So in their biggest year at the box office yet, Marvel’s machine keeps rolling as Guardians of the Galaxy hits the screens. All early indications show it might actually be pretty good, delivering the visuals and action we’ve come to expect, along with a heavy bent on humour previously unseen in Marvel vehicles. A bit of a gamble, especially as these characters are previously unknown to most of the general public; but we’ve seen that being a recognized icon doesn’t guarantee financial success or universal acclaim (see the Green Hornet and latest Lone Ranger reboots (no pressure, TMNT!), the disappointment of Superman Returns & Man of Steel, the downward slide of the Transformers series). Who knows? Lowered expectations can pave the way for a surprise hit; many argued that was a major reason for last year’s Thor sequel being the best hero-related feature of 2013. But today, it’s this character issue that bothers me. The casual viewer won’t know and probably won’t even care, but anyone who knows Marvel history is aware that this particular group have been together for less than a decade, and know who the real Guardians of the Galaxy are. It’s like marketing the New Mutants as the X-Men. Yeah, Star-Lord & company are a fun bunch, but today I want to see the original bearers of that name get the love they deserve.
For that we’ll need to step into the way-back machine and head to the 1970’s. Marvel had done the unthinkable, as the former upstart publisher surpassed DC in sales and took hold as #1. Now with the financial means, Marvel looked to expand their empire beyond superheroes and explore other genres. This included a return to horror (done by all companies, coinciding with an overdue slackening in the comics code awaited since the 50’s), current trends of the era (i.e. martial arts flicks – hello, Shang-Chi & Iron Fist), and sci-fi (including properties such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes and Star Wars). A new wave of heroes were created to try and better reflect an urban sensibility and diversity (Luke Cage, a.k.a. Power Man); while some overlapped those listed genres, giving us the likes of Ghost Rider, Blade and Werewolf by Night. Combined with sci-fi, we got the first incarnation of Nova. It would eventually be improved upon with its’ own mythos, but the original Nova was essentially a cross between Green Lantern and Spider-Man. A teenage Richard Ryder (there’s that good ol’ Marvel alliteration) finds himself in possession of a helmet and uniform issued by a galactic Nova Corps that grants him heightened and space-faring abilities. This attempt to catch the Spidey lightning in a bottle a decade later didn’t take and washed out in a few years. Maybe seeing another teen deal with everyday angst and juggling it with cosmic responsibility (along with a parade of silly villains vs. Spidey’s always cool rogues’ gallery) seemed a little too familiar or forced. Not until joining the New Warriors in the 90’s (maybe I’ll give them their due if they get a movie too!) would that character finally be put on the path to the respectability it experiences today. Anyway, when you see some of the Nova Corps in G of the G; now you know there’s a back-story there too.
When the Guardians debuted in Marvel Super-Heroes #18, they weren’t even of this time. They operated in the 31st century, banding together from different planets to fight against the oppressive Badoon race that ruled our solar system. Led by Major Vance Astro, who had heightened telekinesis and would eventually be revealed as an astronaut from the 20th century accidentally transported and trapped in the 31st; the first incarnation of the Guardians was eventually rounded out by five other members:
Astro’s teammate and eventual girlfriend Nikki hailed from Mercury and was genetically engineered to stand high temperature/bright light (thus the heat radiating from her head instead of hair), possessing a myriad of combat & weapons skills. Charlie-27 came from the now-mining planet Jupiter, giving his body a density that came with enhanced strength. Yondu of Centauri-V, distinguished by the fin on his head, was an archer with an array of arrows that would make Hawkeye envious. Martinex originated from Pluto and his body was entirely crystalline and could shoot projectiles of a similar material.
These Guardians operated independently with their own adventures in this far-off possible Marvel Universe-691 future. They didn’t really arrive as featured players until the now classic Jim Shooter-penned Korvac Saga from Avengers (original series) #’s 167-177. The Guardians come back to “our” time and meet the Avengers while helping them to defeat Korvac, a cybernetic foe they’ve followed from their era who seizes ultimate power and becomes a man-god, seeking to remake the universe in his image. He almost does – in the story’s epic conclusion, Korvac manages to kill everyone except Thor and ultimately really decides to let himself lose (restoring lives and damage in the process) vs. actually getting beaten. Seriously, this is another trade out there that is must-read for Avengers/Marvel fans. My telling the ending doesn’t spoil a great journey or the equally impressive art.
