Planetary 1: All Over the World and Other Stories by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday: A-

From the back cover:
This is Planetary: three people who walk the world for strangeness and wonder, uncovering things others wish were left covered. They are the mystery archaeologists, explorers of the planet’s secret history, charting the unseen borders of a fantastic world.

I loved John Cassaday’s art in Astonishing X-Men, and even I have heard the name Warren Ellis spoken in awe, so a collaboration between the two seemed an excellent choice for continuing my tentative foray into the world of American comics.

First, a confession of sexism. When I first saw the cover, I assumed that the elderly gentleman, replete with gravitas, would be the leader of this three-person team of mystery archaeologists with an “investigative mandate” to seek out the hidden secrets of the world. As it turns out, he (a reclusive and exceptionally long-lived fellow named Elijah Snow) is the newest recruit. The actual leader is Jakita Wagner, the woman clad in skin-tight leather. She’s also completely brilliant, possibly hiding something, and never once objectified as a sex object despite her garb. I approve.

With the third member of their team, an evident technopath and possible nutter who calls himself The Drummer, they investigate matters that come to the attention of the world-wide Planetary organization, which receives its funding from a mysterious source known only as “the fourth man.” Their discoveries are varied, ranging from a super-computer with the ability to manipulate parallel worlds, to an island once populated by monsters, to an interdimensional trading ship that crash-landed on earth millennia ago and just wants to go home. My favorite story, “Dead Gunfighters,” mingles technology with the supernatural in the tale of a betrayed and murdered cop who’s somehow been given ghostly form to seek his vengeance.

The first several tales appear episodic, ending with the attainment of knowledge and not with the team actually doing something with what they’ve learned. This frustrates Elijah a good deal, and perhaps it’s because of his grumblings that the team later takes a more proactive role in the case of some missing astronauts. By this point, links between some of the stories have emerged; it would seem the repercussions of the super-computer’s invention in the ’40s are still being felt in 1999, when the story is set.

In addition to all the plotty goodness, the characters are richly drawn and I find that Ellis’s skill with dialogue has not been overstated. I like that their personalities are distinct, but each remains somewhat of an enigma, particularly where Elijah’s past and his possible connection to an organization that is Planetary’s opposite are concerned. His predecessor’s fate also has not yet been revealed, but I’m sure it’ll come to light eventually. Lastly, I really like how the three characters’ special abilities are revealed organically within the context of the story. There is no silly introduction like, “I’m Jakita and I’m super strong!” “I’m Elijah and I can manipulate temperature!” They just use their talents when they need to and that’s that.

Sometimes, when I read speculative American comics—like Sandman, for instance—I’m strangely depressed afterward. I had the same reaction with Planetary. For all that it is good, it’s also fairly grim and made me ponder things (like humanity’s transient insignificance) that I don’t much enjoy pondering. That said, it’s only four volumes long and I can probably take it in short doses, if it means eventually getting some answers.


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