Planetary: A Post-Modern Comics Manifesto

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It’s fitting that right as the the first decade of the new millennium comes to a close, so does perhaps the greatest comic book series of the same time. In many ways Warren Ellis’ and John Cassaday’s now-totally-complete Planetary is the apotheosis of a modern-era revisionist/deconstructionalist superhero comic book.

Ellis and Cassaday tell a tale about the evolution of pop-culture consciousness, from pulp fiction to cyberpunk and beyond. Chronicling the adventures of “Mystery Archaeologists” Jakita Wagner, Elijah Snow, and the Drummer as they explore the mysteries of a century worth of imagination, Planetary is a masterwork that spans 27 issues sporadically released over the last ten years.

“We’re mapping the secret history of the twentieth century.” Planetary superhero/archaeologist Jakita Wagner declares in the team’s eight-page first appearance. Jakita’s statement serves as a declaration of intent not only for the fictional Planetary organization, but also for the comic book’s creative team as well.

Cassaday and Ellis have created what amounts to a genealogical map of pop-literature leading up to the creation of Planetary itself. The series tells a revisionist history of comic books seen through the eyes of a modern superhero narrative. In short, the “secret history” that the Planetary organization is uncovering is its very own.

Planetary’s superhero pastiche is of the highest order, custom built for the 21st century. Throughout the series Ellis and Cassaday use Planetary as their platform to de-construct and re-imagine many different genres and characters, most superhero related.

The series draws upon an eclectic group of characters and genre archetypes, exploring and referencing a plethora of sources including: James Bond spy thrillers (issue #11), Japanese Godzilla movies (issue #2), Hong Kong heroic bloodshed epics (issue #3), old 1950’s Horror films (issue #8), and time travel and superhero resurrection conventions (issue #27). Ellis, in a sideways way, even references himself and his Vertigo work on Hellblazer and Transmetropolitan (issue #4). Ellis and Cassaday have set loose over one hundred years of speculative fiction into one universe and it’s up to the members of the Planetary organization to discover its meaning.

Issue #2 Issue #3 Issue #8 Issue #11

is, foremost, about comic books and superhero genre in particular. One must have a pretty strong historical knowledge of comic books to catch all the myriad of references that fill the pages. Trying to see how many little intricacies you can identify makes up a lot of the fun in reading Planetary. The level of complexity may be too much for the uninitiated, but for the connoisseur it is sweet indeed.

From a theoretical perspective, Planetary is one of those benchmarks that comics only reach once or twice a decade. This is a comic book in which the heroes are uncovering the “secret history” of comic books themselves, fiction commenting on itself. If DC’s Final Crisis was the symbolic end of the “fourth age” of comics, Planetary is the theoretical equivalent. It is the historical reference point for the end of the modern age of comics and a manifesto for the upcoming fifth age.

Throughout the series, Ellis’ writing is brutally sharp, thoughtfully complex, and slightly weird in a singular way. Cassaday’s art is consistently stunning, and over the comic’s ten year run he shows artistic range that few can rival. Since there have been numerous hiatus and delays, it’s easy to say that there isn't a hastily crafted page in the entire series. Even with the production breaks that made Planetary a sometimes frustrating series to collect, the completed work is well worth the wait. It’s easy to forgive lack of punctuality and recognize true craftsmanship when the work is of this quality.

A common theme throughout the series is one generation of heroes overthrowing the next; pulp heroes replacing golden age heroes, which in turn are replaced by silver age heroes. In the end, the post-modern Planetary heroes have ascended to power, marking the dawning of a new era. Much in the same way, Planetary marks the genesis of the 21st century in comics.

Warren Ellis once said that he expected Planetary to be his final word on superheroes, while he’s no longer set on abandoning the genre, looking at the final product, it’s not hard to see how he could make such a statement. Like Watchmen before it, Planetary may very well define the era to come. Planetary might not be the final word on superheroes, but it just might be the first word of a new era.

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  • Lee Newman

    Lee Newman Jan 14, 2010 at 5:54pm

    Tony... nice article on my all time favorite comic. I was elated and sad to see it end.

  • Richard Boom

    Richard Boom Jan 15, 2010 at 5:01am

    anxious to get the final tpb!!

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