Friday, July 2, 2010

Galactic Guardians and the death of a minor obsession


The first place I ever saw Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy, it wasn't in a comic book. It was on a towel.

As a kid, I had this beach towel, which got some heavy use over the years, mainly down the local rivers and ended up falling apart at about the time I turned into a sorry-arse teenager. It had a picture of the Guardians of the Galaxy on it, and even though I didn't have any idea ho they were, I thought Starhawk looked bloody cool.

A few years later and I'm deep in a Marvel mood of mind. I'd seen the Guardians show up in a few comic books, with one legendary appearance in The Avengers during the Korvac saga. The last issue of this storyline left the Guardians and most of the Avengers in a state of mental limbo, as they are casually slaughtered during the climax. They all came back to life in the same issue, but there was just something about that resurrection that left my nine-year-old brain a little confused, and I never saw the following issue that would have set it all right. Were they really back? Or were they really dead? And who were these Guardians of the Galaxy anyway?

It didn't take long to figure that one out, and they showed up, here and there, over the years, fighting against the Badoon and zipping around in time. I had a little trouble figuring out how the Vance Astro in the New Warriors was connected to the Vance Astro of the year 3000, but a bit of confusion is good for the soul.

And then I heard about the new series, launched by Marvel its early nineties blitz of titles that never made it to issue numbers with three digits. Writer/artist Jim Valentino had a pleasingly loose style, and all the right friends. It sounded like something worth reading.

Naturally, the first one I got to read was issue #8.

* * *


It didn't make any sense. I had to know more and figure out what it all meant.

So what’s new? This is a fairly regular occurrence for any reader of mainstream American comics. Picking up a random issue of a title you might have heard about somewhere maybe, and being so totally lost as lots of people run about yelling at each other and dropping buildings on their heads. The first dip into a new continuity can be bracingly shocking, or just mildly confusing.

Sometimes this leads to obsession, ranging from a mild dose to full-on rage. Most of the time it's just mere interest, and in the case of Valentino’s GotG, this was as far as it ever really went, but that was enough.

The eighth issue of the series was one of the placeholders that mainstream comics are so very good at doing, moving off from a Big and Important climax and heading towards the next, with the usual amount of juggling sub-plots. When I saw it in a Timaru bookstore, I knew I had to have it, even though the first seven issues had never shown up in the town. That Saturday afternoon is still burned in my mind, even though it really was nothing special, sitting beside Caroline Bay and flicking through it, along with some recent Avengers and X-Factor action, the series clicked. A thousand years on, the Marvel Universe was a very different place, but Valentino laid out all sorts of mysteries about the fates of the world’s greatest heroes and villains, and I’ve just turned 16 years old and in love with superhero comics like never before, so I’m hooked.

The next few issues feed the mutant fever young teenagers can always identify with, as our Galactic heroes found a lost x-colony, with all the pain, misery and Phoenix rebirths that this would predictably bring. The Guardians made their way back to Earth and a tonne of new mysteries were piled on, just as the old ones were sorted out.

The book remained surprisingly downbeat – there was all sorts of carnage, somehow made worse by Valentino’s splendidly cartoonish approach to art, and there was no guarantee of a happy ending, especially when billions of people had been horribly killed before the series even started. There aren’t that many shits and giggles in the apocalypse, so Valentino did a good job of showing the character’s humanity, buried amongst the vulgar sci-fi. None of them were technically fully human, but they all had soul.

As a 16-year-old misery guts, the early nineties Guardian of the Galaxy really was one of my favourite comics. For a while.

* * *


I never bought the five early issues I needed to complete the collection and bailed on the comic completely soon after Valentino bailed for Image. He stayed on as writer/plotter/vague presence in the background for a little while, but the drop in quality when his art disappeared was a good reason to quit. It was an irrational hatred of Kevin West’s art that saw me finally give up for good – West also finally got me to drop Justice League International, after sticking with it through that surprisingly good Dan Jurgens run – and I never bought a single issue past #33, or even read any of them.

Guardians of the Galaxy stumbled on for a few more years, and even made it as far as #50, but like almost every comic Marvel debuted in 1990, it didn’t make it to triple figures. Nobody really noticed when it finally died, nobody really cared.

I certainly didn’t. By that time, I was lost in Vertigo and Los Bros Hernandez and Dark Horse and Dan Clowes. I didn’t even notice when the last few Guardians comics came out, and it took me a while before I even noticed its absence.

That interest in the 30th century Marvel universe never really came back, and successive issues of the comic were sold off over the years, during periodic purges. It was easy enough to get rid of those Kevin West issues, and then the latter Valentino run went, with no second thoughts.

Eventually, I ditched the rest, getting rid of comics that I’d gone to a lot of effort to get back in the early nineties. I could still look at them and remember exactly where I’d bought it, but I need that bit of my brain to do aother stuff now, so that scrap of memory can go. That was a lot harder to do, but I haven’t missed carting all those issues around, when I just didn’t care enough.

Or so I thought – the other week, I was sorting out the box of Marvel comics I’ve still held onto after all these years and I found issues 8 and 16 wedged between issues of Groo and late eighties X-Men annuals.

And the weird thing is, I was really, really glad to still have them. I’d obviously held onto the earlier issue for reasons of unashamed nostalgia, but I really thought I got rid of the second issue years ago and I was glad to have another look.

Reading them with a 2010 eye, they’re clumsy and a bit crude and they really don’t stand up as individual issues, but they’re going back into that box of Marvel. Maybe I just feel sorry for it.

Because it was just another nothing series, published during a massive glut of product. The stories haven’t been reprinted in recent years and are unlikely to be. There is a new Guardians of the galaxy series, but it has little to do with the earlier (later) team, apart from appearances by Star Hawk and Vance Astro.

But I still care. I can’t help it. The slight obsession that lasted for a year is long dead, but there is still some fondness for this unloved comic, and I can’t dispute that.

I also once had a thing for the Wonder Man comic that came out at the same time, but that’s another sad story altogether.

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