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Waiting for the Trade's best of cosmic Marvel

Waiting for the Trade’s Cosmic Countdown

 So today Guardians of the Galaxy hits theaters and I cannot wait to see it. I have been giddy for this movie since it was announced two years ago. I love cosmic marvel in general and I greatly enjoyed DnA’s run on the Guardians a couple years ago. So in honor of the film I present a countdown of Marvel’s best cosmic trade paperbacks and because the Guardians are such an unusual team I am doing a top 15 rather than a top 10. Furthermore in honor of the obscurity of the Guardians since many of the stories in the countdown are super famous already I will recommend a second story in the same vein of each primary pick throughout the countdown. So without further ado click below.



 15 – Star-Lord: Annihilation Conquest – While the entire Annihilation Conquest event was collected in a pair of trades years ago the story as a whole is good not great. With the Guardians of the Galaxy movie this smaller trade was released a few months ago collecting the four best issues of that event. This is genesis of the Guardians team as the Kree recruit Star-Lord to go on a no technology suicide mission against the Phalanx and assign several prisoners from a Kree prison to assist him—all of whom were marginal cosmic characters who had not appeared in years: Captain Universe, Death Cry, Groot, Mantis and—best of all—Rocket Raccoon. The book has a total Dirty Dozen feel to it, and given the minor nature of these characters no one is safe (though based on the Guardians movie line-up you can probably guess which ones survived). This is the beginning of Rocket Raccoon’s ascent to awesome-ville.

            If you like this story also check out: Thanos Redemption. While reading the second Annihilation Conquest trade will give you the ending of the story; and any of the DnA Guardians trades carry the Rocket & Groot banner nicely Thanos Redemption is a bit of lost classic by the same author as the Star-Lord trade above and is the story that brought Star Lord back to the mainstream Marvel Universe. It too has also only recently been collected in trade thanks to the movie as Thanos Redemption collects a short-lived 12 issue ongoing Thanos series from about 10 years back. The first six issues are by Starlin and see Thanos and Warlock attempting to help the Rigellians evacuate their planet when Galactus arrives. It’s a perfectly good Starlin Thanos story although it doesn’t tread much new ground. The next 6 issues are by Keith Geffen, and while the change in tone is on first read jarring I actually like it better than the Starlin issues. Geffen shows us the Crunch, the sight of the birth of the Universe where cosmic energies are used to bind rogue cosmic entities. Furthermore the Shi’ar and Xandarians have built a prison planet there for hardcore threats they have no intention of ever paroling. However because of what the Crunch represents it is considered a holy site by many alien races and thus the prison has to deal with a constant flow of pilgrims. Thanos decides to become one of these pilgrims. He soon finds Death waiting for him and for the first time in decades she deigns to speak to him directly. He also discovers heroes Gladiator and Star Lord are in the prison (among many villains). Best of all Thanos encounters the Beyonder in this prison and we get a fairly epic Thanos vs. the Beyonder confrontation. The aftermath of their fight sees the prison damaged and a few galaxy class villains escape including a previously unknown first herald of Galactus. This just piles on the fantastic and needs to be read (and in some ways it is a shame the series got cancelled because they were building to Gladiator and Star Lord forming a task force to take down Thanos once and for all).

 14 Hulk: Heart of the Atom – Famed Science Fiction writer Harlan Ellison penned this story of Hulk being shrunk into a subatomic world where he finds a John Carter-esque world of monsters and alien barbarians who happen to have green skin and thus accept Hulk as a savior. Hulk meets their Queen Jarella and begins a surprisingly tender and bittersweet love affair with her that ultimately ends in tragedy.

            If you like this story also check out: I’m sure Planet Hulk is the obvious successor to this one but I’ve never read it so I can’t recommend it. I will say the recent Captain America: Castaway in Dimension Z is really good story of Cap trapped in another dimension with subjugated alien races fighting a cruel tyrant giving it some similarities to the Hulk story above. But if you want another Hulk story then let’s go with Hulk: Pardoned which while mostly earthbound reprints a chapter of Hulk on Rocket Raccoon’s home world and a few other alien threats from Bill Mantlo’s nearly forgotten yet really strong run on the title.

 (13½) Silver Surfer the Herald Ordeal (issues 70-75 of his second solo title) is not in trade. If it was it would rank here as the art is superb, Morg is an excellent villain and it has the spectacle of every former herald of Galactus teaming up.

