Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 1: Cosmic Avengers review

Need an introduction to the Guardians before the movie next year? This is a good place to start

With a big summer movie currently in production for release next year, Marvel have stepped up their promotion of the relatively unknown series Guardians of the Galaxy by relaunching the title with their star writer Brian Michael Bendis and one of the industry’s best artists, Steve McNiven, in the driving seats. And it’s actually quite good!

The Guardians of the Galaxy are an intergalactic team of superheroes who defend Earth from alien forces, ostensibly billed (as the subtitle suggests) as the cosmic Avengers. The leader is Peter Quill aka Star-Lord, an alien/human hybrid and the son of King J’son of Spartax. Also on the team is Gamora, the femme fatale labelled as the Most Dangerous Woman in the Universe and also the adopted daughter of Thanos the Mad Titan; Drax the Destroyer, a behemothic alien brawler created to destroy Thanos; Rocket Raccoon, an anthropomorphic alien who happens to look like Earth’s raccoons, Rocket is a brilliant tactician, engineer, and marksman, often wielding enormous powerful guns; and finally a tree-like creature called Groot who can only say “I Am Groot” and can regenerate if destroyed. Oh and for some reason Iron Man is also part of the team(!).

The #0.1 issue that kicks the series off tells the origin of Peter Quill from the romantic sequence where his father crash lands near his mother’s remote house, with his mother nursing King J’son back to health leading the two to fall in love. After he impregnates her, he leaves to continue his star wars on Spartax, leaving her to raise Peter by herself. This issue is actually the best in the series so far as Bendis takes his time telling Peter’s story. He grows up not knowing his father’s true identity until the fateful day when a Badoon ship shows up to kill him, blows up his home, and changes the course of his life forever. It would’ve been good if Bendis had had more time telling us how Peter went from the 12 year old discovering his dad’s space gun and killing Badoon soldiers to becoming leader of the Guardians of the Galaxy, but whatever. I guess Bendis thought we’d seen the most important part of Peter’s origin and the rest was rote.

If you’re not a Peter Quill fan – and he’s not the most interesting-looking figure in the bunch for sure – and want to read more about the individual team members, Marvel released a digital series called Infinite Comics, the first issue of which featuring Drax is included in this book. Each issue in Infinite tells a story featuring one of the Guardians like Rocket Raccoon, Gamora, and Groot, giving us more in-depth looks into their characters. These comics are actually better to read on a screen because that’s how they were designed to be read, with the same backgrounds re-used in several panels but with the figures within it changing position, almost like an old Hanna Barbera cartoon; printed on paper the strips lose their vitality. The Rocket and Gamora issues are pretty good but this one, drawn by frequent Bendis collaborator Michael Avon Oeming, is the weakest of the bunch – it’s basically just Drax having a bar fight.

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The main story of Volume 1 concerns Peter’s dad calling the galactic rulers together in a meeting to announce that Earth is out of bounds – if any aliens intrude upon Earth in any way, then they will be arrested. King J’son it turns out is a bit of a prick as this is catnip for the Badoon, as they send a force to Earth to cause some mayhem leading to the Guardians fight them off to defend Earth. King J’son’s forces then show up to arrest the Guardians for breaking the royal decree and things really kick off then.

Marvel Studios have said that they see Guardians of the Galaxy as their version of Star Wars rather than another superhero movie and if this series is any indication (written by Bendis who is a consultant on the GotG movie) they’ve definitely hit that angle bang on. There’s a cantina scene in issue #1 that looks like it could’ve been set on Mos Eisley and the intergalactic council scenes (which go on far too long) feel like those terribly boring council scenes from the Star Wars prequels.

But there’s a lot to like about this book. It does a great job of establishing the team’s dynamics, Rocket and Groot are good friends, and the characters’ personalities: Rocket is a genius engineer mechanic, Star-Lord has daddy issues, Drax and Gamora are super-tough badasses, and Groot definitely knows that he is Groot.

McNiven’s art is fantastic and his designs are really fun like Drax’s cool laser axe, the Badoon’s character designs, and Rocket looks really cool, menacing rather than cute, and even Iron Man’s new space armour is awesome. I did prefer Star-Lord’s old Space-Jockey-esque helmet over this new one which looks like a biker’s helmet and Peter’s emo hairdo is a bit wank too, and I’m not sure why Groot has these weird red lights all over his body, but generally McNiven’s work in this book is among his best.

Volume 1 also quickly sets up the cool action, sending the Guardians into battle after battle in a mere 3 issues so we get to see some great sequences and see them as very capable at handling problems themselves. I did wonder about the timeline – how long have they been a team, how did they get together? These questions might get answered later in the series and it doesn’t spoil the book at all but seeing as this is a new iteration rather than a continuation of Abnett/Lanning’s team, it’d be good to find out these things.

Maybe the biggest difference between Abnett/Lanning’s GotG and Bendis’ is the baffling inclusion of Iron Man. I get that he’s the new guy – and that Stark is going through some weird crisis which has led him to seek out answers in space – and conveniently acts as the reader’s stand-in asking questions that new readers will be asking themselves. But generally he doesn’t add much to the group. The GotG are a tough bunch who don’t need a human in a robot suit to help them out. In fact, in this book Stark is more of a hindrance than a help – I don’t think I saw a single scene where he was an asset rather than someone extra to be looked out for – not exactly the most flattering position to be in if you’re Iron Man.

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So far though, GotG is a fun series and an entertaining preview of what readers can expect from the movie next year: lots of action, raccoons firing big guns, and alien battles galore. This first volume could’ve been better but as it is it’s a long way from being as dismal as Bendis’ other Marvel work this year (coughAgeofUltroncough), and is a strong place to jump on if you’re new to the series.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 1: Cosmic Avengers by Brian Michael Bendis and Steve McNiven is out now.