However, the Guardians’ jump to the next level amongst the pantheon of super-teams this promised never took place as they slid into the background in the 80’s, with the odd solo or handful of members showing up as guests in other titles. Not until the 90’s (at the same time as the aforementioned New Warriors) did the Guardians have another surge in popularity with another series that ran for 62 issues. But like a lot of titles from that time, the bloom wore off again as they slowly faded back into obscurity. They now remain in the unique category of a firmly established property with a history, but loose enough to allow developments from the right new creative team to do something that revitalizes them one more time (after a couple more false starts in the 00’s). C’mon, before “alternate history” stories became all the rage, they were once billed as the “Avengers of Tomorrow”. How can they save the universe again if somebody doesn’t use ‘em?!
Now we finally arrive at the version of the Guardians that the world at large will soon get to know. This batch emerged at the end of the Annihilation: Conquest series (2008), at a time when Marvel was pushing to more actively utilize their assortment of cosmic characters created over the last four decades. Surprisingly, sales were moderately high enough to get it tagged with a green light for fast-track development over perhaps more obvious choices. As Marvel’s cinema dominance was getting even stronger, it probably seemed like a good time to continue pushing those boundaries outwards. I won’t get too heavily into the movie team’s histories or abilities. I assume you’ll see the film, so let’s avoid confusion in case anything major gets changed up. But here’s a quick rundown on where everyone got their start in print:
Star-Lord was part of that 70’s sci-fi wave at Marvel, first appearing in Marvel Preview #4 (bonus fact: this was the first thing Claremont & Byrne worked together on at Marvel, before finding huge fame on the X-Men). Rocket Racoon was first seen in Incredible Hulk #271 (where he becomes known as “Rocky” is short for Rocket), before getting a 4-issue mini-series penciled (1985) by a pre-Hellboy Mike Mignola. Gamora and Drax are leftovers from Jim Starlin’s complex Captain Marvel universe, once again built during that well of “out-of-the-box” creativity, the 1970’s. Gamora is the daughter of Thanos, trained in the ways of the warrior and death by her father. Drax, a.k.a. Drax the Destroyer, is Arthur Douglas, an earthman whose family is killed by Thanos, put into a new fighting body by the entity known as Kronos for a chance at revenge. His intelligence level has gone up & down through the years but similar to the Hulk, seems more powerful the more simple & savage he becomes. Also, Drax turns out to be the father of Moondragon, another cosmic character with a bit of a meandering history. The most random is Groot, who before finding his way into outer space first appeared way back in Tales to Astonish #13 (1960) during a wave of monster comics before the Marvel Age even truly kicked off! Oh, and for anyone interested, the major villain of this piece, Ronan the Accuser (along with his interplanetary Kree race) was a creation first seen in Lee & Kirby’s Fantastic Four #65.
Quasar (originally Phylla-Vell, sister of Genis-Vell, the son of the first Captain Marvel) and Adam Warlock were also in the mix for this group’s comic incarnation, but it was probably a wise call on the production team’s part to leave them out of the film. Having more stories to flesh out might make it too cluttered (already running over 2 hrs., Warlock’s story is a saga on its’ own) and push into the “too many characters” territory that the Avengers slowly creeps into as their roster grows. Currently, the latest versions of Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers) and Venom (Flash Thompson) have joined the Guardians’ ranks, along with occasional support from Iron Man. Whew-does anyone else need a genealogy map yet?
So will this be the highlight of blockbuster season, a mere blip on the radar or a bomb? We’ll know by the end of this weekend, but it’s a safe bet that any good returns equals a sequel (Editor’s Note: The sequel has already been green lit for a July 2o17 release). In the meantime, a new Guardians comic has hit the stands, as well as side projects for solo members and even more in the works. Along with a ton of general merch, you can be sure there will be plenty out there to keep old & new fans alike sated. With my l’il history lesson here today, it’s my hope that if you decide you want to learn more, you don’t just grab what’s in front of you, but that you also remember to look behind you to see where it all comes from!
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!!!