13 - Avengers the Contest – I’ve reviewed this book before but to recap the Grandmaster makes a bet with Death and pulls all the heroes of Earth into a contest on their behalf. Then when Grandmaster loses he pulls both Avengers team into Death’s realm giving us a pair of excellent fights as first the East and West Coast Avenger teams square off and then when Grandmaster wins and takes over Death’s realm he forces the Avengers to fight the Legion of the Unliving for the fate of the universe in perhaps the greatest fight scene Tom Defalco ever wrote. The story ends with my all time favorite Hawkeye moment.

            If you like this story also check out: Avengers vs. the Legion of the Unliving is an excellent anthology collecting all of their battles against various groups of characters who were dead at the time. You get two Immortus stories in here, a really creepy Grim Reaper story as he becomes an Avatar for Death (the Avatar concept played a key role in other cosmic titles like Quasar and Thanos Imperative), the last chapter of the story above, and a really good Busiek and Perez story. Speaking of which if you like the Grandmaster he plays a key role in the very strong Busiek-Perez JLA/Avengers intercompany trade as well.

12 – Essential Marvel Two In One volume 3 – By far the most obscure choice on my list this series primarily serves as a prelude to Mark Gruenwald’s superb work on Quasar in the 90s (most of which is not in trade). This book collects 26 comics (three of which are double sized) and surprisingly the vast majority qualify as cosmic stories. For those unfamiliar Marvel Two In One is a Thing team up series from the late 70s/early 80s. Gru kicks us off with Quasar’s first appearance under that name (the character had appeared a few times before as a SHIELD agent in Captain America) and makes Quasar head of security for Project Pegasus. The six part story that follows (also collected in the full color trade Thing: Project Pegasus Saga) see Thing, Quasar and Bill Foster (Giant Man v2.0/Black Goliath) deal with a series of sabotage attempts by Roxxon Oil that ends up pulling in the time traveling Deathlok, the extra-dimensional Thundra, the alien Wundar and ultimately leads to the birth of Nth Man—a cosmic class villain that would trouble Excalibur 10 years later. The other major reason to buy this trade (and why I recommend it over the color version) is the double sized Thing & the Avengers in the Negative Zone story by Tom Defalco that sees Annihilus, Blaastar and Super Adaptoid all team up. I often say Defalco is the best choreographer of fight scenes in comic history and this is a prime example of his excellence in that regard. Other cosmic tales include: a three parter with Thing, Her, Moondragon (both of whom Gru would use again as love interests for Quasar) and Starhawk (revealed in the 90s to be the son of Quasar and Her) trying to resurrect Adam Warlock and in the process running afoul of the High Evolutionary and the Beyonder; A two part tale that sees Thing, Mr. Fantastic, Sting Ray and the Inhumans taking on Maelstrom (who Gru would later elevate into an enemy of all life in the universe in Quasar), a three part story featuring Thing, Sting Ray, Triton and Scarlet Witch preventing the Serpent Squad using the Serpent Crown to take over the world (this is the first appearance of Sidewinder and a few others that would go on to become the Serpent Society in Gru’s Captain America run, while the Set’s Serpent Crown would be one of the major threats Quasar dealt with when he became protector of the universe). Other one off stories in here with cosmic characters are: Thing & Black Bolt vs. Graviton, Thing & the Impossible Man, Thing vs. Hyperion, Thing & the 30th century Guardians of the Galaxy, Thing & Quasar in the Savage Land, and Thing & Hulk vs. The Stranger.

            If you like this story also check out: Quasar Classic volume 1. Quasar was for my money Marvel’s best ongoing series of the early 90s—a time when they published 60 to 80 books a month. While the book’s best issues are in the second year and not collected in trade, this volume will give you Quasar’s origin, his appointment as Protector of the Universe, the set up of his supporting cast status quo, and some fun fights with Terminus, Absorbing Man and Living Laser as part of the “Acts of Vengeance” crossover.

11 Infinity War – This is one of my favorite crossovers but unfortunately it does not have a good trade paperback. The existing trade collects only the parts written by Jim Starlin: The six issue main series, a few tie-in issues of Warlock and the Infinity Watch and a four part Thanos back up story from Marvel Comics Presents. Worse it doesn’t even intercut those stories in order. It just reprints each of the three series it collects one after the other even though the Warlock issues specifically say what issues of the main series they occur after. While like any crossover some of the tie-in issues are extraneous I feel not including the issues of Quasar, Dr. Strange and Silver Surfer do the story a real disservice—these are all cosmic level heroes whose tie-in issues were key to the main event. The Spider-man and Guardians of the Galaxy issues are also a lot of fun and it is a shame not to have them even if they don’t add much to the narrative. Besides a story called “Infinity War” should be big and sprawling. The full story would likely make #5 on this list. Still even in diminished form this is a trade worth picking up. The Magus has one of the best plans of any villain ever in this story—from preemptively attempting to destroy all of Earth’s heroes in one blow by taking out just five key heroes, to hiding his fortress in another reality several dimensions removed so that even cosmic level powers cannot get to him without great difficulty to the big plot twist in issue five on his end goal. This is a rare smart villain executing a well thought out plan so it is worth reading for the core six issues alone. Also the story is crazy fun on a cosmic fanboy level because you get to see all the big cosmic weapons pitted against each other: the Cosmic Cube, the Infinity Gauntlet, the Quantum Bands and the Ultimate Nullifier are all utilized in one key chapter of this story. Also it does collect Infinity Watch #8, which is a really strong comic featuring an extended flashback of how Thanos raised Gamora as his foster daughter.

