Friday, December 7, 2012

The Nerduary "Guardians of the Galaxy" Primer

Q: I keep seeing a lot about The Guardians of the Galaxy pretty much everywhere and think I want to give the series a shot, but where should I start? With the actual series or some earlier comic?

A: As my social circle's designated comic book nerd, this is actually a question I’ve been getting quite a bit since news dropped that Marvel was bringing the cosmic team to the big screen. And then it started popping up even more with the recent faux controversy involving writer/director James Gunn. Some who ask are folks who have just started dabbling with comics having become fans of the Marvel Universe via the movies and are thinking about taking the plunge into comics. Others are established fans but have never really made the leap into Marvel’s vast cosmic sector. So this post is something for everyone.

Like most starting points when it comes to serialized fiction, the origins of the modern incarnation of The Guardians of the Galaxy are a bit murky. Sure, the new team made their formal debut feeding out of 2007’s Annihilation: Conquest and you can start with Guardians of the Galaxy issue 1 and be fine. The problem there is a lot of the plots hinge on things that didn’t just happen a couple years before, but in some cases several decades before. Make no mistake, you won’t be lost if you’re not up on all the lore, but you will be missing references to some rich backstory.

First things first, I’m going to anger some true believers here and say that it’s not essential that you read up on the adventures of the original team first established in the late 60’s/early 70’s. Yes, that team does come into play with the modern team, but really, all you have to know is that in the 31st Century of an alternate universe, there’s also a team called The Guardians of the Galaxy. Kind of like DC’s Legion of Superheroes. If you want to track these old appearances down, then by all means, have at it. They’re no terrible, but I will say they’re an acquired taste. They were just sort of a Marvel rip-off of an established DC property. I think a quick run-down of the book and a basic familiarity with characters like Vance Astro, Starhawk (I promise the “One who knows” routine will drive you mad) and Charlie-27 will suit most just fine. So hit Wikipedia and you’re all set there.

Start with the 1970's Captain Marvel. More specifically, start with Jim Starlin’s run with issue 26. Starlin’s run on Captain Marvel not only takes the Marvel cosmos as established by Lee and Kirby to the next level, but it brings the titular hero into direct conflict with Thanos. Thanos, as we all know, even if you don’t read comics, was the surprise baddie at the end of The Avengers and by all accounts will be the villain of both Guardians of the Galaxy movie and Avengers 2. He’s also a constant source of problems (and sometimes solutions) for almost all cosmic stories to follow, including The Guardians of the Galaxy. 

Plus, Starlin’s Captain Marvel run is trippy as hell. So there’s that

From there, you’ll want go directly into Starlin’s Warlock run. Starlin turned Adam Warlock from the Christ figure of Roy Thomas' run into a cosmic paranoid schizophrenic destined to become a galactic tyrant. Most of the run is spent with Warlock being antagonized by The Magus (his evil future self) and The Magus’ Universal Church of Truth. Thanos also features heavily into this story, but here we get our first taste of not Thanos the genocidal god, but the Thanos that will commit acts of good so long as they serve is long term plans. Here, he’s more manipulating ally than direct adversary for most of the run. This story and its resolution will come into direct play in Guardians of the Galaxy three and a half decades later.

And, like Starlin’s run on Captain Marvel, this run is trippy as hell. So there’s that.

Next, do yourself a favor and read the seminal The Death of Captain Marvel. Not only is notable as being the story of an extraordinary hero dying in a depressingly ordinary fashion, but the event played out within its pages will echo almost two decades later for The Guardians of the Galaxy.

Now you can actually jump ahead a few years and pick up the trades for Silver Surfer: The Rebirth of Thanos and The Infinity Gauntlet. You really can't fully fathom the depths of Thanos and his impact on the universe without reading these stories. You really can't get a full grasp on Marvel cosmic without reading this particular saga as this saga is the one by which all other cosmic tales are measured.

If you want, you can read Infinity War and Infinity Crusade as The Magus comes back, but I’m not going to file them under required reader. Same with books like Warlock and The Infinity Watch, Marvel Universe: The End or Infinity Abyss. Suffice it to say that we start to see a Thanos that is beginning to experiment with being an actual force for good rather than just doing good when it supports an evil scheme.

