Review: Planetary: All Over the World and Other Stories

(So ends another blogging hiatus, hopefully the last for a while. Back to at least one post a week, yes? Yes! Okay! So! Here’s a review of a comic book I read recently)


Planetary: All Over the World and Other Stories

by Warren Ellis (writer) and John Cassaday (artist)

Ever since I read his incredible Transmetropolitan series, I’ve been keen to devour more Warren Ellis (his work, not his flesh), so although I didn’t know what the heck Planetary was about, when I saw the volume one trade paperback, collecting the first six issues of  27, I had to grab it.

Planetary: All Over the World and Other Stories begins with a superhuman fellow named Elijah Snow (able to freeze the air around him and such, hence the name), who is drinking bad coffee in a roadhouse in the middle of nowhere. Out of this nowhere arrives Jakita Wagner (of superhuman strength and speed) who enlists Elijah into a highly secret organisation called Planetary, which is dedicated to investigating some highly fantastical goings-on. He soon meets the third member of Planetary, The Drummer (able to manipulate things like data and radio signals with the power of his mind), while another member, the shadowy Fourth Man, is only hinted at. Up to this point, I felt the beginning was a little thin and shaky, and I didn’t really see Elijah’s deeper motivation for going into it all so readily (well, besides the million-dollar salary). But my doubts were soon gradually eroded by a series of spectacular happenings.

In just the first issue’s mission, both Elijah and the reader are faced with otherworldly artefacts, a computer built in the 1940s that can recode the fabric of reality, and superheroes coming through an interdimensional portal to defend their dying planet.

If the presence of Ellis and an introduction by the well-respected Alan Moore hadn’t already given a hint, this isn’t a run-of-the-mill superhero action comic, not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with some good WHIFF, BAM and SNUH. But while other stories would be content to just follow in a straight line from this beginning, instead, issue two has a Japanese cult leader/novelist taking his followers onto a secret island, littered with what appears to be the decomposing corpses of Godzilla, Mothra and all their pals.

Not enough? How about the ghost of a Hong Kong cop seeking to avenge his own murder? Disappearing skyscrapers? A secret Nazi space program? Yup, and then some.

It’s not until about issue five that things start making some crazy kind of sense, just as I was wondering if all the disparate pieces would ever come together. As I wondered if these superhumans would do little more than just observe one extraordinary spectacle after another, Elijah seems to voice the same concerns. The grand events continue, but Elijah, shaking off some of the befuddlement the reader may be sharing with him, takes the reigns and gives the plot a clearer drive and focus. The adventures of these archaeologists of the impossible were cool enough, but with Elijah’s help, it looks like Planetary might start using its resources to take action and actually get involved in what they’re investigating.

Throughout this great six-issue story arc there are also some nice jabs of coarse humour and a good dose of righteous indignation at the horrors so often inflicted by those with power. By the end of this first collection, I felt as if I’d just witnessed a mighty, satisfying introduction to an awaiting adventure. I trust Mr Ellis will not disappoint in the following 21 issues.

Warren Ellis, with writing implement and pokemon

It’s not just him though. Besides the inker, letterer, colourist and the like (all probably unfairly underappreciated), it’s artist John Cassaday who helps bring this story to life with his illustrations. Most of the time his art is solid, sometimes subtly bleeding or exploding across the page, other times deftly capturing the action in so few frames that it stunned me. Sometimes I found the illustration a little patchy, or it didn’t quite hit the mark, but overall – though I’m still learning when it comes to the visual aspect of comics – I thought the art was great.

My only other criticism would probably be that while issue five’s “pulp novel within a comic” was a nice idea, it came off as a bit tacked-on and disorientating, which detracted slightly from the tying up of threads that was in motion at that point.

It’s hard to guess how the series will progress; I’m sure the rest of it will be just as unpredictable. There are still so many questions that need answering: who’s the Fourth Man? What’s hidden in Elijah’s past? And seriously, what’s the go with all of this crazy crap going on?

