Planetary – A Comic Book Series For People Who Don’t Read Comic Books

Planetary is an American comic book series created by writer Warren Ellis and artist John Cassaday, and published by the Wildstorm imprint of DC Comics. After an initial preview issue in September 1998, the series ran for 27 issues from April 1999 to October 2009.

The one thing you need to understand about me is that I have spent my LIFE reading comics books. All the greatest moments of my childhood that I can remember would involve reading comic books. I even have comic book stories from Bible Camp, which I was forced to go to for a week each summer as a kid, but that is a story for another day.

My point is I have seen it all, read it all from maybe 500 comic book creators and seen the art of 10,000 artists. The group runs the gamut of the old pros like Kirby and… well Kirby to the latest crop of talent. I know every hero, every villain because in the 90’s Marvel produced a A-Z of all their character that had ever been. They told the origins and powers and a major story they were a part of. I read that set a hundred times if not a thousand. So I know how hard it would be for someone to write a story that bases all his characters (except for our Team) on heroes you seen before. Such a person would be crazy to even attempt it because it can go wrong in so many ways. When does an homage become out right theft? Ask Rob Liefeld that question. Warren Ellis is a much better storyteller, fortunately, and he avoids those traps.

Ellis intended the focus of the book to be the superhero genre, rather than the superheroes themselves. “I wanted to do something that actually went deeper into the subgenre, exposed its roots and showed its branches” he stated in his proposal for the comic series: “What if you had a hundred years of superhero history just slowly leaking out into this young and modern superhero world of the Wildstorm Universe? What if you could take everything old and make it new again?”

Like Neil Gamen’s American Gods, the ‘heroes’ in Planetary are all archetypes you will recognize for the most part. Those you don’t know about you can research by reading the WHOLE comic and not just the pretty colored pages. There is a Doc Savage. There is a Fantastic Four. But they are unlike any interpretation you have seen before. Warren Ellis knows his pulp history as much as he knows his history of heroes. He knows more than even me and that make this entire series a thrill ride.

Several years ago I was looking to read something complete. Collected. Something fresh and not anything involving Deadpool. Luckily Wizard Magazine did a list of graphic novels (or sets) that were essential. Planetary was in their top five and I had never heard about it. The choice was easy.

So this is where the saga begins. I love that it’s a self contained series with only 27 issues that was ten years in the making. It’s like reading a trilogy of books all at the same time only with pictures to go along with the words. If you are a comic book novice this is a great way to see if you enjoy this long, rambling but also beautifully focused study of a world where there is a team that dedicates themselves to dealing with all the weirdness in their world, especially those involving superheroes.

But these are not your known ones like Batman, who meets the team in the classic Night In Gotham where the surprises reminded me off all the reason I love Batman. In this special issue (and the only one to involve DC Character) we look at Batman through the ages and all his changes only now he is the center of a problem that threaten all of reality. Something that the Planetary team has to deal with. This is the kind of fresh story approach that appears through the Planetary series and shows me how easily these characters could fit into the larger DC Universe.

The story itself takes place over decades which itself is impossible to get it right unless you know your Batman history inside and out. Another gift from Ellis.

It would be epic to see three seasons of this story on Netflix and I used to hate Netflix like few others. I thought they were just ripping people off with old content and then they stepped up and made shows like Daredevil and I was a believer. Planetary would blow the socks off people looking for something smart with thrills and a heart – even a heart as cold as ice.

Now with 27 issues that means 27 covers. You would think there would be a temptation to just phone one in but John Cassaday never does that. Each is a brilliant piece of design. It’s the opposite of a cover that reveals it’s plot points. These covers are mysterious and above all, unique. I would find myself going back to study the cover after finishing each book. These are my favorites.

Describing themselves as “Archaeologists of the Impossible”, Planetary is an organization intent on discovering the world’s secret history. Funded by the mysterious Fourth Man, the field team consists of three superhuman beings: Jakita Wagner (strong, fast and almost invulnerable); The Drummer (can detect and manipulate information streams, such as computers and other electronics); and new recruit Elijah Snow (can create intense cold and extract heat). Planetary member Ambrose Chase (can create a “selective physics-distortion field”) was also a member of the field team until he was killed. It was later revealed that Ambrose Chase was still alive and had used his powers to manipulate time and suspend himself in a time distortion bubble where the effects of his mortal injuries proceeded at an incredibly slow pace. Elijah Snow and the rest of Planetary, using technology based on Randall Dowling’s notes, were able to recover Ambrose Chase and save his life.

The field team travel the world investigating strange phenomena – including monsters, aliens and other superhumans, unusual relics and suppressed military secrets – for both the betterment of mankind and out of sheer curiosity. The group is sporadically opposed by a rival group of metahumans called the Four, a parallel Fantastic Four (Dr. Randall Dowling, Kim Süskind, William Leather and Jacob Greene) intent on using the secrets of the world for personal gain.

One of the series main features is the portrayal of alternate versions of many figures from popular culture, such as Godzilla, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, and Doc Savage. This extends to comic book characters from both DC Comics (e.g. Superman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman) and Marvel Comics (e.g. The Fantastic Four, Hulk and Thor).

Ellis also introduced the concept of a multiverse to the series, drawing upon the mathematical concept known as the Monster group for inspiration. The multiverse is described as “a theoretical snowflake existing in 196,833 dimensional space”, a reference to the visualization method used by some mathematicians when describing the Monster group.


Cal Heighton is a blogger extraordinaire from Red Deer, Alberta. He is also the co-host of the Geek Fallout podcast. You can find him at his Canadian Cave of Cool

About Calvin Heighton 5 Articles

Cal Heighton is a blogger extraordinaire from Red Deer, Alberta. He is also the co-host of the Geek Fallout podcast. You can find him at his Canadian Cave of Cool