Planetary: Spacetime Archaeology

Posted by on August 17th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Warren Ellis, writer & John Cassady, artist; Wildstorm/DC; 224 pp., $24.99; Color, Hardcover, ISBN-13: 978-1401209964

“Do you know what Planetary is?” Elijah Snow asks in an early number of the comic.  “It’s this mirror.  Look into it.”

“It’s warped.”

“No.  The mirror’s fine.  It’s the world that’s warped.”

With Planetary, Warren Ellis holds a seemingly distorted mirror up to the world of our pulp, sci-fi and superhero stories.  We recognize what we see there, and at first we think that something’s wrong.  Slowly we realize that something is right.

Ellis refashions familiar elements of our culture: the villains, the heroes, the conspiracies, the monsters, the multiverse.  Over the course of 27 issues, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Nick Fury, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, the Lone Ranger, Godzilla and Mothra, the giant ants from Them, Lovecraft’s monsters and Lovecraft himself, John Constantine and even Spider Jerusalem all come in for a remix — and Ellis reminds us exactly what there is to love about the stories, characters, and themes we’ve inherited.  He shows us again how wonderful, goofy and just plain cool the imaginary worlds of our genre fiction really are — or would be, if we didn’t let them devolve into cliché.

In Planetary Vol. 4: Spacetime Archaeology, the episodic a-new-adventure-every-issue structure of the series is relaxed and the overarching plot moves into the foreground.  We learn, finally, what it is that The Four have been up to, how The Drummer came to join the Planetary team, what that ancient trans-dimensional spaceship has to do with anything and even how to save the long-dead Ambrose Chase.  All the major questions posed by the previous 18 chapters are finally answered, or if not quite answered, at least resolved.

It’s the end of an arc, and reportedly, the end of the series.  But Snow promises that the adventures will continue:  “It’s taken a long time to get here,” he says, “But. . .  we’re just getting started.”

In the end, as at the beginning, Planetary hints at much more than it reveals.  Elijah Snow’s memory blocks helped to pace the revelations structuring the plot, and his efforts to regain his memories perfectly reflected the Planetary Foundation’s larger project, its very raison d’etre — recovering what has been lost or forgotten.

“We’re Planetary,” Jakita Wagner explains.  “We gather information on the hidden wonders of the world.”

“Mystery archaeologists.  There’s a hundred years of fantastic events that Planetary intends to excavate.”

“We’re mapping the secret history of the twentieth century.”

But archaeologists do not, as a rule, discover the past intact.  They find it in fragments, broken, decayed.  They dust it off, piece it together, and do their best to fill in the gaps.  A lot of their work relies on the imagination.  This approach is apparent, not only in the work of the Planetary Foundation, but in the narrative strategy of the Planetary series.

And if the past relies on the imagination, surely the future does as well.  So it is fitting, at the end, to be offered further adventures.  It is less a promise than an invitation, to keep these stories alive in the culture, to add to them in our imaginations, to continuously renew and reinvent the tradition of which they are a part.

“Strange world.”

“Let’s keep it that way.”

all images ©2010 WildStorm Productions, Inc.

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