While it can be argued that the original Secret Wars was Marvel's first cosmic crossover, after all the Beyonder is a pretty cosmic threat, the threat still was mostly directed just at Earth. Something like the "Dark Phoenix Saga" had a loftier scale, with the Phoenix a threat so great it called down cosmic empires. So for me, the era of the cosmic crossover didn't start until 1991, when Jim Starlin made his grand entrance to the crossover stage with The Infinity Gauntlet.
I've written about The Inifinity Gauntlet multiple times in multiple ways, but long story short: Thanos gets the six Infinity Gems (yes, gems. It might be stones in Super Hero Squad and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it's still gems in the comics). Thanos becomes a god. Thanos kills half the universe. Heroes fight Thanos. He kills heroes. Cosmic beings fight Thanos. Thanos captures or destroys them. Nebula steals the Gauntlet. Thanos joins with heroes to stop Nebula. Adam Warlock winds up with Gauntlet. Thus endeth the lesson.
It's a well regarded, well remembered crossover from first of the cosmic masterminds, Jim Starlin, with art by George Perez (who you might remember from another crossover, Crisis on Infinite Earths) and Ron Lim.. While Thanos had been appearing in Silver Surfer for over a year, this is what brought him to the main stage of the Marvel Universe, and took a villain whose appearances could be counted on both hand and both feet of two people suddenly became a villain who was central to the Marvel Universe. It also resurrected Adam Warlock, Pip the Troll, and Gamora, three other Starlin characters (Warlock is technically a Lee/Kirby character, but Starlin's Warlock is about as similar to Lee/Kirby's as he is to Reed Richards) who would be part of the center of the cosmic Marvel Universe for the next few years, and the other two parts of Starlin's Infinity trilogy.
Starlin and Lim return in 1992, which saw the debut of The Infinity War. Following up on plot threads from The Infinity Gauntlet, when Warlock was briefly the lord of creation, he cast all good and evil from himself, thinking this would make him an impartial deity. What it really did was help give birth to the Magus, the embodiment of Warlock's evil, who took the name and skin color of the dark future version of Warlock from the classic Starlin tales. The Magus's plan is one of those incredibly windy, Machiavellian ones that has about four levels of wheels within wheels, but it involves creating evil doppelgangers of pretty much every superhero and sending them out against their opposites to replace them. There are four different factions all investigating the Magus's plot: the Infinity Watch (Warlock's team who each got an Infinity Gem when he divided up the gauntlet); Galactus and his merry band of the Silver Surfer, Nova (his herald at the time, an Earth girl made into a fiery cosmic being, not the cosmic hero of New Warriors and later cosmic events fame); the heroes of Earth; and Dr. Doom and Kang.
Starlin does a lot of writing here about duality, about how we all have multiple versions of ourselves, some more divergent than others. For instance, Thanos's evil doppelganger is pretty much just Thanos. While the story is fun, it's much busier than Infinity Gauntlet, much more involved, and you almost wipe your brow in relief when all the threads come together. This was a big crossover with lots of issues where heroes fought their doppelgangers. Notable ones included Spider-Man #24, where Spider-Man's six armed doppelganger would survive and become part of "Maximum Carnage" and issues of Fantastic Four, where Sue Storm fought, defeated, and accepted her dark doppelganger, leading to the infamous Invisible Woman costume that had so many cut outs it might as well be an Emma Frost costume.
And if the Magus was Warlock's evil side, what happened to the good side? Well, that was the Goddess, who was the central antagonist of the final third of the Infinity trilogy, 1993's The Infinity Crusade. Powered by a couple dozen cosmic containment units (Cosmic Cubes of many shapes), the Goddess goes about recreating Counter Earth, the Earthlike planet that used to orbit the sun at the exact opposite point of Earth, turns it into a garden of Eden, and then populates it with superpeople from Earth she considers worthy. The Goddess's goal, she claims, is to rid the universe of evil. Sounds good, right? Well, pure good not balanced with anything is as destructive as poor evil, and again we get various factions fighting each other, including Goddess's heroes, the remaining heroes now forced to fight their friends, and Thanos and Warlock teamed up with Mephisto.
If you've read pretty much anything Starlin has ever written, you know he has a thing about organized religion, and the Goddess, with that name plus a giant cathedral and seeking people of faith, is clearly part of the evil religious figures that Starlin has created. This does have a really great last scene, one of those perfectly plotted little twists that makes you smile when you realize it was all there from the beginning.
After Infinity Crusade, the cosmic aspects of the Marvel Universe cooled off. Warlock and the Infinity Watch ended about a year and a half later, with Starlin having jumped ship about a year before. Warlock was sent over the the Ultraverse for a while, and needed a few years away to lose the stench of the epic failure. Thanos became a much more rote cosmic baddy, losing mos if Starlin's nuance. Starlin eventually came back, wrote the self contained mini-series Infinity Abyss and Marvel Universe: The End, and the first six issues of a Thanos ongoing. When Starlin left that series, Keith Giffen took it over, and also wrote a four issue mini-series for another Starlin character, Drax the Destroyer. These two stories led into the renaissance for Marvel's cosmic corner.
Annihilation was released in 2006, so it was well over a decade after the Infinity trilogy. A war fleet led by Annihilus, the insect-like ruler of the Negative Zone (an antimatter universe) from Fantastic Four, comes into the normal Marvel Universe and starts systematically destroying everything. Since theer were no cosmic ongoings at the time, the crossover was instead handled as a prologue one shot followed by four mini-series, Nova, Ronan the Accuser, Silver Surfer, and Super-Skrull, that funneled into a single mini-series, Annihilation, where a ragtag group of rebels, led by Nova (which will be Richard Rider for the remainder of this article), must fight back the Annihilation Wave. The scale is huge, but the series itself is small, just six issues, and Giffen and artist Andrea Devito use every page to the best effect. It's action packed, it's heart wrenching, and it's exciting. Annihilation gave birth to a new Nova series, which was used to springboard another three events that made up the new era of cosmic Marvel.
