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Annihilation: Conquest (Review/Retrospective)

This is the tenth in a series of comic book reviews that will look at the direction of Marvel’s shared universe (particularly their “Avengers” franchise) over the past five or so years, 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.

Perhaps it was the novelty of Marvel’s Annihilation crossover which lent the series its appeal. It took some of the more often overlooked space heroes of the Marvel Universe and tied them all together as part of a gripping narrative fighting against the extinction of life itself. It was loud and bright and colourful and frentic – it was perhaps the best crossover that Marvel have produced in the past five years or so. So I was very much anticipating the sequel, Annihilation: Conquest – hoping that it could be another breath of fresh air in this long trek through Marvel’s shared universe. Unfortunately, it seemed that a lot of energy of the original was gone – the series couldn’t help but feel somewhat anti-climactic.

Feel the Wraith...

The story sees the recovering Kree Empire – still wounded from the universal genocide depicted in Annihilation – attempting to rebuild. However, in an ambush, they are caught off guard by the Phalanx. For those unfamiliar with these X-Men foes (myself included), they are a technological species which seem to be heavily based on the Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation (indeed, they first appeared around the same time) – the story makes heavy used of Borg-like terms such as “assimilation” and “resistance”. Anyway, these aliens basically absorb consciousness and upgrad their captives with technology – so once they defeat you, you find yourself joining them. The attack is brutal, over almost as soon as it began – Kree Space is sealed off, planets are laid to waste and resistence movements are cultivated.

However, something far more sinister is going on. Former human hero Star Lord (who holds himself responsible for a tragedy years ago and blames himself for the current situation) assembles a ragged crew of convicts for a suicide mission – this core group would become The Guardians of the Galaxy, the second on-going cosmic Marvel title. Quasar, the daughter of Captain Marvel, seeks out a saviour hidden within the Empire. A mysterious being who will come to be known as Wraith finds his search for the person who killed his father interrupted by the invasion. And Richard Rider, the last surviving member of the galactic police force known as the Nova Corps, discovers he might not be able to vanquish this foe singlehandedly. And readers eventually discover that the Phalanx have received a bit of an upgrade thanks to a familiar Avengers foe. Even more familiar if you’ve been reading Mighty Avengers.

Peter takes the fall...

My introduction might have sounded a bit cynical. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed it quite a bit. It was hokey and relatively light. However, it didn’t feel quite the same as the original crossover. I am hesitant to blame the change in authors – Keith Griffen has been replaced here by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning as architects of the cosmic event – but would probably place the responsibility with the rotating cast of characters used in this epic tale.

The original Annihilation did not feature A-list characters. The miniseries leading into the event featured Nova, Ronan, Super-Skrull and The Silver Surfer. While the Surfer is a pop culture fixture, the rest are hardly household names. And, to be honest, I think to have used the same set of characters again would have been redundant (although Nova does get a crossover which is “sort of” collected here). That said, the characters are people like Star Lord, Quasar and new hero Wraith. Those names don’t exactly get the interest going – they don’t immediately grab the audience. In fact, only Star Lord really has a tangible hook (he’s a fallen hero looking for redemption… yet again), while the other two are pretty generic. Wraith is a character who looks like he belongs in a nineties comic book, what with the murderous avenging, the power of fear and the goth chic.

Warlock and load!

There’s no immediately fascinating tale like the “orphaned” Nova Corpsman Richard Rider or the planet-devouring Galactus from the original Annihilation. Nothing except for the opening Star Lord miniseries really grabs the reader, with the other two becoming extended brawls (indeed, the main miniseries itself nearly crosses that line at various points). It’s just a little bit disappointing – there’s nothing nearly as quirky as the original Drax: The Destroyer crossover that launched Annihilation.

The Nova crossover is interesting, but it also suffers from a key structural flaw. The actual crossover between Annihilation: Conquest and the on-going Marvel cosmic title lasted around six or seven issues – following the character through his assimilation to his escape and the pursuit by two of his closest friends before returning to join the fray. These collected editions only gather up four issues of the Nova series, so we follow him up until his escape – and then he mysteriously rejoins the cast of the crossover in the final issue. Only now he is accompanied by the “parent race” to the Phalanx. These characters don’t really get an introduction (they’re shown flying alongside him and his two friend – no free of the Phalanx’s influence), they are just there. Which feels weird. It’s almost like trying to read Blackest Night and reading half the accompanying Green Lantern issues. It’s a relatively crap way to collect the series, to be entirely frank.

Rocket-launching Raccoon!

The original crossover prided itself on being accessible – it was a breath of fresh air when compared to the esoteric nature of continuity-heavy gigantic sprawling epics like Secret Invasion – but a lot of that is lost here. In the original, issues came with back-up features introducing you to all the key players (new and old) as a way of ensuring new readers could familiarise themselves with the somewhat niche characters that sale between the stars in the Marvel universe. Here it’s more awkward. All the information is presented, but there are so many characters that they run the risk of overloading the audience with information. It would have been nice to be given more backstory on Adam Warlock, for example (particularly since, as Ultron suggests, the story intended to depict “the ultimate defender of organic life drawn against the embodiment of technological perfection”).

That said, the crossover does do somethings right. For example, it keeps the tight structure of its direct predecessor. It isn’t like Civil War or Secret Invasion with mountains of crossovers. There is one extended crossover with Nova and then a series of miniseries leading into the event. I have already outlined that I’m not quite as happy with this set of miniseries as I was with the originals, but that’s beside the point. The complete collection of this crossover can be purchased in two hardcovers. I would have added a few more Nova issues myself, but that is an impressive consideration itself in the era where we are still releasing trades of Civil War tie-in material.

