I recently perused the Absolute editions of Warren Ellis' seminal shared universe comic series Planetary all in one sitting. And you know what? For as much as Ellis loves penning curmudgeons, the series is a panacea for doom'n'gloom superheroics.
Note: Big spoilers for the entire Planetary series ahead.
For those of you unfamiliar with Planetary (and don't give a fig about spoilers), the series follows Elijah Snow (a 100-year-old man with cryokinetic powers), Jakita Wagner (a superhuman battering ram in a catsuit), and the Drummer (a grungy twentysomething with the power to hear machines and interdimensional signals) under the employ of Planetary, an organization of mystery archaeologists who divine the secrets of the 20th century.
Planetary's expeditions occur on an Earth in which popular science fiction characters come into existence approximately around the same time they debuted as fiction in our reality. For example, in Planetary, Japanese kaiju spontaneously spawned the day after Hiroshima — this is a clear allusion to Godzilla's atomic roots.
Similarly, Planetary's Earth is secretly under the control of The Four, a cabal of post-humans who've been amassing and suppressing human knowledge since the 1960s. Their goal? To conquer Earth for a race of undying alternate dimension despots. The series more or less poses the question "What if the Fantastic Four worked for Darkseid?"
It's Planetary's gig to sift through the Four's detritus (and eventually stop them). Indeed, the first arcs of the series play like a grown-up version of Scooby Doo if the Mystery Machine was a shadowy bureaucracy and the Scooby gang only investigated amusement park massacres perpetrated by crazed old men in rubber monster costumes. In the first several issues, our trio of protagonists are two steps (and several decades) behind the Four. For example, they discover an alien policeman's lantern that the Four surgically removed from his body years earlier.
Planetary isn't even on damage control for the beginning of the series — they're archaeologists, condemned to dig through past atrocities. In the series' early arcs, there's cynicism in spades. Perhaps the most poignant metafictional moment occurs in Issue 7, a not-so-thinly-veiled tribute to the alternative, proto-Vertigo, and dark'n'gritty comics of the 1980s. At one point, a crazed Golden Age superhero (a veritable Miracleman analogue) appears and barks out the following monologue:
Planetary is not solely about superheroic analogues, but the majority of those who appear are either victims or total bastards. Artist John Cassaday skillfully depicts these faux heroes in the same way Steve Spielberg teased audiences with the shark in Jaws — the glimpses we get of these familiar characters (the "Hulk's" feet, "Wonder Woman's" bracelets) are delicious, delicious synecdoche. At the end of the day, it's the plainclothes superhumans' job to elevate humanity. Planetary's protagonists may not have legacy, but they don't need superheroes to clean up their messes either.
My only quibble with these Absolute Editions is that they do not include the spectacular Plantery/JLA: Terra Occulta and Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth (left). These one-shots offered a terrific subversion of Ellis' cynical superheroics, but it's also worth noting that these heroic depictions of Batman and the JLA do not exist in the same universe as Planetary — they are thematically cloistered from Planetary thanks to the multiverse (and editorial mandate from DC, I'm guessing).
Absolute Planetary Volumes 1 & 2 are out now from DC/Wildstorm.