Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Planetary #27

Back story

Today saw the release of the long-awaited last issue of Warren Ellis and John Cassaday's "Planetary", for DC's Wildstorm imprint. "Planetary" was first published in 1999, and shipped on an irregular schedule for more than two years, before the publisher decided to give it another push in late 2002, choosing to with a bi-monthly schedule. By then, both it's writer and artist have found success in the more traditional DC and Marvel superhero comics, thus the series once again started to come out infrequently.

The second to last issue of "Planetary" was published three whole years ago, with Wildstorm openly declaring that the finale will be some time in coming, due to the creators' commitments. In the time since, the news about the eagerly awaited #27 were rare, but what was finally established was that Ellis had turned in a script a couple of years ago, leaving the series to wait until Cassaday found the time in his schedule to commit to pencilling the issue.

For it's fans, "Planetary" was in many ways a special series. Debuting side-by-side with Ellis' more commercial "the Authority", the Cassaday-drawn series was something of a cult favorite. Nominally utilizing the premise of inventing new superheroes to explore the Wildstorm universe Cold war continuity, the creators were quick to establish the series as it's own thing. Thus, every issue of "Planetary" worked as a self-contained chapter, featuring a very lush and expertly-paced mix of superhero homages as seen through it's pulp origins. The special care used to develop the project manifested itself through memorable covers, and every adventure having a somewhat different feel, while slowly creating the book's mythology.

More than that, Ellis managed to inject his stories with his own commentary on the pop culture referenced, but never in the way that would slow the book down, or encumber it with unnecessary references. Cassaday's distinctive artwork saw fit to integrate all of the pieces into a unique whole, that was still very accessible and stylish. Basically, "Planetary" never stopped being a post-superhero book that targeted a more mature reader bending toward science-fiction with a lot of character, but it was remarkably successful in what it set out to do. It stands to it's creators strengths that in the 10 years since it debuted, there has been so few of the books that managed to come close to it's level of craft and entertainment.

Last issue

"Planetary" was always designed to be a finite book, though, and over the course of it's run, a clear pattern slowly and naturally emerges. Thus, the later issues in the series focus firmly on the team's mission, which is trying to eliminate their opposite numbers. Interestingly, "the Four" that the protagonists set out against, turn out to be a more cynical version of Marvel's Silver Age pioneers, "the Fantastic Four". Yet, the anti-climatic final confrontation with the malevolent scientists took place in the issue preceding #27, enabling Ellis and Cassaday to focus on showing the difference between the two groups. The last issue of the series is thus completely devoted to a benign act of trying to save the long thought dead fourth member of the main Planetary cell, Ambrose Chase.

In order to accomplish this, the book's central character, Elijah Snow uses not only the strength of his own team, but all of "the Four"'s resources that the team's come into possession. Contrary to Marvel analogues, the Planetary organization utilizes all of the knowledge available to benefit the humanity, gained by following their motto of preserving "a strange world". Due to the nature of Ambrose's predicament, the issue serves to spotlight the group's mutant scientist, and artist John Cassaday's self-portrait, "the Drummer".

As with some of the later "Planetary" issues, #27 doesn't exist as a concrete parallel to a particular piece of pop-culture, but it still comes with a heavy does of science-fiction. Warren Ellis makes all of the pseudo-science convincing on the plot level, even if some of it seems dense at first. This is very important considering that the operation Elijah and his team partake on makes up the whole of the 32-page story. If some of it seems heavy, thankfully, the comics format enables the reader to go back and reread the confusing section in order to obtain a clearer understanding of the proceedings. Even then, just continuing on with the story may prove a better option, as the construction of the life-saving machine and it's function is adequately explained at every turn.

Ellis is careful not to sideline the team's powerhouse, and provides enough space for Jakita Wagner. The team's female member with a scandalously low boredom threshold ends up not merely commenting on the plan for Ambrose's rescue, but plays the integral, and very much in character, role in the finishing stages. Likewise, Ellis finds enough space to feature some of the series' more colorful supporting characters, showing the reader their role in the next step of the Planetary organization, but never at the expense of plot.

