Hasslein Blog: Longbox Legerdemain: "Marvel Presents: Guardians of the Galaxy"


Hasslein Blog

Friday, January 9, 2015

Longbox Legerdemain: "Marvel Presents: Guardians of the Galaxy"

By Matthew Sunrich

“Far be it from me to shout down the Kahlil Gibran of the stars!”

Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy film is one of the oddest success stories in cinematic history. Following a string of blockbusters featuring A-list characters such as Captain America and Iron Man, fairly well known even outside of comic-book fandom, Guardians was a peculiar choice. Even among comic fans, Star-Lord and Rocket Raccoon were, prior to the film’s release, obscure. Both made their first appearances in Marvel Preview, one of Marvel’s black-and-white magazines of the Bronze Age, and neither made a huge splash. Mostly forgotten by the mid-1980s, Peter Quill and Rocket were resurrected in 2008, along with the even-more-obscure sentient plant Groot, as members of a new incarnation of the Guardians team. (It’s worth mentioning that the current version of Star-Lord has little in common with the original character and that Rocket Raccoon was essentially a joke based on the similarly-titled Beatles song.)

When I heard they were making Guardians into a film, I had serious doubts, but, thankfully, I was proven wrong. It’s one of the MCU’s strongest offerings, as well as arguably the best space fantasy to hit the silver screen since the The Empire Strikes Back.

The original Guardians debuted in Marvel Super-Heroes #18 in 1969. Set in the year 3015, this series, which continues in various Marvel titles in the following years (including Marvel Two-in-One and Defenders), chronicles the adventures of a team primarily made up of the last survivors of each of Earth’s colonies on other planets. The genetically- engineered Charlie-27, from the Jupiter colony, is super-strong and super-intelligent. Martinex, from Pluto, is a scientist with skin of shimmering crystal. Yondu, a native of Centauri-IV, a planet very similar to Earth, is a blue-skinned archer with a spiritual bent. The final member of the core team, Vance Astro, is from Earth but was sent on a “thousand-year mission to the nearest star” in 1988 and is only able to survive as long as he wears the metal suit that protects his ancient form from the air that will turn it to dust.

Comic fans who remember the 1990s will recall that Guardians was one of a new group of titles introduced by Marvel in the first part of the decade (along with a revamped Ghost Rider, the blandly-named New Warriors, and the painfully zeitgeisty Darkhawk). Only the most savvy fans were aware that the Guardians had been around since the late Silver Age, even though the team had undergone a few lineup changes. I get the impression that the ‘90s series was only moderately successful, although it did run for 62 issues and a couple of annuals. Like most comics of that era, it was struck by the “Liefeld curse,” i.e., its artwork started to reflect the crappiness of the young Turks at Image, Liefeld in particular. (I know Liefeld-bashing is trendy, but the guy did some unbelievably horrible work and did damage to the comic industry that took over a decade to fix. Looking back, I still can’t believe it happened.)

I first encountered the Guardians in Marvel Team-Up #86, which I picked up in a convenience store in 1979 (I was only five at the time and not much of a reader, but it had Spider-Man on the cover, which attracted my interest), and they certainly made an impression on me. The team featured in this issue consists of only three members: Martinex, Starhawk, and Nikki (more on the latter two shortly). Along with Spidey, they battle villains Hammer and Anvil, who originally fought the Hulk in #182 of his own title. (Interestingly enough, MTU #86 is one of the only Marvel books penciled and inked by Bob McLeod, who is primarily known as an inker. It’s a shame that he didn’t do more full art because his work on this issue is breathtaking.)

The series I want to focus on, however, is the run in Marvel Presents #s 3-12 (1975-77), as the Guardians are the stars of the title, rather than guest stars. In this article, I will examine issues 3 and 4 (more will follow).

In the alternate future the Guardians inhabit (Earth-691), Earth’s colonies were wiped out by a race of evil, alien lizard-men known as the Badoon (what is the deal with lizard-men always being such jerks?). As our story opens, we find that the insidious reptiles have invaded Earth as well and have massacred all but fifty million of the planet’s human inhabitants. The Guardians have come to Earth’s aid and, fighting tirelessly against the extraterrestrial threat alongside the Terrans, manage to overthrow and summarily execute the Badoon governor.

