In a few hours, Guardians of the Galaxy will descend into theaters, and people will see it. Many people. Great hordes of people, in search of inventive sci-fi or just drawn to the scent of anything that appears Avengers-related.
But Guardians is different. It’s not just a combo pack of the movie heroes you’ve already seen. It’s new and weird and complicated, involving words like “Sakaaran” and “Xandarian.” To know everything there is to know about Guardians before Friday would be a full time job, and let’s face it, you don’t have time for that. Life is calling, and life doesn’t let you to sit around and sift through piles of old comic books, trying to figure out what the hell a Xandarian is.
So for convenience’s sake, here’s everything you need to know about the history of the Guardians of the Galaxy, condensed into one easily digestible format.
Michael Rooker as Yondu (Marvel Studios)
1969-1989: The Rookie Years
January 1969 saw the publication of “Marvel Super-Heroes” #18. Contained within those fateful pages were the the first-ever glimpses of the heroes we’ve come to love and treasure. Say ‘em with me:
Major Vance Astro!
These were the original Guardians, notable for not being related to the current Guardians in any way whatsoever (although Yondu’s probably going to be big for a while). The team was different, but the core idea remained the same: a group of space weirdos that come together to fight space evil.
Also, unlike their current counterparts, the original Guardians were a super blatant Avengers rip-off. Vance Astro was an American hero who was frozen (cryogenically, in space), only to be thawed in a new time period (also in space) as the leader of a superhero team. Charlie-27 was a bulging collection of muscles, whose primary purpose was ramming his fist into anything that looked remotely punchable. Yondu was the team’s resident bow-and-arrow expert. That gives us Captain America, Hulk and Hawkeye. Martinex, a man made of crystals who has heat powers and cold powers, will have to stand in as Thor. Or Iron Man, maybe. Whoever best resembles a walking geode.
The Guardians were ready to patrol the galaxy, to defeat the vicious Badoon and, as was Marvel’s plan for them, to act as emergency filler when no one had better comics to release. “Marvel Super-Heroes” was used as a launching platform for new series (think of each issue as a mini comic book TV pilot). For example, Captain Marvel, the hero name-dropped in every single debate on female-driven comic book movies, got her (his, originally) start just six issues before the Guardians landed.
But Vance Astro and friends didn’t take off the way Captain Marvel did, and the group’s galactic duties were sorely limited. When Marvel needed space to fill in some one-off anthology comic, the Guardians were there. When a more popular and all-around better hero (say, Thor or the Thing) had the urge to slug a couple of vicious Badoon, the Guardians were there. They ambled like this for about two decades and did absolutely nothing else of note.
Eventually Jim Valentino realized he could make something of this ragtag bunch of no-sellers. Taking on both writing and artistic duties, he was determined to turn the Guardians into a team that people would want to read about every month. For a while the Guardians ambled a bit closer to success, staving off cancellation between the years 1990 and 1995.
But in 1995, “Guardians” was cancelled, and that was the last time we saw this specific group of heroes on the printed page.
1960-2005: A Tedious Assortment of Origin Stories
Now for a quick change of pace. After 10 years, a new Guardians of the Galaxy was formed, and all those characters had long and storied histories of their own. So let’s do a little backtracking. Technically, the next Guardians roster included a mess of characters that we don’t meet in the new movie, so they’re going to be ignored entirely. This is for your own benefit, because there are pages upon pages of quantum band lore for Phyla-Vell that I don’t particularly want to write and you don’t particularly want to read (also, explaining what “quantum band lore” is would take about six paragraphs by itself). Sorry, other Guardians, you get nothing. Not until your eventual inclusion in a sequel, anyway.
Star-Lord got his start like the O.G. Guardians did, in the pages of some anthology comic no one particularly cared about. In his case, it was “Marvel Preview” #4, in 1976. His creator, Steve Englehart, had grand plans for the character, plans that began with Star-Lord being an unlikable dick and slowly, over a period of many, many comics, evolving into a magnanimous hero. But Englehart quit Marvel almost immediately following Star-Lord’s debut, so the “make Star-Lord less of a dick” part of his plan never really amounted to much.
The character’s origins have always been the same: Peter Quil is a human boy who gets abducted by aliens and decides to be a planet-hopping rogue rather than a probed corpse in a tube somewhere. But after Englehart’s departure, Star-Lord wasn’t much of anything (not even a dick, really). Just a generic pulp sci-fi hero, who got about as much play as the early Guardians did.
Gamora, like every other character mentioned so far, also came from a throw-away story in an anthology book. This time, it was “Strange Tales” #180, in 1975. But aside from the usual comic book powers — super-strength, super-speed, super-durability — Gamora boasted the most game-breaking ability of all: nepotism.
Gamora, you see, is the adopted daughter of Thanos, who is such a big deal in Marvel comics. Meaning, whenever Marvel trotted out Thanos to threaten some kind of balance or obliterate some kind of home world, Gamora always got a little piece of the action. It was a good gig, but when Dad wasn’t committing space genocide, Gamora wasn’t exactly a popular character.
