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Annihilation – Vol. 1-3 (Hardcover) (Review/Retrospective)

This is the fifth in a series of comic book reviews that will look at the direction of Marvel’s mainstream shared universe over the past five or so years – primarily with a focus on The Avengers as they’ve been attempting to position the property at the heart of their fictional universe. With The Avengers planned for a cinematic release in 2012, I thought I’d bring myself up to speed by taking a look at Marvel’s tangled web of continuity. This is more of a tangential entry, though, as we’re going into space with marvel’s “cosmic” titles. But still, sometimes you need to go away to come back.

When people think of the Marvel crossover events of the past decade, they’ll name ones like Civil War or Secret Invasion or House of M. Very few will mention Annihilation, Marvel’s first big cosmic crossover event of the past ten years, but those few will generally speak quite highly of it.

The Silver Surfer goes for gold...

It was published at about the same time as Mark Millar was Civil War, organising the epic ground-level event which tore the familiar Marvel superheroes in two. However, while that saga featured iconic characters like Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man and all their amazing friends, Annihilation was intended as something of a different event. It was intended to kickstart interest in the “space heroes” of Marvel.

The cosmos of Marvel are an entirely different animal to their counterparts over at DC. While DC has pretty much integrated its outer space characters with the more down-to-earth spandex types. Superman is as likely to fight interstellar tyrant Darkseid as he is the earthbound Toyman. Green Lantern is best buddies with the Flash and at the same time is “a space cop”. There’s arguably no clear delineation between the two within the DC universe.

Even Galactus needs a hand some times...

By contrast, the Marvel space heroes keep mostly to themselves. They are a hodge-podge of characters created for alternate franchises – the Shi’ar and the Phalanx are colleagues and foes of the X-Men or Galactus, Annihilus and the Skrulls from The Fantastic Four – but none of which have really gelled that much outside of it. The last time that aspect of the Marvel Universe has a chance to shine was when writer Jim Starlin was allowed pretty much unanimous authorial control, producing a string of hits like The Infinity Gaunlet.

So Annihilation was intended to serve as something of a relaunch of these characters. Indeed, the series would lead to an on-going Nova series. The event’s direct sequel, Annihilation: Conquest, would lead to an ongoing Guardians of Galaxy series. The sheer volume of follow-up materials (including direct and indirect sequels) would suggest that the miniseries was highly successful – indeed, it has led to an incredibly expansive and cohesive interstellar continuity created to compliment events occurring on Earth.

Nova burns brightly...

Sure, they never had the fanfare of the big mainstream events (and certainly never made the sales numbers, though they did okay), but they were managed by a much tighter team. With the exception of this original event, where the bulk of the writing is done by Keith Griffen, the rest of the cosmic events have been managed by writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning (affectionately known as DnA). And, to be frank, one of the main appeals of these sorts of series is that you can pick up absolutely everything you need to read them in a relatively small number of collections – there’s no random She-Hulk tie-in or Fantastic Four miniseries. You buy two or three volumes and you get everything, structured to fit together perfectly with nothing superfluous.

Annihilation is structured cleverly. It isn’t like Civil War or Secret Invasion, with tie-ins and crossover issues seeming to spin-off indefinitely. There’s a teaser issue. Then there are four lead-in miniseries published simultaneously, each focusing on a particular character in the saga, positioning them for the six-issue finale miniseries. In doing so, it allowed the writers to set up all the necessary characters, and introduced them to readers who wouldn’t be overly familiar with otherwise.

Cracks were starting to show in the Alliance...

The basic plot sees… well, the end of the universe. A swarm is unleashed, sweeping across the universe bringing nothing but death and destruction – it is dubbed (appropriately enough) “The Annihilation Wave”. As this nearly unstoppable selection of bad guys makes their way across the cosmos, we are granted various perspectives on the invasion: Nova, the would-be space cop who finds himself without back-up; Silver Surfer, the herald of Galactus (“devourer of worlds”) who finds himself hunted by the Annihilation Wave looking to harness some of his power; Super Skrull, a former Fantastic Four adversary (with all their powers) and mass murderer; and Ronan, the wandering Kree enforcer, looking to settle up with an old acquaintance

Some will be familiar to even casual comic book fans, most notably the Silver Surfer. With his reflective chrome-plated exterior and cosmic surf board, he ranks as one of the most iconic of the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby creations – one of those rare comic book characters who encapsulates his time so perfectly. What could be more trippy and hippy-esque than a shiny alien who travels through space on a surf board? It certainly doesn’t hurt that the character has been repeatedly used as a messiah archetype, literally travelling the world in his first short-lived series and imbuing the entire global population with superpowers as a magnanimous last act in J. Michael Straczynski’s Requiem miniseries. Although it certainly isn’t his most auspicious of appearances, the Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer movie can’t have hurt his profile either.

