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Comics have been around for a very long time1, but the modern superhero story is a relatively recent invention2, and it’s only since the late eighties that this genre has begun a series of awkward self-examinations. Typically, when people talk about comic book stories that are about themselves, they start with The Watchmen3, but for my mind, a far more worthy and interesting take on what the hero myth means in modern times is Warren Ellis’s Planetary.

Rather than simply setting out to deconstruct comics, Ellis created a solid super-hero story about a small team of metahuman archaeologists who went out into the world looking for the strange and the fantastic. Their tag-line is ‘The world is a weird place, let’s keep it that way’ and the book is a celebration of the fact that the world is a diverse and interesting place. Not just one world though, all worlds. All possible worlds, and perhaps the impossible ones as well.

One of the graphic novels in the series focuses soley on cross-overs. The book’s premise is set-up to explore other worlds in a very specific way, and each story in the book cross-examines the cross-over. Also, they’re great stories.

Of course, as this is a super-hero book, their world is even more interesting than ours, as it features dinosaur islands, atomic babies and darker origin myths. Planetary is set in a reality where the sort of super-science and techno wizardry found in the mainstream comics produced by the likes of Marvel and DC has been deliberately kept secret from the world. This itself was a commentary on limitations of mainstream comics at the time; your average Green Lantern or Iron Man story contains things that should permanently change the lives of many people, and yet never seem to do so.4

It is because of this book that this is less true now, and indeed, the new crop of Marvel Movies do seem to constantly acknowledge that the world is being changed by the presence of superhuman beings. 5. Planetary also examined and discussed how fragile many of the origin stories of super heroes are; for example, the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman both begin their tales with the kindness of strangers. For their stories to work, you have to assume that people are still kind and decent enough to take in lost strangers, and this should set the bar for the nature of the world that the heroes inhabit.

Unlike The Watchmen or even Kingdom Come, the thing that will make Planetary stand the test of time is that it is a story about how the world shapes stories, and how stories shape the world. It’s a lesson in how to make myths, and deserves a place in the list of classic super hero stories.

1: Depending on how you define comics of course, but telling stories with pictures is as old as language.

2: Tales of human beings with remarkable abilities are, of course, ancient. But we only started dressing them in spandex since the 1930’s.

3: Alan Moore’s The Watchmen is seen as a classic simply for its mature approach to superheroes, focusing on the consequences of their actions in a way more in tune with real world events. It is, however, an awkward teenager of a book, a lot of the key themes fumble at points and there seems to be little love for the actual genre. It’s groundbreaking, which also means that as the genre moves on, it becomes more and more dated.

4: It would be dishonest to pretend that mainstream comics didn’t begin this journey on their own. This bit of social commentary predates Watchmen by over a decade (it’s from Green Lantern #76). What Planetary did was turn this commentary in on itself, and encourage writers and producers to make the notion of ‘how does an alien invasion effect the stock exchange’ something that’s worth talking about.

5: Ellis would go on to write for the Iron Man comic book, and ideas from those books are directly referenced in the movie. Another example of Marvel is keeping a track of how the heroes change the world around them can be found in the excellent Marvel Movie One-Shot Item 47.

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