Sen­tinels of the Space­ways

Way back in early 1969, a mi­nor su­per­hero team turned up for an is­sue of Marvel Su­per-He­roes, then dis­ap­peared for five years. This sum­mer, they’re the big­gest news in pop cul­ture. Matt Bielby in­ves­ti­gates…

Comic Heroes - - Feature -

One of the con­sis­tently fun as­pects of the Marvel Uni­verse is how cer­tain char­ac­ters swim in and out of fo­cus, en­joy­ing pe­ri­ods of glory then fad­ing away, only to be re­dis­cov­ered decades later by a new gen­er­a­tion of writ­ers and artists. Spi­der-Woman ex­pe­ri­enced an un­likely resur­gence in the Noughties, while the com­pany’s kung fu char­ac­ters have re­turned to the spot­light more re­cently. But by far the most ex­cit­ing, ridicu­lous and spec­tac­u­lar no­bod­ies-be­come-some­bod­ies story has been en­joyed by the Guardians of the Galaxy. A deep-space, ini­tially far-fu­ture team of aliens and rene­gades orig­i­nally cre­ated by such mi­nor play­ers as Arnold Drake for the near-for­got­ten part-re­print ti­tle Marvel Su­per-He­roes in 1968, they en­joyed only splut­ter­ing suc­cess over the fol­low­ing decade be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing, seem­ingly for­ever.

So what hap­pened? Some­how we are now on the cusp of a $150m-bud­geted sum­mer movie star­ring these guys, a bunch of odd­balls vir­tu­ally un­known out­side the comic shops – and it’s a film that is build­ing a word-of-mouth buzz that most projects can only dream of. How on Earth – or off it – did the Guardians of the Galaxy be­come one of the big­gest prop­er­ties in comics?

Earth Shall Overco me!

Fans of the orig­i­nal Guardians Of The Galaxy – and it cer­tainly has some – would be hard pushed to recog­nise any­thing of their he­roes, name aside, in the cur­rent in­car­na­tion. The first Guardians launched in Marvel Su­per-He­roes #18 (Jan­uary 1969) as Robin Hood-type rebels against an evil 31st century Badoon em­pire. These man-rep­tile tyrants – orig­i­nally cre­ated by Stan Lee and John Buscema for their glo­ri­ous, short­lived late ’60s Sil­ver Surfer ti­tle – seemed to have es­caped from un­der the shadow of their 20th century ri­val alien men­aces – no­tably the Kree and the Skrulls – and gone on to con­quer Earth and its colony

It’s a movie star­ring a bunch of odd­balls vir­tu­ally un­known out­side of comics

plan­ets across the So­lar Sys­tem in the in­ter­ven­ing mil­len­nium.

Both this fu­ture time­line – later dubbed Earth-691 in the lan­guage of Marvel’s Alan Moore-cre­ated, Michael Moor­cock-in­flu­enced Mul­ti­verse – and the core Guardians char­ac­ters were cre­ated by Arnold Drake (a DC writer best known for co-cre­at­ing Dead­man and Doom Pa­trol, who briefly free­lanced at Marvel in the late ’60s) and artist Gene Colan.

Their leader, orig­i­nally, was Ma­jor Vance Astro, a young as­tro­naut from the 20th century who – in the then-fu­ture of

1988 – was sent on a lone, Buck Roger­stype mis­sion into deep space. Lack­ing faster-than-light tech, his ship would take 1,000 years to reach Earth’s near­est star, Al­pha Cen­tauri, and to keep him alive all that time he was in­jected with some sort of em­balm­ing fluid-type ar­ti­fi­cial blood, en­cased in a metal sec­ond skin and chucked into sus­pended an­i­ma­tion.

Ex­cept, of course, that when he even­tu­ally reached his des­ti­na­tion – now with psionic pow­ers that had de­vel­oped in hi­ber­na­tion – he found a re­cently FTLe­quipped hu­man­ity had al­ready got there, and was now liv­ing peace­fully side-by-side with the blue-skinned na­tive tribes­men. When the Badoon at­tack – first Cen­tauri IV, then mankind’s So­lar Sys­tem colonies and fi­nally Earth it­self – Astro teams up with Cen­tauri bow­man Yondu and the last sur­viv­ing mem­bers of two ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied hu­man sub-species to bring the fight to the Badoon. Char­lie-27 is wide as a house, mas­sively strong, and was cre­ated to live un­der the op­pres­sive grav­ity of Jupiter, while Martinex is from Pluto, and comes cov­ered with a sort of sil­i­con crys­talline skin to help him sur­vive the ex­treme tem­per­a­tures there; both, nat­u­rally, are good in a fight.

