I've been thinking a lot about cosmic comics lately. If I told you why, I'd be guilty of using this column for self-promotion, so I won't (but if any of you hazard a guess it might have something to do with my new freelance writing assignment, go to the head of the class). 'Cosmic', of course, means 'having to do with the cosmos or universe', and Marvel's published a glorious array of cosmic stories. Let me clarify what I mean by 'cosmic'. A cosmic story is one that deals with forces and phenomena on a grand scale and serves to stimulate a reader's all-important sense of wonder. Although the cosmos encompasses a whole lot of outer space, just setting a story in space doesn't ncessarily make the story cosmic. One could have a very prosaic, mind-unexpanding story set in space. On the other hand, one could have a story about the wonders of the universe and never leave your backyard. If a story makes you think about the mysteries of existence, chances are, it's cosmic.
What I'd like to do for my own benefit as well as yours is muse on what I believe to be Marvel's all-time top cosmic stories in its checkered 28-year history. Okay? Let's go.
My candidate for Marvel's first cosmic story appeared in FANTASTIC FOUR#13, was by the team supreme, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and introduced us to the man on the moon himself, the enigmatic Watcher. This wasn't Marvel's first alien story by any means-- FF#2 featured a Skrull invasion, but despite their shape changing powers, the Skrulls were pretty ordinary fellows by extraterrestrial standards-- their forms, their language, their motives all pretty much made sense. The Watcher, on the other hand, had more power than any single being Marvel had so far introduced (with the possible exception of Odin) and his behavior, just standing around watching the world going by, was pretty alien in that pre-couch potato era. I'd say the Watcher was the first alien in comics history who truly acted alien, not just superhuman. That's cosmic, expanding our ideas of what life forms out there might be like.
Marvel's next major cosmic story, also by Lee and Kirby, appeared in FANTASTIC FOUR#24. In "The Infant Terrible," an alien comes to earth exhibiting extraordinary power and the FF's Reed Richards finally deduces from the alien's behavior that it is but an immature member of its species and risks summoning what he hopes are the alien's parents to come get it. What made this tale so cosmic since, thanks to the Watcher, we already knew aliens could be much more powerful than ourselves? Well, the Infant Terrible showed us that even an infant alien may have more power than the most capable of Earth's super-people. The mind boggles thinking of what a society of such vastly powerful creatures must be like. How did they toilet train their young anyway?!? All right, I'll admit their familial relationships turned out to be pretty Earth-normal, but still "The Infant Terrible" forced one to think, as all good cosmic stories do.
Next up we have STRANGE TALES#138 (by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko) where Earth's master of the mystic arts, Dr. Strange, met for the first time the awesome Eternity, the personification of all the life force in our universe. This was Marvel's first 'abstract entity', a being who embodied a concept, and what a concept this was! Other abstract entities would follow-=- Death, Eon, Chaos, Order, Veritas, and so on-- but Eternity introduced us to the idea of impersonal forces of nature as sentient creatures.
And then there's the most famous cosmic tale of all, the Galactus 'Trilogy' in FF#47 thru #50. Galactus was a being who not only had power on the Watcher-Infant Terrible 'near-omnipotent' level, but the major activity he was involved in-- eating the energy of worlds for survival-- forced us to look beyond our notions of morality for the first time. 'Lesser' creatures die to provide human beings with food-- what if there was a being to whom human beings are lesser creatures? Would he be justified then in using us for food? The story seemed to suggest that no, Galactus is not justified in using us for food, but it did give a person food for thought (ahem) about human eating habits. Galactus was portrayed as being beyond human notions of good and evil: simply a universal force.
While we're on the subject of Galactus, I'd have to put the Big G's origin tale (originally told by Lee and Kirby in Thor#162, 168 and 169, but enhanced and expanded a bit in its reprinting in SUPER-VILLAIN CLASSICS#1), on my cosmic master list, too. In the original version, Galactus was revealed to be the sole survivor of a galactic 'plague' that had ravaged the known galaxy. In the reprinted version (which both John Byrne and I had a hand in), the plague was revealed to be the actual collapsing of the universe itself. Apparently in the Marvel Universe there is sufficient 'missing mass' so that gravity eventually causes the expanding universe to re-contract. The being who became Galactus then was no mere plague survivor but the sole survivor of the death of the entire universe previous to the current one. That makes the Big G older than anybody in the M.U., including Eternity himself! As if this mind-twisting concept weren't enough, the story also posed an ethical dilemma as sticky as the issue of Galactus' appetite. A Watcher observes the nascent Galactus while he is still acclimating himself to conditions in the new universe and becomes aware that once he emerges from incubation his hunger will be so great it will take worlds to satiate him. The Watcher's dilemma: to obey his race's code of non-interference or kill Galactus before he can be unleashed upon our universe. The Watcher, of course, lets him go. Would we have done the same, we can all ask ourselves. Galactus cryptically justifies his predatory existence here, stating that it is 'his destiny to give back to the universe more than he has taken.' but what this means may not be revealed in our measly lifetimes.
Know what, folks? I had ten all-time great cosmic stories I wanted to talk about, and in my typically long-winded way I've only gotten to five of them as the end of the page looms ominously. Tell you what, I'll hit the rest of them next month in this space. In the meantime, stay cosmic!
