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Take to the stars (and beyond) with classic cosmic comics

Cosmic comics discussed include Annihilation, Fantastic Four, and the original Crisis

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were five years into their 107-issue run on Fantastic Four when they introduced Galactus and his herald, the Silver Surfer, in 1966’s Fantastic Four #49. FF in the mid-’60s was all about pushing boundaries, inventing whole worlds out of fresh cloth for every new storyline. The previous storyline had introduced the Inhumans, an entire hidden race of super-powered beings. What was left? There’s an (most likely) apocryphal story to the effect that Lee prompted Kirby with a four-word story note: “Have them fight God.” Galactus wasn’t the God, but he was a god, and his appearance on Earth placed the Fantastic Four in the unique position of being completely helpless in the face of an implacable force of nature. Kirby went to the Bible for inspiration and came back with a wrathful Old Testament deity for the Space Age, complete with a gleaming fallen angel who could be coaxed to side with humanity against his omnipotent master. [TO]

In the early ’00s, Marvel found success by moving away from traditional cosmic superhero stories in favor of more provocative, street-level interpretations of its heroes. Annihilation Prologue (2006) was the first step in a cosmic revival that is still going strong almost 10 years later, bringing Marvel’s space-faring characters together in a fight against an unexpected villain: Annihilus, the insectoid Fantastic Four villain. Written by Keith Giffen with art by Scott Kolins and Ariel Olivetti, this one-shot details the opening shots in Annihilus’ war for universal domination, juggling a large ensemble cast and setting up storylines that would be explored in the four miniseries leading up to the main Annihilation title. This model would be replicated for the subsequent Annihilation: Conquest event, replacing Annihilus with a new threat: the Avengers’ Ultron. With its sweeping scale, blockbuster action, and captivating character drama, Annihilation Prologue combines the thrill of a classic cosmic crossover with the more mature storytelling of Marvel Comics in the new millennium. [OS]

The men who created the Golden Age of comics were pulp veterans, and they carried their sci-fi tropes directly over from the pages of magazines like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories. Pulp vet Gardner Fox created Jay Garrick, the original Flash, in 1939, and he was still around almost 20 years later when the trademark was resurrected in 1956. The Flash #123 (1961), “The Flash Of Two Worlds,” written by Fox in 1961, was the first meeting between the Silver Age Flash—Barry Allen—and Garrick. But the team-up itself was only half the story: In order to meet Garrick, Allen had to learn to travel between parallel worlds, his world (“Earth One”) and the world where the Golden Age heroes of the late ’30s and ’40s still lived (“Earth Two”). This wasn’t a one-time trip. Alternate universes became a mainstay of DC’s line, where they remain to this day as a cornerstone of the New 52. [TO]

Geoff Johns had revitalized DC’s Green Lantern property with his Green Lantern: Rebirth miniseries, but his work on the character’s solo title didn’t truly take off until 2007’s Green Lantern: Sinestro Corps Special, a one-shot illustrated by Rebirth artist Ethan Van Sciver that significantly changed the landscape of DC’s cosmic comics. The creation of the yellow Sinestro Corps would ultimately lead to the formation of a Lantern Corps for every color, making ring-bearers a constant presence among the stars as both friends and foes. Where this one-shot really excels is in building up a threat that is truly intimidating, assembling a team of villains made up of some the greatest foes of not just the Green Lantern Corps, but the entire DC universe. It’s impossible to resist the next issue after a cliffhanger revealing Sinestro, Cyborg Superman, Superboy-Prime, Parallax (Kyle Rayner), and the Anti-Monitor as they prepare to go to battle, beginning a war that would kickstart the evolution of a franchise. [OS]

To this day it’s not uncommon to see sci-fi and fantasy dismissed (or complimented) on the basis of a real or imagined kinship to drug usage. While they certainly appreciated the counterculture audience books like Fantastic Four attracted, upstanding WWII vets Lee & Kirby were still pretty far removed from the Haight-Ashbury zeitgeist. Robert Crumb first took acid in 1966, and soon after began one of the most influential careers in comics history. Zap began in 1967 as a solo vehicle for Crumb. (Zap Comix #0, produced first, wasn’t published until 1968, after issue #2.) The most important part of “turning on,” for Crumb and other underground artists, was discovering how to use comics to describe the altered perceptions that came with drug usage in a legible way—turning inward instead of flying outward. Crumb was very explicit in his desire to explore “Kozmik trooths,” and his example inspired more than just successive generations of alternative cartoonists. [TO]

