Thursday, May 4, 2017

Guardians Of The Galaxy: The Original Volume Two!

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2. The original Volume 2!

Rocket Raccoon. Gamora. Drax. Star Lord. Mantis. And of course, Groot!

None of them were the original Guardians of the Galaxy.

Most of them originated in the 1970’s stories published by Marvel Comics Group- true. Star Lord and Mantis first appeared as written by Steve Englehart. Drax and Gamora? Jim Starlin creations. But the team created in the late ‘60’s who first bore the GotG name appeared, then vanished without a trace- until then-new writer Steve Gerber brought them back in Marvel Two-in-One #’s 4 & 5. So this is about the original Guardians of the Galaxy- in their original sequel.

Charlie-27, Martinex, Yondu, and Vance Astro date back to an issue of the Marvel Super Heroes series, some of the earliest expansion characters to follow the intense burst of icons envisioned by Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, scripted mostly by editor Stan Lee (who helped originate Iron Man also, first drawn by Don Heck).

Unfortunately, after the major period of invention between 1961 and 1965, not a lot of A-listers originated in Marvel’s heroic ranks. The Vision is probably the most successful creation afterwards, in 1968, for many a year- and he had the security of The Avengers title for his development.
Yes, years later, the Black Panther has risen to the public consciousness, but the first Captain Marvel incarnated by Marvel, the predecessor to the brief trial star-spot of the Guardians, epitomizes the misses.

But Steve Gerber- who would later create the zeitgeist-fueled pop phenomena of Howard The Duck and engineer the runaway smash hit KISS magazine special- saw something in the foundling group when he got the assignment to write team-up adventures of The Thing in Marvel Two-in-One (which kicked off with a #1 issue co-featuring another signature Gerber character, the swampy enigma called the Man-Thing). Rather than simply pen a series of disconnected one-offs to cash in on Thing’s commercial appeal, Steve took a shot at continued stories, often tied to other books, such as his issues right after the GotG team-up, #6&7, which brought aboard Dr. Strange and the newest addition to The Defenders, The Valkyrie. Those issues cross-over with Defenders #20, which was Gerber’s first issue on the title, whose original writer was that other Steve, who created Mantis and Star Lord!

So who were those original Guardians? Charlie-27 was a battle-ready space pilot, with a wide-framed dense body reflective of his offshoot of humanity engineered for life on the Jupiter colony. Martinex was the crystalline Pluvian with cold, heat, and energy powers, the cerebral philosopher and long-term tactician. Yondu was an Alpha Centaurian inspired by Iriquois Native Americans, equipped with a bow and, as he is in his present-day cinematic incarnation, an arrow that obeys his whistling. His characterization was changed from the ‘noble savage’ to the somewhat ignoble mercenary who raises Peter Quill- a half-Earthling kidnapped to be taken to his alien father, a delivery never completed.

Along with Starhawk (“The One Who Knows!”), an impersonal and powerful character who seemed inspired by Jim Starlin’s ‘cosmic awareness’ take on Captain Marvel (the successful revamp- at least under Starlin), and Nikki, they comprised Astro’s team- reincarnated once more by future Image Comics founder Jim Valentino, in a series I very much enjoyed in my youth. And that, was the Guardians of the Galaxy in their own title- the one that launched Valentino’s career, and therefore helped bring the world Image Comics.

So let’s come back to what I call the Original Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume Two. Their creation by Arnold Drake, and their two-issue debut in Marvel Super-Heroes, had no sequel for about five years. We have the concept today thanks to the awesome remix at the hands of a young writer looking for undeveloped characters to give voices.

Gerber did some of the finest superhero writing of the decade on The Defenders, redefining its outlook and identity from the original Roy Thomas “non-team-up” of Strange, Prince Namor the Submariner, and the ever lovin’ Hulk. His take is echoed in the work of extended runs by writers who apparently admired Steve’s work very much, like Dave Kraft (who was his personal friend), Ed Hannigan, and J.M. DeMatteis (whose interview with me will be posted shortly!). Peter Gillis wrote the last twenty-odd issues, continuing the surrealness and ‘encounter group’ mentality of this oddball team. (You can find a write-up of some of Kraft’s issues on this blog!) I think they all had something unique and offbeat to say, though DeMatteis admits he was still finding his voice as a superhero writer on his run, as you’ll see. Everyone was working through personal issues amidst a healthy dose of social satire and commentary on modern life, along with plotting unlike anything seen before in comics.