            If you like this story also check out: Thanos Imperative. While Infinity Crusade is the sequel to Infinity War it is a badly told bloated story. And while the Magus’s first appearance may be a more obvious choice to recommend here, Thanos Imperative has more in common with Infinity War structurally. Both stories see Thanos forced to act alongside a group of heroes to defend the universe from a threat worse than him. Both see him working alongside Gamora, Drax and Moondragon while Quasar, Silver Surfer and Galactus have a separate side mission in the crisis. In both the threat is an alternate evil version of a great cosmic hero. Thanos Imperative also brings DnA’s four year run as the architects of cosmic marvel to an end and has the added bonus scene of Rocket Raccoon standing down Thanos. It’s not the A+ homerun I wanted from DnA but it is a solid B that holds up on multiple readings.

10-Avengers: The Kree Skrull War – While this story is less cosmic than you’d expect—only one chapter takes place in space;--it does maintain a tense build and for its time period stories of this scope were very rare. The cliff notes synopsis: first the Avengers have to deal with the Kree who want to detonate a bomb that will devolve all of humanity back to Neanderthals. Then as the follow up on the Kree threat, the Skrulls make their move by taking the place of politicians and members of the media to turn the public against the Avengers and later imitate the big three (none of whom were on the active roster at the time) in order to disband the team. The Avengers also have to battle both races major champions: Ronan the Accuser and the Super Skrull. The story also pulls in the Inhumans, Captain Mar-vell and (briefly) Annihilus until the Avengers fly into space to bring the war to an end. It also contains a famous Fantastic Voyage inspired story of Ant Man traveling inside the Vision’s android body to repair him. Unfortunately by today’s standards the ending with Rick Jones comes out of nowhere and is far too part. Still that does not negate all the good that came before.

            If you like this story also check out: Avengers: Operation Galactic Storm a 19-part epic (collected in two trades) wherein the Avengers get pulled into a Kree-Shi’ar war that manages to remain remarkably coherent given the number of titles involved and in which the bulk of the action is in deep space. Also Avengers Forever which is more time travel than cosmic but follows up on the Rick Jones Supreme Intelligence finale of Kree Skrull War in a far more satisfying way and also gave new relevance to the third Captain Marvel (the original’s son Legacy).

9-Guardians of the Galaxy volume 3: War of Kings – Really the entire DnA run of Guardians is worth reading as I would consider it the best ongoing series of the past 10 years. But if I had to pick just one trade to highlight this is the best one as it features the culmination of two different year long subplots: the rupturing of reality that Warlock and Star-Lord warned all the major alien races about and no one believed and Warlock being reborn into the Magus in absolute shocker of a scene that shows just how deadly that character can be. To stop the Magus the story spins off into a full on time travel epic involving the 30th century Guardians, Kang the Conqueror and the Cosmic Cube. This is as good as it gets. (Also paid off in this trade is the “I am Groot” joke in one of the funniest pages of any story on this list).

            If you like this story also check out: Guardians of the Galaxy volume 2 is the next best DnA Guardians trade as it has Quasar and Maelstrom in it, although volume 4 has Thanos and volume 1 is pretty damn good  too. Also Nova: Knowhere by DnA has the first appearance of Cosmo the telepathic Russian dog and the Guardians headquarters which is crazy fun. So in honor of the movie go buy them all, you won’t regret it.

8 – Secret Wars – There are times I consider Secret Wars my favorite crossover ever but I was not sure whether to even count it as a cosmic story. On the cosmic front it takes place on alien world, Galactus is in it and it is the first appearance of the Beyonder but at its core this is a story about Dr. Doom, Magneto and the earth’s greatest heroes engaging in big old fight scenes more than it is about a cosmic threat. Still there is no more fun comic story ever published than this one; it is the ideal primer to bring kids into the Marvel Universe. It is also deserves historical credit for being first event crossovers-- plus it gave us Spider-man’s black costume which makes it a watershed moment for Marvel’s flagship character. I would also argue Shooter’s subtle yet distinct characterizations throughout the entire cast is often overlooked because the story has so much spectacle in it.

