Planetary Volume 1: All Over the World and Other Stories; Volume 2: The Fourth Man; Volume 3: Leaving the 20th Century; Volume 4: Spacetime Archaeology; written by Warren Ellis; illustrated by John Cassaday, Laura Depuy and others (1998-2009):
One conspiracy has stolen humanity’s future, systematically eradicating potential heroes and benevolent scientific advances, all in the name of power. That’s The Four, a quartet of astronauts gifted with astonishing powers during a secret attempt at a lunar landing in 1961. They are the worst humanity has to offer.
The other conspiracy is attempting to stop The Four and help humanity progress as it was supposed to. To do so, secrets must be unearthed — of the Four, and of all the strangenesses of the world that have been lost, misplaced, or stolen. That’s Planetary.
It’s the end of the 20th century when we begin and the beginning of the 21st century when we end. Planetary offices span the globe, but its central investigators appear to be three people: Elijah Snow, born on January 1, 1900 along with a host of other superpowered individuals, able to control temperature and mysteriously bereft of a number of his memories; Jakita Snow, super-strong and super-fast; and the Drummer, who can see, store and manipulate all forms of information.
First they investigate, as the 20th century goes to sleep, a lost world of strangeness and charm, a world familiar to us from popular culture but subtly changed. An island of giant monsters north of Japan. A ghostly, avenging Hong Kong cop. Giant ants created to guard the mysterious Science City Zero in the Arizona desert. The lost space 1851 capsule of the Baltimore Gun Club. 1930’s renaissance man and adventurer Doc Brass and his six amazing compatriots, stopping the end of the world on New Year’s Day 1945, with the world unaware. A multiverse of extraordinary fractal complexity, shaped like a snowflake. The lost African super-city of Opak-Re. An entire Earth murdered to provide the Four with storage space.
And the loathsome Four. Forged by Nazi science and a hatred of everything human and superhuman. Four extraordinary humans who have spent their lives destroying or stealing the extraordinary. Why? To what purpose? And where did their powers come from?
And who is the mysterious Fourth Man of Planetary, the financial backer behind the scenes?
Warren Ellis’s writing remains spare and echoey and witty throughout, leaving the reader space to imagine all the permutations of the jam-packed pop-cultural landscape across which Planetary stalks the Four without moving into the pompous or purple. It’s meta, but not in the way that Alan Moore’s similar-but-quite-different League of Extraordinary Gentleman is meta: the characters of Planetary aren’t fictional characters in a mutating world of overlapping fictions. They’re real people in a multiverse whose fundamental laws suggest that everything real resembles fiction, stories, myths, legends, all of it explained by mad science and madder cosmology.
John Cassaday’s art justifiably won a number of awards. It echoes the styles of others when it needs to echo, but throughout maintains a marvelous vastness and spaciousness, an epic look nonetheless capable of evoking the familiar and the normative.
There are lovely character moments, moments of profound sorrow and loss, and wide as the widest widescreen moments of revelation and epiphany and wonder. Recurring throughout is Elijah Snow’s catchphrase — “It’s a strange world. Let’s keep it that way.” In these four volumes or in the larger Absolute Planetary volumes, this remains one of the four or five truly essential superhero comic books of the last 20 years. Highest recommendation.