Pondering PLANETARY: Thoughts on a New Classic

This weekend I reread the first three volumes of Planetary and then read Vol. 4 for the first time, I know it's been out for a bit but if production can be so delayed you'll forgive me for being a trade-waiter, right Mike Romo? I don’t intend this post to be a review of the 4th book or even a review of the series as a whole, rather my reaction to the project as sporadic and disjointed as that may be.

First off I think this book transcends genre, if anything I’d define it as omnigeneric, not to say that it’s “generic” in a bland sense, but generic in the sense of as pertaining to all genres. We often spout defensively that comics are a medium NOT a genre, more than capes and tights and all that. This book is a tour de force of just how true that can be. From reading much of Ellis’ other work it’s clear the man had a passion for genre outside the superhero, and loves to push the boundaries of what comics may have become were any of those other genres embraced as much as the superhero was. Within Planetary, Ellis coalesces that vision into a single and ridiculously cohesive universe.

As such, a huge facet of the enjoyment to be derived from this work comes from knowing the sources Ellis’ is taking inspiration from, including his own catalog. To that end, this is not a beginner comic. Meaning this is not the book I’d hand to someone completely new to comics in the same way I wouldn’t hand them Watchmen. I’ve had people disagree because Watchmen is in their view the pinnacle of what comics can be, so why not start off the nascent there? Well both Planetary and Watchmen are viewed as such impressive feats because they pull from so many threads of previously established trends and tropes to weave tapestries which we as established fans understand as being woven from the thread of all that’s come before. A new reader would see an impressive visage, but the true majesty of the accomplishment is lost without the necessary perspective. The key difference as I see it is that Watchmen is all about the deconstruction of the superhero whereas Planetary is more the abandonment for the very need of the conceit without losing the love for the weirdness those ideas bring to the table. Granted, both Planetary and Watchmen withstand multiple re-readings, so their power is never truly lost due to early consumption.

And that’s just the thing; I reread all of Planetary over a lazy weekend. For as long as it took complete, it doesn’t take that much to go through it start to finish. However, it’s one of those books that rewards those that return again and again. You’ll notice new things just because, but you’ll also notice new things due to the fact that you’re approaching each panel from a place of more experience in the wide world of comics.  Especially if you’re the sort to step outside the superheroic sandbox and sample all that comics has to offer.

In just that sense Planetary could be used as a primer to see which genres you should be exploring. Since Ellis shows deft mastery of any style he puts his mind to, you can use Planetary to show you the way forward. Fascinated the Jack Carter funeral? Go read some Hellblazer. Thought Axel Brass was badass? Scope out Doc Savage. Couldn’t get enough Elijah Snow? Ok, well in that case you may just need to reread Planetary because I’ve not seen him around even in any of Ellis’ many other works.

And I can totally understand not having enough of the principle players of the eponymous organization run by Snow, Jakita Wagner and The Drummer. Each character seems to represent a different facet of Ellis himself. Snow the crotchety old man who’s still ten steps ahead of the young bucks who think they know what’s up. Jakita is the femme fatale who oozes sex appeal and is terrified of boredom due to her immense power. And finally The Drummer, who’s too smart and tech savvy for his own good, never missing the chance to throw in an dollop of technobabble to spice up and/or obfuscate dialog. At the core of each is the characteristic optimism that when Ellis is writing from the heart makes even the surliest of his creations endearing and human.

I’ve given Ellis the lion’s share of the credit here, which I think is fair, but I would be a bastard not to mention John Cassaday and Laura Depuy who handled the art for the book. Cassaday created fantastic characters that skirt the boundary between direct homage and loving tribute. His eye for detail in all aspects of his work, his skill at costuming and design and his ability to tell a story in the cinematic style that perfectly complements Ellis’ writing are on full display throughout. It’s enough to make me melancholic for what was and does not seem to be coming back.

Last, a word on the science. Ellis ultimately takes every concept from the Bronze Age adventurers forward and weaves them together with an underpinning of logic and science. It’s never ham fisted or blunt, but elegant and makes sense. Even a character referred to by others as a magician is able to calmly explain her abilities through the lens of quantum physics. When most writers get to the point of relying on quantum, nano-, atomic or whatever to explain their stories it’s usually just that, a surfacey non-explanation. Ellis puts those amateurs to shame, we all know ultimately what he’s saying doesn’t really work, but the effort and thought behind the endeavor on are full display. I adore the attempt and lovingly admire the product.

So those are my thoughts having gone back and reread Planetary. Am I alone? Preaching to the choir? Did you take something completely different away from the series? I want to know so tell me in the comments! (I really do want to know, gimme.)


Get Planetary Volume 1 from Amazon.


Ryan Haupt said barely half of what he could have said about Planetary, you can expect the other half of his post in several years. META-JOKE!


