Planetary is about a group of three people gifted with extraordinary skills who explore the secret history of the Wildstorm universe (although this is more like the Ellis version of the Wildstorm universe, so no annoying crossovers with stupid mega-events nor any attempt to make it fit typical Wildstorm continuity). The three seek out the weird and the otherworldly, trying to conserve the world as a place of strangeness and mystery.
The series has a pretty episodic structure, that allows Ellis to explore a new facet of fictional hero archetypes in each issue. There’s typical superhero stuff, the DC variant and the Marvel atomic age wonders, a Tarzan facsimile, pulp heroes, heroic bloodshed, a John Constantine pastiche and so on.
But instead of being a nostalgic trip to the past (hard to imagine Ellis being nostalgic about superheroes) it’s an exploration of these archetypes, to show that the modern American superhero comics didn’t spring up in whole cloth. Ellis cuts away the fat of nostalgic remembrance and incorporates everything into an ongoing narrative about a cold war over secrecy between two very powerful groups, the Planetary team and an evil version of the Fantastic Four. Read as a meta-commentary, it’s about characters in the public domain and big companies who don’t ever let their money cows run free.
What makes Planetary so great is that it’s not just a collection of references, but an engaging story with excellent (albeit typical Ellis) characters. The main plotline is another meta-commentary on superhero comics and their conflicted use of science fictional tropes. For all the aliens that turn up, for all the technology they leave behind or other advanced manmade technology, the settings (Marvel, DC, Wildstorm, etc.) remain on the same tech level as our world. Technological progress is hindered by editorial mandate.
In Planetary this problem is embodied by the Four, who collect and then shut away all advanced technology. As Elijah Snow says near the end of the series, the world is a “Third World”-world, one that could be so much more.
This is the anti-thesis to science fiction, with its focus on seeing how available technology changes the world, for better or worse. And Planetary is about cracking that nut, breaking the world free. In the end this isn’t the Wildstorm universe anymore, but a world taking its first steps into the future. For better or worse.