The Power of Starhawk But hang on, you might be say­ing. What’s all this? No Rocket Rac­coon? No walk­ing trees? In­deed not – and there wouldn’t be for decades yet.

Fol­low­ing their de­but, the Guardians dis­ap­peared for five years, only to be even­tu­ally res­cued by Steve Ger­ber – Marvel’s quirki­est and, spo­rad­i­cally, most in­tel­li­gent writer of the day – for Marvel Two-In-One ( The Thing team-up comic Ger­ber was then writ­ing), and, fol­low­ing that, his mid-’70s De­fend­ers run.

The De­fend­ers #26 (Au­gust 1975) is the key is­sue here, de­tail­ing the fu­ture his­tory of Earth in chill­ing, fas­ci­nat­ing fash­ion for a main­stream Marvel au­di­ence, while the fol­low­ing is­sues whisk Dr Strange, Hulk, Valkyrie and co to the Guardians’ night­mar­ish 3007, there to take the fight to the Badoon and en­joy a first en­counter with a pow­er­ful, ar­ro­gant so-and-so called Starhawk, a char­ac­ter that had been promised since as far back as Marvel Su­per-He­roes #20, but who’d never showed up (bar a brief ap­pear­ance in Marvel­ma­nia, short-lived in-house Marvel fanzine) un­til now.

Not to be mis­taken for the mod­ern StarLord – the en­ter­tain­ing, charm­ing, trou­bled jerk of the present-day Guardians – this guy was a cold and re­mote mys­tery man in the Sil­ver Surfer mould, his story un­fold­ing over the sub­se­quent 1970s Guardians ap­pear­ances. These were in scat­tered is­sues of books like The Avengers, but chiefly in their own in­trigu­ing, rather out-there 10-is­sue 1976-77 run in Marvel Pre­sents (yet an­other short-lived try-out ti­tle), by Ger­ber and artist Al Mil­grom.

This se­ries in­tro­duced the last of the orig­i­nal mem­bers – Nikki, a ge­net­i­cal­ly­mod­i­fied woman from Earth’s Mer­cury

colony, good with a gun and boast­ing flames in­stead of hair – and ex­plored Starhawk’s half-hu­man, half-ar­ti­fi­cial char­ac­ter: an arch-ma­nip­u­la­tor, an­noy­ing (he con­stantly called him­self “One Who Knows”), pow­ered to out­ra­geous lev­els by an alien Hawk God, and doomed to re­live his own life count­less times.

In truth, Ger­ber’s run on Guardians wasn’t one of his most vir­tu­oso jobs, but it was not with­out its mem­o­rable mo­ments. The “Planet Of The Ab­surd” is­sue – in which the Guardians ex­plore a world highly rem­i­nis­cent of gang­ster-era New York – was played like a bizarro Star Trek: TOS episode, and en­joyed a ti­tle that seemed to sum up Ger­ber’s whole ap­proach to life and to comic books; the sto­ries that re­vealed Starhawk to be ef­fec­tively trans­gen­der, a man a woman – adopted sib­lings and lovers – merged into one was some­thing of a stun­ner too.

And this Guardians run also fea­tured the first bla­tant act of sex­ual in­ter­course in a Comics Code-ap­proved su­per­hero book, in which Vance Astro and Nikki do it – in dis­guised form. In or­der to de­stroy the Topo­graph­i­cal Man – a planet-size hu­manoid en­ergy vam­pire who fed on ex­plod­ing gal­ax­ies – Vance’s psy­che was ab­sorbed by their en­emy and started to con­trol its con­scious­ness; mean­while, Nikki was strapped into a gizmo that split her spirit from her body, and her as­tral form went to com­mu­ni­cate with the big fella.

Of course, Nikki – hot blooded type that she is – soon saw the best way for­ward

Guardians was a far weirder comic than it ap­peared tobe

was not chat but coitus, some­thing Vance was well up for, as the sex­ual ten­sion had been un­bear­able on the Guardians’ ship (a USS En­ter­prise-knock­off called, bizarrely, Cap­tain Amer­ica) up un­til then. Soon a grin­ning as­tral-Nikki “reaches gen­tly out, to awaken him with her touch” then clearly mounts him, “in or­der that, act­ing in con­cert, they might de­stroy him forever­more”. The Topo­graph­i­cal Man is then ripped apart in an ex­plo­sion clearly cen­tred on his crotch, caused be­cause he, or it, had been forced to “en­gage in an act of love, an af­fir­ma­tion of its own op­po­site, which is life”.