The enigma in the story is Starhawk. First appearing in Defenders #27, he has a strange way about him, referring to himself as “One Who Knows” and being able to back the appellation up by revealing things to characters, such as Defenders team member Valkyrie, that he could not have known through regular means. He can also fly through space with neither a conventional spacesuit nor obvious means of propulsion (a fact remarked upon by Doctor Strange). The other Guardians know very little about him and his motives are unclear, which is just the way he wants it, but they agree to let him join them in their fight against the Badoon.

Starhawk has been absent for most of the battle, and when we finally connect with him, we find that he is hatching his own plan. Whereas the Terrans want to kill the defeated lizard-men, Starhawk has another idea. He is aware that, due to a “screw-up in Badoon evolution,” the males and females of the race are bitter enemies (this must make reproduction a problem) and summons a starship filled with females to come and claim the males.

Initially, both the Terrans and the Guardians mistakenly believe that Starhawk has betrayed them by leading another contingent of Badoons into their midst, but his intent soon becomes clear, and Starhawk quells the potential riot by temporarily blinding the bloodthirsty Terrans with an energy blast. This, too, seems like an extreme measure, but the team comes around to his way of thinking when he explains that the newly-liberated Terrans must understand that violence is not the answer.

Months later, each of the Guardians’ attempts to find a place in Earth society and is met with difficulty. Charlie-27 takes a job as a construction worker but finds his supervisor’s condescending treatment unacceptable. Martinex endeavors to resume his scientific studies but encounters prejudice. Vance yearns for the touch of a female and suffers almost unbearable anguish, knowing that his imprisoned body can never again know love. Yondu, as the last member of his race, is filled with survivor’s guilt and, moreover, is unable to connect with Earth on a spiritual level, circumstances that lead him to contemplate suicide. (Pretty dark stuff for a Code-approved book, eh?) Starhawk, aware of their turmoil, teleports all four onto their ship, the Captain America, and proposes a mission which will take them to the center of the galaxy.

After a short stop-off at Centauri-IV, so that Yondu can commune with his gods to ask for good fortune on their mission, the Guardians resume their journey, only to encounter an ostensibly hostile spacecraft. It’s a small vessel, so they use the tractor beam to bring it aboard. A young woman with fiery hair (literally) emerges and, believing her captors to be Badoon, points a gun at Vance. Once they have managed to convince her that they are not enemies, she tells them that her name is Nikki and that she escaped the Badoon invasion of Earth’s mining colony on Mercury. Taking the family spacecraft after her parents’ murder, she flees into space, surviving on food she finds on a derelict cargo vessel, and spends her time scavenging for viands on uninhabited planets and educating herself via the ship’s library.

After listening to her tale, Starhawk realizes that the worlds she visited had supported life at one time but that some alien force had devoured it. He describes the force as being akin to a vampire, sustaining itself on exploding galaxies, and being “infinitely old, incalculably powerful, and insatiably hungry.” It doesn’t take them long to find the creature, and Starhawk volunteers to confront it alone. Charlie-27 activates the teleport mechanism, and the enigmatic hero materializes in the vacuum of space, equipped with only a “biocorder” that will send back readings about the creature for analysis.
Yondu describes the creature as “Karanada, the Emptiness that Devours” and says that his people foresaw its coming eons ago. Starhawk, despite his best efforts, begins to succumb to the profound, nauseating cold emanating from the thing and is drawn into its gaping maw. It then turns its attention on the Captain America. They try to get out of range, but the Karanada blasts the ship with its inscrutable “anti-energy.” The vessel’s systems failing, the crew prepares to abandon ship.

The bulk of the Guardians’ exploits, including these two issues, were penned by Steve Gerber, one of Marvel’s most prolific and imaginative writers of the Bronze Age, and they comprise some of the best comics ever produced. The complex narrative unfolds at a near-perfect pace, and the superb characterizations are achieved in a remarkably brief space. Illustrated by Al Milgrom, every panel seems on the verge of bursting. It’s impossible to not get sucked into the intensely-immersive story.

This series is a prime example of why the Bronze Age captivates me so.

The team’s earliest adventures have been collected in Guardians of the Galaxy: Earth Shall Overcome, a hardcover in Marvel’s “Premiere Edition” line. The Marvel Presents issues can be found in another volume in the same series titled Guardians of the Galaxy: The Power of Starhawk. Both retail for $25.

Matt Sunrich, a great fan of the Bronze Age of comic books, maintains two blogs: The Other Other Castle, about Bronze-Age sword and sorcery, and Forging the Dark Knight, concerning Bronze-Age Batman.

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