One of the great oddities of Marvel’s library is Jack Kirby’s 10-issue 2001: A Space Odyssey series, which offered different interpretations of the Arthur C. Clarke novel before focusing on Kirby creation X-51, the “Machine Man.” Writer Jim Krueger takes major inspiration from X-51’s birthplace for his script to Earth X #0 (1999), the beginning of an ambitious maxiseries about the future of the Marvel universe and the dramatic evolution of its heroes. When X-51, currently trying to pass for his human father, Aaron Stack, wakes up one evening, he discovers the iconic black monolith of Clarke, Kirby, and Stanley Kubrick, which transports him to a lunar environment where he will serve as the new Watcher. Combining Kirby’s mythology with John Paul Leon’s Kubrickian visuals makes for a dense but engrossing read, offering a crash course on the history of Marvel Comics in one beautiful over-sized issue. [OS]

By 1974, the generation of writers and artists who came of age with the pulps was beginning to fade, and their places were being taken by creators who owed as much to Crumb as to Gardner Fox. Even at the height of Lee & Kirby’s FF, Dr. Strange had always been the company’s most cosmic hero. Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner were no strangers to mind-altering substances, and their Strange became an explorer of not just alternate dimensions, but inner consciousness. Their run climaxed in Marvel Premiere #14 (1974) with the saga of 31st-century sorcerer Sise-Neg (sdrawkcab ti daer), who travels back to the dawn of time for the purpose of recreating the universe in his own image. Strange can’t defeat the all-powerful Sise-Neg, who absorbs all the mystical energy in history to supplant God at the dawn of time only to see, from this unique perspective, the necessity of recreating the universe exactly as it was. [TO] 

“I have summoned you here because your universes are about to die!” The Monitor proclaims on the final page of Crisis On Infinite Earths #1 (1985), words that herald the coming of a new streamlined DC continuity by the end of the 12-issue miniseries. Written by Marv Wolfman with art by George Perez and Dick Giordano, this first issue immediately sets the stakes astronomically high with the destruction of entire planes of reality, picking heroes from different earths to serve on a team that could potentially end the destruction. The script is a whirlwind journey through the various DC properties of the time, with each character and setting realized in vivid detail by the art team. Perez and Giordano show a remarkable skill for staging devastating action sequences on a celestial scale, matching the scope of Wolfman’s story and making it even bigger. Crisis would dramatically alter the course of DC comics and set the bar for status quo-changing event comics, and there’s a real sense of weight in this first issue that indicates DC knows just how important this miniseries is to its future. [OS]

Of those creators who defined Marvel’s Bronze Age, the only one to surpass Englehart in terms of influence on the company’s cosmic books was Jim Starlin. Although Starlin is justly remembered for his groundbreaking ’70s work on Warlock, as well as his subsequent return to Marvel with 1991’s Infinity Gauntlet, The Death Of Captain Marvel (1982) is the story for which he is most famous. The alien Captain Mar-Vell was a B-lister from the tail end of the Silver Age who, despite a run of memorable stories by Starlin, had failed to make much of an impact in the 15 years of his existence. Mar-Vell became far more interesting in death. Felled not in glorious battle but by “mere” inoperable cancer, Mar-Vell says goodbye to his family, his friends, and his foes, before being joined by arch-nemesis Thanos for one last cosmic journey into the light. This is the one super-hero death that has never been reversed, and probably never will be. [TO]

Before turning their attention to guarding the galaxy, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning made a name for themselves writing DC’s Legion Of Superheroes, a sprawling team living in the 31st century. Upon concluding two separate Legion ongoings, the writing team was given a fresh slate and the opportunity to firmly make its mark with Legion Lost #1 (2000), the start of a miniseries that followed a select group of Legionnaires lost in space with no idea how to get home. Featuring art by future superstar Olivier Coipel, this first issue showcases the blend of hard science fiction and superhero action that would define most of Abnett and Lanning’s run, with manga-inspired layouts that accentuate the speed and strength of the team and their alien attackers. The script introduces questions that will drive the entire series, and the narration provides a glimpse into personal emotions and motivations. Each issue of the miniseries is narrated by a different Legionnaire, making Legion Lost a valuable lesson in how to balance character development with cosmic adventure. [OS]

