There are a few comics out right now that make me run into a comic shop and rip them off the display as soon as they come out, then read them as quickly as possible, and Annihilator, by Grant Morrison and Frazer Irving is one of those comics. Rich Johnston and I did tandem pieces on the first issue of the comic, and talking with fellow comics readers I’ve learned that this six issue comic hasn’t made as big a blast-zone in the comics consciousness as I expected, to my surprise. Maybe I’m wrong, and as you’re reading this you’re thinking, “What? Everyone I know is reading this”. I sincerely hope that’s the case. I know from personal experience that some comic shops get only a couple copies, or none at all, and I’ve had some difficulty getting a hold of it from time to time as it has approached its fourth issue.
Maybe it’s the concurrent release of the Multiversity comics that has Morrison fans distracted, leaving this highly original, amusing, and thought-provoking comic neglected and those who are aware of it may be waiting for a trade collection. But for me, it’s redefined my experience of an installment-based comic story where I have the same, “What happens next??” feeling that some of the best high budget TV shows are generating for me right now. The reasons for that may be a little unusual, though, and I’m willing to concede that my tastes in comics are possibly a little eccentric.
[*Mild spoilers for Annihilator #1-4 below!]
For me, the central spectacle of a histrionic, unpredictable, loathsome and yet so watchable anti-hero is a big part of the appeal of the series. Max Nomax, the subject of a screenplay by possibly washed up Hollywood writer Ray Spass, arrives on the scene more or less “in the flesh”, blue blood and all (and I’m sure that joke was intentional given his pretensions), and things are never the same again. There’s some seriously dark stuff heralding his arrival, like a neo black mass held by drug-addled Spass, a sinkhole in the garden that produces a heavy sense of hell-pit dread, and a psychedelic animalist orgy. And yet all of those things in the first issue are handled with a kind of ironic perspective on Spass’ own pretensions and well—sadness. He’s a sad, flimsy guy who has hoped for great things and is seriously going off the rails and we know that. Bizarrely, it feels like one of the best and most “real” things that could happen to him is to encounter an unlikely alien being who has been trapped on a space station orbiting a supermassive black hole known as The Annihilator in cosmic rebellion against super intelligence Vada and to be required to write Nomax’s life story down to save his own life, and possibly the planets. Even as I write this, the plot sounds so excessive and portentious that it reads like a surreal, overly-indulgent comedy of sorts. On some levels, Annihilator is all of those things.
As with all comics, it is the artwork that can take the most outlandish and ambitious story and render it real and impacting for readers. Frazer Irving, a master of his craft, creates such a lush world of colors and surfaces steeped in warm, strange tones of light and cool blue space-vistas that you feel as if each person and setting is incredibly solid, almost hewn out of marble or sandstone. I find myself thinking of the monumental Egyptian statues we continue to find buried in the sands of lost cities on a regular basis when I see the poses of Spass, Nomax, and now the arrival of Spass’ estranged former girlfriend Luna. That incredible weight of the physical is counterbalanced wonderfully with their facial expressions, so human, often silly, always extreme and even cartoony. We are witnessing here an undercurrent of characterization that tells us very firmly that we are supposed to laugh at these people, or at least crack a wry smile. Without that, the over-the-top performances of Nomax and Spass just wouldn’t work.
But to get back to Nomax and why I have wanted to read his story so consistently as the issues have been released: he was created by Morrison to evoke our anti-hero tradition in every octave of the scale, and that includes the self-romanticising pose. Monologues about his own greatness, speeches about what he is about to do, praising it, before he even does it, demands on reality to meet his own certainties of greatness. The works. In current superhero and even sci-fi comics, we often expect that of supervillains. That is, more or less, where supervillains come from. They are uber-men who become too full of themselves, who demand praise they haven’t received, or want revenge on their detractors. They are often sad, too, in the way Ray Spass, too, is sad. We see their flaws, often glaring, in contrast to their own blindness to them, and we pity the flawed person who has too much power and are essentially cracking up under that pressure of mixed, incompatible elements.