  1. Well said mr H. Planetary Volume one blew me away and stands up to repeated re-reads. It is ABOUT everything else, but not LIKE everything else. I await volume 4 eagerly.

  2. Absolute versions are already out of print. Why can’t DC keep their Absolute books in print? The Jerkstore called, DC, they’re running out of you!

  3. Planetary is one of my favorite comics of all time. I rank it up with Watchmen and other pinnacle books. I think a novice could read it, but without the knowledge to appreciate all the homages/easter eggs/references, I think they would miss out on a truly rich experience. Much like how humor is referential, this book is as well. To truly “get the jokes,” you need the knowledge of what has come before to compare it to.

    I originally bought the first two trades, then began to pick up the individual issues after that. I was forunate enough to come across a “grab-bag” pack of issues 1-12 at a used book store last year, so now I also have all the “floppies” as well. I may have to get the Absolute editions too!

  4. The two absolutes are things of beauty. A must own. @fnord: You should still be able to track them down online if you look around – I bought mine not too long ago.

  5. I also re-read Planetary last weekend. Is… Is this a Fight Club thing?

    You hit the nail on the head with this article, Ryan, well done. I would add that the regular characters also mirror the creative team, at least on the surface. (Two men, one woman.)

  6. Planetary is to me the best work that Warren Ellis & John Cassaday have put out to this day. I agree with you on it not being recommendable to new comic readers, but I would recommend it to sci-fi readers who want to see what kind of sci-fi explorations that comics can show. Maybe even sci-fi TV and/or movie fans as well could pick up on Planetary. Its really hard to find anything bad or negative really (besides the delays) about this series. It really is the most ground-breaking, intelligent and thought provoking masterpiece of a comic since Watchmen. Now that the series is over I, like everyone else I imagine, am looking for another series to fill up that hole that Planetary once occupied, so any suggestions?

  7. I’ve got the absolutes, but haven’t read them yet.  Easily one of my favorite series.  It can stand toe-to-toe with Watchmen and on the right day even wins.  Now if we could get Absolute Transmetropolitan.

  8. I read planetary last weekend also. I love all the little homages, they work yet don’t pull me out of the story.

  9. Confession time…I have yet to read Planetary. I too have both of the Omnibuses and need to remedy that pronto this year.

  10. I think I’ll enjoy reading this. Thanks.

  11. Absolutely loved planetary. I’m gonna read all four volumes again now!

  12. Very well written article.  You’ve basically pointed out all the reasons I love Planetary, that I couldn’t articulate.  Very well said stuffs, sir.

    Planetary is a high water mark book for me when I compare it to other books that have and are coming out.  The beautiful thing about the book is to be a knowledgeable reader and to see how elegantly and beautifully Ellis and Cassaday have constructed this world and these characters.  Staying true to the tropes of any particular genre, but, adding that bit of magic that makes it more than that and grounds it in the realm of possibility.

    It’s a completely immersible book and anyone who hasn’t checked it out is in for a pleasant  surprise.


  13. I bought the first 3 trades and the crossover trade and have been waiting to get the fourth to read them all. I just picked it up but have been reading lots of other things and just started up another semester of college so I’ll be getting to it when I get to it. Really looking forward to it though! Hope to have a lazy weekend in the near future free 🙂

  14. I finally read the 4th trade over the holidays…and I’ve got to say, I was amazed at how Warren Ellis was able to tug at my emotions right there at the end.  It was good stuff and it’s one of my favorites up on the trade shelf.

  15. I got the first three trades during the first 2 weeks of classes this year and couldn’t stop reading them til I closed the cover on the third one. The first trade has plenty of awesome ideas and works as a great deconstruction of different genres, but the story didn’t grab me until the second trade. By the end of the second trade, the story REALLY takes off and it becomes one of the craziest page turners ever. I’m glad you pointed out how cohesive of a universe Ellis and Cassaday created in Planetary. Nothing feels out of place when it really should. Ellis and Cassaday painstakingly created a world where anything is possible and is completely believable. Wish I could pin down how they did it. 

    I need to get my hands on the fourth volume. Really enjoyed this series and hoping to find something else like it soon.

  16. I loved the first 12 issues of Planetary.  I think they’re about as perfect as comics can get.

    Unfortunately, when Ellis started phoning it in the writing went downhill fast.  I got a real air of resentment from him in the last few issues as he sped through plot points with none of the interesting pacing and examination of the first run in an effort to get the monkey off his back.

    Mind you, I was there from the beginning and had a healthy dose of resentment built in for the disrespect shown to the readers as we waited to see what happened and had promises continually broken.

    I’d still recommend it to readers, though.  The standalone stories are wonderful, beautiful things even if I feel the arc falls kind of flat.