The Evolution of Marvel Cosmic, Part 7: Two New Cosmic Horror Bruisers, 1968

The Evolution of Marvel Cosmic, Part 7: Two New Cosmic Horror Bruisers, 1968

[Jack Kirby cover art; Vince Colletta inking Thor #155; Joe Sinnott inking Fantastic Four Annual #6]

If you missed our 1968 entry on The Silver Surfer and Captain Marvel solo series, check it out!

As a Marvel Cosmic menace and a classic instance of pulp cosmic-horror, Annihilus is fairly unique. Occasionally approaching the threat level of Thanos, the dire bug lord can be just as existentially terrifying to sentients everywhere, especially in 2006’s Annihilation, but he’s as much cosmically powerful warlord as insect horror trope—both spaces that, of course, the much more well-known Brood occupy successfully. Still, while the Brood’s depictions have often played both aspects to the hilt, Annihilus’ storytellers generally haven’t emphasized the horror of his being, whether that’s the alienness of his biology or his motivations (the clearest exceptions here being Keith Giffen, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning in the Annihilation event and Jonathan Hickman in his Fantastic Four run 12 years ago). The guy’s got a lot of untapped potential when it comes to skin-crawling thrills and chills.

Mangog is perhaps more horrifying for appearing so bizarre, chimeric almost, and mindlessly brutal—and properly mammoth. He’s also simply much more cosmic horror than particularly cosmic, beyond, that is, his origin; here, too, there’s still untapped potential in Mangog’s status as a cosmic player. Since his debut, the fullest realization of this alien monstrosity’s brutal terror and the most impressive battle against him are to be found in the epic story arc that is the beginning of the end to Jason Aaron’s spectacular Thor run (see The Mighty Thor #700-705, recently followed up on, rather underwhelmingly, in the current Thor title from Donny Cates). Of course, there’s very little prior competition even his original story is deeply flawed in its resolution, as was so common in the Silver Age, with a lame and quite literal deus ex machina (However, it’s been 20 years since I read Dan Jurgens’ 2000 Mangog/Thanos* epic in Thor vol 2 #20-25, which probably still holds up for some quick fun, but it’s not going to have the pathos or intensity of Aaron, Russell Dauterman and Matthew Wilson; *it’s really just a Thanos clone, though, so…).

The clear challenge with nemeses like these is that rolling them out onstage means the stakes must be high, apocalyptically dire; otherwise, they should be offstage or they lose the edge to their terror—though why not have a one-off, fun and cruelty-free version of these two brutes in something like a Squirrel Girl Beats Up Marvel Cosmic or Gwenpool Gone Space Merc?

I. Mangog (Thor #154-157, 7-10.1968)

The evil troll Ulik has recently fallen into a chasm, at the bottom of which he finds himself in Thor #154, happening upon the so-called “Odin-cave” (I don’t think this is referenced as such ever again), as he’s been hoping—because as he tells himself, and the readers, “[therein] lies buried the last remaining member of a mysterious alien race—a race so powerful that it almost succeeded in destroying Asgard itself!”

Of course, the wicked troll frees the beast; although he gets more than he bargains for, though the bestial remnant of an entire sentient species annihilated in the distant past by Odin lets him go, carrying him up back to Asgard. To be fair, though, this alien race did invade the sacred realm eons ago, so surely, Odin was justified in, um, killing every single last one of them? Stan and Jack don’t make too much ado about it except by way of implication, perhaps, that Odin’s dark secret (genocide, which is not the word used here) has been unburied, and it’s grown into a twisted monster.

Actually, Mangog’s debut story resolves, very quickly and conveniently, with a wrinkle that, subsequently, has always been downplayed: At the very end of issue #157, Odin awakes and dissolves the “Odinspell,” that is Mangog himself (themselves?)—“’Twas all illusion!”—which, as he reveals on a mystic monitor, results in all those billions of aliens resurrecting on their home planet. So, they were never really killed, merely incorporated into a singularly vengeance-dominated hivemind that the All-Father then imprisoned deep underground in his “Odincave.” Apparently, since he/it/they broke out and wreaked havoc on Asgard, their executioner and jailer these past many millennia has decided they’ve done their penance.

