The list of best comic book space operas continues from Part 1 and enters the 21st century, with a pair of crossovers from Marvel and DC, some indie excellence from Image Comics, and the great Black Mask Studios among the top 5:
5. Annihilation (Marvel; 2006-2007)
Even though it was released at the same time as Marvel’s famous Civil War event, cosmic counterpart Annihilation arguably holds up better a decade later. Annihilation is a beautiful hybrid of military science-fiction and space opera, following a rag-tag band of Marvel cosmic characters as they battle Annihilus and his Annihilation Wave, a group of bug-like creatures who are being manipulated by Thanos and want to suck the whole universe into the Negative Zone. The stakes are immediately raised when they wipe out the entire Nova Corps, except for Richard Rider. Annihilation is responsible for bringing now-popular characters like Star-Lord, Drax the Destroyer, Nova, and Gamora into the limelight. Without this comic, there would probably be no Guardians of the Galaxy film, even if its tone is way grimmer, and Peter Quill is more crazy than sexy and charming in it.
Instead of crossing over into every Marvel comic under the sun, this event consisted of a prologue one-shot, five four-issue miniseries, and a six-issue core miniseries simply called Annihilation, written by Keith Giffen and drawn by Andrea DiVito. The minis remind me of George R.R. Martin using different narrators in A Song of Ice and Fire, and they provide different perspectives on the war against the Annihilation Wave. They are also more character-driven, whereas Annihilation is the big blockbuster finale, even if it doesn’t end in complete and utter triumph while leaving some threads open for Annihilation: Conquest and the excellent Nova solo comic, which immediately comments on how petty the heroes’ in-fighting in Civil War is in light of the events of its sister crossover.
Annihilation: Nova is the Hero’s Journey with a sense of humor, as future Guardians of the Galaxy writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, along with superstar artist Kev Walker, show how Richard Rider goes from runt of the Nova Corps litter to the leader of the fight against the Annihilation Wave. Annihilation: Super Skrull and Annihilation: Ronan cast the Marvel villains Kl’rt the Super Skrull and Ronan the Accuser as noble figures, with Kl’rt making a heroic sacrifice. Ronan’s story has an added element of existential crisis from writer Simon Furman, as he must find purpose in a world where the Kree have stripped his Accuser rank and are ruled by bureaucrats who don’t care how many Kree warriors die. Annihilation: Silver Surfer is the most cosmic comic of the bunch, with Silver Surfer and former Heralds of Galactus banding together to stop the nefarious figures that are using Annihilus and his carnivorous insect crew like puppets on strings.
Andrea DiVito and Scott Kolins are the standouts on Annihilation and Annihilation Prologue, as far as the art is concerned. They can lay down a double-page spread showing the destruction of planets and cosmic beings, while also highlighting the human moments in the middle of the action, like the rage in Drax’s face every time Thanos is mentioned.
Annihilation and its follow-up, Annihilation Conquest (who can resist Ultron in space?), are memorable comics because they are good science fiction stories that happen to take place in the Marvel Universe. They add extra depths to characters that are one-note villains, like Super Skrull and Ronan, and tell a story about the cost of war and unlikely allies banding together in the face of disaster. If you pick up one Marvel “event comic” from the 2000s, make it Annihilation.
4. Sinestro Corps War (DC; 2007-2008)
In the DC Universe, the Green Lantern Corps are space cops who have overcome fear and can use their power rings to create projections of anything in their imagination to protect the universe. On the other side of the coin is the Sinestro Corps, who use yellow power rings to bring order to the universe through fear. The two sides comes to blows in the “Sinestro Corps War” storyline, told in the pages of Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern and Dave Gibbons’ and Peter Tomasi’s Green Lantern Corps, with art from Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, Patrick Gleason, Angel Unzueta, and countless fill-in pencilers, inkers, and colorists that bring these almost Biblical – and quite emotional – space battles to life. There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but “Sinestro Corps War” succeeds because Johns take these godlike characters’ feelings and insecurities seriously, while also lifting Sinestro into the pantheon of archvillains. It was a coming out party for the Green Lantern franchise and may have partially been responsible for the greenlighting of the 2011 film.