Issue #4 of Annihilator, titled “None More Dark” just sets the tone for personality excess for Nomax. The thing is, on some level, and perhaps more than we know, he is what he claims to be. As far as we know, he is the supreme creative rebel of his world and experience. He has been punished by extreme exclusion with the preserved body/possible corpse of a woman he has in some way wronged, Olympia in her egg. And yet, somehow, he escapes his lifetime of exile, only to be rendered a little more ridiculous than usual by walking the streets (or tearing through the streets in a convertible he demands should fly in complement to his own greatness) of Los Angeles and appearing in the human context of hubris run wild. The ridiculousness is very important. And that’s what pretentious, precious anti-heroes are good for. We need to see them in action so that we can recognize the same traits in ourselves, critique and weigh them. Because those traits are not inherently “bad”. They may be judged so by society or authority structures, they may express themselves in ways that harm others at their extreme points, and we may render our own judgment about whether they are to be avoided. Those traits are dangerous, that much is certain, but good intentions and all the socially accepted behavior in the world can be, too, under the wrong circumstances.
There are two scenes in Annihilator #4 that will bring home the positive attributes, or at least sympathetic attributes of self-regard surrounding Max Nomax. The first is an elaborate, beautifully rendered sequence where Nomax is creating what he perceives to be a universe, lacing stars and trajectories, full-on cosmic elements, into place. His speeches declare his creative high, his sense of power, and we are even allured by the beauty of what he is creating. And then—things fall apart for him. For anyone who creates things in whatever medium, this scene might well be a gut-punch of identification. Nomax collapses under crippling doubt and failure, the first real break-down in his confidence that we see in the series. And his emotional reaction is so extreme, child-like, and overwhelming that its literally incapacitating for him. We recognize there the highs and lows of attempting great things, and the height of the fall one can feel. Vada even tells him that he will never be what he could be, essentially. The tables turn and we see Vada as the crushing voice of oppression to all things creative and we start to care about Nomax. The anti-hero can’t overcome himself or the odds against him. We’re right there with him in that realization, and his sniffling, ridiculous heap-like pose is like plumbing the depths of human despair in the face of the “void”.
The other scene that rings true of human experience about being pretentious and precious occurs when Nomax encounters Luna, a Romanian model who has also encountered failure in her acting career, having taken a shot at a personal dream and instead found herself in the dark world of being arm-candy and a cast-off by the movers and shakers of Hollywood. We meet her seeming to try to find her own peace and balance after traumatizing experiences in her youth, in a yoga pose with “Namaste” written on her doormat. When she tells her story to Nomax, he’s noticeably taken with her, and not just because she resembles Olympia, but because he recognizes something of himself in her like the potential for great things, the potential for immense failure, and finding the strength to go on after big setbacks. When she relates the way in which she was treated by Ray Spass at the young age of 18, Nomax is shocked. Now, maybe he’s just using his reactions to haze Spass, which is, truthfully, one of his major sources of amusement in the series. But if he really does “mean” the things he says to Luna and Spass about Spass’ inhuman behavior, then he’s showing rather sterling personality traits: loyalty and respect. Even in his messed up system of self-worship he seems to possess some foundational principles about how to treat others. As a supremely creative person (at least in his own mind), he seems to respect that quality in others. He’s a sucker for the underdog, perhaps, and his own ideology will urge him to ally with those who are seeking unlikely success.
These two scenes make you care about this pretentious, precious bastard, this self-declared center of all things glorious about the cult of personality. And as the reader critiques his behavior, the balance shifts and Nomax becomes someone who you want to win. You might even want some of those drippingly self-praising speeches as he does so, because you’ve accepted who he is by this point. The same way judging these own qualities in yourself might lead you to self-acceptance of your own faults and the ways they can accomplish unlikely things. But we’re really only going to consider these things closely, and anew without the baggage of generalized rejection of these qualities, if we see them tuned up, concentrated, rendered ridiculous and entertaining, in the personality of an anti-hero who draws attention to his own role in the way Nomax does. Whatever mistakes he may make in the last two issues of the comic, or whatever revelations may be forthcoming that may make him more despicable than we expected, from here on out, we’ll be wondering if we would do the same and what that means about the dark sides of our personalities.