            If you like this story check out: Never read Secret War II as its awfulness is inversely proportional to the original’s awesomeness. Beyond and Spider-man and the Secret Wars are both okay looks back at the original concept, but for an actual good story that picks up where this one leaves off go with Spider-man: Birth of Venom. Not really cosmic other than the alien costume but damn it is both excellent and awesome.

 7-Essential Silver Surfer volume 1 – In interviews Stan Lee often cites this book as his favorite thing he ever wrote. When you read it you will understand why. It collects the entire Silver Age Silver Surfer series as Surfer endures his exile on Earth. Stan Lee uses the Surfer’s outsider status to make poignant comments on human nature that remain just as relevant today as when he wrote them 50 years ago.

            If you like this story also check out: Essential Silver Surfer volume 2 – Written two decades later by the vastly under-rated Steve Englehart the Surfer’s second series sees him escape from exile and make peace with Galactus. The treasure to be found in this volume is a lost Infinity Gem story arc as the Elders of the Universe gather the gems in an attempt to assassinate Galactus and remake the universe.

 6-Avengers: Legacy of Thanos – Another recent trade we can thank the Guardians movie for as Marvel finally collects the first appearance of my favorite villain Nebula in trade. Written by the incomparable Roger Stern, Nebula proves herself every bit the tactician her grandfather is as she claims his Death Star like space ship Sanctuary II and uses it to position herself into a Skrull Civil War with a plan that would make her their empress. She ironically runs into Captain Marvel v2.0 as the first Earth hero she meets but soon her plot drags in the rest of the Avengers including Thanos’s brother Star Fox. Aside from the Skrull Civil War the trade also features cosmic threats Terminus, the Beyonder and Firelord.

            If you like this story also check out: Spider-man: Am I an Avenger? which has an even better Nebula story. The only reason I am not ranking this trade on the countdown is it is an anthology with plenty of non-cosmic stories such as Spidey’s first meeting of the Avengers vs. the Hulk (by Stan Lee), Spidey and the Avengers dealing with a Moonstone led prison break at Project Pegasus (by Stern), and a few forgettable stories with Sandman, Rage and the New Avengers. But the five part Nebula story collected here is fantastic with her both destroying and conquering the universe at different parts of it and taking on a host of the most powerful Avengers and the Stranger. It is in fact my single favorite Avengers story of all time and this trade would by very high on my desert island list.

5-The Life and Death of Captain Mar-vell. Speaking of first appearances, this would be the first appearance of Thanos and his first big epic plot with the Cosmic Cube. Also starring the Avengers, Thing, Rick Jones, Super Skrull, Controller, the first appearance of Drax and Mar-vell’s appointment as Protector of the Universe this story is everything it has ever been billed as. In addition it also collects Mar-vell’s battle with Nitro and his subsequent death by cancer on Titan.

            If you like this story also check out: Marvel Masterworks Warlock volume 2 which is Starlin’s second big Thanos story and also the first appearances of Gamora and the Magus—who is so damn evil Thanos is forced to recruit heroes to oppose the Magus’s plans because even Thanos isn’t willing to face him one on one!

4-Essential Fantastic Four volume 3 – This is here primarily because it collects “The Coming of Galactus” in which we meet Galactus and the Silver Surfer for the first time and it is as tremendously excellent as history says it is. Also included is perhaps the greatest single issue Stan Lee story of all time “This Man, This Monster” featuring the Thing in the Negative Zone. If for some reason you need more reasons to buy this it also collects the wedding of Reed and Sue, the first appearance of the Inhumans, the first appearance of the Black Panther, the first appearance of Blaastar, a multi-part Frightful Four story and the classic story wherein Doom steals the Surfer’s powers and conquers the world. Nuff said.

            If you like this story also check out: Fantastic Four Trial of Galactus which features Galactus coming to feed on Earth and being confronted by the FF, Avengers and Dr. Strange in a heck of a fight, a follow-up plot involving Doom teaming with ex-Herald Terrax and ultimately the Shi’ar putting Reed on trial for crimes against the universe.

 (3½)  Quasar: Cosmos in Collision (issues 19-25 of his solo title) is not in trade. If it was it would be ranked in this spot as it features Quasar taking on the end of the universe level threat that defined his title with a little help from Moon Dragon, Ghost Rider and the Eternals and is second only to “Cap No More” among great stories written by Mark Grunewald.

