When Planetary first launched sometime in 1999, it was a little like the less boisterous and far more cerebral younger sister of the other paradigm shifting Ellis book, (for the time,) the Authority. Basically a story about superpowered "archeologists" of the strange, Planetary is a clever literary vehicle that is at once highly original and somewhat borrowed: it's a literary (and therefore fictional device) for looking into the popular fiction of the last century. Or, it's using fiction to "investigate" fiction (the concepts, characters, tropes and worlds we know). And it's bloody brilliant.
This second volume advances the ongoing conflict between our three main protagonists, (Jakita Wagner, the sexy, super-powered muscle of the group; "Drums," a machine empath who's a little like an idiot savant; and Elijah Snow, a century old heat-extractionist/subtractionist, believed to be a sentient version of the planet's white blood cells,) and a group of shadowy, incredibly dangerous and sadistic people, known only as "the Four," (a sly and deliberately not too well hidden allegory of Marvel's Fantastic Four.) Elijah, like others born in the year 1900, is believed to be a "spirit of the 20th century," - people who were born into the world at the very beginning of the last century to protect and keep the world alive and safe into the next.
The stories here significantly ratchet up the tension and mystery surrounding the enigmatic Four and the Planetary organization. At the end of the last volume, Elijah discovers that he is indeed, the "Fourth Man," of Planetary, in fact the grandfather figure behind the Planetary corporation, which has been archiving strange and weird information about the world for many years. Discovering that his memory was selectively blocked by the leader of the Four, Randall Dowling, Elijah becomes obsessed with his desire to bring these people down.
But in doing so, Ellis takes a grand sweeping slide through popular 20th century myth and pop culture, giving us fairly recognizable versions of Tarzan and the mythical, hidden, golden city of Africa, among many things. He expands on the backgrounds and origins of Jakita and Drums, explores the background of Elijah himself, posits conspiracies and relationships between characters like Dracula and Sherlock Holmes, and offers scientific explanations for concepts of the soul and the afterlife.
I won't get into the details of the stories to allow other readers to experience the process of discovery I went through myself, when reading the series the first time, but Planetary's that kind of ride. Basically like psychedelic drugs in the form of sequential art and text, the stories in this volume are a kaleidoscopic trip through the spirit of popular culture and fiction, with an unapologetic admiration that does not border on being reverential. They also have the benefit of being (a) legal, (b) not harmful to your health in any way, and (c) actually logical and easy to recollect afterward. The series highlights all of Ellis' strengths and his fixations; a talent for marrying compelling fiction with real or hypothetical science, an enduring fascination with space travel, and an admirable skill at building conspiracies. Perhaps one of the greatest achievements here though, is that what appeared to be disparate and random occurrences and stories in the first volume finally blend together into one unmistakably coherent whole that satisfies in many ways. Even apparent coincidences in the stories contained in Planetary Volume 1 find explanation and or deliverance here. And this too represents one of the many strengths of reading Planetary. Every chapter was as different from the previous as the one that followed. But Ellis is able to make one coherent whole of the lot, and while some of the connections are surprising, none ever strain credulity past the point where suspension of disbelief breaks... An exception to the "done in one issue" format and a standout story here, is a two part "mystery in space" saga, in which the team remotely explore a fascinating object in space while dealing elegantly with one of the more powerful members of the Four.
Although Ellis is an accomplished and talented writer, one of his main weaknesses is an inability to end things well. He's incredibly good at building tension and creating characters that sound real. His endings though rarely deliver the "oomph" stories of the type he likes to tell, probably should. I suspect it's cos Ellis is too smart to allow himself to rely on cliché'. Perhaps if he were working in a different medium, this might be a good idea, but in any old fashioned "good versus evil" tale, readers need that emotional catharsis of seeing evil doers suffer!! So the final confrontation between Planetary and the last remnants of "the Four" slightly underwhelms here, at least on that emotional, visceral level, but it is nonetheless clever and ironic. The very last story though, provides a somewhat endearing, if overly sciency "happy ending," the reader does not even realize they want, until they get it.
For all that, Planetary 1-27, now collected in two of these "Absolute" editions, probably represent one of Ellis' best works in the medium. This volume is also cool for two very glowing essays by Alan Moore and Joss Whedon, as well as a script from one of the issues.
Two final observations about the volume itself - My major disappointment with it is that, for a series that was clearly quite important in the last decade, DC comics has gone bone cheap on the extras, a common sin they've been committing with other Absolute volumes. There's no extra material from artist John Cassaday, no interviews from Ellis and Cassaday about the series itself, which I find is criminal. If you're going to call something "Absolute," it should really be the last word as it were in format, providing as much insight into the material, content and process, as you possibly can. How difficult could it be to reprint some interviews with Ellis or Cassaday about their recollections and intentions for the series? This was clearly an important series for DC; it was produced when letters pages were still included in issues and introduced a new language of storytelling into mainstream American comics. Many of the techniques Ellis developed or employed here soon became the standard for the industry. Now everything looks and reads like Planetary or the Authority in pacing and layout. Also, look out for the very soft covering of the actual hardcover. You'll want to be very gentle with the edges of the book itself. Although heavy and of apparently high quality, the material used on the hardcover itself seems to bruise easily at the edges, exposing an almost chipboard like material underneath. So watch out.