Galactus obviously wasn't hungry for victory...

On the other hand, most of the other primary characters are typically C-list at most. However, the writers do an excellent job introducing them to an audience that might not be overly familiar with these cosmic icons. The miniseries themselves are written mostly with a view to establishing (re-establishing, I suppose) them, but – more than that – the issues themselves are peppered with profile pages which aim to provide background to each of the key players in this space opera. It’s a lot neater than the way that characters typically drift in and out of these crossovers (Captain America surrendering in Civil War, but being assassinated in Ed Brubaker’s Captain America, for example). Here it’s made easy to keep track of all the key players and what they are doing at any given moment.

The series is blissfully aware of the fact that it isn’t exactly dealing with a-list characters. As Quasar and Nova, not exactly Wolverine and Spider-Man in terms of public profile, contemplate the situation, Quasar bluntly asks, “Is this out of our league, in your opinion?” Indeed, the characters in these stories are constantly reaching out for aid from the more iconic Marvel heroes. “Should I signal the Avengers?” Quasar suggests. A child in a town under siege from escaped intergalactic prisoners in the Drax: The Destroyer miniseries dials the Fantastic Four hotline looking for assistance – only to get put through to an automated message directing him to “press one for inquiries related to public relations”. He breaks down, “You’re supposed to help… you’re supposed to help us.”

Ships riding the Wave...

This is an epic saga and the creative teams seems to recognise that these characters don’t exactly scream “epic saga material”. The lead-in miniseries offer all manner of character retools – Nova becomes the last of the Nova Corps and gets his geeky uniform upgraded; the Silver Surfer reunites with Galactus to give him purpose (“back where he belongs”) – all of which is aimed at making these characters more than just minor players who drop-in occasionally on our earthbound heroes, but strong and iconic figures in their own right. Nova himself remarks that the events (and Drax) “destroyed Richard Rider, the boy, to make way for Nova, the man.”

That said, it’s interesting to note that Nova’s evolution mirrors the decision in the nineties to kill off all but one Green Lantern at DC. Richard Rider has always loosely resembled Hal Jordan, being coopted into a space police force (hell, they are even called a “Corps”), and so it’s hard not to see the decision to wipe out Marvel’s Nova Corps as something of a parallel to the destruction of the Green Lantern Corps in the Emerald Twilight saga in the nineties – during which the last remaining Green Lantern (a human named Kyle Rayner) became the strongest version of the character ever (as Nova does here). DC eventually reversed the controversial Emerald Twilight storyline with Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern: Rebirth, it’ll be interesting to see if Richard Rider will indefinitely remain the last of his kind. Of course, Emerald Twilight was a highly controversial story in its own right, while Annihilation is greatly praised, so perhaps the changes will endure.

Ronan doesn't quite hammer the opposition...

The story is tightly plotted. It helps that Keith Griffen keeps a firm grip of the reigns, scripting the prologue, one of the miniseries and the event itself. None of the stories trip over one another, and each finds a unique approach to the material – a benefit to not having an infinite number of spin-offs, perhaps (after all, the Secret Invasion and Civil War tie-ins inevitably descended into pointless fistfights and derailed on-going series).

Part of the story’s charm is its straightforward nature. It’s a good old-fashioned tale of science-fantasy heroism – a merry (or not so merry) bad repelling an alien invasion against overwhelming odds. Sure, the writing and art is of high quality, but there’s an appeal to the simplicity of the story, especially when juxtaposed against the earthbound crossovers. There’s a telling moment where Ronan observes that Earth could offer little resistance to the Annihilation Wave, “even if the champions of your world were capable of acting in unison.” Even Nova himself refuses to return to his home planet – caught in Civil War – because “it’s as if they’ve forgotten how to be heroes!”

Richard Rider has snow idea what just happened...

Sure, the saga isn’t afraid of moral ambiguity – Drax is an adoptive father to a young earth girl, even as he continues his quest to murder Thanos, and yet treats his role in the survival of life itself as simply “biding [his] time” before he can accomplish his true goal; Thanos the destroyer plays a key part in the final strike against Annihilus despite his history as a villain – but it doesn’t want to thrive on melodramatic angst, nor is it ashamed to feature unashamedly heroic good guys against irredeemably horrible bad guys. Sure, there’s a middle and hint of shades of grey, but Griffen seems to realise that the scale itself is meaningless if all your characters live in those shades. Nova is arguably right to look down on Iron Man and Captain America – as one allies himself with Nazis and supports internment without trial, while the other becomes a terrorist – explaining to Peter that, “I became Nova because of them. I’ll stay Nova in spite of them.” This is a time and place in the Marvel Universe where the old values still hold sway, where heroes can honestly repeat Peter Parker’s mantra of “with great power…” and still seem sincere rather than outdated.

