It was in the final months of the 1990s – April 1999 to be exact – that Planetary came upon the scene. The series follows a globetrotting organization tasked with unraveling the secret history of planet Earth. Referring to their jobs as “archeologists of the impossible”, they traversed the world investigating strange phenomena such as monsters, extraterrestrial relics, secret cities and archetypical heroes.
At its heart, Planetary was an exploration of the genre of superheroes; in an interview on PopImage.com, series writer and co-creator Warren Ellis explained that he wanted “to do something that actually went deeper into the [superhero] sub-genre, exposing its roots and showing its branches.”
For then newcomer artist John Cassaday, it was a chance to make a name for himself and be a part of a new story while telling stories of the past. At that time he had bounced around various comic companies, doing work as various as Teen Titans, X-Men/Alpha Flight and his longest running series up to that point – the western WildStorm book Desperadoes. Over the course of over ten years, twenty seven issues, and several other projects for Cassaday, Planetary has become a definitive work – for both him and the modern superhero genre.
With the final conclusion out in stores, both in its final issue and the just-released final collection, Newsarama talked with the artist to reflect on the series, how it came to be and what’s next.
Newsarama: What are you working on today, John?
John Cassaday: Actually, today I'm working on a cover for DC that I can't tell you about! Announcements coming soon, I'm sure. Also writing for a project of my own that I also can't tell you about! Helluva way to start an interview, right?
Nrama: No problem here, John. These past 12 months has seemed like a real turning point for you - closing out Planetary, and doing directing with the motion comic Astonishing X-Men And the TV series Dollhouse. Has this been a long time coming?
Cassaday: I was in Los Angeles, prepping my episode of Dollhouse when the final Planetary hit the stands in October. Yeah, it was surreal. One chapter closing, another opening.
I've been planning a chunk of time to myself for years now. It's been my intention to finish Astonishing X-Men, I Am Legion and Planetary and then sort of "disappear" from doing comic interiors for a couple of years. I'll pop up here and there with a short story or two, old promises to friends and all, but no major series work. This is for many reasons: I've spent a decade dancing with deadlines and want to be a wallflower for a spell. I'll do covers and keep myself in the loop, as it were, but want to take some time to develop a few comic projects of my own-- ideas that I've been putting off for too long. Stories I'd also write in addition to drawing... Also, I want to give myself the time to get behind the camera more and pursue directing. I have some fun ideas I'm developing and getting those off the ground will take a lot of time and effort...
Nrama: For Planetary, how was it working on those final pages of the final issue?
Cassaday: A bittersweet exhale... Every emotion you could imagine... No one easily says goodbye to an old friend.
Nrama: Did you do anything special when it was all completed?
Cassaday: I collected heavy branches from Riverside Park, a stack of Planetary scripts, a few filthy brushes and sent out a floating bonfire into the Hudson. A Viking funeral with smoke drifting so high, it could be seen from England. Warren Ellis was heard to have said, "Smoke signals from the colonies...? I believe it says, 'Planetary finished. Stop. The Apocalypse near. Stop."
Nrama: With you, Warren and Laura separated by miles and just staying in Touch by phone and email - have you had a chance to talk and well, kind of, "breathe out?"
Cassaday: No, not really. Laura and I still do plenty of covers, so we talk. Warren occasionally emails, but that's how comic people work. Rarely do they live nearby and hang that much. Or at least I tend to not. Also keep in mind that the end of Planetary was a very long time coming...
Nrama: Back in 1998 when Planetary was first coming together, you were in a Very different place career-wise. How do you think this changed all that for you?
Cassaday: I'd only been doing comics for about a year... I'd been kicking around a few different options and offers, some very big and cool, in fact. But I wanted to be careful about where I was headed. I essentially started out with a Western series for WildStorm/DC, but didn't want to be perceived as a "Western artist." I did a couple of super-hero things at Marvel, but didn't want to be one of those guys either. I loved all these genres and wanted to play in a very big toy box. Enter Planetary.
Nrama: Indeed. Planetary exists on many levels - a straight action story, a conversation about fictional characters, and a treatise on science. But what was it that Warren pitched you in the beginning that got you interested?
Cassaday: Even the first few installments appealed to me on a level I wasn't used to. It consisted of so many elements that I loved... I felt like Warren had tapped my brain and made geek wine from it... I should stop before this gets vulgar. In one series, I feel like I had the experience of working on 27 different series! It was always Warren's intent to present each issue as sort of a "pop single," packaging and all. It was something I hadn't seen before and that grabbed me.
Nrama: It's been said the character of the Drummer is based, visually at least, on you. If that's true, did drawing you in the book ever get surreal?
Cassaday: What was surreal was the action figure. There was internet talk of them being dipped in chocolate and made to glow in the dark and vibrate.
Nrama: I’ll leave that alone…
Do you feel as if the Drummer is the character you find the most kinship with, or is it perhaps someone else?
Cassaday: Elijah Snow is whom I found the most interest in. Such a consistently unraveling mystery-man. He reminded me of a line from an Oasis tune, "My family don't seem so familiar and my enemies all know my name..."
Something like that...
Nrama: And finally, how did doing the series change you as an artist, and as a person?
Cassaday: In the final collection, my dedication reads, "To Warren Ellis, for making me a better artist." And that's precisely it. So many issues of the series presented me with new challenges... Elements and styles I hadn't drawn before... There were the pulp illos in #5, done in ink and charcoal... We did a riff on Vertigo (#7), so I dove into photography and Photoshop to accomplish that cover. With the Aboriginal issue (#15), I had to study Aboriginal art and have become quite the fan of it. Alien parts of the world, different eras of history, various styles and techniques... Every issue supplied me with opportunities to further my knowledge and skill. I hope that shows.
Chris Arrant is a freelance writer that's written about comics for Newsarama, Publishers Weekly, CBR, TOKYOPOP and Marvel Comics. For more, visit his website at www.chrisarrant.com.