This is some very advanced logic; the gods move in mysterious ways.

But how exactly did this monster form out of all the hatred and vengefulness of a dead/captive civilization? The Odinspell! We’ve never had any sort of flashback sequence from Mangog or Odin’s perspective here; we don’t have even the hint of what the story was. It would be cool if the alien race had sorcerers who created Mangog during their civilization’s Odindestruction, sort of a mirror image of Beta Ray Bill’s creation (and who knows, maybe Walt Simonson had the Mangog origin partly in mind, along with Weapon X, when brewing up his most memorable Marvel creation). The lack of greater clarity might be for the best since at this point, any such backstory would likely kill what’s evocative in this mysterious legend of, well, genocide (or mass kidnapping?) and vengeance.

The resolution to Mangog’s debut rampage isn’t just a convenient deus ex machina for the format; it also gets him off the hook for genocide way too easily: Oh, look, these vague, far-off people never really died; they were just on pause for a bit—and we’re good now.

In Jason Aaron’s long Thor run, Mangog appears at the climax of the narrative thread exploring whether gods should continue to exist; from the start of the Aaron era, the new villain that looms large, past, present and future, is Gorr the God Butcher, a mortal who believes all deities should die (even as he ironically becomes one himself in the process of killing so many, however much he initially remains in self-denial). We could spend quite a while debating whether Aaron was wholly successful in this thematic exploration (though in the context of Marvel history and cosmology, I think the creative team created an absolute classic always worth revisiting), but what matters for now, is that Mangog’s debut doesn’t deal with any of this—it’s just a crazy monster story (or super-compressed mini-epic full of spectacular, Norse fantasy battle imagery from Kirby).

[Mangog does almost manage to unsheathe the dread Odinsword!]

Mangog will always come back, of course. He’s a magical being who occasionally reappears out of nowhere at just the right time to beat on the Thunder God when he’s down. Yet why the hell does he keep returning if the race of which he’s supposedly composed was resurrected/freed/awakened/re-individuated in 1968? Hey, Mangog’s look is rad. Don’t sweat the details.

Mangog’s name was probably inspired by the biblical Magog people—whom in the Book of Ezekiel are simply associated with ungodly evil. Obviously, most of us reading these funnybooks nowadays are going to have a difficult time understanding how an entire society can be condemned as wicked, or even wiped out, based on heinous atrocities committed by some of its members. Even when there’s been a sizable portion of a nation mobilized for invading other countries and committing war crimes, that’s no justification for genocide in return; that’s much more why civilization needs a way to hold to account those who are responsible for orchestrating such wars of conquest and/or annihilation and those on the ground who act with particular brutality. Obviously, we are far from achieving anything like this in our own world, but…

Surely, old Daddy Wotan should be setting a better example? Well, yeah, that’s why he returns them to life at the end, easy-peasy, case closed. Don’t sweat the details. And anyway, wrathful gods in Western culture have always been unexceptional; modern audiences are enthralled with nuance, implication and story logic to a degree that would be incomprehensible to mid-20th-century mainstream America. Stan and Jack probably didn’t think about Mangog beyond: Let’s make a scary monster for Thor.

Again, though, there’s much of interest with the why and wherefore of Mangog: His origin introduces concepts like alien magic/(techno?)sorcery and undying cosmic vengeance against god-tier threats. If Marvel doesn’t want to get into the thorniness of revisiting this despicable chapter of Odin’s youth, surely there are other aliens, whether in Marvel’s present or in its deep, multiversal past, with whom this material could be explored in new ways. Of course, some sort of Mangog-analogue for an actual human culture that’s extinct or endangered would be very dicey territory, so using make-believe lifeforms would make more sense—but even then, modern readers might want more subtlety from such a story than what such a bizarre monstrosity would ever be capable of; Mangog’s style is pure mindless vengeance, that’s all.

Still, I wonder if the vengeful revenant of the asparagus people killed by the Dark Phoenix is still on its way to Earth-616… (don’t get your hopes up!)

