Embracing an Annual Tradition

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Embracing an Annual Tradition

I love Annuals. When I was a kid, there was nothing better than plucking a Annual off the spinner rack, knowing there was an extra-length lead story awaiting within, and likely a bunch of back-up features. A cutaway diagram of Titans Tower or Avengers Mansion? I’m there.

One of my favorite issues ever is “Tales of the Teen Titans Annual” #4, the concluding chapter to the biggest Titans story up to that point, and probably the biggest Titans story ever: the fate of the traitor Terra. I still keep an extra copy of that issue in a drawer in my desk. It was the payoff to a story that had been building for months. It was special.

It used to be common for important things to happen in Annuals, like Reed and Sue’s wedding in “Fantastic Four Annual” #3. Annuals mattered, and often were executed by the same creative team as the regular series. Of course, both of those things became less true as the years wore on. Annuals became extras, a box on the publishing schedule to be checked off, often in a cursory way, rather than something special. Still, because of what they meant to me when I was introduced to comics, getting a chance to write an Annual remains meaningful to me.

Early in my career, during the direct-market craze in the early ’90s, Annuals were very much a part of the publishing plan, though as more of an afterthought than “special.” It was a time of crazy sales, as the speculator rush (and cover gimmicks) boosted most titles from the Big Two into the hundred of thousands. Everything was selling, so pages needed to be filled. That was good news for an aspiring creator trying to make comics his career. Within little more than a year of my first work in comics, I was able to leave my newspaper job and pursue comics full time.

In 1993, I wrote three of Marvel’s Annuals: “Thor” and “Silver Surfer,” which were the monthly titles I was writing at the time, and “Namor the Sub-Mariner.” Marvel had started doing “theme” Annuals a few years prior, tying together Annuals via story or concept. That year, the theme was introducing new characters. The bloodlines Annuals did the same that year, though there was also an overarching storyline as well. Marvel’s Annuals went a step further, in that they were polybagged with a trading card of the new characters. Collect all the Annuals and you would collect the full set of cards, 27 in all.

In addition to the lead features in the Annuals, I campaigned to write all the backup stories as well. I wanted each Annual to feel like a complete package, rather than a hodgepodge. Producing that many pages meant starting early, especially in those days when lead time to get a book to press was much greater than it is today. Annuals traditionally came out in the summer, so I actually started writing them toward the end of the previous calendar year.

“Namor the Sub-Mariner Annual” #3: I had written the previous year’s Annual because John Byrne, who was writing and drawing the monthly title, wasn’t interested in doing it. I ended up with the assignment on #3 for the same reason. I floated the idea of getting the entirety of Atlanta-based Gaijin Studios to draw the Annual, with the story segmented into chapters. The Gaijin roster at the time included Adam Hughes, Cully Hamner, Brian Stelfreeze, Dave Johnson, Joe Phillips, Jason Pearson and Karl Story. I’d met and become friendly with all the Gaijiners at (I think) the Comic-Con International in San Diego, and we were looking for a way to work together on one project.

I pitched the notion of dividing the Annual story in chapters, so each artist had a specific segment matched to their strengths. The story introduced the, uh, cleverly-named Assassin, a robotic killer. It was mostly an excuse to combine some aspects that were in Gaijin’s wheelhouse: a Japanese setting, grandiose tech, and a lovely lady. The editor said fine, and the Gaijin guys all agreed to squeeze their pages into their schedules. I wrote the script at the end of ’92… and then it sat, unread, on the editor’s desk for weeks. And then it sat for a few more weeks. The artists sat and waited.

I had trouble even getting hold of the editor to find out what was going on. Mostly I heard from his assistant, who would always tell me the editor wasn’t available to talk. As the days ticked away, the schedule windows for the artists to draw their segments started to close.

It turned out that what was really going on was the editor was leaving staff to go freelance. So there was never much editorial impetus to get the Annual rolling. It was always going to be somebody else’s project to guide to the finish line, somebody else’s problem to deal with. The project moved to a different editorial office, but too much time had been wasted. A few of the artists had to bow out from their full complement of pages, leading to a scramble to fill pages.

Some sequences were completed by the original artists, as intended: Joe Phillips, Jason Pearson, Dave Johnson, Cully Hamner and their various inkers. Other sequences had to be finished from layouts, like Sandu Florea finishing layouts by Adam Hughes and Brian Stelfreeze. Still other sequences were completed by pinch-hit artists who were friends of Gaijin, or just guys who happened to be walking through the halls at Marvel: Scott Koblish, Chris Renkewitz, Joel Thomas.