The Thanos 12 issue series, however, is more essential, especially the latter half of the series. It’s here where writer Keith Giffen starts to lay the groundwork for Annihilation and where key players from the Guardians of the Galaxy relaunch will start making appearances.

While this is going down, writer Keith Giffen quietly launched a series called Drax the Destroyer, giving the titular character a makeover. Drax was created by a cosmic being with the express purpose of hunting and killing Thanos. For years, Drax was kind of like the Hulk in space. Giffen recast him more as a space faring sociopath with a singular mission. Drax will not only go one to become a founding member of the modern Guardians of the Galaxy, but that singular mission of hunting and killing Thanos will play importantly in Annihilation. Speaking of Annihilation

This is the book overseen by Keith Giffen that gets the modern era of Marvel cosmic going. This is also where Peter “Starlord” Quill makes his first appearance in a Marvel book for the first time in ages. But like old school Guardians of the Galaxy, tracking down his initial appearances and series isn't all that required. You get what you need to know about him in a few panels, and it’s not like he made a giant splash the first time around. Annihilation, for it's part, was a sweeping space opera that reads like Band of Brothers in space. There were multiple miniseries’ featuring Silver Surfer, Ronan the Accuser and even Super Skrull leading up to to Annihilation proper, all of which are worth tracking down. It's big and it actually makes dramatic changes to Marvel cosmic space landscape in big ways ways unseen since Starlin’s 70’s stuff. Good stuff here.

Annihilation is immediately followed by Annihilation: Conquest, by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanny. Another major cosmic war, only this time Starlord is kind of, sort of responsible for it. Conquest is where we see The Guardians of the Galaxy as we know them today turn up. Rocket Raccoon reemerges in the Marvel Universe and we see a proto-Guardians form up, though they won’t operate under that name until after Annihilation: Conquest is over.

But once Annihilation: Conquest ends, we finally get the Abnett and Lanning Guardians of the Galaxy relaunch, with Starlord putting together a team dedicated to preventing massive cosmic wars. While the series is running, there are a couple of micro events that happen alongside it. War of Kings and Realm of Kings both tie into Guardians of the Galaxy, and both were surprisingly good. So take the time to track those down as well. 

Now remember all those old stories from the 70's I told you about? Well, it's a good thing you read them because The Guardians of the Galaxy  have to deal with some of that. The Universal Church of Truth is back, as is the threat of The Magus. Captain Marvel's death back in the 80's is going to come back into play as well as a few other plot points. But you won’t have a problem as you’ve already read all that. Which is good, because that means you’ll be uber prepared for The Thanos Imperative.

Guardians of the Galaxy runs for 25 issues, then feeds directly into The Thanos Imperative, once again by Abnett and Lanning. This event has roots, too, that go back a long way. Not only are we going all the way back to Starlin’s run on not only Warlock, but Captain Marvel as well. Big things happen here, things that feel like they've been decades in the making. By the time this series concludes, you’re left with the feeling that a chapter going back almost 40 years is coming to an end as well.

But it’s not. With the announcement that a Guardians of the Galaxy movie is being released, based on the modern team no less, Marvel obviously has to bring the team back. No small feat, considering the end of The Thanos Imperative. Avengers Assemble issues 1 through 6 written by superstar writer Brian Michael Bendis and penciled by Mark Bagley, is a team-up of the modern Guardians with The Avengers (a line-up that mirrors the movie’s line-up perfectly) to take on Thanos once again. While not a bad series, it was disappointing to see Bendis write Thanos as something of a one note, mustache twirling villain rather than the complicated, multifaceted character he's been evolving into for decades.

And that's it. You're good to go, ready for the next Guardians of the Galaxy comic set to debut in early 2013. We're once again following the modern team, but with a movie in the works, Marvel is promoting the hell out of it, even putting Bendis on as the regular writer of the series. 

Whew. That’s a lot of reading. And keep in mind, most of this stuff if seminal, so even if you're not looking to be an expert going into the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, you'll be reading some legendary stories. Starlin’s run on both Captain Marvel and Warlock is referenced to this day as groundbreaking, while stories like The Infinity Gauntlet are still informing Marvel events and style to this day. 

I guess what I'm trying to say is in you're in for one hell of a treat


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