Excavating, reappraising, and cataloging Planetary early in the 21st Century
[The first in what should be a comprehensive series, both these small essays and the related annotations will not include a summary but will drop spoilers without warning, as necessary. Events and concepts discussed out of their order of first-appearance, and general summaries of stories will not be provided. All of these posts may be subject to severe and dramatic rewrites without notice, as new things occur to me, and of course, I welcome any further annotation suggestions or general feedback at
This project could not exist without the fine work of The Planetary Appreciation Page, the now defunct Warren Ellis Forum, the slowly-defuncting Barbelith messageboard, and the Planetary team of Warren Ellis, John Cassaday, Laura DePuy/Martin, John Layman, David Baron, Scott Dunbier, and the many letterers, designers, and other contributors.
This project is dedicated to mystery archeologists everywhere, of every walk and a myriad of tastes, habits, and ingenuities.]
One thing I find interesting with Planetary, is that, while three systems of power are very focused on (specifically: breeding, gift, and mutation), that education can be empowering is left largely implicit, though just as – if not significantly more – important to the development of the narrative and the arcs of our primary characters. Elijah Snow is a detective through his delight in discovery, in research and putting the pieces together, gaining moral (and corrective) elements only as they develop alongside his other pleasures, some of the nastiness and shortsightedness of the world around (him and the kind of people frequently running it) being revealed to him. It is as significant and prominent in every issue of Planetary as the power of storytelling or the importance of naming things.
And, that’s the thing people miss about the series, when they suggest it would be better served as a didactic, reactive prose essay. The best ideas of the series are communicated by example, not by declaration.
Axel Brass, like Elijah Snow, was not content being born with abilities exceeding his neighbors, he did not stop with a specialized diet and exercise regime handed him by his parents, rest on the laurels of an engineered genetic inheritance; he learned to go without food, to heal wounds with his mind.
The Aviator, “fought unknown things and black technologies simply to learn of them,” we will be told in a later issue, and in this issue, we see their group of remarkable individuals includes Edison, the boyish adventure spirit of “Electric America,” the inventor/adventurer. Jakita Wagner claims she works for Planetary because it “stops [her] from getting bored,” and it is implied that this is more concerned with physical stimulation, than intellectual, but we see from the next issue, forward, that it is primarily an aesthetic issue. Jakita’s flight from boredom into novelty is no different than Snow’s, except that she appears to lack the drive to apply her discoveries to further ends, preferring the immediate responses or admiring or hitting them.
Axel Brass and his friends share Snow’s drive, though, in full force – except, arguably, The Millionaire, Bret Leather, who sees his work as a crimefighter, killer, and newspaper publisher in Chicago as “serious business” he has to get back to. Saving the world from World War Two isn’t serious enough, or maybe it is not business enough. But, he, too, colludes to use their intentions and a quantum brain picking out a true existence from all possibilities. Shortsighted or farsighted, the best it seems the pulp heroes analogs can attempt is policing, correction. For them, saving is correcting, they are exchangeable concepts. So, they turn on the computer, the quantum brain they are sitting in, that it might generate an answer, an equation for a perfect world, knowing fully that the mere processing towards that answer, or the accomplishment of it, might transfigure the answer into objective truth. The world may be (re)made to fit the answer the brain decides on. The evidence may be generated by the deduction. The map may necessitate the territory into being.
The first collection is called All Over the World and Other Stories, perhaps, not entirely because the first issue was entitled, "All Over the World", but because, whatever that world happens to be, we understand, as audience, that it’s also another story. There will be others.
The definition of the real, the isolation of truth, the purification of concepts and actualities is central to Planetary from the first issue through the last. The fictonaut issue will suggest to us that we fear we are being taken over by fictions, being led by entertainment and imagination, and when we come to the JLA crossover oneshot, we do, as readers, begin to fear, as if it’s take on our protagonists as villainous cruel people might actually infect them in the main narrative. In this very issue, when we see the pulp heroes against the ersatz Justice League, the fight is motivated by fear of ending, fear of removal and death, though we know that, as fictional constructs, all of these characters will see new life in various mediums, with a myriad of origins and arcs, sequels and reboots.
The drive behind Planetary, the organization, and Snow, personally, is preservation. He goes out of his way to avoid replacing or entirely removing anything or anyone. This mystery archeology gig is to facilitate rescue operations, recovery missions, and exploration of the unknown, cataloguing the wonders of life and, yes, ultimately, preserving their integrity. It’s not about trophy rooms, running the show, policing the world, or even, ultimately, self-preservation, but self-sacrificing preservation of everything else, sharing what is admirable and useful in all the world with as many people as possible. The Planetary Organization is working towards a sort of socialism of wonders, not a republic, a monarchy, or even a theocracy of wonders, but a socialism.
“It’s a strange world,” as Jakita Wagner and Elijah Snow say it first, “Let’s keep it that way.” They aren't keeping it that way for only themselves, or any other set of elites to enjoy, but for all our sakes.