The idea for “Sinestro Corps War” came from an obscure Green Lantern story by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons of Watchmen fame, one that is very rooted in DC Comics continuity. However, Johns leans on a tremendous team of artists, including Reis and Van Sciver, to depict past events, like Hal Jordan becoming evil in the 1990s, all the way through to the present conflict. His almost religious reverence for the DC stories of the past pairs nicely with Gibbons’ cheeky character-driven writing, which makes even the most D-list members of the Green Lantern Corps compelling, like the combat medic Soranik Natu, who patrols Sinestro’s home planet, or the planet-sized Green Lantern, Mogo. A throwaway joke in a Moore and Gibbons comic becomes the heart and soul of Johns, Reis, Gibbons, and Gleason’s creation.
Fear is a powerful motivation for most human beings’ actions, and Geoff Johns leans on this terrifying, yet true reality to orchestrate the DC Universe’s finest soap opera since the days of Jack Kirby. He uses the emotional component of the Green Lanterns and Sinestro Corps’ powers, not just for cool action scenes, but also to explore the motivations and feelings of those who wield them, including the walking mediocrity, Hal Jordan. “Sinestro Corps War” established Ivan Reis (currently on Justice League of America) and Patrick Gleason (currently drawing Superman) as their go-to artist for blockbuster stories, while still keeping in mind the human aspects of these big-time characters, and not just doing double-page spreads. Best of all, it set the stage for Blackest Night, the most epic non-Grant-Morrison-written DC comic that didn’t make this list (because it is more of a superhero/horror book than space opera).
3. Saga (Image; 2012 to present)
When I started thinking about comics I was going to write about for Space Opera Month, Saga immediately popped up into my head. This Eisner, Harvey, and Hugo Award-winning science fiction comic by Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man) and Fiona Staples (Archie) is about a couple named Alana and Marko, who are from the perpetually-warring planet and moon of Landfall and Wreath. They fall in love, have a beautiful daughter named Hazel, and then go on the run from a variety of pursuers, including morally-ambiguous bounty hunter The Will, Mario’s ex-fiance Gwendolyn, a spider-legged bounty hunter named The Stalk, an aristocrat with a TV for a head called Prince Robot IV, and a cat named Lying Cat (who is literally a lie detector). One of the best parts of Saga is seeing Staples’ creative – and occasionally disturbing – design for the different beings that Alana and Marko run into, including a hipster teenage ghost who is their babysitter, an adorable and loyal (fan favorite) seal creature named Ghus, anthropomorphic fishnet stockings who live on the pleasure planet Sextillion, and countless others.
Even though it happens on a variety of strange planets against the backdrop of complicated political intrigue, Vaughan and Staples make Saga about the difficulty of starting a family, even though there are plenty of fire fights, magical duels, and timely escapes. Alana and Marko fight a lot of the time, and recently in the comics they have been separated. The series also doesn’t keep Hazel (who is the comic’s narrator) a baby forever. At the time of this writing, she has grown into a rambunctious little girl, who is slowly becoming aware of what the outside world thinks of her parents’ actions.
Hazel’s coming of age and Alana and Marko’s relationship struggles keep Saga grounded, while Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples indulge in some seriously cool worldbuilding – like a romance novel that’s a secret revolutionary treatise, or how Alana used to be a kind of soap opera actress – while fleshing out an ever-expanding supporting cast. At its core, however, Saga is about how creating and nurturing life is better than taking one, even if it seems like the senseless violence will never cease… (Warning: Saga kills off characters on a Whedonesque level)
2.Starlight (Image; 2014)
He’s most famous for his violent, entertaining, and more than a little sophomoric Kick-Ass and Kingsman series, as well as a revisionist take on Marvel heroes in Ultimates and Civil War, but Starlight showcases a more mature side of comics’ Scottish enfant-terrible, Mark Millar. It also has some gorgeous Moebius-meets-Norman-Rockwell (but with a sense of humor) art from Goran Parlov (Fury MAX). The comic is about an elderly man named Duke McQueen, who saved the planet Tantalus and its queen from the tyrannical Typhon when he was a young man. After his victory, he left Tantalus to be with his beloved wife, Joanne, who passes away from cancer in Starlight #1. Duke is ridiculed for the outlandish accounts of his adventures, and is a lonely old dude who is almost forgotten. However, in Starlight he is called to save Tantalus from a new tyrant – with the help of his number one fan Krish Moor, who looks like he belongs in the Speed Racer universe, but has a sad backstory similar to Batman.
