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Annihilators (Review/Retrospective)

It’s a bit of a shame that Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s run on Marvel’s “cosmic” comics ended up ending like this – whimpering away rather than finishing with a bang. The pair have been responsible for one of the most cohesive and entertaining aspects of Marvel’s publishing line over the past half-decade, producing some of the best events in recent years, and even providing the Guardians of the Galaxy run that will (apparently) inspire the upcoming blockbuster. I sincerely hope to see an omnibus collection of that run. However, Lanning and Abnett seem to fade from the scene, following up the climax to their cosmic events, The Thanos Imperative, with two Annihilators miniseries, the second of which didn’t sell well enough to merit a hardcover collection.

It’s a bit of a shame because, despite some admittedly serious flaws, their Annihilators four-issue miniseries actually has a lot of promise, and is something I wouldn’t have objected to seeing extended past the two miniseries.

Talk about an Ikon-oclast…

Part of me wonders if part of the reason that Annihilators didn’t sell as well as other Marvel titles is because of branding. In the world of modern comics, it seems like fans are more eager to read what they perceive to be “important”, instead of what is good. My inner cynic wonders if the book might have found more success had it been branded “Cosmic Avengers” and attached to some otherwise unrelated high-profile event like Siege, rather than merely existing as a four-issue miniseries by two guys who had been doing rather impressive work in that corner of the Marvel Universe for quite some time.

That’s not to suggest that Annihilators is perfect. However, Abnett and Lanning set up some good ideas here, and an interesting team dynamic in a corner of Marvel’s shared universe that is intriguing enough to merit further exploration. The pair have a curiously grounded approach the eccentric and incredible and fantastic characters and worlds that form the cosmic side of Marvel’s publishing line, and I think that’s why the pair write these characters so very well. They offer this incredibly vast canvas for the heroes to explore, drawing and developing on a rich history that came before, but in a way that isn’t exclusive and doesn’t lock out readers with only a passing familiarity.

Gladiator, you will go on my second whistle…

For example, Annihilators is very clearly focused on the legacy of Rom: SpaceKnight. For those unfamiliar with the character, he was created as a tie-in to a toy created by Parker Brothers. However, due to various copyright issues, Rom has remained out of publication for quite some time. Despite a cult comic book series published in the late seventies and early eighties, the character is legally prohibited from existing within the confines of the Marvel Universe. However, without even mentioning his name, Abnett and Lanning craft the story around the character.

Like in their Annihilation: Conquest event, the pair heavily feature the Spaceknights. However, Rom’s human lover, Brandy, plays a very important role in events – as the eponymous superhero team must help diffuse a crisis on Rom’s homeworld. There’s something quite wry about how the story is based around the absence of Rom. In the first issue, Ikon makes explicit reference to him. “Our greatest warrior revered Earth, and the courage of its native heroes.”

A Knight to remember…

Throughout the miniseries, he is repeatedly referenced – never by name, but by “greatest leader” and “greatest warrior.” Without even mentioning his name, it’s clear that his presence is keenly missed. “How long has your husband been gone?” the Surfer asks Brandy. The Silver Surfer even suggests that Brandy would hope a crisis like this might prompt his return. It’s a smart and endearing way of writing around a legal problem, and I’ll confess that – despite never having read an issue of Rom: SpaceKnight– I couldn’t help but smile a bit reading it.

Annihilators is about power, at its core. The team is composed of several of the most powerful cosmic characters in all of Marvel, cobbled together from the shared mythologies of the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and even The Avengers, all coexisting with one another for some greater purposes. Many of these characters could pose a threat to entire teams of superheroes on their own, which creates an interesting dilemma for Lanning and Abnett in crafting the story. After all, how do you construct a viable threat to these sorts of characters?

Cosmic comics…

Abnett and Lanning rather cleverly suggest that these characters are barriers to themselves. After all, holding all that power, the impulse is going to be to hold back in order to avoid collateral damage. “Good close combat skills,” Ikon notes of Gladiator. “But too much restraint.” He responds, “I’m holding back because I don’t want to–“ It’s certainly a clever way of writing around the fact that these characters could essentially move planets if they wanted to.

