and funny and bizarre and incredibly and all these things at once and more besides. I honestly think Ellis captures this idea perfectly and has distilled it over twenty-six issues into something truly special.

Of course, Cassaday compliments the writer’s style, and the book wouldn’t be the same without the artist’s work on the title. In fact, I’d suggest that the absolutely stunning two-parter Mystery in Space/Rendezvousrepresents the height of the synergy between the pair, as they seem so brilliantly in step, fully evoking the majesty of science-fantasy comics in one beautiful little story. Comics honestly don’t get much better than this, and the whole collection looks beautiful.

Grave concern...

Planetary is, to be frank, a wonderful little story. Of course, “little” is the wrong word. It’s impossibly vast and huge, drawing on everything and anything, a magic cocktail of pulp history with pseudo-science and conspiracy theories thrown in for flavour. But it’s never impersonal. It is never out-of-touch, and it never feels too clever or academic for its own good. It genuinely connects, because Ellis is telling a very human story about the human obligation to try to make the world a better place. And there’s something very romantic about that.

Read our reviews of Warren Ellis’ Planetary:

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