The year after Annihilation began, it's sequel launched. Annihilation: Conquest saw the Kree Empire invaded by the techno-organic alien race, the Phalanx, who had fallen under the sway of this summer's Spaderyest villain, Ultron. Once again, a ragtag group of heroes have to face down the big bad. This event followed the same format as Annihilation, with a one shot and then four four issue arcs, but this time one of those stories took place in the recently launched Nova ongoing. The other three were Wraith (a new character, created by Middleman creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach), Quasar (starring Captain Mar-Vell's daughter, Phyla, and returning Adam Warlock to life), and Star-Lord by previous Annihilation mastermind, Keith Giffen. Conquest was another exciting, world spanning cosmic piece, and Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning (DnA for short), who wrote it as well as the Annihilation: Nova mini-series and the Nova ongoing, get a lot of credit for their strong characters and wild sci-fi ideas, which is deserved. However, I want to call out Keith Giffen, whose contributions tend to be forgotten. He did write Annihilation, and while I have a feeling DnA might have picked the characters, it was in Giffen's Star-Lord mini-series that Marvel fandom was reintroduced to Mantis, Bug, and two other then little known characters, Rocket Raccoon and Groot, who appeared in a little movie that came out last summer.
With all the key players in place, this book launched a second cosmic series by DnA, this one the launchpad for that movie I just mentioned, Guardians of the Galaxy, which not only featured the moive team of five, but Adam Warlock, Quasar, Bug, Mantis, Jack Flag, Major Victory. and Cosmo, the Russian cosmonaut dog who appeared in the Collector's menagerie in the movie. The next cosmic event broke the pattern established by the Annihilation event, both in naming and format.
War of Kings was the Game of Thrones of cosmic events. Two of the great outer space empires, the Kree and the Shi'ar, went to war, with the Shi'ar currently under the control of Vulcan, the incredibly powerful and totally insane third Summer brother of long lost X-Men storyline, the Kree had recently been conquered by the Inhumans; so in a very meta way, it's a forerunner of Marvel's current publishing issues with mutants versus Inhumans. The lead in to this story took place in Guardians and Nova, along with a mini-series called X-Men: Kingbreaker, featuring the Starjammers and a group of X-Men who were fighting Vulcan, and War of Kings: Darkhawk, a mini-series that established a tin between the 90s hero Darkhawk's alien armor and the Shi'ar.
The core mini-series dealt mostly with the war, and featured a lot of the Inhuman royal family, Vulcan and the Shi'ar Impreial Guard, and Lilandra, the deposed Shi'ar ruler, and the Strajammers. Nova and his newly reformed Nova Corps took up the battle in his title, while the over in their title, the Guardians tried to stop the War in their title, as they had been warned the war would have dire consequences. As the series moved to its cataclysmic end, the Guardians failed, and Vulcan and Black Bolt were seemingly killed as a massive bomb, meant to obliterate the Shi'ar, exploded, tearing a hole in space dubbed The Fault. Only by sacrificing himself does Adam Warlock stop The Fault from eating all of the universe, but in so doing he finally gives in to the future and becomes Adam Magus.
War of Kings led into a branding called Realm of Kings. It was like the Dark Reign banners that ran through much of Marvel for some time; not really a crossover, but more telling readers that these stories had something to tie them together. The Fault becomes the principle problem, and investigating it shows that it ties the Marvel Universe to a malignant other universe filled with undying monster versions of this reality. The Universe is dubbed the Cancerverse, and is a place wheer Death has been killed, meaning nothing can die and it has used up all its space and needs to expand. While Nova and the Shi'ar investigate, the Guardians are forced to deal with the Universal Church of Truth, the body created by, and once more under the control of, Adam Magus. It turns out the Magus is trying to throw open The Fault and let the Many-Angled Ones (Cthulhu like monsters) and their converted servants in. And he succeeds, but not before the Guardians find a cocoon like the one Warlock hibernates in, and from it emerges Thanos, long thought dead after the end of Annihilation.
The final act of this period of Marvel's cosmic dramas was The Thanos Imperative. While Nova and Guardians of the Galaxy had cult followings, their sales were middling, and so they both ended with Realm of Kings, and everything was wrapped up in a six issue mini-series with two bookend one shots. The Cancerverse Revengers, led by a corrupted Captain Mar-Vell, begin invading the Marvel Universe, and kill Adam Magus immediately for failing to kill Thanos. The various cosmic forces fight a holding action, trying to keep the Cancerverse forces, and the universe itself, from advancing far from The Fault, while the Guardians, Nova, and Thanos enter the Cancerverse, as Thanos's close relationship with Death will allow him to reawaken it/her in that universe and stop the spread. It's a tense battle, full of epic cosmic figures, and DnA threw everything they could into this last cosmic tale. In the end, the heroes succeed, but not without a cost: Drax is killed by Thanos, and as the Cancerverse collapses, Thanos, Star-Lord, and Nova are seemingly trapped forever in the what remains of it.
And that's it. There were a couple of follow-up mini-series for a new cosmic team called the Annihilators, set up to be the opposite of the scruffy Guardians who fought by wits, instead being made up of incredibly powerful characters, but they didn't really take off, despite being good stories and having great Rocket and Groot back-ups. A couple years after that, with Thanos revealed as the big bad at the end of Avengers that Thanos and the Guardians returned in Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagely's Avengers Assemble, which set up all that's come since.
Later this week, come back for Part four, where Dan returns to take you through the next batch of X-Men events.