But the first year of his run was much more like straight-ahead superhero comics, and in this milieu plopped the stranded Guardians of the Galaxy. Trapped in our present times, the Guardians- soon joined by new creation Starhawk, a cosmic being of expanded perceptions and cold impersonality- fought a 30th century rebellion against the conquering Badoon race. Enslaved humanity was nearly wiped out; these heroes emerged from the colonized planets of Jupiter and Pluto, from the first friendly race mankind connected with after achieving star travel- led by an astronaut from our times, who awakened from his sub-light-drive travels a thousand years later.

In Defenders #26, Major Vance Astrovik meets his adolescent incarnation native to our times. He tells his story, which is also the history of human kind yet to come, refracted in 1970s ecological concerns. He tells about the destruction of climate change (as the ozone-depletion fears of those times), the widespread cancer, the rise of prosthetics giving way to cyborg wars (as reflected by Rich Buckler’s creation Deathlok, at that point the grittiest Marvel super hero ever, appearing in Tales to Astonish). He takes care not to reveal the disasters to come occur here on young Vance’s planet! But he does tell of his suspended animation journey, and in his absence traveling to Alpha Centauri, of the invasion from Mars, as chronicled by science fiction writer H.G. Wells and interpreted at Marvel in Amazing Adventures by writer Don McGregor- who also crafted with care the first solo stories of the Black Panther, inspiring the Wakandan king’s tales into present day Marvel. P. Craig Russell, the fantasy artist, helped McGregor bring Killraven and his band of Freemen to life, in issues running about the same time as these Guardians tales.

Over the next four issues, Vance and the Guardians are transported by the power of Dr. Strange back to the site of humanity’s last stand. Through a series of mishaps and battles, the Defenders help the Guardians fight back, as had Captain America and The Thing in the earlier Marvel-Two-in-One stories. Dr. Strange also wipes memories of the encounter between the two incarnations of Vance from the younger Astrovik’s mind. Encased in his special preservation suit, the isolated astronaut and the Valkyrie discover the secret of the Badoon’s breeding segregation.

Ah, but first, the Badoon discover the Enterprise-inspired Guardians’ ship, its damaged stellar drive replaced by Stephen Strange’s sorcery. They attack the ship at the very moment the heroes beam down to Badoon stronghold Earth!

With Dr. Strange presumed dead, and the teleportation beam’s disruption losing heroes Val and Astro and Hulk and Yondu (who end up on a drunkard planet, arrested and enlisted in a Death Game TV show!), we get an entertaining weaving of the threads until Nighthawk and Guardians Charlie and Martinex have a final showdown with the Badoon stationed on Earth. From our time, Val’s body’s husband (oh, don’t ask, lol) Jack Norriss stows away as an unwilling witness.

This appearance by the team was such a hit, Steve Gerber got paired with Al Milgrom- partner to Jim Starlin (yes, him again- the creator of the REST of the cinematic Guardians we haven’t mentioned, save for Groot and Rocket) on Marvel Presents #3. A run of off-world adventures united them with a new member, Nikki, a Mercurian female handy with pistols. Her flame-coiffure and athleticism brought a mix of cold calculation, hot temper, and exuberance to the boys club.

Disconnected from the rest of the mainstream Marvel Universe, however, the original Guardians- plus Nikki, and Starhawk, revealed to be a merged male/female being embodying a stellar hawk god-lasted until Presents #12. They were dropped from the title, to re-appear at last in The Avengers a couple of years later- once again alongside popular Marvel heroes on Earthbound adventures.

Groot, incidentally, dates back to Marvel’s monster comics, the predecessor of their vibrant, sometimes wacky but daring superhero line, a Jack Kirby story. Rocket’s color comics debut came in Defender Hulk’s title during Bill Mantlo’s run, as custodian of a cosmic insane asylum, in 1982. Rocket and Star Lord both originated in black and white magazines, outside Marvel’s color line- a format championed by Steve Gerber.

Guardians of the Galaxy was one more remix away from runaway success, during the cosmic book revival at Marvel a decade ago. You may not agree with director James Gunn’s choice to go with the revamped Guardians- but it sure as hell got results!

- C Lue

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