Planetary, volume four: Spacetime Archaeology

To work, then. For this is your century, and it needs you.

Sherlock Holmes to Elijah Snow, 1920.

In 1998, Warren Ellis and John Cassady wrote “Nuclear Spring”, an underwhelming preview of the series that was soon to come. Planetary eventually spanned 27 issues and the story over a century, but more importantly, over a decade would pass until the final issue of story would be completed. No ending could live up to a decade of delays, certainly? I read the fourth and final volume of the story a few weeks ago; I’ve read it twice, and I think I have a handle on the ending. At the least, I may have a handle on how I feel about it.

How the reader reacts to a work like this is important. Planetary is a meta-fictional attempting to be the last word on the genre of fiction that recycles other fiction to make a point. Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen tried the same thing, using characters from literature and adventure stories, but that story succeeded based on its characters much more than did the events of Spacetime Archaeology.

The characters in Planetary aren’t really the point. The story has always been about uncovering mysteries, finding new ones, and asking questions; it almost doesn’t matter who does the digging. The question asked in this final installment: What do you do when you’re solved all your problems and uncovered all the mysteries? Who are you then?

You are a thing created to do a job, Mr. Snow. And that job cannot be to simply hound four people who did you wrong to the ends of the earth. Look around you. When the ground of the underpinnings of life and death, laid beyond the tiniest spaces we can imagine, are this infintely vast — can your task be so small a thing?

Melanctha, to Elijah Snow.

In 1999, Jakita Wagner recruits the 99-year-old Elijah Snow into the Planetary organization, a globe-spanning outfit that has a charter of uncovering the secret history of the world. From this simple (and, frankly, clichéd) premise, Ellis was able to weave the story of why Planetary exists and, more importantly why it’s needed. The story touches on open-source culture (Snow published “The Planetary Guide”, a freely available roadmap to the strange); the occult is portrayed as simply patterns of energy of be exploited; pop physics, portraying the universe as simply information, with our material existence a trick of the light; and superhero culture, in an attempt to explore what a superhero world would be like outside of the pages of a comic book. By the time the final arc starts up, Snow knows most of what he has to do to defeat his Fantastic-Four-inspired adversaries, even if he is foggy on the small detail of why it’s needed.

Appropriately enough, or perhaps ironically so, several threads are left un-trimmed at the ends, but that’s okay. The characters of Elijah Snow reached his peak as a character of interest halfway through the series, at which point Ellis smartly dove back in time to tell the reader the beginning of the story, having started very late in the tale.

This isn’t up to the quality of storytelling in Orbiter and Ocean, but the art in Planetary is John Cassady’s finest. Colorist Laura Martin makes the ages her own; this book is one of the few that aren’t quite the same with a different colorist, as we saw on a couple of issues.

The final few chapters in particular felt rushed when I first read them in issue form, as if the series could have benefited from a few more issues to close things out properly. Reading them now in one book, the last eight issues feel a little empty — as if there were too little story to fill the pages. As the mysteries are resolved, the magic drains from the pages. I’ll have to re-read all four books in a siting soon, but I found the ending excellent, but the peak of the series had already come and gone for me. Of course, inferior Planetary is like inferior chocolate. It’s still chocolate, and the worst issue of Planetary is well above the quality of most comics published today.

The river seems to go on forever. I lost Hanson yesterday to an attack from the thick vegetation that fringes this darkening river. I don’t know where I am… but I know I’m getting closer to where I want to be.

From Elijah Snow’s Planetary field journal, 1933.

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One thought on “Planetary, volume four: Spacetime Archaeology

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