The Planetary Guides


We visited some friends who recently had a baby this weekend. Their oldest son is really into Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk and I was asked if I had some comics that he could read. Loving the art form like I do, I leapt at the chance to share. When Renee and I got home I went upstairs and started pulling out my shortboxes. I haven’t done this in a long time and nostalgia started to flood my mind as I flipped through issue after issue of comics I’ve been collecting since I was a kid. I found some suitable issues, but I also tripped over several issues of my favorite comic of all time… Planetary.

Planetary is about a group of people that are Archaeologists of the Unknown. The author, Warren Ellis, weaves an alternate history of the world that manages to cover almost everything science fiction. Every issue pulls on a thread from pop culture. Godzilla movies, Hong Kong crime noir, Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Batman, Superman… you name it. It is truly brilliant how it all comes together. Each issue makes me smile at his creativity and ability to take an old concept, look at it from a slightly different, more modern angle, and re-present it to the reader as something fresh and new. There are enough ideas on most panels that a lesser writer could roll out into their own series. Complementing Ellis’ prose is John Cassaday’s art. He has gone onto fame with the Ultimates and Astonishing X-Men, but he manages to faithfully represent Ellis’ imaginings with such clarity and detail that you’re convinced that the universe really is that way.

Let me give you an example from the series. The team is exploring the ruins of U.S. Science City Zero, a super-secret government research post from the 1950’s, with an informant. In Ellis’ alternate universe, a group of unethical scientists used the Red Scare to fund their research on human genetics. We find out that this informant was shot and then brought back to life, just to see if they could do it, using atomic science. Others were experimented on, including a man that was made invisible, but whose invisibility was unstable and left him blind and in great pain. Other creatures were experimented on, including the creation of giant ants, which cause our heroes slight pause when they attack. In the end, the informant’s second life expires and she fades away. Ellis manages to weave the fear of nuclear technology, monster films of the era, Soviet research cities, and the background of his alternate history together. Other than a brief battle, there is no combat, just ideas. He also manages to touch on some uncomfortable areas of our own history. The Red Scare gave us McCarthyism and we’ve definitely experimented on our own populace before. This intermingling of fictional and real events gives the universe a sense of authenticity that is rare in comic books.

One of the best things about the series is that it captures that sense of wonder that we have about the universe. It is a strange world that we live in and the world is all the more beautiful for that strangeness. That’s a thought I don’t mind being reminded of from time to time.

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~ by shaunkime on June 30, 2008.

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