With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.
Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!
Writers: Dan Abentt, Andy Lanning, Christos Gage, Keith Giffen, Javier Grillo-Marxuach
Artists: Mike Perkins, Paul Pelletier, Tom Raney, Timothy Green, Mike Lilly, Kyle Hotz, Sean Chen
Issues: Annihilation: Conquest Prologue, Annihilation: Conquest – Star-Lord #1-4, Annihilation: Conquest – Quasar #1-4, Annihilation: Conquest – Wraith #1-4, Annihilation: Conquest #1-6, Nova #1-12, Nova Annual #1
Large-scale, blockbuster sequels are not solely in the realm of Hollywood movies. After the successful kick-start to Marvel’s cosmic universe via the epic Annihilation event in 2006-07, Marvel immediately responded with an equally epic and far-reaching special event called Annihilation: Conquest (2007-08). Building upon the characters and consequences from Annihilation, Conquest manages to be the rare sequel that keeps up with and even in many ways surpasses its predecessor thanks to superior limited series tie-ins, fantastic and consistent art, and a Game of Thrones-style plot with multiple cosmic heroes on varying missions to stop Ultron and the Phalanx.
In terms of these Final Thoughts I’ll be covering the entire event, as I did with Annihilation. That’s 30+ issues! A new omnibus (releasing this Summer) includes the ridiculous amount of issues I listed above, yet like its predecessor it’s still a refreshingly self-contained event compared to the Earth-bound stuff like Civil War. So strap yourselves in for my biggest Marvel Comics Final Thoughts yet!
The only ongoing series that was born out of Annihilation was a new Nova solo-series. The first two volumes (12 issues + annual) tie in to Annihilation: Conquest, and they’re utterly fantastic. Nova (Richard Rider) quickly evolved from a hero I really hadn’t even heard of (being completely unaware of most Marvel Cosmic stuff before I read Annihilation) to one of my new favorite Marvel heroes. He’s selfless, brave, and compassionate. Like the MCU Captain America, he also exemplifies the average human who was given extraordinary powers, and uses them solely to help others.
He’s also the last surviving member of the Nova Corp after the galactic peace-keeping armada was completely obliterated by the Annihilation Wave. In the process he absorbed the consciousness/super computer of the Xandarian Worldmind – basically his JARVIS that constantly gives him advice, berates him, and generally acts as a fun foil and unwitting partner in their galactic adventures.
In his first issue Nova is trying his best to be a one-man army, zipping around the universe with his boosted powers from the Worldmind, helping refugee colonies and defeating pockets of annihilation forces. Finally he pushes himself to near exhaustion, and Worldmind suggests he take a little break and return to earth.
Issues #2-3 are technically labeled as Initiative tie-ins, syncing them up with the post-Civil War era of Marvel continuity. In other words when Nova returns to say hi to his parents (who are not too pleased to see him), Iron Man shows up at his door and gives him 24 hours to register. Nova catches up on the Civil War shenanigans, and it’s a fun perspective to see such a major event reduced to a blip when compared to the insane galaxy-destroying event that Nova was just a part of.
Nova gets to talk a bit to his former New Warriors teammates and even briefly fights the Thunderbolts. He quickly realizes that Earth is not the place for him and returns to his life in space where things make sense, in their own way.
Issues #4-7 directly involve the events of Annihilation: Conquest, or at least the prologue. In the prologue issue Peter Quilll a.k.a. Star-Lord, man (Who?) arrives on the Kree Homeworld of Hala to upload a new defense system. The Kree want to be more pro-active in preventing anything like Annihilus’ sudden and devastating invasion from happening again. Unfortunately for everyone the system is really the Phalanx in disguise – a technorganic race that’s obsessed with assimilating everyone into its ranks.
The Phalanx’s invasion of Hala is nearly instantaneous as citizens either run or quickly become assimilated (denoted in this case by static-colored eyes and yellow-outlined dialogue bubbles). The prologue does a great job setting up the immediate threat of the Phalanx along with the various lead-in mini-series of Star-Lord, Quasar, and Wraith. A forcefield is erected around Kree space, keeping everyone in and out and while the Phalanx spreads and builds, leaving a nice sense of urgency and desperation to our few heroes caught inside.
Nova is busy responding to the Kree distress call when the forcefield is created. He’s forced to flee to prevent becoming infected in the battle, and runs headlong into the new forcefield before he can stop. Critically injured he falls to a remote Kree outpost on another planet that had been stranded since the Annihilation War. Reduced to a smoking crater, the Worldmind actually abandons ship and gives its power to another – Ko-Rel, the captain and leader of the survivors.