3-Annhilation – By far the best crossover of the modern era it rightfully sparked a renaissance of Marvel’s cosmic line. It is the story of what happens when Annihilus finally breaks into the positive matter universe—something that had been foreshadowed since the Silver Age. (“The Kree Skrull War” opens with Annihilus trying to break through and the Avengers and Captain Marvel are immediately like this will be the end of the world if we don’t stop this now. Ditto the earliest issues of Marvel Team-Up have Spidey and the Torch battling the Frightful Four in the Baxter Building and in the battle the Negative Zone portal opens and the Wizard immediately recognizes how awful Annihilus is and tells his teammates to just stop fighting and help the heroes close the portal). Indeed I would argue this story opens with the best prologue ever: the opening page has Death meeting Thanos at the Crunch and she tells him “something wonderful” is about to happen—when Death says something wonderful is going to happen you know sh*t is about to get real; and the exchange ends with her telling Thanos that this one is someone he could learn from. What happens next delivers on every bit of that 40 years of foreshadowing (warning spoilers ahead) as Annihilus punches through the Crunch freeing the rogue cosmic entities and killing the Beyonder. Next he hits the Xandarian home world and wipes out the entire Nova Corps in minutes with only Earth’s Nova Richard Rider surviving. Nova meets up with (Thanos foe) Drax the Destroyer and (Protector of the Universe) Quasar to take the fight to Annihilus: that ends with Annihilus killing Quasar (arguably the most powerful hero in the Marvel Universe) and donning the Quantum Bands making Annihilus exponentially more powerful. Next Annihilus decides he wants the Power Cosmic and he begins capturing, killing and dissecting former Heralds of Galactus until things get so bad Silver Surfer reenters Galactus’s service and that still doesn’t make a difference as Galactus is defeated and strapped to a star cruiser so his hunger can be used as a planet destroying Death Star like weapon! And that is just the half way point of the story! If you have not done so do yourself a favor and read this thing as it is indeed “something wonderful.”

            If you like this story also check out: While Annihilation Conquest is the supposed sequel, it is really a sequel in name only with just Nova, Star-Lord and the Kree being the only common characters in the two stories and it doesn’t have nearly the punch of the original. The best follow-up story to the plot threads here is Fantastic Four: The New Fantastic Four in which the FF learn Surfer has rejoined Galactus, Galactus is mighty unhappy with how Annihilus treated him and wants to replenish his power by eating the cosmic entity Epoch—who is in charge of appointing Protectors of the Universe and with Quasar dead doesn’t have a protector. If you want another Annihilus story the next best one is in the MTIO trade I recommended earlier but you could pick up The Greatest Villains of the Fantastic Four a 1995 anthology trade collecting stories on the FF’s top five villains. The Annihilus story therein is a two-part 80s tale drawn by John Byrne so he’s never looked better and it is yet another example of the stop Annihilus getting into our universe no matter what decades long build-up as Reed sacrifices his life to stop him. For something similar and more recent you could go with Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four volume 4 trade in which Torch sacrifices himself to stop Annihilus and you see more of the fallout of Torch’s death than in the Reed trade.

2-X-men Dark Phoenix Saga – If you are reading this column you probably don’t need me to tell you about Dark Phoenix Saga—a story of unparalleled scope and emotion. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a list of the best comics of all time in which this story was not in the top five, and it would go in my top five ever too. If you haven’t read it do so. If you don’t care for the X-men it doesn’t matter this is as good as comics get.

            If you like this story also check out: X-men Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire is a year long trek of six X-men in space by famed Captain America scribe Ed Brubaker as the X-men try to prevent long lost Summers’ brother Vulcan from destroying the Shi’ar Empire and in the process learn a little bit more about the Phoenix Force.

1-Infinity Gauntlet – For my money this is the greatest story Marvel has ever published. Jim Starlin’s writing make the stakes never feel higher than in any other crossover. The art by George Perez and Ron Lim is superb. The fight scene in issue 4 may be the greatest of all time, although damn if issue 5 doesn’t give it a run for its money. Thanos, Nebula and Captain America all get great moments to shine. This story is perfection.

             If you like this story also check out: Silver Surfer: Rebirth of Thanos shows how Thanos gets the Infinity Gauntlet and features writing and art of equal standard to the main story. Marvel also recently published Infinity Gauntlet Aftermath which shows what happens to the Infinity Gauntlet after this story and it is pretty good too.

So that’s all folks. Questions? Comments? Death threats? Leave them below.