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Planetary, a design appreciation

2010 September 22

The big news on the comics interweb this week has been the euthanization of the Wildstorm imprint by its parent company, DC. Author Warren Ellis, who penned some of Wildstorm’s most memorable comics, has been fielding requests for postmortem comments, and some of his remarks at The Beat struck me as a good starting point for a post of my own.

Wildstorm at its prime was a place where everything was up for grabs. A place where you could say “okay, the thing about this comic is that the logo and cover design will change every issue, and people will find it by looking for the comic that doesn’t look like anything else on the shelf,” and they’d say, “I think you’re probably insane, but we’ll give it a go.”

Anyone at all familiar with American comics published in the past ten or twelve years will probably very easily recognize Ellis’ reference to Planetary. Which series was remarkable and inventive in many ways, but particularly in its cover designs.

Cover to Planetary #12

Planetary #12

The cover to issue #12 probably illustrates Ellis’ comments as well as any of the series’ covers: other than a tiny little “Planetary” at the very top-left, there is no title, no credits and practically no typography on the cover at all.

Set against this, of course, it did have the head of the lead character Elijah Snow staring out at us, overlaid ghost-like upon a background of every page (and front cover) of every one of the first eleven issues. (I wonder if they managed to create the background with a less laborious method than my own in producing a similar effort.)

Still, from any remotely-traditional thinking about comic book cover design, this was indeed madness. And in fact, I know from personal experience that throwing out the rules in this fashion did produce at least a few bumps in the road.

Cover of Planetary #13

Planetary #13

By the eleventh or twelfth issue of the series, I had Planetary on a “pull list” at my local comic shop, which meant that they should have had a copy of issue #13 set aside for me the day it was released. Yet they did not, seemingly because a store employee was thrown off by the “Planetary Magazine” title emblazoned upon the cover, and mistook it for some sort of ancillary publication.

It was a silly mistake, and I actually got a bit steamed about it, I confess, rather unreasonably so, especially as the store had copies in stock and I just had to go collect one from the shelf. What’s more, silly or no, the error probably could in part be blamed on the cavalier attitude to consistent packaging taken by Planetary.

And this was back when the series was still published on a more-or-less regular basis, too. The title’s laughing in the face of consistent trade dress seems all the more maniacal in the context of the long, long delays (more than a year in at least one case, I believe) between issues. The delays during the latter half of Planetary‘s run can legitimately be called infamous, I believe.

In the long run, though, some minor confusion and perhaps even a few missed sales were probably a very small price to pay though, compared with the glorious experimentation with design that was possible as a result. A couple more of my favorite covers from the series:

Cover to Planetary #10

Planetary #10

This one really caught my eye on the store shelf, right around the time I decided to look into the series. It’s still rather arresting.

Cover to Planetary #23

Planetary #23

The cover design for issue #23 was not, on the whole, a brilliant concept… but it makes me smile, and it is an absolutely spot-on distillation of the modern, formulaic “serious action blockbuster” movie poster.

“And introducting The Little Drummer Boy” still makes me chuckle.

Update: I really can’t believe that I wrote this entire post without once mentioning the name of Planetary artist John Cassaday (or colorist Laura Martin). Cassaday has a web site; let’s give that a link to make up for the oversight. (Cassaday also, apparently, modeled the character of The Drummer on himself, which made for a rather surreal moment when I first met him several years ago, having become familiar with his image in the form of an entirely fictional character for so long. In case you care.)

Further update 1/30/13: Just because, I’m going to append a link to this new post from Ellis himself, discussing his favorite covers from the series.

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