What do you fear? What do they fear? Annihilation: Scourge paints a bleak portrait of the Marvel universe. Twelve years ago, Annihilus staged an invasion from the Negative Zone so ravaging, so devastating that it crippled the universe itself for years to come. Safeguards were put into place to ensure such ruin would never again befall the universe; proactive strikeforces were founded and the Nova Corps was rebuilt from the ground up to provide support. What happens when Annihilus himself begs for aid, though? What could possibly shake such a primal force of carnage to his core? In this week’s Alpha issue, we see the opening salvos of a war straight from the nightmares of every cosmic hero (and villain) the Marvel universe has to offer.
It’s important to understand the tableau of the cosmos as the Scourge War begins. Death and destruction have run rampant. The Annihilation War and the subsequent Phalanx Conquest, two of the largest-scale threats to the universe ever to take hold, are long past. While devastating, they were handled summarily and did not leave a lasting effect on the universe itself. The same can not be said for the conflict between the Shi’Ar and the Inhuman-led Kree, which shattered reality, tearing a gash into its fabric and leading to the eldritch horror of the Cancerverse invasion. Again, it should be noted that these events were long ago settled, but their resulting effects are still reverberating throughout the cosmos and its heroes today. The greatest heroes of the universe died on that day, and though they each returned in their own way, the trauma still haunts them at every turn. Years passed and the denizens of the cosmos rebuilt, restructured, and tried to move on, but after the death of Thanos and Gamora’s rampage, we once again see the universe in peril. Empires are on the brink of war, long-forgotten cosmic deities roam once more, and the Nova Corps have once again been wiped out, casualties in the maniacal schemes of the Universal Church of Truth.
The context for all of this storytelling is vital because Annihilation: Scourge is a story of trauma. At its core, the next entry into the cosmic narrative is about the individual heroes of a crumbling universe and their state of mind as they are compelled to hold it together. Cosmic guardian Rich Rider is forced to band with Annihilus, source of all his grief and slaughterer of his corps. The tension in Rich’s life is more than palpable, it’s pitiable. When last we saw Rich, he was toiling to stave off threats on the universe’s every front, and Rich has gotten tired. Becoming cynical, Rich’s personality is illustrative of the large tone of the book. His “Oh, what now?” attitude permeates every page, showcasing a world that just can’t take much more before it snaps. This attitude and cynicism does manifest a bit strangely, however. While the “just so tired” aspect of Rich’s recent characterization works well for the character, who has long been relatable for readers struggling with mental illness, Rosenberg’s characterization of Rich comes off as brusque and mean. In his opening scene, he is belligerently drunk, arguing with Cosmo and the bartender. In the face of coming tragedy, he only decides to help when given no choice. While there is something to be said about falling into depressive episodes, especially while drunk, this attitude feels oddly out of character for Rich, whose driving thesis has always been to be the hero on both good days and bad. That being said, Rosenberg does write Rich well within the constraints of this characterization, even if I personally disagree with it. Additionally, there is an upcoming Nova one-shot later in Annihilation: Scourge, so the personality shift is ultimately not too concerning. This is part of a larger character arc for Rich, and it would be unreasonable to judge the character arc based on one issue.
Aside from small character gripes, there are nothing but good things to say about this Alpha issue. The story it introduces is compelling, both for longtime fans of Marvel’s cosmic outings and for anyone picking the issue off the stands. The storyline serves to awe with its incredible visual style and epic brutality, but it also serves to push the cosmic narrative forward. This is its greatest success, the balancing act between expository character work and vicious scenes of war ravaging across the Negative Zone. The Negative Zone itself is even bolstered by this character work, becoming a character of its own. Never in recent memory has there been such a concerted effort to showcase the Negative Zone and its geography, and the success of this worldbuilding is astounding. Hopping between Negative Zone planets on a whim, the story shows more of this underappreciated corner of the universe than ever before, cementing the power struggle between Lord Annihilus and King Blastaar with a sense of real-world consequence that just hasn’t been present before. Speaking of King Blastaar, opening the issue to see him referred to as such on the first page is a real treat for any fan of Abnett and Lanning’s work. These little bits make the narrative feel cohesive, nodding to previous work while creating a distinctively new story. Annihilus and Blastaar are given new life, imposing their respective wills on the Negative Zone with new, distinct voices. Annihilus’ cadence does admittedly seem a bit too intelligent, but at its core it still hits the same horrific beats of a cosmic tyrant bent on assimilating the universe into his image.
The atmosphere created by this horrific scenario, driven by tyrannical characters, is haunting. Most of the issue takes place in the Negative Zone, so artists Jaunan Ramírez and Cian Tormey, as well as colorist Federico Blee, have been given almost free reign to explore a seldom-tapped setting. Their success in this is honestly the driving force of the issue. Where the story slows to savor the brutality of the war raging on, Ramírez, Tormey, and Blee press forward, dictating the story beats in beautiful splash pages and reveling in the kinetic majesty of cosmic forces clashing. In what is frankly the coolest moment of the issue, Annihilus orders the deployment of a posi-bomb, wreaking havoc on the negative space of his dominion. As if this idea was not cool enough, the artists truly amaze with their rendition of the carnage. Any praise for this splash would not give the artists their due credit. The framing of Annihilus’ fleet flying from disaster, as total oblivion reaches out to follow renders the reader dumbstruck. The coloring shines, adding layer upon layer upon layer to the tableau, mesmerizing the reader to truly convey the horror of the scorched earth policy Annihilus has resorted to. This care extends throughout the issue, as fan-favorite characters are returned to the spotlight. From start to finish, the art team create an atmosphere of death and despair, perfectly mirroring the harrowing journey we find our heroes on.
Annihilation: Scourge is caught in an awkward situation regarding its place in the overall narrative. Debuting at the end of Donny Cates’ cosmic saga, it acts as an epilogue to the past few years of cosmic storytelling, capping the story off as new Guardians of the Galaxy writer Al Ewing prepares to take the helm and lead the Guardians into their next chapter. Seemingly wedged in between two fan-favorite cosmic writers, while simultaneously trying to tell its own story about grief and trauma, can Annihilation: Scourge stick the landing? There are a lot of expectations going into the event, and they have easily been exceeded. This is absolutely the cosmic storytelling Marvel fans have come to love, but the creators have convincingly crafted their own story, not to be overshadowed by the past or the future. The events of Annihilation: Scourge will assuredly go down in history as an outstanding entry into an already incredible narrative.