While Nova is healed by the Kree medical facilities, the newly minted Nova Prime Ko-Rel immediately has her work cut out for her as a small war party of Phalanx attack the outpost, lead by an infected Gamora. Gamora acts as the primary antagonist throughout Nova’s volumes, an interesting twist considering their former romantic and competitive history.
Gamora sneaks into the medical lab while Ko-Rel fights off the Phalanx, murders a bunch of poor Kree soldiers and kisses Richard Rider, infecting him with the Transmode Virus that turns people into slaves of the Phalanx. Interestingly, we find out later that the Phalanx purposefully leave in a modicum of free will, as they find that organic life is much more willing to accept assimilation and be more effective if they have it. Considering most of our advantages over such robot/hive-mind type enemies are our free will, it’s a frightening though that the Phalanx are willing to be so adaptive.
Worldmind freaks out and orders Ko-Rel to now go kill Nova so the Phalanx can’t get their hands on it. The two have a fun battle of dueling rocket-powered people before it looks like Ko-Rel has the upper hand – before she’s stabbed in the back by Gamora. I was pretty bummed as they were giving just enough backstory and personality to make Ko-Rel a likable character, and I was hoping she’d become the first recruit to the new Nova Corps.
Instead her death releases the rest of the Worldmind back to Nova, where its able to put the virus in remission and allow him to regain control. Fly away, Nova! Gamora continues her hunt along with fellow Phalanx-infected warrior Drax. Drax unfortunately suffers from Too Many Characters syndrome (see Game of Thrones). His role is greatly diminished from the previous cosmic event into Gamora’s partner in hunting Nova.
In Nova’s second volume, “Knowhere,” Rider had opened an emergency stargate to escape the forcefield, and ended up at the edge of the universe. Specifically the gigantic celestial head of a dead god known as Knowhere (seen in the 2014 Guardians of the Galaxy film). The first few issues chronicle Nova’s little side adventure in Knowhere, involving an evil zombifying creature known as Abyss and an Avengers-style team from another planet. It’s a bit of a departure from the ongoing story of Annihilation: Conquest, and indeed Drax and Gamora don’t even catch up to Nova until he leaves.
“Knowhere” introduces us to the best Marvel character ever – Cosmo, the thickly Russian-accented telepathic half Labrador/half Golden Retriever mix. Yup, a talking dog in a little space outfit. In his first ever appearance Cosmo is hilarious and wonderful (and surprisingly powerful) and I was devastated that he didn’t become a permanent sidekick of Nova’s, opting instead to remain on Knowhere where he’ll become an awesome addition to the Guardians of the Galaxy series that launches after Annihilation: Conquest. You’re the best, Cosmo.
From Cosmo Nova learns the location of the home planet of the Technarchy, the race that created the Phalanx. At this point the virus has been wrecking havoc on Nova’s systems, and it’s taking more and more of the Worldmind’s power to keep it at bay (leaving Nova weaker and weaker). The sense of urgency and hopelessness reaches a tense level of crescendo just as Nova reaches the nearly abandoned planet of Kvch.
If you’re reading Nova on Marvel Unlimited, make sure you read the Nova Annual issue between #10 and #11, it’s really fantastic. The Annual provides both a fun backstory or Nova’s origin as well as a What If that catapults us decades into the future as Nova, with a new Nova Corp armada, attempts to liberate a fully infected Earth from the Phalanx.
The whole issue ends up being a mindfuck as the virus was fully attempting to gain control by attacking Richard’s mind, and was a wonderfully emotional and informative ride. Likewise issue #10 is also a bit isolated as it centers on Nova’s and Gamora’s relationship as the two fight their way out of a cosmic monster that’s eaten them on their way to Kvch. Their love-hate camaraderie is intensified thanks to Gamora’s constant “give in to the Phalanx” spiel. I like Gamora as a character but I can’t say I’m a fan of her ridiculous bathing suit outfit that barely covers up the naughty bits. Cool hooded cape though.
Dying on Kvch with the virus taking hold things look bleak for our hero when a blast from the past is able to heal him. Warlock, technarch and former member of the New Warriors welcomes Nova to his home planet. Having never read New Warriors I actually recognized the character from that one episode of X-Men: The Animated Series that also involved a Phalanx invasion. Warlock is on Kvch having found and raised a child, attempting to impart the more pacifist style that Warlock’s mutant strain (and time on Earth) had imprinted upon him.
