By Gavin Rehfeldt. Annihilator is the latest work from a new era in Grant Morrison’s career as one of the most prolific and marketable names in comics. After working as a major architect and writer at DC Comics for decades, Morrison has moved on to creator owned projects starting with last year’s Image mini-series Happy!. Happy! found hope in sorrow, whereas Annihilator finds despair at the center of creation (which could be interpreted as literally everything). Those who create have to constantly face the abyss of nothingness, creating something from nothing, and/or failure and abandonment. With dry humor, haunting atmosphere, and a dose of scifi wonderment, Morrison delivers one of the finest first issues I have read.
The events of Annihilator follow two characters, both living in a blur of fiction and reality. We are introduced to Ray Spass (pronounced “space”), a once successful film auteur who has been given a tent pole film franchise opportunity, also titled Annihilator, as a means to salvage his flagging career. He wants to tell the ultimate haunted house story, but set in outer space. As such, he has moved into a house with a history familiar with darkness and depravity. His screenplay centers on character Max Nomax (a great Morrisonian name slyly representing duality) who is presented from within Spass’s imagination, but also as if Nomax lives a life already in motion. The men look peculiarly similar, but have drastically different styles. They are also both poised on symbolic and literal black holes.
Black holes are a recurring symbol throughout the issue, underlining its intent: this book is about the despair that sits at the center of creation. For Nomax, it’s finding the cure to death. For Spass, it’s the process of communicating a vision (plus a little death cure couldn’t hurt). From the sinkhole outside Spass’s Hollywood mansion, to the period at the end of a sentence, and finally the black holes of outer space, black holes represent finality. Is it any wonder then that another black hole is spotted (pun intended) in an MRI of Spass’s brain? In attempting a creative renewal, Spass faces his most difficult challenge in writing this film; it is dependent upon the act of expunging the interior of one’s mind – an idea that appears to function on multiple levels of meaning. The reader is presented with a potent set up filled with resonant concerns and demonstrative imagery. Superb.
Frazier Irving’s work deserves significant credit for establishing the world of Annihilator. The seamy underbelly of Hollywood, the city of illusions and stories, is apparent throughout, but most effectively during a Halloween “Black Mass” orgy that swirls behind Spass as he fights for artistic inspiration. Fanged and festooned prostitutes prancing in the nude seems a rather obvious metaphor for the dangers of Hollywood excess and demoralization, but it is perfectly executed. Similarly provocative imagery and frustrating solitude is mirrored in Max Nomax’s satellite prison where scientists and nihilist monks all went mad in the shadow of the blackest star, “The Great Annihilator”. The renderings of outer space are hypnotic, and Irving’s color palette is eye popping, with washes of sun drenched color, frosty blues, and languid shadows dominating the notably expansive layouts. There are few conventional panel grids, preferring a fluid and continuous movement of images often overlaying and melding together.
Recently, I have discussed with friends and colleagues how in the competitive comics market writers need to make their statement upfront. Readership often doesn’t have the patience, or dollars, to wait until the fifth issue to gain a writer’s intent. Like Annihilator demonstrates, a first issue should land at least one definitive moment – perhaps explore a resonant motif – which makes the mission statement clear. Slow burns can be satisfying, with careful reveals and a focus on character development, but every first issue should say something. After experiencing some ambivalent first issues from some of the top independent publishers (the chief example in my mind being Warren Ellis’s Trees – not boring, but what am I supposed to take away from it?), I was thrilled to see Morrison uphold this approach in Annihilator #1. This successful single issue entertains, provides intrigue, and makes a statement while forecasting future conflicts. It does a great job in selling a clear but imaginative premise with convincing stakes and a deadline – the most literal deadline, in fact.
Ray Spass is another flawed and complicated anti-hero faced with a problem without an easy solution, but his adventure is an intriguingly physical and internal one set against the landscape of a city of dreams that runs on compromise and false hope. Morrison and Irving have crafted a beautiful first issue for Legendary that can and should be read multiple times. There is much to chew on – and be dazzled by – with interconnected themes that highlight each other effectively.
Written by Grant Morrison.
Art by Frazer Irving.
10 out of 10