My Year of Comics: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 The Early Years

Under discussion: Guardians of the Galaxy: Tomorrow’s Avengers Vol. 1, including Marvel Super Heroes #18, Marvel Two-in-One #4-5, Giant-Size Defenders #5, Defenders #26-29, and Marvel Presents #3-12.

There isn’t much from the very earliest Guardians of the Galaxy stories that seems at first glance to have survived into the 2014 movie. Precisely none of the original characters make it into James Gunn’s snobs-versus-slobs, losers-done-right parable. These earliest Guardians stories largely revolve around a galactic war fought by a motley assortment of genetically modified humans against a race of bipedal lizards called the Brotherhood of the Badoon. Oh yeah, and it all takes place a thousand years in the future.

Not much sounds familiar, does it.

But there are glimmers here and there, especially in the aesthetics of the stories that has been buried or folded into the version of the Guardians that most of us know and love. There is the crazy energy of artist Gene Colan’s panel work in Marvel Super Heroes #18, the Guardians’ debut, featuring panels shaped like jagged shards and zig-zaggering laser blasts, a style of comic storytelling that I’ve almost never seen anywhere else.

In the follow-up stories, written at least half a decade after the group’s debut, there is a more familiar mix of four-color fun, sixties psychedelia, and haunting darkness. Among the one-liners and vaudevillian superhero patter, there are scenes of abrupt horror, mortality, and grief. There’s the scene where Jupiter-born Charlie-27 abandons his father to radiation poisoning in a labor camp; the scene where Yondu fights for his life on a game show where murdering contestants isn’t just the point, it’s a punchline; the scene where the dour sage Starhawk’s three children age instantaneously from childhood into dust after an accident sends their Arcturian psychic vampirism powers into overdrive. (It’s sort of a long story.)

Overall unrelated to the movie and everything that came later, I thought as I read most of these first issues. Then I found the Topographical Man.

The “Topographical Man” arc occurs in Marvel Presents #4-7, a story written by Howard the Duck creator Steve Gerber and drawn by longtime Marvel artist Al Milgrom. The plot is illogical enough to feel muddier rather than clearer translated into prose. Suffice to say that there’s a giant ghost frog that moonlights as nothingness personified and a man so large he holds two separate suns in his hands and a religious structure known as the “Convent of Living Fire.” In order to save the universe, two Guardians do it, their bodies spread across space and time. The whole business is righteously odd.

Gerber is a natural satirist, and his essential storytelling elements are normally silliness, absurdity, and subversiveness. While many issues in this collection contain those tropes, the Topographical Man stories somehow get beyond, or maybe behind, them. The creativity of these issues is so incessant, so associative in its leaps and bounces that one wonders if Gerber didn’t somehow end up tricking himself out of his usual cynicism into a more poignant and symbolic realm of signification. For example, there is end of the story in which a thousand-year-old man and a fire-haired woman are both themselves and eons-wide cosmic avatars of erotic release and connection.

There is an argument buried in all the star ports and phaser blasts about the cosmic unity of all things. And two galactic bodies making love among the stars feels thematically pretty damn close to a puer aeternus hero type having a dance-off against an alien fundo bent on global genocide with a world hanging in the balance. There is a Summer of Love mysticism working its persistent way into and between the space opera tropes in both of these stories. Grabbing Gamora’s hand is like grabbing my mother’s, is like dancing alone in my room to Violent Femmes, is like a pair of planetary objects smashing uglies against the Milky Way. Let the starshine in, the chorus sings. And if we’re smart, we do.