It was amaz­ing stuff – amaz­ing that the Comics Code let it slide – but per­haps the pro­saic, un­sexy “it’s just reg­u­lar

su­per­heroes” art of Mil­grom (as with Sal Buscema’s sim­i­larly generic stuff on Ger­ber’s De­fend­ers is­sues of the time) helped sell it; Guardians, like much of Ger­ber, was a far weirder comic than it ap­peared to be on the sur­face.

Even­tu­ally these Guardians would de­feat the Badoon, re­turn nu­mer­ous times to 20th century Earth – not least to help the Avengers against Kor­vac in one of the all-time great Marvel sto­ry­lines – and then fade away for many years, to be re­vived for a brand new, sur­pris­ingly en­dur­ing ’90s se­ries by writer-artist Jim Valentino, then one of Marvel’s ris­ing stars.

His take on the Guardians lasted a cred­itable 62 is­sues across the first half of the ’90s, the team now shoot­ing about in Cap­tain Amer­ica – named, of course, for the leg­endary hero – as self-ap­pointed pro­tec­tors of the Milky Way; lit­er­ally, as “Guardians of the Galaxy”. Fu­ture-ver­sions of ex­ist­ing Marvel he­roes would crop up re­lent­lessly – we get 31st century de­scen­dants of Ghost Rider, Iron Man, Doc­tor Doom, Galac­tus, Sil­ver Surfer, Wolver­ine – and it’s here that Vance Astro de­cides, lu­di­crously, to re­name him­self Ma­jor Vic­tory.

This take on the Guardians is a con­sis­tently aver­age se­ries, re­ally – but it was pro­duced in a so-so ap­prox­i­ma­tion of the then-trendy West Coast style of Todd McFar­lane, Jim Lee and oth­ers, and it would see Valentino be­come part of their cocky, am­bi­tious gang.

When the en­tire lot of them up-sticked to found Im­age, Valentino was part of it, con­tribut­ing to the new com­pany a bor­der­line taste­less grim vig­i­lante called Shad­owhawk. This take on Guardians limped on with­out him for a while, how­ever, but by 1995 it was all over – and the team would stay out of the lime­light for over a decade.

So that’s a good quar­ter century of the Guardians of the Galaxy with­out a whiff of talk­ing beasts or walk­ing trees. What in the uni­verse could hap­pen to see their star rise so brightly, so quickly, in the decades since?

A new team will rise …

The an­swer comes with the 2006 re­vival of in­ter­est in Outer Space Marvel that ar­rived with An­ni­hi­la­tion, an epic cross­over se­ries writ­ten by Keith Gif­fen which was built of book­end is­sues plus minis­eries for the Sil­ver Surfer, Nova and a num­ber of Cos­mic vil­lains: Thanos, Drax the De­stroyer, Su­per-Skrull and Ro­nan the Ac­cuser. Both Star-Lord and Thanos’s adopted daugh­ter, Gamora, crop up too, and when the Bri­tish writ­ing team of Dan Ab­nett and Andy Lan­ning took over for a se­quel, An­ni­hi­la­tion: Con­quest, the mod­ern day Guardians of the Galaxy team started to come to­gether.

This time out Star-Lord had his own minis­eries as part of the “event”, Groot and Rocket Rac­coon join the fray, Starhawk popped up (af­ter tele­port­ing him­self back from his far-fu­ture time­line,

ap­pear­ing as both a man and a woman) along with vir­tu­ally ev­ery other space hero or vil­lain the cre­ative team could think of, and the whole thing ends with a plan to cre­ate a new out­fit to pre­vent such deep space catas­tro­phes from ever hap­pen­ing again. Thus was born the new Guardians of the Galaxy – in­spired by the orig­i­nal Guardians, but largely un­con­nected to them – with an ini­tial line-up of Star-Lord, Quasar, Adam War­lock, Drax the De­stroyer, Gamora, sen­tient ex­tra-ter­res­trial tree Groot and, yes, Rocket Rac­coon: a com­edy, Bea­tles-in­spired, talk­ing, gun-tot­ing forest­d­welling mam­mal.

It was weird al­right, but then the Guardians of the Galaxy had ever been so.

