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Monday, 25 October 2010

Planetary by Warren Ellis

Written by Warren Ellis
Art by John Cassaday
Colours by Laura Depuy
Publisher: Wildstorm

What’s It About?
Elijah Snow has been approached by the Planetary Foundation to become a member of their field team. Together with the enormously strong Jakita Wagner and the possibly-insane Drummer he travel to uncover the secret history of the world. As he uncovers mystery after mystery he finds himself with more and more questions:

Why does the Planetary Foundation exist? What agenda is it pursing? Can his new associates be trusted? And who is the mysterious Fourth Man who finances it all without question?

What’s Good About It?
Despite being superhuman the members of the Planetary team are not superheroes but archaeologists and investigators. These characters are pursuing a defined agenda rather than the more generalised do-gooding that is the comicbook stereotype. Most times when the Planetary team discover an injustice it is decades old but more often than not they’re simply investigating an intriguing mystery.

The stories Ellis tells in Planetary vary greatly. When the series was originally released each issue was intended to be a short story in and of itself with only minor elements building towards the eventual series finale. This short story format has a few innate advantages. Firstly, brevity means that the writer has to get to the point fast, in this case within twenty-two pages. There are no long, drawn out build-ups to the individual stories so you’re assured of a snappy, quickly told tale. The more horror-themed stories also benefit from this shorter format as not everything is explained in exacting detail  - which is more atmospheric.

The stories in Planetary vary greatly in genre. In any given chapter the story might concern giant monsters, the vengeful ghost of a murdered policeman, a downed spaceship, legends of the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime, ancient Chinese kung fu schools or illegal Cold War government experiments on civilians.

Over the course of the stories Snow and his associates piece together a vast tapestry of the secret history of the world from the wondrous to the horrific. Its all about the mix and Planetary is an extremely varied series.

What’s Bad About It?
Though each individual chapter of Planetary forms a complete short story it also contains some small element that build towards the ultimate payoff. Several mysteries that are introduced in the first volume remain in the background until the very end while others build bit by bit towards the payoff. The links between these various clues are not always made explicit so sometimes a connection might be lost on the reader, especially if you’ve waited a while between volumes.

As each book is essentially a short story anthology it must be said the series suffers from the flaw all such collections do: you will inevitably like some stories better than others. This is entirely a matter of personal taste so I can’t really speak for or against particular stories.

What’s the Art Like?

John Cassaday draws his figures in a very anatomically precise style, lavishing detail on elements that many artists ignore for reasons of efficiency such as the tiny wrinkles on the faces and clothes of the characters. It isn’t just in his figure work that this comes through. The example below is an extreme example of just how much detail Cassaday is capable of cramming into his illustrations.

One of the other things that typifies the art in Planetary is the artists’ willingness to experiment, to alter their techniques for effect. You’ll notice that in the above example the edges of objects are defined by the traditional black lines but in the next example we see a ghost portrayed using only digital shading without outlines to create a translucent phantom:

Whilst in this next example we see Cassaday and Depuy emulating the style of the illustrated stories published by magazines such as The Strand (the magazine that first published Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes) from the early twentieth century.

[All art examples from Planetary volume 1: All Over The World And Other Stories]

Other Information
Volumes one and two: All Over The World And Other Stories and The Fourth Man comprise mainly isolated stories setting up the characters and context of Planetary with the major elements of the arc coming into play beginning with volume three Leaving The 20th Century. Volumes one and two are out-of-print pending a hardcover release but are available second hand from the linked pages.

All Over The World And Other Stories
The Fourth Man
Leaving the 20th Century
Spacetime Archaeology
(to be released December 2010)

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