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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.