[From Volume One, All Over the World and Other Stories, "All Over the World"]
01.08.04 The holographic masking of the entrance to a cave used as a preterhuman adventurer’s base of operations may be a reference to the similar arrangement DC Comics’ Batman has utilized. Mountain bases for secret plotting and world-action are second in prevalence, only to volcano islands, of course.
01.08.05 Doc Brass, Dr. Axel Brass, is an analog of pulp fiction icon Doc Savage, with whom he shares his bronze skin, his wonderful physique, brilliance, and willingness to institute himself as instantaneous moral authority.
01.12.02 The Vulcania Raven God definitely infers, Vulcania, the smithy of the Roman gods. It also may be a reference to Vulcan Raven in some way I am incapable of fathoming.
01.12.03 The “hull of the Charnel Ship” is a bit of a shiftship, but also, an allusion to various boats and ferries used to cross the river between the lands of the living and those of the dead du jour.
“The vestments of the Black Crow King” likely refer to the sorts of hidden-kingdom rulers Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four continually encountered, most particularly, Blackbolt of the Inhumans and the Black Panther, Tchalla, of Wakanda.
01.14.01 Analogs of the major types of the pulp fiction era that operated terrestrially and in the then-contemporary era (barbarians, space travelers, and the cowboy are left out).
Left to right:
Hark is an analog of the Fu Manchu Oriental menace. He is also named for writer/director/producer Tsui Hark.
Jimmy stands in for Jimmy Christopher, the Operator #5, but also contains a costuming nod to Will Eisner’s The Spirit, and has James Bond’s facial scar and (most likely a happy coincidence due to the abovementioned Operator connection) the name of the protagonist as given in James Bond’s first moving picture adaptation.
The Aviator, like the character for whom he is a touchstone, G-8, has virtually no presence and definitely no “real name” given. He pursues “dark things,” super-technological and supernatural threats, generally to identify and curtail them.
Edison is every Edisonian boy inventor hero, from Tom Swift on.
Lord Blackstock (born Kevin Sack) is an analog not only of E.R. Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes, but also Marvel Comics’ Kazar (born Kevin Plunder), and every other aristocratic White man who was brought up from childhood in the jungle amidst subhumans, animals, or Natives. The purple of his clothes reminds one of the Lee Falk’s The Phantom, whom also had a cave base, aside from the requisite-here jungle-raising and animal connections.
The Millionaire, Bret Leather, is a callback to every rich angry man who fought crime viciously and vigorously during the era, from The Spider to the Shadow and Batman. He is morally conflicted, perhaps terminally traumatized, extremely dedicated, violent, and may possess the power to cloud men’s minds. He possesses a silhouette-inspiring set of tails and headgear, the Spider’s hiss and false fangs, and the Shadow’s false nose. Plus, his father was a costumed adventurer in the Old West, analogous to the Lone Ranger, thus establishing The Millionaire’s position as a Green Hornet reference, as well.
01.19.01 The “group of people in a mountain hideaway” are analogous to DC Comics’ major characters, whom together form the most traditional JLA membership.
Clockwise from the top: Superman, Wonder Woman, the Martian Manhunter, Batman, Green Lantern, the Flash, and Aquaman.
Some of the characters appear to possess traits or references to other characters related to their mythos/worlds: the not-Batman is colored and designed similarly to Black Orchid, not-Flash is colored similar to Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash, Aquaman is physiologically similar to Universal Studios’ the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and as a shield-bearing blonde, Wonder Woman bears connections with Marvel Comics’ Captain America.
The threat to these newcomers’ universe is similar to what the DC characters experienced in Crisis on Infinite Earths, which served as a line-wide reboot of their stories.
01.20.01 The Man of Bronze (Brass) and the Man of Steel (not-Superman) are fists-first at each other.
The Billionaire, whom is quite partial to his special guns, shoots not-Batman, who presumably has Batman’s traditional opposition to standard firearms.
01.20.02 Blackstock, whose precedents are all traditionally sorts of ambassadors, fights directly with the Wonder Woman analog, Wonder Woman, herself, being usually an ambassador for her homeland.
The not-Flash is killed similar to the way the Barry Allen Flash died in Crisis on Infinite Earths, but he is also shot with a lightning-like blast by a blond scientist in a labcoat, which is a common visual representation of that Flash, as well, being by profession a police scientist.
01.20.03 The Aviator guns down not-Green Lantern, just as he would anyone else using a super-technology to threaten what he wanted to protect.
The Manhunter analog kills Hark, who – as a Fu Manchu analog – may as well have been inhuman or alien, given the narrative treatment of such characters at the time.
01.21.03 Doc Bronze believes he is getting rescued from that cave around 1970. Doc Savage did have a resurgence around that time, including the fictional biography, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, by Philip Farmer.
[Click here to see further annotations for Planetary]