The Fantastic Four, X-Men, Spider-Man, Captain America, The Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, the Avengers, Daredevil, and arguably Doctor Strange, these are the core concepts and characters of the Marvel Universe. Virtually everything else in the Marvel Universe has a thread that connects to one of these titles. For the most part, these are the brands that the mainstream world is familiar with. Marvel and Disney took a huge gamble with Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014, and it paid off, proving that Marvel’s C-list can carry a blockbuster when the right talent is involved.
The Guardians of the Galaxy have been around for a long time, since the waning days of the Silver Age, and while the title has had periods of moderate success, until recently it usually failed to make any lasting impact. The Guardians were traditionally a footnote, an obscurity, a title with a cult following but no history of sustainability. The first Guardians of the Galaxy movie did what almost fifty years of print (yes, they’ve been around that long) couldn’t. But the Guardians of the Galaxy have gone through some complex changes over the years. Heck, Marvel even switched the team’s time period in the past decade!
When the Guardians first appeared in 1969, the team that made its debut in Marvel Super-Heroes #18 was completely different than the one that made its film debut in August of 2014. The first appearance of the team was penned by Arnold Drake, best known for creating DC’s Doom Patrol, with art by the great Gene Colan. It’s ironic that with his illustrious career primarily with DC, that Marvel got an Arnold Drake creation to the silver screen before Warner Bros., but that’s a subject for another column.
The original Guardians were introduced as a team of aliens led by a human who was trapped in a cryogenic sleep for 1000 years. Members of the team include a crystallized Plutonian named Martinex, a giant from Jupiter named Charlie-27, and a fin-headed archer from Alpha Centauri named Yondu. In interviews taking place in the intervening years, those involved claimed the mission statement of the title was Star Trek meets The Dirty Dozen, but what fans got was a static, uneven sci-fi piece as the foursome took on the evil aliens, the Badoon in the far future.
But it was the future setting that made this otherwise forgettable one-shot stand out, as this was the first time Marvel readers were able to see the future through the eyes of protagonists. Sure there was Kang in the Avengers, but he came to the present, readers never got to see more than a glimpse of what Lee and Kirby’s universe may become. Alas, Drake’s throwback style didn’t fit in within the bombastic Marvel Universe and the series was soon forgotten…until Steve Gerber came along.
When Steve Gerber became the writer of the Guardians feature in Marvel Presents #3, the writer worked the same magic he had on offbeat creations like Howard the Duck, Man-Thing, and the Defenders. Gerber took characters that were practically blank slates and brought his own unique personality to the character’s already appealing designs. Gerber added the enigmatic Starhawk, and Nikki, a young girl from Mercury who added a youthful exuberance to the cosmic adventures as well providing the book a much needed point-of-view character. The team quickly popped up in Marvel Two-In-One and, most importantly, Avengers, where they played a “The Korvac Saga.” Their participation in the battle against Korvac, one of the most iconic stories of the Bronze Age, established the Guardians as legitimate players in the Marvel Universe.
The Guardians hung out on the periphery until the ’90s when editor-in-chief Tom Defalco wanted to expand the Marvel line. He turned to Jim Valentino to guide the Guardians’ first solo title, and the book was an instant hit thanks to Valentino’s energetic storytelling. The new book took advantage of the futuristic setting by using familiar elements of the Marvel Universe like Captain America’s shield, Tony Stark’s tech, the Phoenix, Ghost Rider, and even a time traveling female Yellowjacke to keep a new generation of comic readers engaged and guessing. The book even had a spinoff mini-series, Galactic Guardiansbut it quickly fizzled when Jim Valentino departed to co-found Image Comics.
While all this was going on, the Guardians weren’t the only cosmic beings exploring the Marvel cosmos. Creators Jim Starlin and Steve Englehart excelled at cosmic adventure introducing characters like Adam Warlock, Thanos, Drax, Gamora, and many more alien heroes and villains that served to enrich the Marvel Universe outside of Earth. In the ’80s, the heroic Marvel population grew by one when Bill Mantlo and Keith Giffen introduced Rocket Raccoon in the obscure Marvel Premiere back-up feature “The Sword in the Star.” Meanwhile, Star-Lord, created in 1976 by Steve Englehart and Steve Gan, had been bouncing around the Marvel Universe. Star-Lord had a brilliantly conceived origin and was worked on by such luminaries as Chris Claremont and John Byrne, but the adventures of Peter Quill failed to find a foothold in the ever changing and finicky publishing landscape that was the newsstand.
These obscure characters existed, they were fleshed out, and they were ready for a talented creator or creators to step in and make them realize their full potential. Enter, Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, otherwise known as DnA, and their cosmic opus, Annihilation. DnA wanted to present a cosmic crossover event with cinematic action and huge stakes. They just needed the cosmic players to populate the tale of universal armageddon.
One of the titles Abnett and Lanning revived was Guardians of the Galaxy, but this time they needed the team to be smack dab in the present Marvel Universe. The team picked up the threads of visually stunning but underutilized characters like Drax and Gamora, added Star-Lord and Phylla-Vell (the daughter of the original Captain Marvel), and did something absolutely unexpected, adding Rocket Raccoon to the mix along with, startlingly, the long forgotten Kirby monster, Groot, the sentient tree. Moreover, the writing duo played the farcical pairing completely straight, and against all odds, the formula worked.
The book garnered a cult following, but also, and more importantly, it got the attention of Marvel Studios who saw the energy and marketability of the team, and it inspired the lineup we now have on screen.
If you’re looking for a jumping on point for Guardians of the Galaxy comics, this is it, and we have a whole reading guide for you right here.