Ultimately, the inheriting editorial office hardy knew what it had on hand, other than a pile of pages from a pile of artists. The editor and his assistant weren’t even sure if the Annual was complete, or how the whole thing went together. So I offered to come into the Marvel offices and help sort out the whole issue, making sure everything was in order, proofed, and ready to go to press. I hopped the train into Manhattan on Monday morning, arrived at the office bright and early… and the editor never came into work. So I ended up sitting at his desk, doing his job for the day.

Everything got printed in order, and the Annual turned out… okay. It wasn’t quite what we’d envisioned, obviously. There are some great pages, and some that… well, aren’t. It’s still a job that I look back on as one that got away.

Fun fact: the Brian Stelfreeze cover for the Annual features kanji down the robot’s kimono. According to Brian, it says something like, “I’m not wearing any underwear.”

“Thor Annual” #18: I’ve written previously about being generally unhappy with how my “Thor” run turned out. This is the one issue that I’m really pleased with. I was able to tell a more mythology-based story, set in Asgard, with an artist, Tom Grindberg, who really suited to the material.

The character introduced was another villain, The Flame, who was half elf/half fire demon. His name was Hrinmeer, which I thought had a nice ring to it. Which it did, of course, because I’d unwittingly cribbed the name from Martian Manhunter’s Martian fire god, H’ronmeer. Oops. This was before Wikipedia, obviously. By the time I realized my error, the book was already in print.

The story gave me a chance to play in Asgard, which was always my favorite setting for Thor. Tom’s art had incorporated a Mike Mignola influence during this period, to go along with his Frank Frazetta/Neal Adams roots, and I felt like the style meshed with the subject matter. Tom’s Thor was chunky and powerful, just the way I like him.

I also got to write a backup story (drawn by Grindberg as well) featuring one of my favorite characters, Beta Ray Bill, and a backup drawn by Tom Raney with a Loki appearance. If I had stayed on “Thor,” my intention was to bring back The Flame as a pawn of Loki. Alas, none of it came to pass, as I decided to depart the monthly title when we couldn’t settle upon the second year’s direction. It was the right decision at the time, but I still regret the lost opportunity to put my stamp on one of my two or three favorite characters.

A page of original art from this Annual is framed on my office wall, a four-panel sequence of Thor calling down a drenching rain storm. There must have been half a dozen people up at the Marvel offices who wanted to buy the page from Tom, but he gave it me.

“Silver Surfer Annual” #6: I’d been a fan of Marvel’s Captain Marvel, or Mar-Vell, if you prefer, ever since I plucked one of his comics off a deli spinner rack as a kid. I was even more of a fan after reading “The Death of Captain Marvel,” Jim Starlin’s landmark sendoff of the character. Early on in my “Silver Surfer” run, I wanted to scratch my Mar-Vell itch, so I wrote an issue that was essentially a ghost story with Mar-Vell and the Surfer. The idea of somehow bringing back Mar-Vell was never even considered; he was one of the few “dead is dead” characters in comics.

When the order came down that new characters would be created for the Annuals, I immediately wanted to come up with a new Captain Marvel, one who would honor the legacy of the original. I got Starlin’s blessing to create Genis, Mar-Vell’s son, who would follow in his father’s footsteps, then worked out a character design with “Surfer” artist Ron Lim, who was slated to draw the Annual. The new costume was greatly inspired by Mar-Vell’s classic blue-and-red costume, and Ron came up with a bevy of variations. I recently found those costume designs in my files, and I’ll feature them, along with some long-lost Kyle Rayner designs, in a future column.

We decided on a costume with a jacket because… well, it was the ’90s, right? Our editor, Craig Anderson, took the character and design to Editor-in-Chief Tom DeFalco, to get permission for us to call him Captain Marvel. The answer was no, because there was already another Captain Marvel in the Marvel Universe, Monica Rambeau.

We pleaded our case, saying that if anyone deserved to be called Captain Marvel is was the son who was carrying on his legacy. The answer was still a definitive no… so I suggested we call him Legacy. It stuck.

Ron Lim was pulled away from the Annual for other projects — there were times it felt like Ron was drawing half the Marvel line in the mid-’90s — so Joe Phillips came aboard to drawn Legacy’s introduction. Joe’s pages in both the “Namor” and “Surfer” Annuals are gorgeous.

A few years later, the Captain Marvel designation was pulled from Monica Rambeau and handed to Genis anyway. She went on to be called Photon, and then other codenames. Genis got his own series for a while, the only Annual character to do so, I believe. I never got the opportunity to write Genis as Captain Marvel, which I have to admit annoyed me for quite a few years. But that’s a tale for another time.

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it’s pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes “John Carter: Warlord of Mars” for Dynamite, “Skylanders” for IDW, “The Protectors” for Athlitacomics on Madefire, and Sunday-style strips “The Mucker” and “Korak” for Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website,