Saturday, 29 October 2011

Warren Ellis's Planetary - Series Overview

Warren Ellis's Planetary is a comic-literary comic. As I've gathered from fans of the work and essays written online about it, it is very much about comics. It's plain enough to see the pulp tradition that runs through the stories, which evokes more or less every conceivable major genre within pulp. Sci-fi, horror, western, exploration, mysteries, conspiracies and so on fill the story of the organisation, Planetary, a team of archaeologists meta-humans.

In a very real sense, this comic isn't for me. Aside from the central figures, pretty much every character that appears in this book is a direct reference to someone else, and I only got the most obvious of these allusions. Where I did recognise them I saw just how clever they were, but nonetheless my lack of familiarity with comics put me at something of a disadvantage.

The fact that I am not all that familiar with comic pulp tradition, on the other hand, perhaps makes me the ideal reader of the book. Someone entrenched in modern comics, being given the key to a rich pulp history and being shown just how much greatness there is to be found there. And that is without doubt part of Ellis's mission here, as our archaeologists are more storytelling archaeologists than anything else, uncovering a time when stories in comics were more diverse and routed in a rather more basic discourse.

Further, Ellis looks to incorporate it all into one coherent world in Planetary. We are repeatedly told by Drummer, a character with the ability to manipulate information, about how magic and science and the superpowers that exist in this universe are all just part of some larger code. This is a really cool idea that never comes across particularly convincingly. Ellis's attempts to create a coherent narrative from all of these different genres shows no lack of ambition and no little amount of skill, yet never end up working. Really, it drains the narrative of a central driving force and a slows character development down to a crawl.

Where I really felt the story suffered was in it's characters. Elijah Snow, Jakita and Drummer are not badly written or badly conceived characters, but there's no point of connection between us and them. They develop slowly, often pushed to the side by other narratives, and it often feels like there is no destination. I'd argue that only one of them really gets a resolution, and the emotional core of their story comes out of left field to a great extent. The characters are not all that engaging, and although subtly developed in many respects, there is too little to latch onto.

Warren Ellis is well known for his decompressed storytelling, and this is my first real experience with it. Personally, I found it made the stories rushed and overly terse, leading to the sense that none of the little stories told within Planetary felt entirely satisfying. The artwork is very pretty and detailed, but  also a little too static and clinical. To a great extent, much of my disconnect from the comic was due to the art. Very good nice looking art, but nI never felt it was great at telling a story.

What is otherwise a very good plot suffers because of many of the above factors. Make no mistake, Warren Ellis is certainly a very skilled writer, the story being subtle and complex whilst never overpowering, but without the clear direction and character investment I found it hard to really get into. Even after what's conceptually a very strong chapter, the overriding feeling I had upon putting this book down was "meh".

I've went rather hard on this series, but for what it's worth it is original, inventive, subtle, pretty looking and does not suffer from a lack of depth. Upon execution, all these great plans and ideas were never really translated into a cohesive story, and a sense of balanced to keep everything in check is really needed in this series. If your a fan of more intelligent comics, or of pulp comics or of Warren Ellis this is certainly worth giving a look, but I can't look past it's core problem of being unable to engage me as a reader.

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