Nova tries to get Warlock to aid him and help fight the Phlanx but he refuses. Gamora and Drax catch up only to be turned into a spire and summon an elder Technarch to the planet, a giant and powerful monstrosity. Nova tries to keep it at bay while the others escape. Warlock sacrifices himself to fully heal Nova of the virus that had been killing him since issue #5 while his son Tryo escapes, only to return and charge right at the monster. The plan works and Tyro takes over the creature’s body, restoring Warlock, Gamora, and Drax back to full health and free of the virus. Healed and bolstered with new allies, Nova and company return to Kree space to mount an assault on Hala.
All of this happens concurrently with the events of Annihilation: Conquest’s lead-in mini-series and event itself. Nova’s issues can be read independently as he only shows up in the final issue of Conquest. By giving him his own side adventures while still tying it altogether with the greater event, Nova’s series becomes an exciting ride that gets to keep the desperation surrounding the event while expanding the Marvel Cosmic Universe into new and exciting places. Both Knowhere and Kvch are fun new locations, and it was wonderful meeting new characters like Cosmo and seeing old characters like Warlock used in meaningful and logical ways.
But wait, there’s more! Like Annihilation before it, Conquest includes several four-issue limited series based on the major characters of the event that take place between the Prologue and the event itself. Unlike Annihilation, they’re all pretty good!
Annihilation: Conquest – Star-Lord begins with Peter Quill’s recovery from having been brutally attacked on Hala during the invasion. The Kree resistance patches him up, removes all his goofy cyberware, and tasks with him taking a team of criminals and prisoners into the heart of the Phalanx spire to destroy it from the inside. Star-Lord recruits his team that would eventually become the Guardians of the Galaxy later on. For now it consists of Bug, Mantis, Deathcry, Rocket Racoon, Groot, and Captain Universe.
The team goes through the typical drama of folks of wildly different backgrounds being thrust together. Deathcry is even killed by friendly fire from Captain Universe as she goes feral for, to put it in gamer terms, kill-stealing. The series is action-packed but the art isn’t very good and I didn’t find the overall plot all that interesting. It mostly serves to introduce us to this freedom-fighting team on Hala and it’s surprisingly the weakest of the mini-series.
Quasar’s series centers around Phyla-Vell, daughter of Mar-Vell, the former cosmic hero Captain Marvel. I’m wholly unaware of her family’s adventures and drama but thankfully the series focuses less on her history and more on her present situation. Adorned with the powerful quantum bands she had taken from Annihilus at the end of Annihilation (can you tell you really have to read Annihilation first), the new Quasar and her lover Moondragon (Heather Douglas, daughter of Drax and powerful telepath) live in a secluded temple in Kree space. When the Phalanx attack, she’s given a mysterious message to find the savior.
Quasar and Moondragon’s quest quickly resembles a Dungeons and Dragons style adventure as they fight giant space monsters and help defend outposts from the Phalanx. During a particular exciting moment, Heather’s incessant headaches reach a climax during a pitched battle, and she permanent transforms into a literal dragon! The plot isn’t too heavy though we are given a fun villain in the form of a Phalanx-infected Super Adaptoid, a robotic foe that can mimic the abilities of any of the Avengers.
Phyla-Vell’s quantum bands are running out of power thanks to the forcefield cutting her off from the Universe’s energy, give a nice sense of desperation that I enjoyed from Nova. The real treat, however, comes from the incredibly fun artwork. Seemingly more suited for a fantasy epic rather than a comic space opera, artist Mike Lilly does a fantastic job drawing giant two-page spreads of exciting battles and events.
The plot does become integral to setting up Conquest as Quasar and Moondragon defeat the Adaptoid and awaken Adam Warlock, the supremely powerful cosmic being that’s gone toe-to-toe with Thanos, and plays an important role in the upcoming liberation.
With the third lead-in Marvel attempted to introduce an entirely new character – Wraith. Wraith could be described as Goth Clint Eastwood. Looking like a vampire-dark elf wearing a poncho, he’s got a powerful weapon that can change form and a motorcycle that flies through space. Basically he’s that dorky kind of cool that was very prevalent in the 90s, but doesn’t seem entirely out of place here.
His backstory as an orphaned child is uninteresting and his powerset of a weird negative fear energy is confusing. Luckily his comic quickly throws him headfirst into the Phalanx and the war on Hala, making his lead-in the most directly involved in the grand event. He’s captured and tortured by the Phalanx-infected Ronan, then breaks free and escapes with Annihilation stars Super-Skrull and Paxagoria. The three of them join up with the resistance on Hala to mount a full on attack on the Phalanx armada. Their goal – to stop Ronan and the Phalanx from sending out a psychic wave (from their semi-dead god/super computer) that will shut down all the Kree.
