RETRO REVIEW: Planetary #5 (September 1999)

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Or – “Clearly NOT Clark Savage, Mr. Copyright Lawyer…”

Around the turn of the last century, the comic book industry was filled with a great many books that played with the very tropes of serialized storytelling.  (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was one, The Authority another.)  One of the greatest, now sadly devalued, was Planetary, which paid homage not just to the comic book heroes, but the pulps that spawned them.  I enjoyed every single issue of Planetary, but this issue may be my favorite of them all…

PLANETARY #5
Writer: Warren Ellis
Penciler: John Cassaday
Inks: John Cassaday
Colorist: Laura Depuy
Letterer: Ali Fuchs
Editor: John Layman
Publisher: Wildstorm
Cover Price: $2.50
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $5.00

Previously, in Planetary:  Elijah Snow is a “century baby,” born on January 1st, 1900.  After years of wandering, he found himself a vagrant, only to be recruited by the Planetary Organization, a group of adventurers who refer to themselves as “The Archeologists Of The Impossible.”  Funded by the mysterious Fourth Man, Elijah and his cohorts Jakita (superhumanly strong and agile) and the Drummer (preternatural control of information) travel the world investigating the various strange phenomena of the universe.  During Elijah’s first mission, they came upon the last remnants of a device that served as both a map of the multiverse and a portal to other dimensions.  The portal had been guarded since 1945 by Doctor Axel Brass, another century baby, whose mind was so keenly focused as to render him damn near immortal.  As the mysteries of Planetary unfurl before him, Elijah Snow finds himself drawn to the enigmatic Doc Brass…

This first page is part of the reason that I love reading Planetary.  Two ridiculously awesome characters, carefully acknowledging that the other is his equal, without the standard comic book posing or smart-guy monologues.  There’s a wonderfully touching moment as Brass chides Elijah for not telling him the truth when they found him in the cave.  “Fifty-four years, and I thought it was thirty,” says Brass, “That’s not bad.  I could’ve handled that fine.”  John Cassaday’s wonderful art gives us a close-up that makes it clear that the Doc may not be fully telling the truth with this statement, and it’s a wonderful moment in an issue full of them.  The bulk of the issue is a conversation between Brass and Snow, with references to other Warren Ellis stories and the unwritten history of their universe…

Just as Axel Brass himself is a clear shout-out to one Clark Savage, the mysterious Hark bears a resemblance to Fu Manchu, and the rest of his band of merry men seem familiar as well, referencing Tarzan, G-8, The Shadow and more.  Oh, and featuring Thomas Edison as their super-scientist…

All the Doc Brass flashbacks in this issue are done as homages to the Doc Savage stories in the pulps (and even the cover logo resembles the paperback collections of Savage stories that I remember from my childhood.)  Planetary is meta-fiction in the purest sense, as the history of these characters references not only the history of comic fiction, but the actual history of comics and their creators, and Ellis manages to imbue every single page with a love of both those histories and a snarky tone that somehow still works with the universe-spanning adventure story they’re telling.

John Cassaday’s work on this title made me an instant fan, especially in issue #3 (the story of a ghostly cop avenging his own murder in modern day Hong Kong) and here, as his nuanced art makes the sight of two 100-year-old men reminiscing visually engaging in every panel.  More importantly, this fantastic art is matched by fantastic character work, as Doc Brass first mocks Elijah gently for asking his opinion on modern-day events after Brass spent half-a-century in a cave.  Then?

He answers the question, off the top of his head.

I really enjoy the joke about cigarettes being bad for you coming from a man of the 1940′s, and how Doc’s clarity of mind gives Elijah the answer that he wants:  The person who benefits is clearly Planetary’s Fourth Man, and Elijah has to discover the truth about that position.  The story of how he finds him, and who the Fourth Man is makes up the remainder of the series, but this issue ends with a beautiful shot of Doc Brass, fondly remembering his friends and their battles, while Elijah seems genuinely disheartened to not have been part of it all.  The end of Planetary had a couple of very long gaps between issues, but even the interminable wait wasn’t quite as bad as the realization that there aren’t any more issues coming.  Still, half the fun of the rollercoaster ride is the trip up the clickety-hill, and Planetary #5 delivers that anticipatory thrill in spades, earning 5 out of 5 stars overall.

Rating: ★★★★★