Beautiful and Unique Snowflakes: Warren Ellis' 'Planetary'

Kevin M. Brettauer

Warren Ellis, once thought of by many as comics’ resident Orson Welles, an angry, embittered artist, is actually the industry’s Kurt Vonnegut, sent here to make us feel as if "everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt".

Contributor: John Cassaday
Publisher: Wildstorm (DC Comics)
Writer: Warren Ellis
Graphic Novel: Planetary
Publication Date: 2009-10-07
"Don't be so gloomy. After all, it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.”

-- Harry Lime, The Third Man

"Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why."

-- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Warren Ellis is often identified, by fans and detractors alike, as an angry, bitter, drunken lunatic rambling about how much he hates people and the terribly obscene things they do to each other, much like Orson Welles was seen by his Hollywood peers in his declining years. While Ellis may drink a lot (if one goes by his public persona), it would be remiss to simply dismiss him as he has been described. If anything, the man has the biggest heart in the comic book industry this side of -- well, he may have the biggest heart in the industry.

One of Ellis’ many beloved anti-heroes, Spider Jerusalem of Transmetropolitan infamy, was, until now, the most compassionate, albeit mildly sociopathic, of all of Ellis’ heroes. This has all changed with the release of Planetary #27, the final issue of the series, and Elijah Snow now reigns supreme as the most humane, and human, of all of this four-color Kurt Vonnegut’s creations. This change of Elijah’s characterization has been slowly built over the entire series as he discovers the true history of the 20th century and his own life story. In most situations, this would seem forced, but under Ellis’ tender hand, it is the most natural of all developments -- especially when one realizes that, by the final issue, it has been three years since the publication of the previous issue, and eleven and a half years since the series began. It is altogether more touching and heartbreaking to realize that Elijah Snow has become Warren Ellis, and Ambrose Chase has become a surrogate for Ellis’ late father.

From the outset, Planetary is full of fascinating characters that, while analogues and constructs meant to represent various other fictional creations, stand perfectly on their own as the unique individuals they are. When Jakita Wagner wanders into the diner to meet Elijah in the first issue of the series, it is, for reasons readers won’t discover until quite some time later, an extremely loaded moment. Each knows secrets about the other, even if one of them doesn’t necessarily know it at that moment. This is later re-enforced by The Drummer’s “first” meeting with Elijah in the same issue, where he seems to be testing Elijah on a number of levels and is let down. Since Drums talks to machines -- “that’s his talent”, as Jakita says -- the man he will later claim to know “better than anyone” lets him down, but due to his personal eccentricities, Drums’ face registers this as nothing more than a new technological challenge (The Drummer is very much Ellis’ go-to “tech” character in this series, and almost every Ellis work has one. However, The Drummer is probably the first to identify human beings as a technological system, a trend taken to its next level in Ellis’ current Doktor Sleepless and Astonishing X-Men).

Very early on, the character interactions among the three leads is solidified, as is the overall goal of the Planetary Organization: saving this strange world, and keeping it strange. It obviously evolves as Ellis takes his troika, a post-modern take on DC’s Challengers of the Unknown, and puts them into direct confrontation with the Four, villainous analogues for Marvel’s Fantastic Four, who want to use the world’s strangeness to fuel their own ends, and actually sold out this Earth to a world that looks, unsurprisingly, like Jack Kirby’s Apokolips (Drums jokes that, should they ever start naming alternate Earths for the Planetary Guide, he wants to name that particular world “Earth-Toilet-On-Fire”). Under a lesser writer, Planetary could have just become amusing shtick as classic concepts and characters -- including John Constantine, the Justice League and Nick Fury -- were re-invented in disturbing and sometimes frightening ways.

With Ellis in charge of this world, though, each reinterpretation, each seemingly throwaway cultural reference, each self-reflexive moment actually highlights the humanity of the characters. In the seventh issue, a John Constantine analogue (and, perhaps not coincidentally, a former lover of Jakita’s) fakes his death to draw out and kill an old enemy. In a cheeky bit of introspection, when asked by the team why he went to all that trouble just to kill an old enemy, he tells them it’s simply because “the Eighties are over; time to become someone else”, as the WildStorm Universe’s equivalent of Constantine slowly reveals that he has transformed into their own take on Spider Jerusalem (Constantine, of course, was created by Alan Moore, and Jerusalem was an invention of Ellis; interestingly, when Jerusalem first appears in Transmetropolitan’s first issue, he looks a lot like Moore).

In one very real way or another, the members of Planetary, including Ambrose Chase, owe one another their lives. They rescued Drums from one of Randall Dowling’s facilities; Elijah ensured that Jakita received a proper childhood; and the continued drive to rescue the missing Ambrose has saved Elijah’s life in multiple circumstances where a man with a lesser will to survive, a man with no mission, would have easily died. With that in mind, it’s entirely possible to obtain a reading of the series that simply equates discovery with protection and exploration with salvation.

It’s well-known by now that Ellis doesn’t wish to speak too much of Planetary in the years to come, nor is he as interested in revisiting the world as he once implied he was. This is due to the fact that the author associates Planetary with a series of painful tragedies in his life, chief among them his father’s illness and eventual death. When one looks at the series through that lens, at least two things become apparent: one, let the author do what he wants. He has earned the right to retire these characters. They are his and his alone. Letting them go, as if he’s letting go of something horrible from his past (and, indeed, he is) as if it were a tangible object, will be the healthiest thing he can do for himself at this juncture. Second, it becomes clear that, if Ellis’ father’s illness and passing contributed as much to Planetary as the readers have been led to believe, then it’s almost glaringly obvious that the story of Elijah, Jakita, Drums and Ambrose is really all about personal regret and the desire to change things against all odds, no matter who tells you what you want to accomplish is dangerous or impossible.

In the final issues, Ellis depicts a driven, almost obsessive Elijah Snow, a man consumed with the desire to save his fallen comrade, who appeared to sustain a critical gunshot wound years earlier before mysteriously vanishing. Ellis, of course, cannot have John Cassaday build a device to find his father’s unique energy field and save him from his fate, but Elijah Snow can have The Drummer build one to save Ambrose Chase and return him to his family. Reading the final issue, one can almost feel Ellis’ heart breaking, and as the reader turns the pages, one has to wonder how many tears were really shed over the course of this issue’s creation. It is the individual’s pain that the reader feels upon completion of Planetary, and it is the individual who triumphs against all odds. Ambrose Chase is saved, to be reunited with his family. The Drummer and Jakita Wagner’s faith in Elijah is restored. Elijah looks on pleased with his work. And several alternate futures, featuring older versions of all four heroes, look on, smiling with encouragement.

Planetary may be done forever now, but its beauty and singular dedication to the compassion and humanity of the individuality will live on in the hearts and minds of comic fans. And for those fans who think Warren Ellis to be a lunatic, a raging drunkard, a bitter old crank with no faith in mankind, well -- all they have to do is read the conclusion, and they will know the truth. And the truth is this: that Warren Ellis, once thought of by many as comics’ resident Orson Welles, an angry, embittered artist, is actually the industry’s Kurt Vonnegut, sent here to make us feel as if “everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.”

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