In 2002, the Marvel cosmic line was very thin. Englehart put the Avengers into Celestial Quest as an end to his own “Celestial Madonna” storyline in late 2001, but all major series had ended by that time (Silver Surfer, the longest running, ended in 1998). It was a taste, before Jim Starlin–architect of many of the most reknowned cosmic events, and creator or developer of many characters within the cosmic realms–returned with Infinity Abyss and Marvel: The End¹, leading into Thanos (#1-12), wherein, after issue 6, his relationship with Marvel would breakdown.
Enter: Keith Giffen. Giffen, known for pencils at D.C. (especially on Legion of Super-Heroes, which he eventually came to co-plot), for Ambush Bug, for Lobo, for his work with J.M. DeMatteis on the late 80’s Justice League (and its splinter titles), and later for co-creating Jaime Reyes, the post-Kord Blue Beetle, was not actually that unusual a choice. The line wouldn’t explode suddenly–a tangential Silver Surfer story, Giffen’s own dabbling with (and reinvention of) Drax the Destroyer (in a four issue miniseries of that very name)–but once it built up just enough steam, the hammer dropped: Annihilation. Taking things outside the scattered stories that would occasionally sprinkle into the Marvel Universe, Giffen started the ball really rolling, taking his “inserted” version of Peter Quill (previously seen in largely disconnected adventures by creator Englehart and Chris Claremont, and not much seen since the 1980’s, even with the Timothy Zahn-penned series Starlord–which didn’t deal with Peter directly–in 1996, until Giffen added him to the latter half of the aforementioned Thanos series), calling in the Silver Surfer, the somewhat erstwhile Quasar, returning Thanos, Moondragon, Nova, Ronan the Accuser, and Drax into a massive event that would actually have some measure of effect in-universe, but especially outside of it. Richard Rider, aka Nova, the Human Rocket, would be even more completely “cosmic-fied” in the hands of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, who would write his Annihilation miniseries and then his continuing adventures in an actual title spawned from the event–titled, simply, Nova. A mere three issues in, and Richard and his recent compatriots would find a new threat: the Phalanx.
In the opening act(s?) of Annihilation: Conquest, a few writers are brought to bear, with a few different artists backing them up: Abnett and Lanning would set the stage with a one-shot prologue, involving many of the core characters to be seen in the series–Phyla-Vell, the new Quasar, and her lover Moondragon; Peter Quill, still resisting the title and legacy of the Starlord; Nova and Ronan, reeling from their recent and intense battles. It would identify and explain the essence of the encroaching threat sweeping in on the wake of Annihilus’s Annihilation Wave. Mike Perkins’s able hand penciled these stories and maintained the quality of art that Annihilation taught us to expect.
Much like the previous event, four issue miniseries would be used to flesh out the independent characters looking at key roles in the event: Quasar, Starlord, The Wraith (newly created!), and, in a sense, the next four issues of Nova (#4-7–Rich got all of his first three issues in before more Annihilation came. Poor Rich.). Usually referenced as the “first” of those two series, Christos N. Gage, with penciler Mike Lilly and inhumanly prolific inker Scott Hanna, told us of Phyla-Vell’s self-doubting early steps (supported by the still rather cold but appropriately affectionate when it comes to Phyla, Moondragon³) and her distantly-imbued quest of finding “the Savior”. Giffen makes his final moves in the cosmic line with the Starlord mini. While folks ravenously devour Annihilation: Conquest #6 as the first appearance of the (non-year 3000) Guardians of the Galaxy, this is probably more “accurately” that, even if the name and goal aren’t there yet. The Kree, in the aftermath of the Annihilation Wave, have tasked Peter Quill (still refusing to acknowledge his history as Starlord, though we finally find just how he caused the deaths of 350,000 people to stop the Fallen One, first herald of Galactus, and imprisoned him–and, martyr-like, himself for those deaths–in the Kyln, shedding the Starlord name and legacy for some time) with re-uniting their defensive net, but when this goes awry in the prologue, they turn to him for a “Dirty Dozen” strike force to attack the techno-organic Phalanx without the usage of major technlogy.
The team Peter is given is thus: the Shi’ar ex-Avenger Deathcry (presumably, but not definitively, related to Empress Lilandra’s sister Deathbird), the current wielder of the Uni-Power (and thus aka Captain Universe), Gabriel Vargas, ex-Micronaut Bug (who’d last been seen in Peter David’s Captain Marvel, about the brother of Phyla, Genis-Vell), Celestial Madonna Mantis, Giffen’s own co-creation Rocket Racoon (last seen a decade and a half prior, in Byrne’s metafictional The Sensational She-Hulk and Quasar), and Giffen’s recently-revived Groot (previously, he’d appeared in Tales to Astonish #13, almost fift years prior, and a Hulk Annual, thirty years prior–until Giffen revived and developed him for Nick Fury’s Howling Commandos). They are the “black ops” reconnaissance team for the Kree, set to find out what they can about the Phalanx’s attack vector. Giffen is backed by the solid linework of Timothy Green II, who gives us an interesting take on Groot that’s a bit outside his current, first, or even Giffen’s last swing at him. Rocket, too, has an interesting look: his muzzle and face in general are a single solid shape, akin to a plush. Weird, but nice. Rocket and Groot’s companionship is initiated, though fans of the film will be confused to find that, as always, Giffen writes Groot with fully intelligible dialogue–“I am Groot” as his differently inflected speech would come later in what, in retrospect, is a deeply weird retcon. Rocket, too, has no qualms about being called a raccoon (I mean, it’s in his name, right?) and even calls himself one. The interplay between the arrogant royalty (you heard me…) of Groot and the platonically smitten Rocket is fantastic, and is a bit of a loss in the time since. Then again, so is the mercilessly decimated and over-retconned Peter Quill (who, in this story, is pretty clearly established as, at the least, Claremont’s Starlord–the Master of the Sun is explicitly referenced).
I suppose no one should be surprised: this is a very good and fun series of books, that I am still depressed to see so viciously written out of everything in terms of character and history. Plus, by now, my infamous (not really–also very brief) feud with editor Andy Schmidt over the usage of Thanos was now irrelevant after the events of the issue that caused it in the first place (Annihilation #5). Actually, Mr. Schmidt, if you happen to be reading this, I’m sorry. I know I admitted then that I understood your logic, but dear lord do I wish they’d left Thanos dead. I mean, we’ll see how I feel about The Thanos Imperative, but between, uh, every writer since then (Bendis, Hickman, and Lemire especially)…what a waste. I was angry then at my favourite character dying. If I knew he’d instead be dragged through the metaphorical mud of shitty writing…
¹While I think it was Brevoort who said that it’s not canon, it is the connective tissue between what came before and what was to follow, including the stories here. Sorry, Tom.²
²(I’m not sorry at all.)
³Interestingly, Gage seems to have Moondragon confused with Mantis. He accidentally (?) retcons her into being raised by the Priests of Pama (exiled Kree pacifists who raised Mantis) rather than Titan’s monks of Shao-Lorn, to the point of even re-telling the story of her name and training with the wrong group. Oopsies. Mind you, this seems to have been (rightfully…ignored). Still, it’s a nice touch that she’s brought Phyla to them (whatever “them” this might be) for help in realizing her newfound powers as the new Quasar.