So! Warren Ellis! Pretty talented guy! I finally got around to reading his "Planetary," a series he wrote for Wildstorm that only lasted for 27 issues but spread those issues out over a very long time, running for more than a decade before finally wrapping up in 2009. It's very good, and very different from what I'd expected. Transmetropolitan and Crooked Little Vein were both gleefully profane works of fiction, constantly shocking and provoking the reader in their bizarre and offensive content. Planetary is very different. On its surface, it looks like a typical superhero comic: there's a team, with pretty cool equipment, that consists of people with supernatural powers. However, there's a lot more going on under the hood, and even without getting into the subtext of the story, the rhythms are very different from a typical superhero comic, or even other "alternative" comics: the characters' motivations are oriented more towards discovery, not fighting evil, and the past is much more interesting than the future.
The art is extremely well-done. It's... not exactly realistic, I guess, but not impressionistic either. I loved the character designs, particularly Jakita. The environments tend to be very sweeping and majestic and often awe-inspiring, whether they're in a desert, in a city, or some highly advanced technology. (It was hard not to think of The City when reading Planetary, just because they're so different. The City was pure filth that had calcified into buildings and sidewalks; cities in Planetary tend to be more attractive, partway between practical and impressive.) The coloring is bright and attractive without being too, um, cartoony.
There are a lot of plot twists throughout the story. Most significantly, Elijah Snow, who initially is presented as a new recruit to the Planetary organization, is eventually revealed to have had a prior history with that group. I want to re-read this sometime to see if and how that was foreshadowed... I'd like to think that Ellis had planned that switch all along, but I didn't really see it coming. I'm just a little bummed by the mechanics of that development, since it feels like amnesia stories are too common, but this does have the added beneficial twist of a person's friends (and not their enemies) being in on the con.
The coolest thing about Planetary is what it is: an archaeological group. I love that their purpose is to make discoveries and share them with the world. That's such a cool idea (and not unknown to larger popular culture, given the fame of Indiana Jones), and after reading Planetary, I'm surprised that it isn't done more often. Of course, there are villains and fights, but it's refreshing that the story approaches them obliquely instead of smashing opposing forces head-on.
I have a confession to make: I'm very dumb. I think it was probably around issue 20 or so that I first thought, "Huh... you know, some of the people in The Four have some similarities to that other comic. You know, the Fantastic Four." Then I realized that, duh, The Four are very deliberately a riff on the Fantastic Four. And THEN I started realizing that a ton of stuff throughout the whole series is also inspired by other stuff - some comics, but also pulp novels ("Of COURSE that's Tarzan!") and movies ("Of COURSE that's Godzilla!") That also helped me re-interpret some of the earlier stuff in the book: we'd met Sherlock Holmes in flashback a while ago, and I'd thought that we were getting a glimpse at the fictional "real" Sherlock Holmes - that is, the real man behind the Arthur Conan Doyle stories. By the end of the series, though, I'd come to believe that we were actually seeing an alternate universe's version of Sherlock Holmes.
That's where the story gets very meta, and very good. Stuff finally started sliding into place to me, and stuff that had seemed like nonsensical technobabble turned into incredibly clever post-modern comics writing. When they're talking about living in a three-dimensional world that's contained within a stack of two-dimensional worlds... they're talking about being characters in a comic book. That's SO COOL! I love their treatment of fiction, and the idea of characters moving from one story to another story, being transformed along the way.
That very last issue was a doozy; I was surprised to see that it really was the end of the series, since in the first few pages it felt like something that would kick off an entirely new arc. I was VERY concerned that the time machine would open a portal to the evil Earth, and had a sinking feeling in my stomach when Drums starts tracing out the shape of the loop of light that would power the time machine; Jakita says something like, "I feel like I've seen that shape before..." and of course we have: it's the shape of the portal outside the evil Earth, and I can very easily imagine a version of the story where that space portal is the same as the one Drums is constructing now. Once it is turned on, if the "aliens" are EVER able to visit Earth, even millennia in the future, they'll be able to travel back in time to this moment and conquer the planet. Or - more unsettling - perhaps the "evil Earth" we saw before is THE Earth: it isn't so advanced because it has followed an alternate timeline; it's so advanced because future visitors have come back with their technology and made it so. There's a certain grim sense of inevitable annihilation to this scenario: in turning on the machine, Elijah could be enabling that other timeline in his own world, and creating a Hell on Earth.
Fortunately, I was wrong, and Ellis didn't screw over the universe in the very last pages of his closing issue.
Also: I loved the science of the time machine, which reminded me in a very good way of "Primer", which is hands-down the best time-travel story I've ever heard or seen. It feels like both of them are based on good science, very possibly the same science.
I have a hard time summing up or cataloging Planetary. It's much better and deeper than a superhero comic, but it also isn't trying to be a metaphor powerhouse like "Sandman," or as clearly idiosyncratic as "Bone." Its storytelling is a curiously pleasant blend of episodic and serial, not unlike what you might get from something like "X-Men," while simultaneously retaining an overall focus that keeps the story nicely contained, and not something that endlessly spills out. (Despite my curiosity at the last issue, the story does end rather nicely and definitely, and I don't feel dissatisfied that there won't be a sequel.) I have learned that there are a few one-shots, though, so I'll probably check those out and explore the world a little bit longer.