Wraith is a goofy character who even has the black dialogue boxes a la Venom, but his supporting cast is fun. The mini-series is almost as much about Ronan as it is Wraith, as we see him struggle with enslavement and the semi-freedom he’s afforded. It ends up being another fun, short, action-packed story, and I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed it.
And now, finally, we reach the main six issue event. Annihilation: Conquest’s first issue ends with a massive HOLY CRAP moment, as it’s revealed that the mastermind behind the Phalanx’s sudden power upgrades and efficiency is none other than Earth-born Ultron! Considering my previous experience with Ultron was when he awkwardly took over Iron Man’s body and turned female in Mighty Avengers, I was pleased to see him in full traditional robot regalia, and menacing as all hell.
Throughout the adventure our various groups that were introduced in the lead-ins are separated and all fighting the war in their own way. Star-Lord and the proto-Guardians team remain on Hala as an insurgency force, pretty much fighting Phalanx forces nonstop. Wraith, along with the freed Ronan and the rest of their group travel to a world that had been ceded to the remaining Annihilation forces to ask their former foes to join with them against the Phalanx. Quasar and company meet up with the High Evolutionary (who created Adam Warlock) and end up directly battling Ultron on several occasions. Nova has his own crazy adventures as he searches for a cure to the virus.
There’s a lot going on and interestingly none of their paths actually cross until the final issue or two. Like their lead-ins, Star-Lord’s story is again probably the least interesting, as they continue the good fight on Hala. They do manage to take down the giant spire with a plan involving Groot growing to massive proportions and then blowing up. The team is given only the bare minimum of growth and character development, and Peter Quill is just not a super interesting character yet. The team is also given the role of Most Character Deaths to make the situation more dire, as the incredibly dorky Captain Universe goes down, while Mantis is severely injured (and the aforementioned Groot explosion).
Quasar’s adventures become the most interesting. The High Evolutionary is a powerful figure in the Marvel Universe, neither good nor evil but very interested in biology. There’s a large battle when Ultron attacks, and he ends up punching Moondragon through the chest as she dives to protect Phyla-Vell. Noooo! I loved that character, but it’s nice to see a villain that actually kills people (at least to the extent that people can be killed in comics).
Near the end Ultron is able to get the High Evolutionary to help him download himself into Adam Warlock’s body, creating a near unstoppable union of robotic and organic abilities. This new view of organic life being useful instead of loathed by Ultron and the Phalanx is what makes them so formidable and frightening.
It all comes down to an exciting finale as Nova shows up in the nick of time. Warlock (the afro-sporting technarch dude) infects Ultron with the mutant virus strain that makes him unique, shutting him out of Adam Warlock’s body. Ronan and company then screw everything up by planning on taking Hala down to wipe the Phalanx out using a virus-proofed sentry army, but it goes horribly wrong, Paxagoria is taken over and killed by Ultron, and he proceeds to add the sentries to his body, growing massive in size.
In the end it takes a combination of Adam Warlock harnessing the freed souls of Hala (freed by the spire’s destruction), Wraith using his weird energy trapping powers, and Quasar focusing the souls into her Diablo-esque energy sword and killing Ultron. Yep, Quasar gets the killing blow. Seeing as she lost the person most important to her, it was a satisfying moment of badass revenge.
As a direct sequel to Annihilation, Conquest does kind of rehash the concept of a group of disparate heroes fighting against an unstoppable force. It would also be tricky to jump into it without first reading Annihilation, as most of the characters and the overall situation of the universe are directly referenced throughout. Ultimately I found Annihilation: Conquest even more satisfying than its predecessor, and one of my favorite Marvel events.
The multiple story approach remains logical and exciting, showing the devastating events from multiple angles and situations. The lead-ins are also very well done, and unlike Annihilation are all pretty integral into the main story. As the sole extra series tie-in Nova is probably the best part of the whole experience, which is not usually the case for solo character tie-ins. Ultron is a fantastic villain with logical motivations and suitably menacing dialogue and even more enigmatic characters like Adam Warlock are explained well enough to bring newer Marvel Cosmic converts like myself up to speed.
If Annihilation made me a fan of Marvel’s cosmic universe, then Annihilation: Conquest sealed that marriage and my love of these characters and the outstanding creative team of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Now, bring on the Guardians of the Galaxy!