The Fourth ManOrder this bookStory: Ever since he joined the Planetary organization, Elijah Snow has helped uncover the secret history of the world – but there a few private mysteries he’d like to solve. What is Planetary’s real mission? Why do others seem to know more about his life than he does? And who is the Fourth Man that bankrolls and orchestrates the team’s adventures? Elijah finally tracks down the truth – and when he does, the rules of the game change completely.

Review: Remember how cool I said “Planetary: All Over The World” is? There’s lots more fun to be had in “The Fourth Man,” as pieces fall into place and the book’s central conflict comes into view. Ellis does his usual fine job with characterization and dialogue this time out, using flashbacks to explore the history of the Planetary field team (including Elijah’s predecessor, Ambrose Chase) and their relationships with each other. There are the bitter, sarcastic one-liners (no one does cantankerous like Warren Ellis) but also a lot of warmth. There’s one shot of Ambrose holding up his daughter in which he says, “World, this is my daughter. I want you two to be good to each other. Because it’s a strange world out there, and you both need all the help you can get.” It’s a great line, one that sums up the wonder and optimism that are a part of this world, regardless of the craziness of its more twisted corners.

The overall plotting of individual chapters is perhaps a notch below “All Over The World,” although the ramping up of the overall plot more than compensates for this. In at least one chapter, Ellis went a little too far with the metafictional commentary for my tastes. The opening chapter is a commentary on the evolution of British comics writers from the 80s through the end of the 90s, especially the work that either provided the inspirations for or was a part of DC Comics’ Vertigo line (including Ellis’ own Transmetropolitan). While there are interesting elements here, and a few important bits of foreshadowing and overall arc advancement, the underlying story is a bit thin in comparison to other chapters – the Planetary team don’t seem like part of the story, but merely commentators on it.

Chapter 10, “Magic and Loss,” is essentially a retelling of the origins of DC’s Superman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman, and the bad ends that these analogues come to. At first, I thought this was merely Ellis displaying his well-known distaste for the superhero genre. Rereading it, though, I realized that Ellis had stripped each story to its essence, putting in as pure a form as possible the reasons why those characters are the icons they are. So when the characters meet a bad fate at the hands of the Four, we realize that they have taken away something special. If you’ve never heard of Superman or Wonder Woman, the chapter works fine on the literal level; but Ellis is able to take the emotional responses he expects his audience to have and funnel that back into the story. I’m still not sure if this chapter works within the context of the book – in the preceding and subsequent chapters, things are heating up quickly, so “Magic and Loss” is either a welcome interlude or an unwelcome distraction. I still have not decided.

These are small quibbles, though – this book lives up to the standard of its predecessor. I couldn’t wait for the paperback edition to come out, so I bought it in hardcover four months ago – and it was worth every penny. On top of the great dialogue and plotting, John Cassaday, Laura De Puy and David Baron are again at their best. I ran out of superlatives in the last review, so I’m doubly screwed here. But the book is worth the price of admission for Cassaday’s facial expressions alone, on top of which you get his tremendous pacing, awe-inspiring design, fantastic covers, and amazing action visuals, plus the vibrant atmosphere of De Puy and Baron’s colors. Quite a deal if you ask me. So quit wasting your time here, and go read this book.

Year: 2001
Writer: Warren Ellis
Line Artist: John Cassaday
Colorist: Laura DePuy and David Baron
Publisher: DC Comics/Wildstorm
Pages: 144

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