Drax the Destroyer
Drax, unlike his other pre-Guardians cohorts, was actually semi-popular for a continued period. Since his introduction, in 1973’s “Iron Man” #55, he spent 20 years hanging around the general Cosmic Marvel universe, getting plenty of pages in “Captain Marvel” comics, “Silver Surfer” comics, and a role in the Infinity Watch, a group of heroes dedicated to keeping the almighty Infinity Gauntlet from falling into the hands of evil villains like Thanos. And because it had the name “Thanos” in the description, Gamora was also a member of the Infinity Watch. Also, so was Thanos (again, comics are weird).
Drax started off as a human, Arthur Douglas, whose family was murdered by Thanos. Luckily for Art, a few nearby space gods converted him into the powerful Drax the Destroyer, an anti-hero whose sole purpose in life is to kill Thanos dead. Which, given the general flexibility of comic book continuities, happens more often than you’d think. However, Drax’s mild success meant people were constantly tinkering with his personality. He would eventually suffer terrible brain damage, die, be reborn (although the brain damage stayed, rendering Drax a god-like being with the reasoning abilities of a toddler) and was eventually reset back to normal.
For a little while, Rocket Raccoon’s only purpose in the Marvel Universe was to exist as a tacky Beatles joke. His original name wasn’t Rocket, but Rocky. His second comic appearance (the first being “Marvel Preview” #7, in 1976) was a backup story in a Hulk story entitled “Now Somewhere In the Black Holes of Sirius Major There Lived a Young Boy Named Rocket Raccoon.” In the story, Hulk and Rocket had to stop Gideon’s Bible from falling into the hands of an evil villain. Someone, somewhere, probably chuckled.
Rocket’s one big claim to fame was a 1985 miniseries, where he and his first mate Wal Rus (a talking walrus, obviously) fought an intergalactic war over toy factories. In case you missed it the first two times, comics are weird.
Groot, a tree that can only say three word in English, is as docile as a comic character could possibly be. Except for that one time when he invaded Earth with the intent of capturing and experimenting on foolish, puny humans. Yep. Groot first appeared in “Tales to Astonish” #13, in 1960, not as a hero, but as the regularly scheduled invading alien. He was larger and generally more villainous-looking, but he also had a far greater vocabulary than the Groot we know and love. Which frankly, kind of seems like a cop-out. If you can’t get your message of alien terror across in “I am Groot,” you shouldn’t be getting it across at all. Groot marauded the Earth once more in an issue of “The Incredible Hulk” and then called it quits forever.
2006-2010: A Shot at the Big Leagues
Alright, our brief backstory sojourn has ended. Let’s get back to the Guardians themselves.
In 2006, after a solid eleven years of Guardianslessness, Marvel launched “Annihilation,” an epic crossover event that had absolutely nothing to do with the Guardians of the Galaxy. Or so they thought. (Also, for anyone questioning what a “crossover event” is, it’s a long-form storyline that continues through several different comic series at once. For example, a particular week would bring issues of “Thor,” “Iron Man” and “The Avengers,” each title featuring a different side of the same narrative.)
“Annihilation” saw a ragtag group of space rogues team up to defeat the evil Annihilus, a bug-man with a God complex, and his latest attempt at universe-conquering. Among the rogues were the following: Star-Lord, Drax the Destroyer, Gamora, Ronan the Accuser, Korath the Pursuer and Thanos. All of which should sound familiar.
“Annihilation” proved so successful that it spawned a crossover sequel, “Annihilation: Conquest.” This time Ronan, controlled by a mysterious figure, is hell-bent on enslaving the galaxy. The only one with the gall to stop him is Star-Lord, plus a motley crew of outlaws that Star-Lord meets in space jail. Which should sound extremely familiar. Sure, the mysterious figure is actually Ultron and not Thanos, but that’s a minor quibble. And you’re getting Ultron anyway in a few months, so hush.
Marvel, in the process of releasing a second “Annihilation” series, realized that it had a potential franchise in the making. So Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, the two fellas in charge of “Annihilation: Conquest,” chose a sampler platter of the story’s best heroes (Adam Warlock, Drax, Gamora, Phyla-Vell, Rocket and Star-Lord), and assembled them into “The Cosmic Avengers.” But that name didn’t stick, so instead they became “The Annihilators.” Also not great.
And then Abnett and Lanning realized that “The Guardians of the Galaxy” was an option, and they took it. Thus, the Guardians were born anew.
New “Guardians” comics ran for three years (2008-2010) until they too were cancelled. But when Marvel first put a Guardians movie in the pipeline, they did the same for a print version (because comic book movies make roughly a thousand times the gross profit — and no, that’s not an exaggeration — than the books themselves, so every Marvel movie will have endless comic tie-ins). So, as of last year, there’s been a new “Guardians of the Galaxy” comic hitting shelves every month. And because it’s loosely based on the movie, which in turn is loosely based on the 2008 lineup, the new Guardians are basically the same as the old(ish) Guardians.
If you think about it, today’s Guardians of the Galaxy is an unbelievable case of lightning in a bottle. Two anti-heroes, a villain, a schlocky tree monster and a cartoon raccoon all get a big-budget reboot, and the results were terrific. Terrific enough to spawn two long-running comic series, a cartoon and a movie that’s practically guaranteed to bring in nine figures.
Who could have known, that the words “Oh screw this, I’ll just make the bad guy a talking tree or something,” (likely) uttered more than 50 years ago, would bear such bountiful fruit?