Seduction of the innocent

Warren Ellis deconstructs the superhero comic once again

Tom Horgen

Author Warren Ellis changed the world of superhero comics forever in 1999.

First, with his comic book “The Authority,” he asked the question: What would real people do with real superpowers? Would they really fill their time bringing monologuing supervillains to justice? Would they really waste time fighting one another to see who was strongest?

Probably not.

No, they’d change the world. They’d take down totalitarian regimes. They’d provide humanitarian aid to third-world countries. And most importantly, they’d put the U.S. president in his place.

Suddenly, the hacks writing “Superman” and “X-Men” had to readjust their whole game plan. Superhero comics were getting serious.

That same year, Ellis added more fuel to his bonfire of comic redefinition with the debut of “Planetary.” While “The Authority” was concerned with the place of godlike heroes in a real-world context, “Planetary” sought to re-examine the mythology of superheroes. Why is our culture obsessed with them? What do they tell us about ourselves and our history?

Sounds kind of heavy for a comic book, right? Luckily, Ellis found a way to investigate these questions without having to write a doctoral dissertation.

With “Planetary,” he created an epic narrative in which the globe-trotting, time-bending adventures of a small group of heroes is actually a commentary on comic book history. Ellis calls his heroes “mystery archeologists.” But they’re not digging up mummies. They’re exploring the way superhero mythology has influenced modern history.

Led by Elijah Snow, a middle-aged-looking hardhead who was actually born Jan. 1, 1900, the Planetary team uncovers the buried secrets of the supermen and wonder-women who changed the course of the 20th century.

When the Planetary team encounters these superbeings, Ellis cleverly uses satirical versions of the heroes we’re all familiar with, which keeps the beloved characters they represent untarnished. Why would he need to do this? Because bumping heads with Planetary can get ugly.

Ellis’ story is brought to life by artist John Cassaday, whose cinematic pencil work makes George Lucas’ green-screen special effects look trite.

Ellis and Cassaday’s creations take on an even grander scale in the new graphic novel “Absolute Planetary,” which collects the comic’s first 12 issues into an oversized, hardcover edition. The stunning format – the page size is almost double that of a normal comic book – gives the groundbreaking series the platform it truly deserves.

This new design takes events that were once significant and makes them momentous.

So when a spacecraft carrying a Superman-like infant crashes in Kansas – and Planetary’s enemies are there to destroy him before he can grow into godhood – the sizzling sounds of burning flesh and the extinguishing of what could be are that much more, well, absolute.