Friday, August 1, 2014

I AM GROOT! And You Are?: A Guardians of the Galaxy Primer

Today, Guardians of the Galaxy opens in theaters. Two years ago, pretty much no one outside a small group of fans knew who the Guardians were. I'm lucky to be someone who has followed the exploits of this incarnation of the team since its inception. I'm not saying this out of a sense of hipster, "I was a fan before it was cool." No, I'm saying it because I feel that, having followed these exploits for a number of years, it gives me a good perspective to give a rundown of the team's recent history to those of you less familiar with them, either to get you ready to see the movie, or to give you some more background if you were one people who went to see it last night (I'm going after work, so there will be something posted in the way of a review either this weekend or Monday).

The original Guardians of the Galaxy were a team of freedom fighters introduced in 1969, whose adventures took place in the distant future. There, a group of aliens fought against the evil Badoon, who had conquered our solar system. That team came back in the 90s for a successful run, originally drawn by Image founder Jim Valentino, but when that series ended, the Guardians fell into limbo, only making an occassional appearance.

Marvel's outer space characters were all pretty much moribund in the late 90s into the early 00s. Since the end of Infinity Trilogy (Infinity Gauntlet, War, and Crusade) and the cancellation of Silver Surfer and Warlock and the Infinity Watch, attempts had been made, with new series featuring such characters as Silver Surfer, Adam Warlock, and Thanos, but none had really caught on. But in 2006, writer Keith Giffen took that little corner of the Marvel Universe and exploded it. After doing six issues of a Thanos series, and then a four issue Drax the Destroyer mini-series, he wrote Annihilation, a six issue event mini-series with various tie-in mini-series, featuring an attack from the Negative Zone (an alternate universe) by the forces of Annihilus, a classic Fantastic Four villain, and his army, called the Annihilation Wave. This series returned the original Nova, Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, and various others to the forefront of the Marvel Universe.

The following year, Marvel followed the series up with Annihilation: Conquest, written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, who would shepherd the team for the next few years. This was the story of when the empire of the Kree, a race of warlike aliens, was conquered by The Phalanx, a race of techno-organic beings (basically, shapeshifting robots things that possess people), under the control of the Avengers villains, Ultron, who you might have heard of connected to another upcoming Marvel film. Not only was the cast of the original Annihilation back, but added were Adam Warlock, Rocket Raccoon, and Groot.

With Ultron defeated, things might have settled down. But Warlock, who I've written about before, knew that the cosmos was threatened. These wars had weakened the walls of the universe, and someone needed to, well, guard the galaxy, hopefully stopping another war that might bring further damage. So Warlock went to Peter Quill, the hero known as Star-Lord, and Quill gathered the various beings who had fought with him during the Phalanx war, creating the new Guardians of the Galaxy.

It was a big team, not just featuring the five members of the current/movie team (all of whom I'll get into detail about shortly) and Warlock, but various other unusual characters. These included Mantis (the celestial madonna and psychic), Quasar (Phyla-Vell who was the daughter of legendary cosmic hero Captain Marvel), Bug (an insectoid alien warrior), Moondragon (daughter of Drax and lover of Quasar), Major Victory (one of the original future Guardians who was displaced in time and gave the team it's name), and Jack Flag (a human hero fleeing trouble on Earth).

The Guardians might not have been the lovable losers the TV commercials make their movie counterparts out to be, but they certainly were a ragtag group. The cosmic heroes of the Marvel Universe had always been A-List powerhouses who could go toe-to-toe with the likes of Thor without blinking. But most of these Guardians were low on the power scale, and were saving the universe with little more than wit, gumption, and a whole lot of luck.

Over the course of a series that ran two years, the Guardians faced many of Marvel's great cosmic threats. They fought the Universal Church of Truth, who sought to convert the entire galaxy to their religion. They were caught up in a war between two of the great alien empires, the Kree and the Shi'ar. They briefly disbanded when it was revealed that Star-Lord manipulated many of the more reticent members to join, only be to regathered by the unlikely Rocket Raccoon to save Star-Lord, who had been sent to the Negative Zone.

But their greatest foe came from within. To stop the universe from ripping itself apart, Adam Warlock was once more transformed into his darker self, The Magus. He manipulated many of the team to be his servants as he took over the Universal Church of Truth, and opened the Fault, a crack between universes, to allow a malignant universe entrance to his own. He died in the process, but the Guardians now had to face down a team of dark Avengers who were the champions of that universe. Allying with Nova, the Guardians traveled to the heart of the Cancerverse, the name given to this new dark universe, with the one being who could stop it: Thanos, worshiper of Death and cosmic warlord, the greatest threat our universe had ever faced. In the end, they succeeded, but at a great cost; to allow the others to escape, Nova and Star-Lord stayed behind, to keep the mad Thanos in the Cancerverse as it collapsed. And that was the end of the Guardians of the Galaxy...

