[12 June 2009]
PopMatters Comics Editor
The Wildstorm Universe is just the obvious shiny surface of an Earth with superheroes, Warren Ellis writes in the original 1997 proposal for Planetary. What if, underneath all that, there was an entire classic old superhero world? What if there were huge Jack Kirby temples underground built by old gods or new, and ghostly cowboys riding the highways of the West for justice, and superspies in natty suits and 360-degree-vision shades fighting cold wars in the dark, and strange laughing killers kept in old Lovecraftian asylums… what if you had a hundred years of superhero history just slowly leaking out into this young and modern superhero world of the Wildstorm Universe? What if you could take everything old and make it new again?
In a surprise reversal of over-hyped emotions on the cusp of the new millennium, Ellis would offer Planetary as a meditation on the promise of tomorrow by delving into the history that prepared the world for things just about to come. Planetary was about the future of the Wildstorm Universe, but only in that it was an exploration of a past that shaped that future. Over the course of 26 issues, Ellis and artist John Cassaday would treat readers to a heady mixture of hard sci-fi, superhero archaeology and strange, but also familiar analogs of pop-culture. Ellis would draw a continuous narrative thread through a century of superheroes, laying down his own vision of Golden and Silver Age for the Wildstorm universe. Doc Savage, Tarzan, the Shadow, Ellis offers a near-exhaustive list of pop-culture icons. “It’s a strange world,” the series blurb reads, “Let’s keep it that way”.
In perhaps the most heart-rending of twists, Ellis offers the Fantastic Four as a template for group of villainous scientists who secretly dominate the globe. Simply known as The Four, these scientist-explorers have withheld technology that could have supercharged human advancement. Although the “mystery archaeologists” of Planetary have already skirmished with The Four in issue #6, it is here in “Magic & Loss” that readers discover exactly how The Four have made themselves a true adversary to human growth.
In the issue’s framing device, protagonist Elijah Snow crouches over three artifacts in an abandoned Four laboratory. Unable to explain them, but awash in a deep sense of loss, Snow finds his resolve to dethrone The Four strengthened. The artifacts themselves, a blue lantern, a red birthing blanket and a pair of magical wristbands are emblematic of the DC superheroes Green Lantern, Superman and Wonder Woman. The current Planetary issue tells the stories of how these artifacts’ owners were assassinated by The Four.
Encountering these very familiar objects through the eyes of character wholly unable to recognize them, explains the sense of loss felt by the Wildstorm universe. These three characters, Green Lantern, Superman and Wonder Woman would have been the vanguard of a Silver Age of superheroes. Because of The Four, the Wildstorm universe would never know a world where superheroism is legacy passed from one generation to the next.