by John Burnson




A Style of Question

Submitted for your approval: There is a particular sub-genre of science fiction — Let’s call it Riddle. In Riddle, the protagonists are simultaneously fulfilling a quest and seeking the nature of the quest. As they move, they learn, un-learn, and re-learn. Riddle is not Mystery, at least not in the common sense. In Mystery, there is a crime, the outline of which is well-marked, and the investigation of which are well-rehearsed. In Riddle, though, the questions themselves are mysteries, and breakthroughs tend to raise as many walls as they raze. The best-known example of Riddle these days is, of course, The X-Files, but the field has long been tilled by writers of science fiction, from Isaac Asimov (“What’s going on with this robot?”) to Hal Clement (“What’s going on with this planet?”) to Clifford D. Simak (“What’s going on with this universe?”).

You might think that Riddle is alive with possibilities, but, in fact, the genre is surprisingly conservative. Crosswords have their grids, codes have their keys, and Riddle has its motivational plaques featuring tranquil scenes of woodland and beaches aside text such as “Nothing is What It Seems,” “Everything Ties Together,” and “You’re Standing on It.”

Planetary, the cult-hit 24-issue maxi-series from writer Warren Ellis and artist John Cassaday, brings Riddle to the forefront of comics. Unfortunately, the baggage didn’t get lost.

Planetary is an organization dedicated to uncovering the “secret history” of the 20th century. (“Archaeologists of the Impossible” screamed the first issue.) At the heart of the group is a trio of superhumans. The hero, the white-suited, haggard Elijah Snow, is literally cool. Less an Iceman-clone a master of “heat reduction,” Snow can freeze a city block with a thought, or shut down enemies by icing up all the water in their brains. It’s no stretch of metaphor to say that the man has icewater in his veins. The muscle of the team is Jakita Wagner, a no-nonsense woman who really ought to look into nonsense (think Miss Parker from “The Pretender” in leather). She is strong and sturdy in the She-Hulk role, and fast to boot. Rounding out the party is The Drummer, a twentysomething natural receiver and manipulator of signals (mostly, but not necessarily, electronic), and concerning whom audiences are awaiting the first whisper of personality.

The man in the Riddle here is Snow, recruited into Planetary from a past that he can’t clearly recall. Why do his new teammates seem to know things about him? More important, why does he seem to know things about them, when he can’t recall having met them before? And, why do Planetary’s newly unearthed adversaries, the Four, seem to know things about both Snow and the others? Finally, who is the Fourth Man, the secret source of Planetary’s funds?

For a time, all is well. Snow, Jakita, and Drums hop the globe, making finds of impenetrable import. We learn that the century just closed ought to have been one of blinding magnificence. That destiny has been thwarted by The Four, a hateful version of Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four. The quartet hoards all nature of global progress and is responsible for — among many other atrocities — the burning, bombing, and brutalizing of this world’s DC Comics hero-variants, alternates of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern, respectively.

In short order, though, the conventions of Riddle catch up. The characters turn their gazes from the stars to their navels, and the book shifts from the cases of the mystery miners to the case of the mystery miners. The X-Files was far more fun before the lead duo started hunting Captain Emphysema and criss-crossing their own confining pasts like pawns in a game of Clue (“Scully in the Apiary with the Anal Probe”). And so it is with Planetary. A grand first reel that featured giant bugs and ghost cops and space/time-ships buried beneath city blocks narrows into a war between Snow and his enemies. Exploring yields to explaining.

Ellis himself seems trapped in the intersection. Issue 12, which represented the mid-point of the book and which bore a Big Revelation, really got the fans’ engines revving — the phrase “The game’s afoot” is rarely used to such delicious effect. However, having overturned the tables, Ellis then went about fussing with the place-settings: the following two issues were flashbacks, whose momentum-freezing effects would have impressed even Elijah Snow. Issue 13 featured a solo visit by Snow to Sherlock Holmes — Yes, he’s a real person, and chums with, among others, H.G. Wells and Baron Von Frankenstein in a secret 19th-century group whose selfish ambitions were key to the creation of a more benign Planetary. It’s charming for a detour, and at least we learn how Dracula bit it. Issue 14, however, was totally unnecessary, the equivalent of throwing open the curtains on a dimly lit room in which we had observed a brain in a jar and revealing that the rest of the room was lined with ... bookshelves. Not all horrors deepen with examination.

To be sure, Planetary avoids the flying-squirrel acrobatics that have come to characterize other Riddles such as “The X-Files.” The book will have a finite run, a tapestry woven by Ellis from Issue 1. Also, he doesn’t have to wrap his tale around shooting schedules, contract disputes, and broadcast politics. Comics are suited to probing reality’s limits — printers don’t charge more for depicting the surreal — and Ellis is a writer who could craft an interesting universe with a toothpick and tomato juice. Yet, the story is an avalanche of corn flakes. Ellis seems to voice this frustration when, more than once in the early going, he has Snow say something along the lines of, “Why can’t I get a simple answer to a simple question?”

As with most of Ellis’s work, Planetary is wonderfully readable. The plot proceeds with obvious care, and the final dust-up promises to be thrilling. But my mind mourns as the walls close in, and the exploration of existence is reduced to the answer of a single question. In Planetary, Ellis would like to deliver the world, but the plate’s just not big enough.

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