“All of you are painfully aware of your power levels,” Ikon tells them in the first issue. “It handicaps you. Each one of you restrains himself for fear of cutting loose and demolishing this facility.” She goes on, “Star-Lord’s team of guardians struggled, he believed, because they weren’t strong enough. You will struggle because you are too strong.” It’s certainly an interesting inversion of the usual superhero team dynamic, with most teams failing because they are too weak.

His arrival is met with Dredd…

Of course, Annihilators cleverly explores the fact that there are many different kinds of power – and not all of them are brute force. It’s telling that Ronan, who is repeatedly identified as the weakest of the team, is the one to subdue Doctor Dredd. Brandy seeks to create an enemy in order to cement the Spaceknights power, as if to suggest that power is useless if it is not used. Although manipulated by an outside force, she was motivated by “the belief that the Spaceknights needed their ancient enemy to define them.” It seems almost paradoxical, but a people can draw power from their enemies.

In the end, the Silver Surfer reaches something of an epiphany about the nature of power, and how it is best used. Despite the team’s name, he suggests, destruction is not the most constructive use of power. Instead, one should seek to use their power to create an equilibrium. Even the zen philosopher, the Surfer remarks after the crisis has passed. “We have achieved balance, the only remedy to your eternal conflict.” It’s an interesting idea, perhaps one different from most superhero comics that seem to define victory and defeat as absolute positions.

Super superheroes!

Abnett and Lanning do an excellent job with the team dynamics. I especially love their characterisation of Ronan the Accuser as the team member with a rather sizeable chip on his shoulder. Each of the characters brings something to the table, from the zen and diplomatic Silver Surfer to the insecure Quasar to the bold Ikon. It’s a pretty solid foundation for a team book and even the least defined of the lead characters (Beta Ray Bill) still gets to do quite a bit. It’s a shame that Abnett and Lanning won’t be developing the team further.

That said, there are problems with the story. On a purely surface level, sometimes the exposition is a little forced. I appreciate the care taken to introduce the reader to particular concepts and characters. After all, I am not hugely familiar with this side of Marvel. However, some of the dialogue can’t help but feel a bit clumsy as it’s intended to introduce the readers to particular characters or concepts. “Dredd!” Ikon states, pointing at the character, in case we don’t get that that is his name. “Doctor Dredd! A criminal we’d long presumed dead and gone!”

Well, they’re totally Skrulled…

There’s a more fundamental problem at play here as well. There’s simply too much going on here for a four-issue miniseries, especially one sharing its page count. It’s a rarely problem to complain that a comic book is too densely packed, but it seems like Abnett and Lanning are awkwardly stuffing the comic with one concept after another, trying to see just how much they can fit into a four-issue miniseries without bursting it. There’s a definite sense that this would work better as either a six-issue series or even a nice on-going.

None of the ideas have any real chance to take root, as things get glossed over real fast for the next big reveal. Over the course of the miniseries, the team finds themselves facing off against Doctor Dredd, Brandy, the Wraith Queen, “Immortus, the time-travelling ruler of Limbo”and then the Skrulls! None of these really get an opportunity to establish themselves, and so none ever get a chance to demonstrate that much threat.

Things look pretty Dire to me…

“A far greater and more troubling challenge faces us,” the Surfer remarks, a proclamation he could utter at least twice an issue. It’s important to ensure that there are high stakes, but the miniseries never quite lets us emotionally invest in one particular threat before the next one appears. It really makes me appreciate the space given to crossovers like Annihilation or War of Kings to tell their stories, instead of trying to cram everything into a tight little miniseries.

(I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the back-up, Rocket Raccoon & Groot. I hope to discuss that feature separately at some point, but it’s easily one of the most enjoyable Marvel comics I have read in quite some time. It’s a lot looser and a lot less tightly wound than Annihilators, and I think that works massively in its favour. I’d argue that it’s actually worth the price of admission more than Annihilators itself. But – since we’re discussing Annihilators– that’s just a side note. But it is excellent.)

A stellar series?

Annihilators is a solid comic, built around an intriguing premise. Sure, there are significant flaws with it, but there’s also a lot of potential here. It makes me miss Abnett and Lanning’s work on the cosmic side of Marvel, if only because Annihilators seems to hint at broader and more ambitious plans on the horizon, the promise of a vaster universe out there.

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

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