Quasar was a sleepy Avengers spin-off starring an also-ran cosmic hero following in Mar-Vell’s footsteps as Protector Of The Universe. But the book has proven surprisingly resilient in fan memory, at least partially due to stories like “Bearable Lightness Of Unbeing” in Quasar #18 (1991). Here Mark Gruenwald introduces the two most important beings in the Marvel Universe: abstract entities Origin and Unbeing, responsible for the creation and destruction of every character in comics. Waking up in his hometown of Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin (perhaps not so coincidentally down the road from Gruenwald’s own Oshkosh) with no memory of his career as a superhero, Wendell Vaughn discovers the secret origin of all superheroes: crude drawings pinned to the walls of a kid’s clubhouse. A low-key companion to Grant Morrison’s “Deus Ex Machina” from earlier the same year, Gruenwald’s tale bridges the gulf between sweeping cosmic epics and the frail human imaginations from which they emerge. [TO]

Dr. Doom is already one of the biggest, baddest villains in the Marvel universe, so what happens when he gets the power of Galactus, a giant that eats planets as part of a balanced breakfast? Secret Wars #10 (1984) happens. Behind the iconic Mike Zeck cover is a story about one man’s obsession with total power, an obsession that may be the only thing that can save Earth’s greatest heroes from the seemingly all-powerful Beyonder. The event miniseries by writer Jim Shooter and artist Mike Zeck is classic superheroics from beginning to end, grabbing an assortment of Marvel’s most popular heroes and villains and whisking them away to an alien location where they’re pitted against each other for the delight of a cosmic entity. The book was already a lot of fun before a godlike Dr. Doom wages his one-man war, but the events of #10 make Secret Wars a cosmic classic. [OS]

If Marvel’s cosmology is a crazy-quilt assemblage of abstract deities sprung from the minds of Lee, Kirby, Ditko, et al., DC at its root remains firmly embedded within the Judeo-Christian tradition. Accordingly, much of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is old-school cosmic—old-school like John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In a fit of sudden inspiration, Satan abdicates the throne of hell, leaving his hapless adversary Morpheus holding the key to the underworld, the unwilling recipient of the most desirable piece of real estate this side of heaven. In the context of Gaiman’s 75-issue long clockwork plot, Lucifer’s exit and the resulting land rush have grave consequences for Morpheus and his realm. But Sandman #23 (1991) is all Satan’s show: if, as William Blake believed, Milton was secretly of the Devil’s party, there is even less doubt as to who commands Gaiman’s sympathies. Satan is charismatic, yes, but also tired, exhausted after 10 billion years as CEO of the most pointless corporation in the universe. [TO]

The tone of James Gunn’s Guardians Of The Galaxy movie may be a departure from the usual superhero film, but it’s well in line with the more humorous bent of the comic series that serves as its inspiration. Guardians Of The Galaxy #1 (2008) is the first appearance of the big-screen team of Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Groot, and Rocket Raccoon, offering a bright, lighthearted take on superhero science fiction that makes it an especially accessible cosmic title. Written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning with dynamic, expressive art by Paul Pelletier and Rick Magyar, this debut chapter jumps straight into the action before flashing back to show the team’s formation in the aftermath of Annihilation: Conquest. Bombastic fight sequences are balanced with deeper science-fiction ideas (tapping into Jim Starlin’s work with the inclusion of Adam Warlock in the cast) and talking-head interviews with cast members, and those reality TV-style confessionals are responsible for much of the book’s comedy. It’s not easy to sell a superhero team that prominently features a talking raccoon and an ass-kicking tree, but Abnett and Lanning’s work on this title showed Marvel the potential of its cosmic characters beyond the comics page. [OS]

All Star Superman is justly celebrated as Grant Morrison’s greatest contribution to the Superman mythos, but it isn’t Morrison’s only notable Superman story. The crossover DC One Million (1998) sprang from Morrison’s successful run on JLA and doubled as Superman’s 60th birthday party. The story begins when the Justice League of the 853rd century brings the JLA of the 20th century into the future to celebrate future Superman’s return from self-imposed exile in the heart of the sun. Of course, things don’t turn out quite so easily, as a conspiracy of Superman’s greatest foes try their best to turn the celebration into a funeral. But the most interesting idea at the heart of the story is the simple acknowledgement that Superman will never die. Even 833 centuries into the future, having traveled to the farthest reaches of the universe and beyond, the first and greatest superhero is still alive, fighting the never-ending battle and exploring the outer reaches of existence. [TO]