II. Annihilus (Fantastic Four Annual #6, 11.1968)

It’s not clear if Annihilus believes himself the supreme power of just the Negative Zone universe or everything beyond it too, as until his encounter with the FF, it seems like he wouldn’t have been aware of anything else. But this is significantly our first fleeting look at what sentient life is like in the Zone; it’s quite Hobbesian, and oddly, even though, there are many different inhabited planets, that’s pretty much how they’re all depicted from here on. This vast venue Marvel has left largely underdeveloped and underexplored (The next real attempt to do something with it, beyond a few uninspiring romps here and there, is John Byrne’s Negative Zone epic, FF #251-256, particularly the cinematic picaresque issue #252).

Now that Sue’s pregnant, the cosmic radiation that the rest of the Fab Four continues to be fine with (because of course Ben really does love being the Thing) is likely to kill her and the baby! But Reed has discovered the solution: He doesn’t know what it is, exactly, but the answer is inside the Negative Zone! Don’t you just love a save-the-pregnancy motive for your Sunday morning adventure?

This is during Reed’s most arsehole phase of his comics career, possibly due to stress over Sue’s pregnancy.

As for Annihilus, he doesn’t get the greatest showing, first deploying a number of weird and goofy minions, each a different variety of eccentricity—but surely the sort of whackiness that must have been an inspiration to a young Alan Davis (designer of not wholly dissimilar goofball minion/mercenary/chaos agent characters that are nevertheless unique to his imagination). And then it’s not any power of Annihilus’ own but rather his “cosmic control rod” that’s his last line of defense (and apparently his source of immortality)—and which turns out to be the very thing Reed needs to save Sue and their unborn child—how? Surely, ours is not to reason why; just enjoy the whacky art!

But not unlike the FF’s surprisingly callous disregard for the massive loss of life in Him/Warlock’s destruction of the Enclave’s Beehive (FF #), here Reed watches Annihilus execute his own minions with the control rod, which is Reed’s sole focus, with no comment about the execution he’s just witnessed. Ultimately, it proves surprisingly easy for the FF to win through compromise: Instead of outright stealing this super-science artifact that they really don’t have any claim to (these invaders just lucked out that Annihilus’ shtick is clearly evil; slightly alter the presentation and they wouldn’t come off as heroes so easily) Reed promises to save the target of their robbery as he and the blunder boys of the Fab Four escape as well from the Zone’s antimatter/matter death-trap in exchange for a vial of energy siphoned from Annihilus’ bauble.

Annihilus will significantly power up later in his publication career, and even though most readers might not be aware, he’s long been Thanos’ equal – held in check by the fact that he’s typically barred from busting out of the Zone; it’s just too difficult, a good story limitation for this universal threat. Also, later writers will declare his prolonged exposure to that cosmic control doohickey infused his being with cosmic powers in a manner not unlike the FF’s briefer foray through that fateful cosmic ray storm.

The boys return to the hospital, specifically a couch, where they can be all sweaty and angsty—while Sue does the real work off-panel. Until the end, when the rest of the Fab Four is called in (Crystal was already there though, of course) for the swaddled cameo-debut of wee (still unnamed) Frankie Richards (Franklin is named in 1970’s FF #94, which also debuts Agatha Harkness, who starts her comics career as Franklin’s creepy nanny).

So, when does Annihilus actually get an impressive showing that goes beyond his insectoid space-metal Phantom of the Opera look? Check back in 1983 for the John Byrne-era picaresque through the Zone in FF #251-256; that’s the next time we’ll be looking at the character in this Evolution of Marvel Cosmic series, if we make it that far! 😉

Annihilus doesn’t go really big until 2006’s Annihilation event, what the long arc of Marvel Cosmic history fitfully bends toward—sweeping up in its vast swarms of destruction all the players, which even Jim Starlin was never interested in stuffing into his Thanos/Warlock epics. Starting with Annihilus’ Annihilation Wave, Keith Giffen and Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning took almost all these elements and reignited a subgenre whose fires had long gone out by that point. And suddenly, it turned into Marvel’s most rewarding niche during the late naughties.

Thank you, Annihilation Wave!

NEXT: Kirby’s Thor vs. Ego vs. Galactus cosmic blowout; plus, the debuts of the OG Guardians of the Galaxy, Elder of the Universe Grandmaster and Squadron Sinister!

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