Many posts ago I referred to the Planetary comics series by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday as having ended. I was incorrect. Over the last two days I re-read what I thought was the complete 26-issue series. I was doing a little online research just now before writing some of my impressions on the series, when I learned that there will be a 27th epilogue issue. Well, the “epilogue” part explains why I thought the series had ended, since the major plot gets all wrapped-up in issue 26 (except for the fate of Ambrose Chase). Hell, the cover of #26 has Elijah Snow about to place the final piece into a puzzle.
I was very slow to pick up on what Ellis was doing with this series. I am an incredibly dense, incredibly literal reader. My favorite example of this comes from my high-school reading of John Barth’s “Night-Sea Journey” story from his book Lost In the Funhouse. Until I got to class I thought it was a story about some fish-men on another planet swimming towards a union with a goddess figure. I later learn from my classmates that it is the story of fertilization as told by the sperm.
Likewise, when I first discovered Planetary it took me a while to realize how much the series is Ellis playing with other people’s creative properties, whether superheroes, or pulp heroes, in slightly disguised ways. His take on the Fantastic Four is brilliant. In fact my main problem with the series is that Randall Dowling (the Reed Richards analogue) is set up as such an invincibly brilliant, all-seeing opponent, yet he is ultimately defeated far too easily.
The entire Planetary team has already been defeated by the Four in the past, completely off-panel, making it seem like the Four easily took them all down. When Elijah Snow is captured and has memory blocks implanted in order to keep his team alive, Dowling tells him that as opponents, Planetary are merely an amusing diversion. In issue #25, Ellis finally reveals the nature of Randall Dowling’s powers. Rather than physically stretch, like Mr. Fantastic, Dowling’s “mind stretches, and worms out, and lays eggs. And reproduces. Anyone who’s ever been within a hundred feet of Randall Dowling . . .probably is Randall Dowling.” Elijah was Dowling’s prisoner, and Dowling’s opponent, so with a set-up like this, one would assume that he is under Dowling’s control. Apparently not, nothing ever comes of this speech. When Elijah finally confronts Dowling in issue 26, Dowling threatens “I can get into your brain before your powers harm us.” That is all we get from him. He never actually does anything. In 26 issues Dowling has been set-up as the ultimate opponent, and all he does at the end is get outwitted and defeated. He never uses his powers once, in any form. This is a major disappointment to me, as I would have wanted to see these mind-stretching powers in use, in a creative Ellisean way.
That’s it, that’s my complaint. Otherwise, I love the series. So much of it comes down to Cassaday’s art and Laura Martin’s colors. The concepts work because they are so visually effective. Cassaday does a great job of giving new visual interpretations of classic character concepts. I can’t imagine the series working with any other artist. He really is in a class of his own.