The deconstruction of the superhero genre is something that has been going on for a few decades now, and is often rather repetitive. Generally, it is an excuse to show classic or recognizable characters doing things that normally they wouldn’t, often of a more R-rated variety.
That said, when the deconstruction is done right, such as in Watchmen, the work says something about the genre’s conventions and tropes in a way that can be highly entertaining for the reader, while also giving the reader a chance to think over the sorts of things that are taken for granted.
But one of the best deconstructions out there doesn’t just cover superheroes, but pulp literature and genre storytelling in general. That would be the comics series Planetary, written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by John Cassaday.
Planetary, as a series, originally required a lot of patience. Not because it was bad. Far from it. Various health issues and other assignments for both Ellis and Cassaday meant that sometimes months or even years at a time would pass between issues. Thankfully, the entire series now is available in trade form, and despite the fact most issues of the series were stand-alones that acted towards a giant meta-plot, having the ability to read the series all at once makes for a much better experience.
The story for Planetary is as follows: Planetary is an organization that catalogs the weird and unexplainable things in the world. Though ostensibly set in the old Wildstorm Universe, there were few if any connections to the world at large. A reference would pop up here and there, but aside from a special crossover issue with Ellis’ other big superhero book, The Authority, there really wasn’t much of a sense that the Planetary people were working in the same world. A field team of superhuman archaeologists goes around and explores things.
The series opens in the desert where a man named Elijah Snow, dressed all in white, is having a coffee in a diner in the middle of nowhere when he is recruited by Planetary to be their new field operative. Snow is, we learn, a century baby like the Authority’s Jenny Sparks, born on January 1st, 1900, for a special purpose. Jenny’s was to be the spirit of the 20th century (in fact, she died for no clear reason on December 31st, 1999). Snow is, well, something else. Snow and Sparks aren’t the only ones, but these children reach a certain point, usually develop special powers, and stop aging.
Snow’s recruiter is a woman named Jakita Wagner. She possesses superhuman strength, speed, endurance, and resistance to injury, and also bores easily.
It’s probably worth noting right here that Ellis, a frequent critic of the American superhero genre, deliberately did not give his characters codenames. They don’t really wear costumes either. The closest we have to a codename is the final member of the three person team, the Drummer, the guy the others don’t seem to like very much, and he mostly just has the ability to talk to computers and other forms of information systems.
Many of the team’s adventures deal with thinly disguised versions of other characters. On their first mission, the team infiltrates an advanced mountain hideaway that was built in the 40s. They find one man alive in there, a fellow named Axel Brass, a stand-in for the old pulp hero Doc Savage. Savage had a team of seven operatives. So did Brass, only Brass’ operatives were all stand-ins for other pulp characters, most recognizably Tarzan, Fu Manchu, and the Shadow. One night in 1945, that team discovered a portal to another world. They opened it and another group of seven came out, clearly modeled after Grant Morrison’s Big Seven JLA. That team wasn’t there to make nice but to clear the entire population of Brass’ Earth to allow their people to have a place to live before their Earth was destroyed. A fight broke out between the two teams. Only Brass survived, and thanks to various techniques he had, he managed to stay alive until he was found by the Planetary team.
That’s a side story in the first issue. Brass will hang around, eventually be revealed as another century baby, but for the most part the series will not be overly concerned with his old team or what they did as a group (individually, yes in some cases).
After that, the Planetary team will investigate Hong Kong ghost stories, an island full of giant Japanese monster corpses (one looks like Godzilla), and various other escapades. Eventually, Snow learns much of his past is a blank, and he starts to look into who he really is as well as who the mysterious Fourth Man of the Planetary Field Team is. The Fourth Man doesn’t go on missions. He just runs the whole show from behind the scenes.
The villains for the series were a group called the Four. They were four astronauts, three men and a woman, who blasted off into space and came back…different. Essentially, they were the Fantastic Four, with the twist being their Reed Richards was a Nazi scientist before being taken by the American space program. In fact, a careless doodle over this group’s number 4 turns it into a swastika. Why would the FF be the bad guys? Ellis observed that for all Reed Richards’ great skills as a scientist and explorer, very little of what he does seems to benefit anyone but his own family. The Four, here, do this on purpose, figuring most of the fantastic stuff in the world is not for others to see, suppressing findings that could benefit the human race, the very opposite of what Planetary sets out to do.
There’s a lot of themes playing around here. In point of fact, the very idea the characters are fictional, or even just characters in a comic book, is a minor theme running through later issues. While none of the Planetary team believes themselves to be fictional, they do discuss the idea that the world is only two dimensional and that travel through space as high speeds can be the result of, if you read between the lines, traveling up through the next page.
Covering the concept of pulp fiction as a tradition, Planetary covers the history of the genre, while still telling a largely satisfying superhero story. These are the sorts of heroes who save the day with their fists. Instead, these are the ones who save the day through brains and letting the rest of humanity come along for the ride as they explore the weird and the wonderful.