When I was growing up, in the ’70s and ’80s, the superhero comic annual was generally a big, stand-alone story, often by the same creative team as the monthly comic, or maybe the same writer and an even better artist who didn’t draw monthly books much anymore (Michael Golden, Jim Starlin). Guys like John Byrne and Frank Miller did quite a few annuals when they were coming up, and some after they were big names.
The late ’80s and ’90s brought themed annuals, where a story would wind its way across the annuals of several titles, something like Atlantis Attacks for Marvel, or DC’s Legends of the Dead Earth. You could get some really nice work, or you could get guys who really weren’t good enough for the major leagues and might disappear soon after. As popular characters received spinoff series, and done-in-one stories became one-shots or graphic novels, the annual fell out of fashion.
For whatever reason, it looks like Marvel and DC are trying some annuals again, though how widespread an effort remains to be seen.
Amazing Spider-Man Annual #39
Writer: Brian Reed
Artist: Lee Garbett
Marvel Comics $4.99 USD
This one falls into the “not the regular team” category. Neither Reed nor Garbett are newcomers, but neither has a regular monthly gig. Reed takes this opportunity to spin off a story from something Dan Slott wrote in the regular book months ago, where Peter Parker’s Horizon Labs coworker creates a time machine that almost leads to the destruction of New York. Here, in one moment of that story, this same invention leads to Peter being removed from time itself. This leads to flashbacks to his childhood and high school days, where he’s still somehow aware of his adult self, even as he goes through the current, altered timeline, seeing how in many ways, things have turned out better without him in the world. Mary Jane is a big star. Norman Osborn, not having Spider-Man to haunt his thoughts, has cured cancer. And Uncle Ben is still alive and living in the same house in Forest Hills, Queens.
Meanwhile, the Avengers are tracking down the source of these chronal disturbances, mainly just to get some costumed heroes into the book, since Peter never has a reason to become Spider-Man. Garbett delivers pleasant but thoroughly average work, though in his defense, there isn’t anything exciting to draw here. The scenes between adult Peter and a proud Uncle Ben are sweet, and probably worth the price for some, but Reed’s story is sorely lacking in suspense and complications. Without any real effort, Peter just kind of walks through these episodes, which seems to gradually return things back to normal, even though it’s his presence that caused the problem in the first place.
Batman (vol. 2) Annual #1
Writer: Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV
Art: Jason Fabok
DC Comics $4.99 USD
Scott Snyder, regular Batman scribe, co-writes this one with his former Sarah Lawrence student, James Tynion IV, who will also be co-writing some backups for the regular book. Unfortunately, while that’s a nice human interest story, the actual results in this annual are rather drab and, like most annuals, quite unnecessary.
Bearing the “Night of the Owls” banner on the top, and yes, a couple owls on the generic cover for dubious reasons, this extra-long tale actually has little to do with the ongoing Owls story. That would be fine, as I’m already getting tired of it, but Snyder and Tynion sure don’t have a double-length story worth telling here. The connection to “Night of the Owls” is that Mr. Freeze created the serum that makes Owl assassins able to be revived after they seem to die. We meet Freeze as he makes his escape from Arkham. Fortunately, despite what one would think are stringent hiring protocols and training on safe patient handling, we get a couple cruel, stupid guards who make this escape easy. Freeze wants to get his beloved, frozen wife Nora back, so that he may yet cure her.
Jason Fabok, whose work is new to me, does a fine if undistinguished job. As with Garbett’s work above, nothing really stands out in terms of style or storytelling choices. It’s very typical DC fodder.
Nightwing and Robin try to stop Freeze, while we get several page-burning flashbacks to Victor Fries’ childhood and then his time working in a Wayne Industries lab. Snyder/Tynion engineer things so that Bruce Wayne comes off rather heartless in his shutting down Fries’ attempts to cure Nora, therefore justifying Fries’ craving for vengeance. And it should surprise no one who has read two comics written by Snyder that the childhood flashback features a parent saying or doing something that has a monumental impact on the child’s future. Often, it’s just an anecdote, something a father said once that ties perfectly into the events of today, but in this case it’s young Victor, who always loved Winter, seeing his dear mother fall through the ice on the frozen lake. Look, canon may have saddled the writers with the corny coincidence that Mr. Freeze’s real last name is Fries, but that doesn’t mean you have to come up with a pivotal moment that involves ice.
Like an icicle falling from the rain gutter to the driveway below, Snyder and Tynion demolish the only pathos-evoking element of Mr. Freeze: his deep love for, and relentless efforts to cure, his wife, Nora. Turns out, Nora was just an frozen research project—like a fetal pig in a jar—from the ’40s that Fries wrote his thesis on. He never met her, she’s old enough to be his grandmother, and so his love is false and insane. That’s colder than a gravedigger’s ass, as my father once said, which led to my becoming a sexton. Somehow this results in a story both forgettable and yet risible.