Thursday, July 31, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy Origins: Marvel Super-Heroes #18

 Oh Guardians of the Galaxy. How you have haunted my comics-reading life. I’d be lying if I claimed I was ever a fan, but like Captain Marvel, the Guardians are figures that have kept popping up on the fringe every now and then. I own Marvel Super Heroes #18, the first appearance of the Guardians, I own Marvel Presents #3 (their first major solo appearance after MSH) and I own the first issue of their 90’s series.
 The strange part though, is that I didn’t end up with any of those comics because I cared about the Guardians themselves. I bought Marvel Super Heroes #18 because of the Golden Age reprints in the back of the book, and the Marvel Presents #3 and Guardians #1 both came in a “mystery box” of comics I bought at a garage sale. I actually tried to sell the Marvel Super Heroes #18 several times because hey, first appearances always sell, right? Not if no one knows who the characters are! Now all these years later, a movie comes out featuring this team I own the key ‘first” issues of (which usually =$$$), and except for Yondu (who sources indicate will play an antagonistic role) not a single member of the original team will be used in the movie.
 Life’s a bitch, ain’t it?
 Still, despite my financial disappointments (over used comics I bought 20 years ago) and the film featuring characters I’m mostly unfamiliar with except for Groot and Rocket Raccoon, I have to say I’m still eager to see the movie.

 Love ‘em or hate ‘em, there’s no denying that the Marvel Studios films are here to stay, and while the same thing was once said about Raimi’s Spider-Man series or Nolan’s Batman series (before he announced that he was only going to do three films), the consistently strong box office and favorable reviews have made it clear that, even if they hit a snag, we aren’t going to be seeing the last of these movies for a long time.

 The Guardians film, more than any other, marks a turning point. Think of the incentive and confidence it will give Marvel to tap into other obscure properties if it is a success. We could see movies based on Moon Knight (maybe they could introduce him first as the villain in a Werewolf by Night film), Agents of Atlas, or hell, since it’s been confirmed he’ll make a cameo in Guardians, maybe even a good Howard the Duck movie. (You could argue that the success of Blade should have started this all the way back in the late 90’s, but honestly, did anyone who went to see that movie know it was based on a comic? Do any of the fans of those movies know that now?)

 On the other hand, if it fails, don’t expect to see anything other than the major Avengers-related characters onscreen for the next few years.

 So with all that said, let’s take a look back at the first appearance of the Guardians in 1969. Ah, 1969, when men were men, women were women, Black Sabbath was no longer Earth, hippies were mass-murderers and Gene Colan was John Buscema:
 The story starts off in the year 3007, where all Earth nations have joined together as the U.L.E (United Lands of Earth) and set up colonies on different planets where the inhabitants are modified at birth to survive. We are introduced to just one such of these humans; Charlie-27, who was raised on Jupiter and has a bulky, square-shaped physique to withstand its pressures. Returning from a trip, he arrives home only to find that his planet has been conquered by a race of reptilian creatures called the Badoon:
 The Badoon have forced most of the Jovian colonists into concentration camps (including Charlie's father), while the others are forced to mine uranium without protective suits:
 Charlie manages to escape by using a teleportation device to warp himself over to a random planet, where he is saved from the Badoon’s “Saturnian Hound-Hawks” by Martinex, a colonist altered to live on Pluto who has crystals for skin. Although the Plutonian and Jovian colonies have centuries of bad blood between them, they agree to work together:
 The story then shifts over to Earth, where we meet the Badoon commander Drang and his erstwhile prisoners (and the true protagonists of the piece); Major Vance Astro and his servant Yondu.
 Astro is forced to wear a purple copper suit (which sometimes appears to have a mouth and other times does not) to sustain his life, and the story of how he ended up wearing it is not only a supreme example of tragi-comedy, but one of the darkest origins in all of Silver Age comics. I’m not even going to summarize it, read for yourself:
 Despite being time-displaced by millennia, Drang nevertheless is willing to give Astro employment and power if he betrays the rest of the human race, who have set up a small resistance group. Astro appears to comply at first since all the people he knew are centuries dead, even selling out Yondu:
 However, it’s all just a ruse and Astro and Yondu escape. Astro is not as unfamiliar with current technology as the Badoon would think:
 They then meet Martinex and Charlie and, typically for Marvel, mistake them for bad guys and a fight ensues.
 Also typically for Marvel, they then realize the error of their ways and join forces quickly. Escaping the Badoon guards, they set out to find the rebel colony and sing a modified version of “We Shall Overcome”:
 And that’s that.

 As we all know, the Guardians of the Galaxy didn’t exactly grip the comics reading public, with their longest-lived series not coming about for two more decades and the incarnation of the team that caught Hollywood’s notice consisting of entirely different characters. As a stand-alone work of fiction, it’s a pretty typical pulp sci-fi tale, not much different from the kind of series that would have run in Planet Comics back in the 40s (In fact, Planet Comics’ old Lost World series seems to have been something of an influence, with the Badoon substituting for the Voltamen) and the usual Marvel formula of heroes fighting over a misunderstanding and then becoming fast friends is repeated here.

  Nevertheless, the debut story of the original Guardians is fascinating for several reasons. The idea that humans would have to drastically alter their bodies in order to successfully colonize and live in the atmosphere of other planets, although not an idea original to Drake, is a hard sci-fi concept that one rarely sees addressed in books and films, and even rarer in comics, particularly Silver Age comics. The tragic circumstances of why Vance Astro must wear his costume are also amazingly dark for the time. His whole origin story is essentially a Weird Science twist-ending (or a twisted parody of Buck Rogers, depending on your point of view), and the fact that he can never remove his suit makes Tony Stark’s problems seem trite in comparison. If he had betrayed the rebels to Drang, he would be a compellingly tragic villain.