Now where was I? Oh yes, naming my top ten all-time favorite cosmic comic book Marvel's ever done. Last installment I listed my first five choices, leaving the last five for this time 'round. I won't reiterate my first five choices-- thus, depriving MARVEL AGE MAGAZINE of countless back issue sales-- but I will repeat my working definition of a cosmic story. A cosmic story is a story that gets you to think about the wonders of the universe and man's place in it. All set? Let's cruise.
My sixth favorite cosmic tale would have to be the Kree-Skrull War multi-parter told in Avengers#89-97, courtesy of Roy Thomas, Neal Adams, and Sal and John Buscema. It was not only epic in scope, the longest continued story Marvel had then let spin, it also involved the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, the Inhumans, Captain Mar-Vell, the Supreme Intelligence, the Super-Skrull, huge armadas, and a cast of millions. The premise was that two of the Marvel Universe's most frequently seen alien races were involved in a constant war, the latest skirmish in which would be fought in the vicinity of Earth. The central idea of the story was the human race's place in the scheme of life in the universe, and despite our relative technological primitiveness, Earth managed to squeak by virtually unscathed. The ideological revelation contained in the story was that the human race had greater genetic potential than either the Kree or Skrull races. Despite earlier references to Earth as a backwater, unimportant world, both alien races were forced to admit that the human race, left unchecked, would surpass their achievements someday. After all, any world capable of spawning so many super-powered individuals had to be reckoned with. Earthman Rick Jones is stimulated at the epic's climax into releasing his full mental potential, and that force is enough to stop the war. Whereas my personal view of mankind is not quite as exalted, I had to admit that the tale succeeded in making one think about humanity's potential and destiny.
My seventh favorite cosmic tale was Jim Starlin's first Thanos epic in CAPTAIN MARVEL#25-33. Thanos was a singularly powerful, singularly mad demi-god who not only worshipped Death (here personified as a woman), but sought to destory the universe in order to profess his love for her. Now there was a motivation you don't see every day. The Kree and the Skrulls' quest for power was easy enough to understand by our human minds, since humanity had known its own empire-building urges. But love of death and destruction for its own sake on this scale was way out there on the relatability spectrum. Human beings usually act in the interests of self-preservation and procreation-- imagining a being so dedicated to self-annihilation was definitely brainfood. Not exactly a lightweight to begin with, Thanos still needed the Cosmic Cube to help him attain his goals, and if he hadn't let the Cube's power to transform him into a disembodied nigh-omnipotent being make him careless, he might just have succeeded. Thanos has etched his place in Marvel's all-time annals of villainy by his audacious nihilistic schemes and his truly alien motivation.
My eigth choice is Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner's Sise-Neg saga in MARVEL PRESENTS#13-14, wherein Dr. Strange trails an ambitious time traveler from the future named Sise-Neg back through time to creation itself, to prevent him from absorbing all the mystical energy in the universe. Along the way Sise keeps getting more and more powerful. And when Sise gets back to the moment of the Big Bang, his plan is to recreate the universe in his own image. And apparently he has the power to do that. But what does he then decide? That the way things were (or will be) are as perfect as they can be, and he will only 'recreate' everything as it ever was. Dr. Strange is then propelled back to his present and is forced to ponder did he indeed witness a second creation of the unvierse, or was the creation he witnessed the first creation, the way it always was. Was Sise-Neg actually the creator of the universe as we know it? A cosmic question, to be sure.
My ninth favorite cosmic tale is the introduction of the Celestials in the early issues of THE ETERNALS by Jack Kirby. The Celestials are not only forty times taller than Galactus, there are also a whole bunch of 'em, and like Galactus they too destroy worlds-- not out of hunger, but out of an alien sense of worthiness. What makes them so special is not just their size, not just their mission, not just their cryptic mammer, but also their role in the development of (presumably) all the humanoid races in the Marvel Univeres. They are apparently the guardians organic life in the universe and what they say goes truly goes. Although (or maybe because) we see virtually no overt displays of power, the Celestials seem unbelieveably powerful, perhaps constituting a class of beings whose power transcends that of the Elders, the Watchers, Galactus, and other analogously powerful entities. Although Kirby never got the chance to resolve his storyline of the Celestials' fifty year judgment of humanity (it was resolved later by lesser hands, mine among them), the mysterious Celestials nevertheless succeed in expanding our conception of the possibilities inherant in alien lifeforms.
And for my last choice in the cosmic sweepstakes, hmmm...it's a touch call. One of Stan and Jack's early Ragnarok stories? They were about the end of the world, after all. No, try as I might I didn't believe Earth would die just because extradimensional Asgard was. How about Jim Shooter and George Perez's Korvac/Michael saga? It had all the right elements for a cosmic epic: a man who like Sise-Neg wished to become the most powerful person in the universe, then shape the universe in his own image. I particuarly liked the scene where Korvac, hiding out as a wealthy suburbanite, mentally went about the cosmos, making certain none of the other great cosmic powers was aware of him, his great power, and his master-plan. Unfortunately, the Avengers and friends stop him so we never get a chance to see exactly how Korvac would have recreated the universe (surely, he wouldn't have just let it be like Sise-Neg did, would he?), so the serial falls just a tad short of great cosmicity. So whaty then will be my tenth?
Tell you what, I'll let each of you help me decide what should go there. Write and tell me your favorite cosmic epic in care of 'Mark's Remarks' and I'll print your answers in a future column. Who says this isn't the Marvel Age of Cosmic Cop-Outs? Not me, that's for sure.
-- Mark Gruenwald