We all have a general, vague idea of what an annual in superhero comics is. It is bigger than a regular issue. It features a story or creators you wouldn't see in the ongoing series. It contains extra material, like interviews, profiles, or reprints, to scratch the itch of a hardcore fan. The truth about the term "annual" in superhero comics though is that there is no consistent definition. Even the very meaning of the term annual, once per year, has been stretched as some series provide them without even that sort of definition-based regularity. The only consistency surrounding the concept of these special sorts of issues is that they have been around in some form or another just about as long as superhero comics have been published.
This week Marvel Comics published two very impressive new annuals: Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 and Captain America Annual #1. These aren't the first issues to bear those exact titles, something that is obvious given the longevity of both characters at the publisher. However, with relaunches for both series in 2018, it has provided a fresh starting point for readers and creators alike, ones that are now being used to present their associated annuals in a brand new package. Even with the term taking on an amorphous meaning, this pair presents an argument for what annuals can be in the modern era of comics. They are impressive individual packages that showcase how a break from the monthly grind of storytelling can be used for an impressive effect, one that both Marvel and its distinguished competition should consider as they move into future years.
The History of Annuals
It is worth looking backwards before examining the present though, and Marvel Comics, specifically the earliest years of Marvel Comics provide some excellent framing for the notion of annual issues. During Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's legendary run on Fantastic Four, the magazine that saved Marvel Comics and reinvented superhero comics, they began using their annual issues to tell oversized stories of important moments in the family's adventures. These issues were initially used to tell the story of Reed and Sue's marriage or the birth of their first child Franklin. While the creative team wasn't opposed to breaking big stories into multiple issues, like the classic "Galactus Saga," they also saw the value of containing definitive moments in definitive issues.
As the series progressed though, these issues became a place to reprint classic tales from Fantastic Four, even as Kirby and Lee continued to guide the series. Multiple annuals were reprints of stories that were less than a decade old before Kirby left the series for good. The impact of the early Fantastic Four annuals continued to be felt though as later creators, raised on the early adventures of the Fantastic Four, brought their own big ideas for oversized single issues to future series. Even spinoffs like Marvel Two-in-One would see the introduction of stirring tales where The Thing battled The Champion and showed why he was one character who could never quit. Today the annual issue has devolved into something that isn't quite as reliable in terms of timing or talent though.
The first thing to note about the new annuals from last week is how they provide mortar for the history of Marvel Comics. Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 touched upon the Venom renaissance by reframing the symbiote's narrative from the late 1980s following its discovery in Secret Wars. It showed so many events familiar to Spider-Man fans, from the character's flirtations with Black Cat to his increasing exhaustion and mistakes, from the perspective of his sentient costume. While much of what was on display wouldn't be considered a new story, it provides new depth to existing stories and gives fans of both Spider-Man and Venom a better understanding of a relationship that continues to define both characters.
Captain America Annual #1 took its jump to the past much more literally by shifting the setting from the modern day to World War II, focusing on a small rescue mission by Cap and Bucky sometime between D-Day and their eventual defeat at the hands of Baron Zemo. While the scope of the adventure is small, it fits perfectly into the existing canon surrounding these popular heroes and expands upon their mythology in a notable fashion. Whether creators choose to add new stories to the past or reframe popular past stories, annuals provide a perfect place to add new context and better understanding to the sweeping narratives that compose superhero comics. With monthly issues pushing the story ever forward, an annual offers a valuable chance to reflect.
Even more important than providing an opportunity to strengthen the existing web of superhero stories, is the chance that annuals provide for new voices. Amazing Spider-Man and Captain America are two of the most prominent titles in Marvel Comics' current lineup and have creators assigned to them that the publisher considers to be their A-list. An annual issue creates an opportunity for a rising star to encounter the dedicated fanbase associated with these series, developing overlap that can expand the audience for talented new voices and grow the publisher's concept of who should be part of their top tier of creators.
This is specifically directed at writers who can dominate a title for years at a time with no need for a break or to have other voices jump in on an issue or arc due to scheduling. In last week's annuals writers Tini Howard and Saladin Ahmed had an opportunity to make it clear why they are names to watch out for. Neither of them would be considered unknowns, but Howard would not normally be able to write for the popular ongoing Captain America series as Ta-Nehisi Coates provides his own perspective on the iconic character. She proved just how valuable this variation was in a story that showcased Captain America at his best, offering love and support for the downtrodden in an incredibly tense adventure. In a world with limited resources, annuals help to provide more chances for talent to break into bigger series.
Annuals are ultimately best defined by being what the monthly issues are not, and that's what makes this recent round of Marvel annuals stand out. They showcase stories and talent that could not be made part of the publisher's regular output. In the face of stories that demand reader's constant attention and which reinforce the idea of an A-list, these annuals offered great one-and-done stories that elevated new voices. If superhero publishers can continue to produce new annuals that serve this purpose, then it's clear that annuals are still an important part of superhero comics in 2018.