Review: Planetary Omnibus hardcover (DC Comics)

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]

As I’ve mentioned a few times in my solicitation round-ups, I’m not that big of a fan of huge, hardbound omnibus editions. However, I do agree that there are cases where an omnibus is the best way to collect a comic -- specifically, if it collects the entirety of an otherwise uncollected series, such as Kurt Busiek’s Untold Tales of Spider-Man or the upcoming omnibus of Walter Simonson’s Orion. The Planetary Omnibus released earlier this year also falls into this category despite having previous collections. Due to the very erratic release schedule, the trades are no longer in print, while the Absolute Editions are both rare and expensive. For less than the price of one Absolute Edition, this omnibus gives you the entirety of the series in the way it was meant to be read: all at once.

In an odd way, the numerous delays on Planetary protected it from editorial tampering and other negative effects. It reads much like a classic '90s Wildstorm series at the start; Elijah Snow is identified as a Century Baby and they had a one-shot crossover with The Authority. But while the Wildstorm universe kept rapidly changing with events like “Eye of the Storm,” “Coup D’Etat,” and “World’s End” before finally ceasing to exist, Planetary was technically still taking place in the company’s renaissance of 1997-2001. Warren Ellis and John Cassaday were therefore able to maintain tighter control and consistency, as well as prevent spin-offs that could have spoiled the story.

The series can be divided into two parts broken up by a long hiatus from 2001-2003. The first half is dedicated to the book’s initial concept: investigating different types of fiction through vaguely-disguised stand-ins, while also trying to determine the identity of the Fourth Man, their team’s mysterious backer. These issues see the Planetary team walk through the corpse of not-Godzilla, save not-Doc Savage, and meet their primary villains, the Four; you can probably guess who they’re based on. Issue 7, a personal favorite, plunges the team into the not-Vertigo universe for the apparent death of not-John Constantine. His funeral is attended by a full retinue of Vertigo stand-ins, from the “Shifting Man” to a rather unimpressive-looking Etrigan knock-off.

Ellis makes an interesting point about Vertigo’s roots in Thatcher-era England defining their gloominess and, in a rather grandiose statement, turns the really alive not-Constantine into Spider Jerusalem, the main character of Transmetropolitan. It’s one of the book’s rare misfires considering the Constantine film and television adaptations. A better critique comes in the form of non-Miracleman, now a grotesque figure who returns and monologues about how awful his life has been in this deconstructed universe. You can easily see the real Miracleman giving the exact same speech -- “I liked my life! There was nothing wrong with me!” -- to The Original Writer.

It takes a couple of issues for the main characters’ personalities to emerge. Jakita Wagner, the team’s strongwoman, gets built up in issues #7 and #8. In the latter, the team finds a scientific experiment testing ground which created horrors straight out of a 1950s sci-fi movie like a swarm of giant ants. John Cassaday gives the usually stoic Wagner a steadily-growing smile as she gets to fight the ants, finally enjoying her job for once. These experiments were also performed on celebrities thought dead by the public, resulting in the atomic ghost of not-Marilyn Monroe. Issue #9 takes us back to reveal Ambrose Chase, the previous leader of the team, killed off in a fictional universe designed to run on movie tropes such as “the black character dies first.”

After an issue spent with the Four killing some Justice League stand-ins and stealing their equipment and technology, Planetary gets back to the plot with the introduction of John Stone, the not-Nick Fury/not-James Bond analogue. His status as an agent of S.T.O.R.M. sets up an interesting alternate origin of Stormwatch that Ellis unfortunately never explored further; it’s possible that if the book was on-schedule, a crossover would have explained this. Elijah Snow has been a man without a past for the first year of the book, and Stone finally gives him clues into who he is and what has come before. The plotline of discovering the Fourth Man comes to a climax, redefining the entire series.

To skip ahead while staying in place, the Planetary Omnibus also includes the aforementioned Authority crossover along with two others. I far preferred Ellis’s work on that book to Millar’s, so there’s a nice bit of nostalgia as the two teams take on a deadlier alternate reality Authority. It’s also one of only two issues without John Cassaday’s art, being drawn by Phil Jimenez. The other art change is in Jerry Ordway’s Planetary/JLA: Terra Occulta, which reimagines the Planetary Organization as both introducers of advanced tech to the world at large and as pure evil. They killed the Kents and the Waynes, burnt Themyscira to the ground, and dissected Barry Allen and Ray Palmer to steal their abilities amongst many other atrocities towards superheroes. It’s up to the JLA’s Big Three -- the only three in this universe -- to put things right. It’s a story a little reminiscent of Ruins, which reimagined the Marvel Universe if everything went wrong, but there’s at least some hope at the end of this story. A particular highlight is Elijah Snow becoming, more or less, Lex Luthor.

There’s one crossover to go, but I’ll leave that till next week when I review the second half of the Planetary Omnibus. This should give you enough time to run out and buy this book as soon as possible. It’s a great title at a great price.
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  1. I only gave Planetary a read when the second Absolute came out and the first one got re-released, and I'm glad I did that, because that long wait for the final issue would have killed me.

    I seriously thought about replacing my two Absolutes with the omnibus just so I could own the three crossovers specials oversized, and not as a separate TPB like I still do, but at the end of the day, I just don't see them as an integral part of the narrative. In fact, I'm not even sure where they fit in the series's continuity, if they do at all. Were they placed in the back of the omnibus or between the two "seasons" the overall story is split in?

  2. They're in the back; I only skipped ahead because I wanted to discuss the Batman story in further depth. That's probably canon and the Authority crossover likely is as well; the JLA story is an Elseworld.