A comic book annual is an opportunity for a creative team; particularly an artist who might not be the quickest cat in the kettle; to show their true mettle. Freed from the Dreaded Deadline Doom, artists can take the extra time needed to polish their work and achieve their best effects. For writers, they can deliver their Big Ideas in one large story, instead of "teasing it out" in medium flourishes over the course of several issues.
I will cite three obvious annuals by different artists but all written by Alan Moore, as I consider Moore to have avoided most of the pitfalls that annuals tend to get tangled-up in.
THE KILLING JOKE is not technically an annual, but why quibble? This is Brian Bolland's last artwork not done on a computer, and it's spectacular! This definitive origin of the Joker takes a character created in 1940 as a florid killer and turns him into a failed comedian who is chemically transformed into a masterly, insane murderer. Could this story have been told before 1988? I seriously doubt it!
Even suggesting what is done to Commissioner Gordon and Barbara Gordon is stomach turning; suffice to say that Joker has a very sick sense of humor. While Batman's psyche has been turned into taffy by innumerable writers, Moore decided to torture his closest allies, instead, and ushered in an extended era of turning the screws on the entire Batman Family which continues to this day.
Scott Snyder's debut story arc in Detective Comics; The Black Mirror; is a brilliant extension on this tale, but the intervening 25 years have not diminished the brutal power of the original! Jack Nicholson's Joker in the 1989 BATMAN movie owes much to this comic, and Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning turn in THE DARK KNIGHT is unimaginable without The Killing Joke. Moore and Bolland turned a villain into more crime than Gotham could possibly contain, and they did it in an annual!
Point one: The Justice League movie requires a magnificent, comprehensible villain to excite and to unsettle the audience!
Swamp Thing Annual #2 DOWN AMONG THE DEAD MEN by Moore, Steven Bissette and John Totleben in 1985 is a larger tapestry. Bissette and Totleben had been drawing Swamp Thing before Moore became the writer, but together these three became a flawless creative team on the title! In their first year, Moore routinely suggested perversities from the 7th circle of hell, Bissette dove right in and Totleben served it up piping hot, month after month!
This annual is the culmination of their first year of stories and concerns a guided tour of hell for Swamp Thing. When the fair maiden awakens at the end of the adventure, it is as triumphal a moment as when Sleeping Beauty is awoken by the kiss of a prince. How many comics ever achieve anything as achingly poetic as that?
Point two: The Justice League movie needs a terribly perilous quest and a deeply romantic spirit in equal measure to soar as it should!
As a warm-up to the extraordinary heights of 1986's WATCHMEN, Moore teamed with Dave Gibbons for the proportionally-impressive Superman Annual FOR THE MAN WHO HAS EVERYTHING in 1985.
This is the closest Moore has ever come to doing a legitimate Justice League story, and his approach is brilliant. How, exactly, do you celebrate Superman's birthday?
Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin arrive at the Fortress of Solitude and find that Superman has been paralyzed by Mongul. This leads to a fascinating revisitation of the explosion of Krypton.
Moore knows better than to actually alter existing continuity, but he nibbles at the edges of what we know about Jor-El, who changes from the Last Sane Kryptonian into an old-school Mad Scientist: it's chilling!
Moore makes Jor-El scarier than Lex Luthor and a greater threat!
Gibbons is as good a science fiction artist as we have and he is totally in his element here. One of the best Superman stories ever published!
Point three: It is unwise to make Superman very, very angry, and the Justice League movie needs to make that happen from strength, not from weakness!
So many annuals fritter away the chance to tell a thrilling story that will stand the test of time. I would argue that it takes a writer willing to alienate the True Believers and artists able to realize that vision to make Art out of annuals!
The most underrated run on any title of all time, in my view, is Lee and Ditko's Amazing Spider-Man, which ended unceremoniously with issue #38!
Which is why I end our chat by giving an honorable mention to The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 from 1964!
Steve Ditko reportedly spent a year on this wonderful book, the longest story he and Stan Lee ever told about our favorite web-slinger, and it is a snapshot of what made the Marvel Age of Comics so great! The Sinister Six! Cameos from the Fantastic Four, Hulk and Dr. Strange for no particular reason! Aunt May! Beautiful splash pages as only Ditko could do them! Stan the Man at his speechifying best!
Point four: the Justice League movie needs to be playful as well as purposeful to be great entertainment!
The next 4 years is when Warner Bros can marshall their resources to make a Justice League movie worthy of its pedigree, with more stars than there are in heaven! To move away from the comforts of the CW and to get excited way, way up there on the Silver Screen! We have the technology! We have the talent! We have the Titanomachy!
So let's stop standing around with our mouths gaping open and make the JUSTICE LEAGUE MOVIE happen!