Blast from the past...

And Star Lord is great fun as an introductory series. It contains a crack commando team which includes a bipedal insect, a talking racoon and “a walking tree”, for crying out loud! What’s not to love? The fact that this miniseries was written by Keith Griffen, the man behind the relaunch of cosmic Marvel, probably doesn’t hurt – nor does the sense of irreverent fun. After all, what’s the point in publishing a line of space-themed titles if you can’t use the opportunity to revive Rocket Racoon? It also features perhaps the best art of the bunch from Timothy Green.

The Nova issues are, of themselves quite good. Not withstanding the fact that they don’t collect the whole story and just feel incomplete, they feature some wonderful character work (and world-building) from the two men who are behind the whole event, and also feature some of the stronger dramatic beats. Its these emotional connections which separate the Nova issues and the Star Lord miniseries from the other two – these feel like entertaining and engaging stories that happen to overlap with what is occurring, while Quasar and Wraith seem intended just to provide set-up for the crossover itself.

Wraith is feeling blue...

There is some great cheesy science fantasy at work here – you can tell that the writers clearly appreciate the genre, with fleeting references to Frank Herbert (there’s a “mentat” on Star Lord’s team) to Star Trek. It’s also reassuring to see them doing something with these characters and settings. The core combination at the heart of the crossover – the combination of Ultron and the Phalanx – was “originally pitched for the Nova series,” to quote the afterword, but was so ingeniuous that an entire event was built around it. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder if it might have been better treated as a smaller story.

Still, it’s a fascinating idea and a twist on the old “free will” and “groupthink” dichotomy that science fiction writers are so fond of. Andy Lanning and Dan Abnett call the reader out of this idea that both are mutually exclusive states, with Ultron recognising “the ability to function with genuine autonomy” as a benefit of free will that can be incorporated with the plan by the Phalanx to assimilate the cosmos. There’s a horror in what the Phalanx do here – it isn’t as if they trap you inside your body and make you watch the horrendous acts you commit as a passive observer; they make you make the decisions. “Selection allows my personality to remain fluid,” Nova explains at one point. “We are not cosumed and reduce to anonymity. We are joined in freedom.”

There's a lot of energy in this miniseries...

It’s a very clever idea and one which immediately distinguishes the plot from most “assimilation” horror stories. The terror isn’t that you are destroyed and a replacement personality built in your stead, it’s that your core attributes are fundamentally changed so much that you can’t tell anything is wrong. In fairness, there’s a rather conscious homage to all manner of epic science fantasy incorporated in these tales, from the addition of a “mentat” to Star Lord’s team (a reference to Frank Herbert’s Dune) to the use of the Phalanx as stand-ins for the Borg from Star Trek (and the “specials” in particular as stand-ins for Locutus from The Best of Both Worlds).

There’s even some interest themes running through the series, from the recurring use of parental themes (with Ultron’s fixation on killing his “father — and his entire loathsome race”, or Quasar’s attempts to wrestle with her father’s legacy – as well as smaller things like Ko-Rel’s attempt to get back to her son or the climactic involvement of the Phalanx’s “parent race”) and yet more meta-commentary on the state of the superhero genre. In Annihilation, Nova heavily criticised the events depicted in Civil War, wondering what heroism meant these days. Here, Adam Warlock, awoken from his slumber, confronts a frightened and insecure Quasar, wondering, “What manner of heroes has this new era bred?” Clearly not the very best kind. Though they do try.

Abnett and Lanning aren't quite on fire...

Perhaps the greates flaw with Annihilation: Conquest is its ambition and its drive to be different – not things to be dismissed casually and arguably facets to be lauded. However, the miniseries seems dedicated to expanding the cosmic tapestry incredibly quickly, while not really sure that the story can support it. Normally it’s nice to see second-tier characters given a chance to shine (one of the better aspects of Blackest Night), but this miniseries forgets that – even in the wake of Annihilation – the stars of the original series are still second-tier. It just seems like the goal was to fit in as many “revived obscure characters” as possible. This did pay off in Griffen’s superb Star Lord miniseries, but I can’t see how Quasar or Wraith (a new creation) justify a four-issue miniseries.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the miniseries are unsuccessful because the characters aren’t well-known. I am merely suggesting that there is a reason that these characters didn’t catch on in the first place. The original Annihilation miniseries balanced the relatively little-seen Ronan and maybe even Nova with the familiar Fantastic Four foe Super-Skrull and the iconic Silver Surfer. These more well-known (and, dare I say it, popular) characters found their way to the public imagination and became an enduring part of the Marvel Universe for a reason, and this grants them a hook. There’s obviously something fascinating about the Silver Surfer, that’s why he appears so often. Perhaps the reason that the character who would become Quasar drifted from the centre of the Marvel Universe is because she couldn’t find an audience. And it’s much harder to find a hook for a character like that (who doesn’t necessarily have an “interesting” aspect already prepared) than it is to simply explore the facets of a popular character that make the so iconic.

It's a bit of a miss...

But I think I’m rambling. Annihilation: Conquest isn’t quite as good as the original, but few sequels ever are. It’s still fun, even if it never grabs its audience in the same visceral way that its direct predecessor did. That said, it has its moments and more than justifies at least one read. If only for the eccentric cast of Star Lord. Man, I did enjoy that miniseries.

Next week we’re coming right back down to Earth for Brian Michael Bendis’ Secret Invasion, and then we’re venturing back into the void for War of Kings and then I’ll be finishing up with the last of these crossovers published in these format books, Matt Fraction’s Utopia. It’s more of a coda, though.

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

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