... or so it seemed. The Guardians returned, with Star-Lord again in the lead and no explanation, in the pages of Avengers Assemble to do battle with a similarly mysteriously returned Thanos. The Guardians have gone on to headline their own series, where they do their best to protect the helpless, standing up to great cosmic empires like the Spartax, Shi'ar, and Badoon, being joined by the mysterious Angela, and Avengers like Iron Man, Captain Marvel, and Venom.

Since the team began to really form in Annihilation: Conquest, there have been five members who have been around pretty much consistently, and they form the backbone of the movie team. Here's a quick rundown on who each of them are.

Star Lord, Peter Jason Quill, has one of those convoluted comic book histories that make your head spin. His origin has been tinkered with many times over the years, which is better explained over on this column from Comic Book Resources, but what you really need to know is that he is the son of a human woman and a prince of the Spartax Empire, and has a bad habit of getting himself into trouble. When he first appeared in the modern comics, he was in prison. Freed to help fight the Annihilation Wave, he was again imprisoned when his attempt to network all security of the Kree Empire allowed the Phalanx to invade their system. Sent on a suicide mission to redeem himself, Quill met his fellow future Guardians, Rocket, Groot, Mantis, and Bug. Quill continued to seek personal redemption for his past crimes by leading the Guardians of the Galaxy and protecting the universe. Since returning from the Cancerverse, he has become more of a rogue, a sly trickster who enjoys the ladies and thumbing his nose at his father, J'Son of Spartax, who is now the king of the Spartax Empire, but is no less a champion of the little guy. A skilled marksman and tactician, Star-Lord often looks before he leaps. The upcoming story beginning in the August issue of Guardians of the Galaxy, will reveal how Star-Lord and Thanos escaped the Cancerverse, and the fate of Richard Rider, the Nova who was lost. He also headlines his own series, Legendary Star-Lord.

Gamora is known as the Deadliest Woman in the Universe, and that reputation has been earned. After her people were wiped out by the warlike Badoon, Gamora was taken in by Thanos, who trained her to be his own personal assassin. Gamora eventually betrayed Thanos to aid Adam Warlock, and she used her skills for the betterment of the universe. Meeting Star-Lord during the Annihilation War, Gamora was one of his first recruits for the new Guardians. Cold and deadly, Gamora is possibly the toughest member of the team, unmatched in the use of sword, blaster, and her hands. Her gruff exterior hides a good heart, though she does take time off from the Guardians to take on the occasional mercenary job.

Drax the Destroyer has a complex backstory, one intrinsically tied to Thanos. Drax was once human Arthur Douglas, who saw a space ship while driving along a desert road with his wife and daughter. The spaceship, not wanting any witnesses, fired on Douglas's car, killing him and his wife, and leaving their daughter to be taken in and raised by other aliens, to become the heroine Moondragon. When cosmic forces wanted a champion to stand against Thanos, whose ship had killed him, Douglas was resurrected in a powerful new body, that of Drax the Destroyer. Drax has died and returned many times, each time slightly different. Originally a cosmic juggernaut, then a childlike giant, now he is smaller but more clever (at least in the sense he's smaller than let's say the Hulk, but bigger than pretty much anyone else you'll meet), and deadlier than many beings with his knives and knowledge of hand to hand combat. Drax's return to life is almost always tied with the return of the being he was created to destroy, and while he aids the Guardians in their noble goals, Drax always has one eye open for Thanos.

Since they met during the war with the Phalanx, Rocket Raccoon and Groot have been inseparable. Both imprisoned by the Kree, Rocket and Groot were sent on a mission with Star-Lord. They have been a pair of the most earnest Guardians, doing their best to save the galaxy because it's the right thing to do and its fun. Rocket comes from Halfworld, a planet of anthropomorphic animals. He is not just a crack shot, but an expert tactician and star pilot. He has a thing for large firearms. Groot is from Planet X, and aside from his giant size and strength, he can regrow himself from the smallest of fragments. All he can say is, "I am Groot!" although those who understand him know that there is nuance in exactly what that means. Interesting fact, he is actually one of the oldest characters currently in use in Marvel comics, having been introduced in Tales to Astonish when it was a sci-fi comic in 1960, predating nearly all Marvel superheroes. Rocket Raccoon has his own ongoing series, with Groot as his buddy and supporting cast.

So, those are the Guardians of the Galaxy. Every indication is that the movie will be packed with appearances and cameos by a legion of cosmic Marvel characters, and I might write up a little something about those characters after I've seen the movie. If you want to check out more Guardians, there is the monthly comic series for the team, Rocket, and Star-Lord, and this past week saw the release of the first of two volumes collecting the entire 2008 series that introduced the team.

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