Rocket had been cre­ated by Bill Mantlo and Keith Gif­fen as a non-too-se­ri­ous trib­ute to the cow­boy-themed spoof folk song Rocky Rac­coon from The Bea­tles’ White Al­bum; he’d first ap­peared in Marvel Pre­view in 1976, be­came a Hulk sup­port­ing char­ac­ter for a while, and had en­joyed his own four-is­sue minis­eries in 1985.

Groot had be­gun life in 1960 as an ex­am­ple of the slew of alien mon­strosi­ties at­tempt­ing Earth in­va­sion in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Tales To As­ton­ish, one of the many monster books pub­lished by Marvel be­fore it be­came the com­pany we know with the launch of the Fan­tas­tic Four. Pre-Guardians he’d only reap­peared very oc­ca­sion­ally, in the odd Hulk or Spi­der­Man book, be­fore a mi­nor 2006 re­vival as

So that’s a good 25 years with­out a whiff of talk­ing beasts or walk­ing trees

part of Nick Fury’s Howl­ing Com­man­dos – an un­suc­cess­ful minis­eries that at­tempted to weld Marvel’s sec­ondary su­per­nat­u­ral char­ac­ters to the su­per-spy agency. Drax and Gamora, mean­while, had al­ways been as much vil­lain as hero.

The new Ab­nett and Lan­ning Guardians on­go­ing book launched in May 2008 – along­side a new, linked Nova se­ries, from the same writ­ers – but wasn’t a mas­sive hit, last­ing just 25 is­sues. How­ever, it clearly had an au­di­ence, ad­mir­ers – and po­ten­tial. The new team would now echo the early

ca­reer of the orig­i­nal Guardians, ap­pear­ing as guests in other books and in a num­ber of crossovers ( War Of Kings, The Thanos Im­per­a­tive), shed­ding mem­bers and adding new ones. By the end, people like Man­tis, Ma­jor Vic­tory, Jack Flag, Bug from the Mi­cro­nauts and even a talk­ing dog called Cosmo were mem­bers, while Drax and Star-Lord were both dead.

With the ar­rival of Marvel NOW! in late 2010, how­ever, the Guardians got an­other bite at the cherry, this time han­dled by the all-star cre­ative team of writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Steve McNiven, and it’s this ver­sion we’re go­ing to get in the film – Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, half-hu­man space ad­ven­turer, was alive and well, and very much the snarky, rogu­ish ac­tion hero we see in the film, with Drax, Gamora, Rocket and Groot the key sup­port­ing cast. It’s a book that sings when the char­ac­ters are all to­gether, bounc­ing off each other and ver­bally spar­ring, and feels like it’s tread­ing wa­ter when they get spread – as so of­ten – across known space.

Now one of the Big Bads would be Peter Quill’s alien fa­ther, space dic­ta­tor from a pow­er­ful hu­man-look­ing alien species called the Spar­tex – their re­la­tion­ship has be­come very Luke-and-Vader over the past few years, with pops want­ing Pete to join him in rul­ing the galaxy – while the Badoon are back, as are fur­ther un­savoury space species like the Giger’s Alien- ref­er­enc­ing the Brood from old X-Men comics. Iron Man has ar­rived on the team and de­parted again, Neil Gaiman’s old An­gela char­ac­ter from Spawn made an ap­pear­ance, the Carol Dan­vers Cap­tain Marvel is kick­ing around, and Agent Venom (none other than Flash Thomp­son, Peter Parker’s high school neme­sis-turned-pal from ’60s Spi­der­Man) is now a Guardian too. Some of the con­nec­tions be­ing made here are crazy, some log­i­cal as you like – but hey, that’s Marvel for you.

Af­ter a Big Bang of an en­trance, the new comic book Guardians Of The Galaxy seems to be slightly mark­ing time for the film to ar­rive, but it re­mains a fun, hand­some ti­tle. Its fu­ture, how­ever, would seem to de­pend very much on whether or not Marvel’s riski­est cin­e­matic move to date is a hit or not, and it’s this that we’ll look at next…

The Guardians get their first reg­u­lar se­ries in Marvel Pre­sents #3-#12.

The orig­i­nal line- up: as freak­ish then as they are now.

Vance and his “psy­cheblast” to the res­cue.

The potato-headed wide-load that is Char­lie-27.

Marvel Pre­sents #5: the Guardians and Ger­ber for were made each other.

De­stroyed by an “act

of love”. Oh yes.

Iron Man rocks up in Guardians Of The Galaxy #2.

Be­fore Guardians, Rocket starred in his own four-is­sue minis­eries.

Groot made his de­but in 1960 in Tales To As­ton­ish #13.

It’s this mod­ern take on Guardians is that the film based on.

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