Part 2: Planetary Omnibus review (DC Comics)

Thursday, January 01, 2015

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

Major spoilers lie ahead, so if you’re unfamiliar with the full narrative, you may want to skip this review. Don't miss part one of the review.

There’s a definite shift between issues #12 and #13 in the Planetary Omnibus, the point where any idea of a bi-monthly schedule being maintained was given up. Twelve issues of initial world-building set up the reveal that the Fourth Man has been Elijah Snow this entire time. Mindwiped at the behest of the Four in exchange for the survival of his team, Snow transitions from a newcomer narrator into a master planner. Crucial details about the origins of all three team members explain the Planetary team’s dynamics. Snow was an American Century Baby mentored by Sherlock Holmes; it’s actually a bit of a shock to have the real Holmes and Count Dracula appear instead of the stand-ins this series has previously used, but they provide some extra credibility to Snow’s background.

Many of the issues in the back half of the book depict Snow’s adventures and flesh out the comic’s world even further. We learn that Jakita Wagner is the daughter of not-Tarzan and comes from Opak-Re, the comic’s version of Pellucidar. Drummer, the team’s semi-autistic tech master who can speak with machines, was part of an experiment by the Four to control the Internet even before it was launched. Writer Warren Ellis gets to have a little fun with both the heroes and villains dismissing the Internet as a silly fad. As the plan to defeat the Four grows ever larger, Ellis introduces more and more branches of the Planetary Organization, revealing just how strong the team can be. Sadly, Axel Brass falls out of the spotlight, but John Stone becomes a key plot element, even getting a hover-car like his Marvel SHIELD counterpart.

The Four operated almost entirely hidden in the first (relative) year of the title, with only the not-Human Torch, William Leather, making a major appearance. Exactly how the Four came together ties back into the analogues, with Leather losing out on being related to the not-Lone Ranger and not-Shadow thanks to his mother’s affairs. A two-parter sends unusual angel-like aliens to a space station in order to trap Jacob Greene, the not-Thing, who not even the Planetary team had not seen until this point. Just about every concept introduced in Planetary feels like it could support a mini-series on its own, with the really intriguing ideas in the second half feeling a little underdeveloped due to the delays.

If there’s one thing Warren Ellis loves more than deconstructing and reconstructing comics, it’s using new and complex scientific theories as the basis of plots. One flaw of the later issues of Planetary is that the science gets a little too heavy, involving various types of time travel and multiple-universe theorems. The plot-relevant parts do get explained but it takes a few re-reads to understand exactly why certain things are happening. There’s a marked shift in the book in the final six issues that take Snow away from his mission of vengeance and into a mission of bettering the world. I’m honestly not sure if this was because of the book's very long breaks or if this was Ellis’ plan all along. It’s worth noting that Ellis started writing very dark superhero books for Avatar Press towards the end of Planetary’s run. It’s possible that he shifted his negative thoughts about superheroes and the world in general over to the unofficial trilogy of Black Summer, No Hero, and Supergod.

This shift begins with a visit to the shaman-scientist Melanctha and a trip through the microscopic cosmos that rivals and occasionally exceeds Grant Morrison’s weirdness. John Cassaday’s art is fantastic throughout the book, but he goes above and beyond here both with the depiction of the universe at various scales and with the characters’ facial expressions. Now that Snow understands what the universe is and what his place is in it, he gradually becomes more sinister, but this is because his true plans take a long time to be explained on the page. His plan is, in the words of the Ninth Doctor, is that “everybody lives.” Having already saved the lives of Jakita and Drummer when they were children, he wants to extend his help to Ambrose Chase, who slowed his dying process down to near-nothingness. The final issue spends a lot of time on how they can bring him back, ending with his resurrection. Ellis finishes Planetary with an intact team, a reinforced Planetary Organization, and the resources to start building a better world, which is far different than the total ruin I expected when I started the omnibus.

Last week I talked about two of the special crossover issues, but I wanted to discuss the third, Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth, separately due to its own strengths. In the world of Planetary, Batman doesn’t exist, but Gotham does, and they track a mentally insane but well-meaning reality-wielder down to Crime Alley. They face multiple incarnations of Batman as he rotates the Alley through parallel universes. Cassaday and colorist Dave Baron deserve special credit here for drawing the Batmen of the 1966 television show, The Dark Knight Returns, the Marshall/Rogers era and Year One with fully distinct looks and color palettes. No less a Batmanologist than Chris Sims of Comics Alliance called the book “one of the best-drawn Batman comics ever." There’s also the unfortunately unanswered question of exactly where Snow was during a multi-universal collapse in 1986 ...

It’s been quite a year for both comics in general and for my reviews in particular. I wanted to go out with the Planetary Omnibus, a DC (well, a Wildstorm-in-DC-trade-dress) review to mention that for the new year, I resolve to not take so many potshots at what was once my favorite company. Many of the Convergence announcements have caught my eye, as has Multiversity, so I’m willing to see what they have in store. Meanwhile, next week kicks off the year with Megatron ... as a good guy!
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