Because, if nothing else, the reader could have expected the series' send-off to be a retrospective, providing another look at some of the hinted-at lore behind Planetary's world filled with decades of superhero history. Ellis and Cassaday forgo such sentimentality and keep true to form, by concentrating on a single science fiction idea, and making it work in the larger context of the series. This makes for a much more cohesive and wholesome experience, that actually stands up as a story on it's own. Considering that the issue was three whole years in the making, it's remarkable how clear it is in reminding the reader of the characters and the situations, providing just enough of a reminder so as not to intrude in the complexities of the plot at hand.

Strangely, for all the drama regarding such a time-oriented rescue operation, the question of Elijah Snow's own mortality never comes up. It's interesting in itself, because as set up by Ellis, "century babies" end up perishing at the end of 1999, or at least undergoing a transformation into another incarnation of the planet's immune system. This particular bit of trivia seems incidental only when considering that a simple line of text could have justified the protagonist's continued existence. Still, the seeming anomaly points out to a hazy sense of time that surrounds the events featured in the issue. Ambrose's incident, previously clearly shown to take place in 1997, is referred to as happening "a few years ago", while it was previously clear that all of the Planetary's twenty seven issues, including the specials, take place in a relatively short amount of time. Considering this being the last episode of the series, it seems unlikely that the editorial would push to blur the timing of events, so as not to confuse the readers.

Sadly, this plays out in concert with the promise that the closing pages of the issue make. Ever optimistic, "the Planetary" just begs to be continued upon, but it's creators once again prove right in their decision. Taking into account that all of their series has been one wider arc, it's a relief to see it come to it's natural conclusion without further spin-offs, no matter how interesting the glimpses at Ellis and Cassaday's superhero world may have been. The many interesting concepts and new versions of pulp phenomena, no matter how colorful, were always employed with a precise goal, of getting across the idea of a fully functional fictional reality. And, looking objectively, having beaten their rivals, the Planetary team have achieved a kind of superhero utopia that is by it's nature devoid of the kind of drama that has characterized the series, the question of Elijah Snow's lifespan excluded.

Perhaps this is a reason why Ellis and Cassaday chose not to feature Ambrose Chase's family, declining to give them even a cameo in the last issue's pages. They are simply not integral to the wider plot, no more than the several other Planetary cells glimpsed throughout the series' run. "Planetary" ends up being a story of Elijah Snow, a nearly hundred years old superhuman that resurfaces to try and adapt to new times, while figuring out how to deliver a final blow to the enemies of humanity that have arose in his absence. Having unlocked "the Four"'s secrets from the world at large, the Planetary organization has introduced their reality to the 21st century, which largely brings the plot to it's conclusion. Thus, the series' last issue acts as nothing more than a personal coda to the difference saving one life makes to the team, and in turn the humanity they are indebted to saving.

In the end, "Planetary" remains a superhero series at heart, once again proving that the decades old concepts can be refreshing even now, if utilized with intelligence and flourish. Hopefully, it will have a long life in collected form, showing the result that the difference the skill and knowledge of Warren Ellis and John Cassaday have made in the over-crowded comic book market, that regularly struggles when it comes to similar ideas.


Chuup@Cabra said...

It was a great final issue, and I loved the entire run, but I still have one lingering question:

Does Planetary exists in the broader "Wildstorm" universe, and, if so, what is their condition Post-Apocalypse.

I tend to say "No" myself, or we would have seen them crossover more than once with "The Authority" or other Wildstorm books earlier.

Also, with their level of tech, they could have prevented the Apocalypse, or even dialed back the clock.

Vanja said...
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Vanja said...
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Vanja said...

Yours is a particularly interesting question. I believe that you are right, and Planetary is a creator owned concept, while Ellis clearly has a different deal with Wildstorm, regarding Authority. It would actually make sense, taking into account that Authority continues the characters introduced in Stormwatch (and new versions of villains from the Change or die storyline). I guess that he signed one of those deals where anything created in Stormwatch belongs to Wildstorm, albeit with royalties regarding the characters' subsequent use, ala Rob Liefield's rights regarding Deadpool.