Guardians of the Galaxy

Who are these cosmic hippies? Where's Rocket Raccoon?

I was going to open this blog by talking about Universe Gun, the webcomic I've launched. But sometimes the planets just align and your plans change.

I'd been talking to a friend about the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and was explaining how there had been an earlier team of the same name back in the 70's when I was a kid. I got into comics via Star Wars. I was 8 when the first movie came out, and consequently bought Star Wars Weekly, a Marvel UK black and white comic retelling of the movie. As backup, this would feature space-related Marvel strips like Adam Warlock, Captain Marvel, Starlord and The Guardians. These were strange and cool, and soon I was into them far more than the main Star Wars strips.

I had some odd memories of Guardians as I described them to my friend - a giant man-shaped planet hanging in space from twin suns around his wrists, and decided to investigate. I got hold of some reprints, and read them, and did a bit of research into them on the web.

On the tail of this, the awesome OzComics Facebook group nominated Guardians of the Galaxy as their weekly draw-off.

The Guardians were created by writer Arnold Drake and artist Gene Colan 45 years ago as a one-off strip. Drake is not a writer of glamorous fantasy by any means - he's best known for inventing the Doom Patrol, a series of freakish heroes whose powers are also severe disabilities. The Guardians presented in this early story are four men in ugly but functional spacesuits, each the last of their sub-race of humanity, fighting evil reptilian aliens who are enslaving the solar system. They manage to escape imprisonment and execution to huddle together in the final panel singing a song that suggests there may be some hope, maybe. Vance Astro (on vocals above) is a 1,000 year old man trapped in his spacesuit after a suspended animation journey that turned out to be pointless. Charlie 27 (on drums) is a soldier from Jupiter, with strength and durability suitable for his homeworld's heavy gravity. Martinex (on keys) is a crystaline man from Pluto, who it is heavily implied are despised by the rest of the solar system. And Yondu (on guitar, far right) is a noble savage who controls his arrows by whistling, Tonto to Vance's Lone Ranger. If reading a comic as a kid is like visiting an uncle, Arnold Drake was a strange strict uncle who smelled of pipe tobacco, gave you some foul licquorice sweets, and let you watch a disturbing movie on an old black and white TV if you were quiet. Gene Colan's moody shadowy art, and big brutish figures matched the story perfectly.

The Guardians were picked up by an altogether different writer in the 70's, the late great Steve Gerber. When I read Marvel comics as a kid, I soon grew used to the different artists and had favourites, but didn't pay much attention to the writers. Nevertheless, some stories stayed with me more than others. The Defenders facing off against a group of scientists with weird heads. Nighthawk spends a couple of issues with his brain in a petri dish, and he doesn't realise because he has no sensory apparatus! Daredevil fights a hippie who can alter reality by screaming! And the Guardians come across this giant planetary man in space. It turned out that all these stories were cooler and trippier than the rest because Steve Gerber wrote them all.
They also had a kind of laconic dry wit to them to offset the cosmic bombast. The Guardians travel through space and find a replica of 70's Manhattan full of wise-guys and hustlers. The heroes act as bemused foils to this planet's denizens, until it's revealed to be an interplanetary insane asylum. You could almost feel the writer turn to the camera and say "Hey, in all the universe, what could be crazier than New York city here? I tell ya!" An earlier Defender's story featuring the Guardians similarly saw them stuck on a planet where everyone's drunk, and they watch gladitorial game shows hosted by a human in a tuxedo. The Defender's enemy Nebulon, a golden Jim Morrison from space, starts a cult that tells its members they're bozos, and makes them wear clown masks. Gerber was your cool uncle who watched M.A.S.H. and read Catch 22, and made jokes you didn't quite get, because he refused to talk down to you.

Under Gerber's pen, and artist Al Milgrom's chunky upbeat pencils, the Guardians became much more fun than Drake and Colan's grim survivors. They were joined by Nikki (on balalaika), a sassy cartwheeling girl from Mercury, and the cosmic entity Starhawk (seen on the concert screen above), who shifted between the male Stakar and female Aleta, adopted brother and sister, and lovers, fused into one being. Martinex became the team's Spock, Charlie lightened up from his original jarhead personality into a protective big brother to the team. Vance Astro became less a square-jawed point-of-view hero and more a desperate survivor in a crazy universe, like a cosmic Korean war draftee. The spotlight was also shone on his intense sexual frustration due to being trapped in his skintight spacesuit. When the going got tough, he ended up cracking up completely and was left giggling to himself on the ship by the others. I found that funny as a kid, re-reading it today it struck me how groundbreaking it was for a superhero to exhibit what we'd now call PTSD.

Reading anything from your childhood is always an interesting experience. It turned out that the giant planetoid man I mentioned early, The Topographic Man, is widely credited as part of the first depiction of sex in a Comics Code approved comic. Vance Astro ends up psychically inhabiting this humanoid planet. Nikki astrally projects to the same scale in a bizarre ritual, and they quite obviously get down to business right there in front of the reader. All in an effort to stop the universe from exploding, or something like that. I suppose the censors let it go because it's not an imitatable act?

My other surprise was how short Gerber's run was. It seemed to go on forever when collected in 5 or 6 page installments in the back of Star Wars Weekly. In the American reprints its Marvel Presents #3-7 and #9, with Roger Stern filling in the rest of the run up to #12. There are also some prequel issues with the Defenders, available in Essential Defenders #2. The Guardians exploits under Gerber are collected in Guardians of the Galaxy: the Power of Starhawk, for those who wish to track them down.

How could I sum these crazy adventures up in a single image? In the spirit of the DoodleArt colour-in posters I had a kid when I first read them, I decided to render the Guardians as a glam rock band.

The current Guardians (who I know next to nothing about) have their roots in this era. Starlord started as a contemporary of the Guardians, courtesy of the famous X-Men team of Chris Claremont and John Byrne. Drax first appeared in Captain Marvel's adventures, and Gamora in Jim Starlin's epic Adam Warlock. All of these sources were great examples of the "cosmic" era of the 1970's, but without the peculiar wry humour of Steve Gerber's Guardians. He was comicdom's Woody Allen, and this was his Sleeper.

See you in seven, psychedelic ones, when I'll get back to talking Universe Gun!

Dr Mike 2000, 25 Jan 2014