 Another interesting aspect not often mentioned about the original Guardians is that they are probably comicdom’s first true team of “freak” heroes.
 It is true that the X-Men and the Doom Patrol pre-dated the Guardians (and considering that Arnold Drake wrote this, the Doom Patrol couldn’t have been too far from his mind), but the whole “X-Men are treated as freaks/X-Men are a metaphor for minorities” thing didn’t really come about in the original series much except for a few out-of-place scenes that could just as easily be found in Fantastic Four and Avengers. Even the whole Sentinels storyline was really just a prolonged variation on the standard “Public turns against the heroes until an even worse menace is created” plot. Instead of being discriminated against, you were more likely 99% of the time to find scenes of the public asking the X-Men for autographs, drooling over Marvel Girl, teenyboppers swooning over The Angel’s blond good looks or hippies trying to draw on The Beast’s big feet. The rare times that humans were shown hating mutants often felt tacked on, like the mob sequence in X-Men #8. I’m not saying that a subtext wasn’t there, but it was focused on in the 60’s about as much as Bruce Wayne’s angst over his losing his parents was in pre-Bronze Age Batman comics. I could write a whole essay about this, and probably will.

 The Doom Patrol definitely had tragic origins that made them outcasts, and certainly would be frightening to look at in real life, but most of their stories were showcases for Drake’s absurdist sense of humor and surreal imagination. Quite a contrast to Byrne and Morrison’s grim takes on the characters.

 Either way, my point is that the X-Men and Doom Patrol were all either fairly normal-looking, or the few who were abnormal-looking were non-threatening. The Beast and Iceman, the most inhuman appearing of the X-Men, were generally played for comic relief and were handsome in civilian guise. The other members of the team were all traditionally good-looking. Robotman was also made a cuddly presence in Doom Patrol. Even Negative Man was drawn to look cute underneath the bandages, showing a whole array of facial expressions. Elasti-Girl was a glamorous movie star in her civilian identity. You wouldn’t mind being around them, or being them despite their painful origins.

 The original Guardians though, truly are grotesque and freakish. Charlie-27 looks like a human compressed into a square shape, Martinex’s vaguely defined features and segmented, crystalline structure make him look like a grotesque cross between Iceman and Batman villain The Outsider and far eerier than either of them, Vance Astro is a man trapped in an inexpressive suit that makes him look more like a robot (or Superman villain the Parasite), than a hero. I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to be him. In fact, it is Yondu, oddly enough, who is the most normal-looking, despite being characterized as the most primitive and uneducated. All of them are the last of their kind in a sense (even the human Astro is the last living man from the twentieth century), with all the other members of their “races” dead or imprisoned. All of them would be misfits wherever they were to go.

 Perhaps it was this very aspect that was the reason the original Guardians were never a major hit, just like DC’s even more freakish-looking (and even less successful) Outsiders from First Issue Special #10.
 Another fascinating aspect of the Guardian’s debut is Drake’s vision of the future. All of Earth’s nations have united and we are specifically told by the narration that there haven’t been any wars. Normally this would imply some kind of peaceful, idealistic Utopia, but Drake never forgets or tries to overlook human nature. There are mentions of “New Paris”, “New Moscow”, “New New York etc. Clearly, there was a lot of blood spilt to create this ‘U.L.E’.

 Nor are racial or class conflicts depicted as a thing of the past, despite “We Shall Overcome” having changed to “Earth shall overcome” over the years. This is demonstrated briefly by mentioning the conflict between the “Jovians” and the “Pluvians”; they have even created their own slurs for each other. You can bet that if humanity ever does split into subspecies like this that it will just leads to new forms of racism, despite all the talk about “transhumanism” these days and claims that it will end racial conflict. Casual racism too can be observed in the hurtful things Astro says about Yondu, even if they were a bluff (Although then again, Yondu is written as a Tonto-like “Noble Savage”). We also see “robot servants”, but since normal labor jobs are shown to still exist and not made obsolete, apparently they are something only the very wealthy can afford.
  I wish more writers of futuristic space epics spent as much time on world-building as Drake does here, rather than simply making everything black and white, with the future being either a Utopian paradise or a Dystopian hellhole which has to be rebelled against, and Drake manages to achieve this in a story about rebels fighting a dystopian hellhole.

 All in all, while the original Guardians story isn’t great, and has even less potential as a film series than, well, a film starring a tree and a raccoon, it still offers up a truly fascinating vision of the future that’s neither too hopeful or too cynical, as well as a team of “freak” heroes that really are freakish for once. For fans of bizarre and unusual Silver Age comics, it’s one of Marvel’s most fascinating failed experiments.
 And let’s hope “failed experiment” isn’t a term that will be applied to the movie after it opens tonight.

UPDATE: Saw it opening night, and just went to see it a second time tonight. Loved it both times, and there’s really nothing for me to say that hasn’t already been said. In fact, I’m tempted to call it my favorite of all the Marvel Studios productions along with Winter Soldier, but it’s a bit too early to make that call.
 The doors are open. The Marvel Cinematic “Universe” has truly begun. Let Fox keep Fantastic Four and it’s supposed “grounded/found footage” approach, comic book movies that aren’t afraid to be comic book movies are going to be the norm from now on! Bring on Adam Warlock, Mar-Vell and Thanos!