Although Griffen was the mastermind behind this event and later the reigns fell to two other writers, it’s fun to spot a recurring theme that will be developed in the string of cosmic crossovers that will follow. If you can point to House of M, Civil War, World War Hulk, Secret Invasion, Dark Reign and Siege as a meta-epic about heroes struggling to be heroes, these cosmic stories are about the expansion of life and the deepening or broadening of perception – perhaps more philosophical and abstract than the reflections on the nature of the superhero genre on the mainstream titles.

Surfer's up...

The Annihilation Wave is provoked by the expansion of the universe – which is, by its definition, life – into the Negative Zone. It is essentially as a result of light reaching out into the darkness. The implications of life and all that come with it, from the notion of personal identity as essential to “life” (Annihilation: Conquest) to the exploration of how “life” itself must be balanced (The Thanos Imperitive), underpin these collections. After all, what does our own consciousness make of the near limitless expanse of space? There will always be darkness, no matter how much light may shine or spread. It’s interesting to hear Annihilus madly declare that “life threatens!”, particularly given the literal threat that a universe without death (the “Cancerverse”) will pose in The Realm of Kings.

Of course, perhaps I am reading too much into things. It’s a fun space epic which is huge in scope and succeeds in reinvigorating a diverse cast of characters that had fallen out of use. It’s always great to see that there’s energy in a particular approach to storytelling that has been left fallow for quite a while – particularly when it serves as a big contrast to the more popular and publicised stories. Griffen and his writers deserve credit for their success at injecting life back into this part of the epic Marvel tapestry.

We few, we happy few, we band of covers...

The artwork across the collections is remarkably consistent, even though different artists worked on each series. The style actually fits together quite well. It’s worth drawing attention to Scott Kolins’ work on Annihilation: Prologue and on the Heralds of Galactus epilogue – Kolins won me as a fan for his superb work with Geoff Johns on Flash, and his cartoony style goes down a treat here. As the afterword in the third and final volume of this set notes, the wonderful painted covers from Gabriele Dell’Otto serve to tie the separate stories together. Seriously, his Silver Surfer looks absolutely stunning.

They say a change is as good as a rest and maybe it is. I was starting to feel a bit of event fatigue from New Avengers and all the various crossovers and tie-ins – I had grown a little wary of the horrible characterisation of these characters across these big events and the awkward and inconclusive finales to these events (as well as just being worn out by the way these events constantly roll into one another, with no space for writers on individual titles between), but Annihilation was a breath of fresh air. Sure, there’s a whole crossover chronology ahead of me, but I don’t mind, because it doesn’t overflow or consume everything around it. Annihiliation: Conquest is highly unlikely to disrupt J. Michael Straczynski’s work on Thor or Matt Fraction’s on The Invincible Iron Man, nor is War of Kings or The Thanos Imperitive.

Shippin' out!

But it’s more than that, although I know there are sequels, the story reads well of itself. It feels like a self-contained story, rather than jumping straight in with a hook to what’s coming next. Even the epilogue, Heralds of Galactus, is more concerned with tying up the threads of the story than setting up the follow-up that gets a plug in the final panel. I like that, I respect that and I enjoy that. Sure, I need to buy three books to get the full story, but it is a story – not an ultimately pointless chapter in some greater saga that never really develops. On top of that, it is a good story.

And I am perfectly happy with that.

Next week, we’re landing back on Earth for World War Hulk, one of the “lower key” massive crossovers that Marvel has put its Avengers through over the past decade. Then we will spend some more time with the Avengers themselves – with Bendis’ New Avengers and also his second Avengers title, Mighty Avengers . Once we’ve been earthbound a while (maybe even dropping in to see what the X-Men have been up to with Messiah Complex), we’ll return with a review of the sequel to this epic in Annihilation: Conquest, before exploring the earthbound implications of the destruction of the Skrull Empire in this story with Bendis’ own gigantic crossover, Secret Invasion. Stay tuned, true believers!

You might be interested in our reviews and discussions of this cycle of Marvel cosmic events:

2 Responses

  1. Thankfully this is getting the Omnibus treatment and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is going to be re-released in Complete Collections in time for the upcoming ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ film. Your reviews have definitely helped me decide to put in a pre-order for both.

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