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Unearthing the Past: ‘Absolute Planetary’ [Review]

I never fully got into Warren Ellis. “Transmetropolitan” seemed uneven to me, and especially when given mature-readers latitude he tends to include tons of… well, for lack of a better term, Ellisisms (Godzilla bukkake, “chair leg of truth”, etc.). Perhaps most of all, though, I never really gelled with his work because I always felt it was too cynical – and that he was usually at his best with mainstream superhero work, because the creative restrictions brought out a side of him that was a bit more hopeful and optimistic while keeping the keen intelligence and wit that he’s got such a devoted fanbase for. That said, it’s been a hell of a long time since I read “Planetary” – quite frankly, it was one of the first things I read getting back into comics in 2004.

This week sees the release of “Absolute Planetary” Vol. 2, following the recent re-release of now-former eBay rarity king “Absolute Planetary” Vol. 1. It collects the second half of the series – a clump of issues, #13-27, that came out over eight years (2001-2009). So with this chance came to reread the series, I jumped at it. I’ve certainly developed a much greater understanding and appreciation of comics history and theory since I first read it initially, and I suspected that many of the references and interconnecting plot threads that eluded me on my first go-round would reveal themselves here. I was right. What I didn’t expect was to end up loving this comic as much as I did.
First off, the books themselves – the Absolute editions. From a physical standpoint, they’re absolutely wonderful. Each volume is in the usual Absolute Edition size with the cardboard slipcase, but unlike my only other Absolute (“Crisis on Infinite Earths”), it has glossy paper reminiscent of Marvel’s oversized hardcovers. More attractive than any of the jacket or slipcase design, though, are the books themselves – reddish-brown volumes with gold-stamped lettering, reminiscent of any standard encyclopedia and perfect for a story about sci-fi pulp archaeologists who publish an encyclopedia. However, both volumes are low on bonus material – while the first volume has the first issue’s script in the back, the second only has some art pieces, the introductions from the original trades and a really interesting bit from colorist Laura Martin about designing the Snowflake that became a central motif of the series.

As a result of all that, past the presentation, you’d really be getting this edition for the story itself. And how is it? Well, after blitzing through both Absolute volumes in two days, I can say that it holds up remarkably well as a cohesive unit. Cassaday’s art changes a bit as the series progresses, and the lettering font changes twice, but the entire thing definitely feels of a piece. What’s more surprising, though, is how fast-paced it feels in collected version. With the original issues coming out months and sometimes years apart, the story’s progress felt like it had slowed to a crawl for serialized readers; here it’s a nonstop barrage of information, constantly twisting and turning genres and moods while maintaining a consistent, ongoing storyline. While the book starts out appearing to be a monster-of-the-week style episodic journey through genre fiction in the 20th century, its disparate subsections quickly begin to connect themselves into a fully-realized, vastly interconnected pulp/superhero universe all its own.

Which is all the more interesting when you look at the logo and realize this thing is actually a WildStorm Universe book.

As much as “Planetary” has the feeling of a personal creator-owned work, and certainly has the agenda of one, it’s almost jarring on reread to see references to the High, Jenny Sparks, Sliding Albion and the rest of Ellis’s StormWatch/Authority stuff. Indeed, it seems almost impossible at this point to remember the WildStorm that had “Planetary” and Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s “Sleeper” going on as major in-universe titles. While Ellis gets a lot of latitude here, it’s not quite mature readers; as a result, he can lay on a bit more innuendo and violence than he could in a DC or Marvel book of the time, but not so much that it overwhelms the narrative.

And what is the narrative? Planetary, at its core, is about saving things. Not saving in the sense of saving a life – although that’s one aspect of it – but saving like the button I press after every line in case a power outage hits or something. Saving in terms of protecting and preserving, making sure the present and past are intact for study by the future. It’s also, on a separate level, a metacommentary on 20th century comics – it is, in essence, the story of how the Fantastic Four brought about the all-superhero renaissance that led to westerns, pulps, pure sci-fi, all non-superhero comics declining in popularity. Much as the Fantastic Four and the modern superhero comic dominated the industry since 1961, so did Planetary’s villains – the clearly analogous Four – hide away and control and dominate human civilization in the WildStorm Universe since 1961. (The date is the same in both – the reference is unmistakable.)

Almost every issue of the series plays homage to a particular pulp/superhero character or trope – the DC Universe, Doc Savage, the Lone Ranger, ’80s Vertigo and Nick Fury are all analogized, analyzed and stored, hermetically sealed, within the pages of Planetary. The entire series is almost an accounting of comics in the 20th century that teaches readers how to say goodbye to them and move to something new. It’s definitely the most baldly optimistic Ellis book I’ve read, largely for that reason. It’s about shedding the skin of history, preserving it for posterity, and moving on. Does it achieve that goal? I’m not sure, largely because it never really seems to get to the “something new” itself – indeed, it ends on the promise of bold new adventures without the grim spectre of superhero comics standing in the way, but we never get to see them. I can’t help but feel that, in that respect, “Planetary” talks the talk but most definitely does not walk the walk.

Still, none of this makes the book any less entertaining, nor does it make John Cassaday and Laura Martin’s art any less gorgeous. Cassaday grows quite a bit over the course of this book; his linework becomes cleaner, his layouts grander, but it’s all unmistakably the same guy. Cassaday and Martin are perfectly symbiotic; at times it’s difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. In short, you’ve probably seen Cassaday’s art on “Astonishing X-Men” or “Captain America”, and if so you probably have an idea of the high level of quality to expect. Cassaday does pages of talking heads remarkably well, but he can also do a mean transdimensional warship traveling through the informational stack. Much as “Planetary” itself deals with the similarities between the microscale and the macroscale, the narrative itself alternates between the amazing and the mundane with considerable ease.

In short: if you haven’t read it, or, like me, it’s been forever and you barely remember it, “Planetary” is absolutely worth it, especially in this archival form that would probably make Elijah Snow smile. Taken as a comic, it’s a fast-paced romp through almost every genre in 20th century comics and pulp (and then some), defining a secret history of the twentieth century that is told through a series of seemingly standalone tales that, together, establish an interconnecting web of characters and events. Taken as an artifact, it’s a fascinating look at a time when WildStorm meant brash, fresh ideas with a definitive authorial voice. And as a physical art object, it’s gorgeous, an excellent presentation of a truly remarkable comic. Absolutes are pricey, no doubt about it, and some more extras (or even the JLA and Batman crossover issues) certainly wouldn’t have been unwelcome, but “Planetary” is worth the treatment.

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