Planetary: All Over the World and Other Stories

by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday

Published by Wildstorm/DC Comics

144 pages, 2000


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Archetypal Archeology

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière

 

Planetary is the name of a group of archeologists of the impossible (sometimes also dubbed "mystery archeologists") who investigate and uncover the hidden history of the 20th century. Planetary is also the name of the series of comics that reports on their progress. Zoom in: Planetary focuses on the organization's three-person field team, each paid a salary of one million dollars a year: Elijah Snow, born 1 January 1900 and not showing it; Jakita Wagner, a superpowered Emma Peel; and The Drummer, who might or might not be crazy and who can talk to machines and otherwise interact with communications technology. Close-up: Planetary is the story of Elijah Snow, the group's newest recruit. He doesn't really understand how the setup works and doesn't trust Planetary's agenda. And he can't ever get a straight answer to anything, as his statement to teammate Jakita Wagner makes clear: "It's amazing how you can talk for ages but not actually say one goddamn thing I understand. How do you do that?"

Planetary has well-staffed offices worldwide, support teams, private hospitals, state-of-the-art equipment -- all funded by the mysterious "Fourth Man," who might be a woman and who, according to Jakita Wagner, "has more money than God, and funds everything we do without question." But who gives the orders? That's just one question. There are many others that Elijah, and readers, need answered.

Writer Warren Ellis estimates that Planetary will probably take 24 issues to play itself out. All Over the World and Other Stories collects the first six issues of the series, as well as an eight-page preview story. In the first of these interconnected adventures, the field team uncovers a quantum computer built in 1945 by the bronze-skinned Doc Brass and his six associates: an English lord raised in the African jungle, a gun-toting crime-fighter dressed in black, an Asian warlord, a secret agent, an intrepid aviator, an inventor/adventurer. (Curiouser and curiouser: Doc Brass was also born on 1 January 1900.) Then, they visit an off-limits Japanese island inhabited by giant dinosaur-like monsters, meet the ghost of a Hong Kong cop who blasts gangsters and corrupt police with supernatural handguns that never need reloading, stumble across an ordinary man transformed into a captain with a lighting bolt on his chest by an intelligent ship millions of years old that yearns for a crew to bring it back home, learn the story of a scientist who, in 1962, ran into the blast site of his experimental bomb to save an innocent bystander and was transformed into a powerful hulking creature, and uncover the skyscraper headquarters of a group of four secret ("thirty-three levels above the president") astronauts who, in 1961, ran into an anomaly in outer space that transformed them into four fantastic individuals. As the investigations accumulate, unlikely links between the cases spring up and answers lead to more questions.

If any of this sounds eerily familiar, don't be surprised. The hidden history of Planetary's world bears a striking resemblance to the popular fictions of our world, especially those of pulp magazines, comic books and genre movies. One of the auxiliary pleasures of the series is the shifting cover designs, fashioned to evoke the source material of each new investigation. Thus, the issue where Doc Brass and Elijah Snow compare notes sports a cover reminiscent of a Doc Savage magazine or paperback, etc. The covers are reproduced in the collection.

In Planetary's world, all these "lost" stories went wrong. Forces have been at work to keep these marvels suppressed, to keep hidden the full, strange beauty of the world. The Four seem to be the principle agent behind this conspiracy: "We're adventurers, my crewmates and I. On the human adventure. And you can't all come along." The Four are presented as Planetary's opposite number. The Four are government-sanctioned and work to actively suppress the true beauty and complexity of the world. Planetary is a private group that claims to want to bring the world's strange beauty to light (Elijah Snow: "It's a strange world." Jakita Wagner: "Let's keep it that way."). One thing in common: all official records of the existence of the Four and of Planetary's field team have been erased or suppressed. Why? This offer is what convinced Elijah Snow to join Planetary. Why is it so important for him to have no official existence? Elijah's encounter with a member of the Four brings to light a new piece of the puzzle: Elijah does not have access to all his memories. Or is that a lie to confuse him?

Just what is Planetary's real goal? In some cases, it appears that they too, like the Four, are working to keep these mysteries to themselves. Or are they just trying to contain the damage caused by the Four's tampering with reality? Why all the secrecy? Who, exactly, are Jakita Wagner and The Drummer? Who's the Fourth Man? Where does all the money come from? How crucial is Doc Brass' quantum computer? What's so important about being born on 1 January 1900? Who is Elijah Snow? Does he know the answer to that question? Who knows the secret history of Elijah Snow? What are his teammates not telling him? Why aren't they?

To say that Planetary is compelling is an understatement. I, for one, reread every bit of dialogue and reexamine every scene in order to eke out as much meaning and information from them as possible. Unlike the make-it-up-as-you-go-along nonsense of Chris Carter's rambling X-Files, there's a plan here. Every detail is important. All the pieces fit into some kind of multidimensional puzzle whose scope readers are compelled to imagine but yet unable to grasp. Every time a piece falls into place it unveils a new intricacy: yes, a form is glimpsed, but also the overall shape is revealed to be much more complex than previously believed.

Planetary also functions as an allegory for our times. In our world, overt and covert forces, with and/or without an intentional agenda, try to bring the rapturous beauty of the planet under the heel of stock-market profit, try to reduce perceptions of reality to that one unbeautiful point of view preached as unassailable gospel by economists, politicians, media moguls and corporations. Are theses forces any different from the Four, who suppress beauty and wonder so they can greedily keep it all to themselves? Planetary wants to change that. Its very name evokes a, well, planetary outlook and consciousness. There's no mistaking Jakita Wagner's exhilaration before a sunset or her pleasure at seeing an unknown giant creature fly free. There's no denying Elijah Snow's anger when confronted with evidence that knowledge that could have benefited the whole world was kept intentionally suppressed. Is that so different from corporations, religions, or governments spreading disinformation about, for example, the environment in order consolidate wealth and power and perpetuate the status quo? There's a strange and beautiful world out there: animals whose complex lives are beyond our ken, ecosystems of fragile beauty, ancient trees of awesome girth, exciting human imaginations. It's worth fighting for. | May 2000

 

Claude Lalumière -- a January Magazine contributing editor -- is a freelance writer, editor, translator and publishing consultant. He's the founder and former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.