To me, sometimes the best works of fiction are like glimpses into a strange parallel universe. Weird, somewhat like our own, and offering us a chance to make sense of our own world in a different way, no matter how bizarre it all seems. Planetary got me thinking, amongst the spectacular setpieces, about all manner of such things. That’s something I love about Ellis: he fills his work with such varied and outlandish ideas and possibilities, yet it all seems to slot together so nicely. He packs insight into his comics, subtly playing with their conventions. As far as I can see so far, in Planetary he seems to be interrogating the 20th century in an interesting way, via the alternate history of a parallel Earth (or Earths), along with an exploration into comic book-related history and mythology. But it’s also just a none-too-dense, plain fun read.

I thoroughly enjoyed this in the end. I’m keen to read the remaining issues and it might be interesting to review the series as a whole when I do. Heck, this just confirms that I really want to absorb everything with Warren Ellis’s name on it. He’s a mad bastard genius and with Planetary, it looks like he’s given us a transhuman, transdimensional epic worth pursuing. With John Cassaday at his side, I trust that the near-infinite worlds of possibilities will continue to coalesce into something wonderful

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W+E4DM Web Feature Portfolio Part 2 – Review: Rooftops by Mandy Ord

This is part 2 of my Web Feature Portfolio for Writing and Editing for Digital Media. My articles are for ‘the Australian online magazine of culture and the popular arts’ The Enthusiast. My second article is a review for their ‘Books’ category.

7/10 Stars (again, no Enthusiast star images or sweded images)

Rooftops is ostensibly about a day when Mandy Ord watched Ghostbusters at the cinema with some friends, then drove home and had chatted with her housemate. Simple. But it manages to be, in a gently odd way, an absorbing and thoughtful story.

This is Mandy Ord’s first book-length comic, which I suppose you’d call a graphic novel, and it was published by Finlay Lloyd. They have a frustratingly creaky-looking website, but their books are often thoughtful and beautifully made essay collections, like When Books Die and Animals. Ord did feature in the latter though, so clearly she’s part of their efforts in new directions.

Despite being more of a graphic novel, it retains Ord’s preoccupation with the little things that stand out amongst the ordinary and mundane. In this way, the story’s subject matter and conversations cover coincidences, the search for meaning, Bill Murray’s career and the literature of mystics and philosophers. Her overactive imagination regularly merges with the everyday and she further illuminates the narrative with thoughts and visions conjured by a mind that loves scaring itself. A demonic imp-like man climbs over a toilet door at her. Images of Ghostbusters ghouls and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man fill her head, her life and her panels.

From every black page spread, four equal panels of white and black pop out. The panels are filled with Ord’s wobbily handwritten speech bubbles, realistic cityscapes and urban interiors of Melbourne, and distorted but curiously realistic cartoon figures, most notably the one-eyed protagonist herself. These slightly twisted figures reminded me at times of Albert Tucker’s work. Her drawings from movie scenes are also evocative and spot-on, yet still true to her overall technique.

Despite the twisted style and imaginative divergences, it’s essentially a work of realism, possibly memoir. These are musings, moments and memories from an individual perspective. There’s no clear moral lesson, no ‘heroes journey’. This is real life and there’s rarely a big answer or resolution at the end of each day. Her story goes on, continued in her other comics, in bits and pieces. Rooftops itself is not an amazing work, but still a pleasant, leisurely and enjoyable read.

In any case, I’m still a fan and I’ll be keeping an eye out, watching her progress as an artist and storyteller. In fact, after reading Rooftops I noticed her work popping up all over the place: in recent issues of The Lifted Brow; a serialised historical comic/essay with Kate Fielding in Meanjin; in Sleepers’s wonderful Conceived on a Tram; in the Paper Life Boat exhibition during the Fringe Festival; and in myriad comic anthologies, zines and small press endeavours. Clearly prolific, she also sporadically updates her blog with sketches and character portraits – they’ve taken on rather hirsute qualities lately. Amongst all this, I hope she’s still finding time to put effort into another long-form work. Until then, I’d recommend checking out her stuff. Rooftops serves as a great introduction.