What makes Starlight so endearing is the character of Duke McQueen. Sure, he ends up being a double blaster-wielding, double-fisted hero in the end, but the early issues set him up as a sad old man who misses his wife. Goran Parlov is fantastic at drawing vehicles and sci-fi weaponry, but he also nails the sad moments, like Duke sitting alone and smoking under the stars, or a place setting for a family dinner that no one bothered to show up to. These emotional sequences make the action in the back half of the series that much exhilarating, as Duke inspires the Tantalans to rise up against their new tyrant, Kingfisher (who looks like Darth Vader and has the appetite for luxury of Jabba the Hutt).
Starlight is the old New Testament quote “No prophet is accepted in his hometown,” but on an intergalactic level. Sure, Duke saved a whole planet, but he’s treated as a crank by his family and neighbors. Duke’s journey from retired hero to returning hero is thrilling, and he’s a selfless, noble man with wry one-liners to boot. The miniseries is worth reading for Goran Parlov’s command of the comics medium ,as he excels at everything from double-page spreads of tyrannical mining planets, to furious car chases, and even an old man watching the stars that he once saved. It’s a pity that this was his last interior art, as of early 2017.
1. Space Riders (Black Mask; 2015, 2017)
With its Jack-Kirby-meets-a-Grimes-album cover (or a really well-done punk rock zine), art from artist Alexis Zirritt, and anything goes/picaresque-style plotting from writer Fabian Rangel, Space Riders is a fucking awesome four-issue space opera miniseries from Black Mask Studios, one of comics’ most innovative publishers. Space Riders follows the adventures of Capitan Peligro (Spanish for “Captain Danger”), his first mate Mono (a religiously devout baboon), and Yara, a badass, yet level-headed female android (who saves the crew’s bacon multiple times). Their ship is the Santa Muerte, a literal flying skull that has been discontinued by the EISF, the Space Riders’ employer. There is an overarching plot featuring gods, a tomb, and the fate of the universe, but Space Riders is really a comeback story, as Capitan Peligro must prove himself to his superiors and regain his rank and ride. He must deal with the legacy of his father, who was also a Space Rider, as well as also try to get revenge against his rival, Hammerhead.
It only took a few pages of Space Riders #1 to make me fall in love with Alexis Zirritt’s art and colors. Every page that he draws deserves to either be a poster or an album cover. With his intense reds and wobbly, seemingly LSD-laced pencils, Zirritt makes faster-than-light travel seem like the scariest shit ever for a human being. Jumping to hyperspace isn’t some mash-a-button-and-escape deal for Capitan Peligro, but a dark night of the soul, as he goes a little mad and ends up wrecking the Santa Muerte. This comic is packed to the gills with generally cool stuff, like a double-page splash of a space whale getting harassed by Viking-themed space biker gangs, along with your usual space opera fare, including killer robots and tractor beams. There are layers to this coolness, however, like the space whale being a riff on Moby Dick (but with Peligro wanting to protect this majestic – and possibly divine – creature instead of killing it like that windbag Captain Ahab). It’s a nice environmental parable that isn’t schmaltzy thanks to the presence of Tarantino-esque one-liners, chest mounted machine guns and – did I mention the Viking motorcycle gang?
Space Riders is a wild ride of a comic book, and it’s one of the books on this list that I feel comfortable recommending even to people who aren’t into science fiction, but still like cool action and characters with problems. Fabian Rangel and Alexis Zirritt don’t waste time on oodles of exposition, instead just throwing readers into intense situations and never letting off the gas. Capitan Peligro gets a solid character arc as he evolves from an utter fuck-up, and refuses promotion so he can be free to fly through space with his crew, beating bad guys and figuring out more about the mysterious dying gods in the current series, Space Riders: Galaxy of Brutality.