Thursday, January 8, 2009

In Review: Guardians of the Galaxy #1 - 27

As a 13 year-old one of my favorite series was Jim Valentino's Guardians of the Galaxy. Turns out my 13 year-old self had good taste.

The Guardians of the Galaxy (Charlie 27, Yondu, Nikki, Vance Astro, Martinex, and Starhawk) were the heroes of the Marvel universe, 1,000 years in the future. They had appeared several times in the 1970s, mostly in the team-up book Marvel Two-In-One and several issues of The Avengers. They briefly had their own feature in Marvel Presents, as well. Marvel reintroduced them in 1990 as part of a spate of new books.

In re-reading the series I found numerous things to be impressed about, none more than the fact that Valentino wrote and drew 22 straight issues plus an annual on a monthly schedule! After a fill-in by Mark Texiera (not the baseball player), Valentino completed four more issues.

That consistency led to an enjoyable series of interconnected stories. Valentino obviously planned far ahead, and was thus able to drop hints about and lay groundwork for storylines far ahead of their fruition. He also clearly understood how to create a mystery without dragging it out. For example, in issue 17 we meet a mysterious character called Hollywood. By issue 20 we find out (if we haven't already guessed) that it's the Avenger Wonder Man.

There are touches like that all over the series, showing Valentino was exceedingly well-versed in Marvel lore. Not only is he appropriately reverent toward Guardians history (the first three issues feature a prose recap with bibliography and there are constant references by the characters to past events), he also builds upon the work of other Marvel masters like Jim Starlin (the Universal Church of Truth) and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (Galactus, the Inhumans, mutants, Dr.Strange, etc.).

Speaking of Lee and Kirby, they are obviously Valentino's stylistic touchstones. While his prose is nowhere as purple or prodigious as Lee's, it does have that same sense of excitement and quick pacing. And of course few can match Kirby's dynamic pages and figures, but Valentino has that same grasp of action and storytelling.

The Guardians see a lot of changes as the series progresses. Martinex sheds his crystalline skin. Nikki goes through several types of weapons and hairstyles. Charlie starts toting a gun as nearly as big as him. Yondu loses a hand. Starhawk (a being actually made up of an estranged couple) is separated and then combined again, and turns halfway evil. Vance Astro finds Captain America's shield and eventually sheds his protective suit. New members show up, too. Replica is a young Skrull whose torn between her faith and her loyalty to the team. Talon is a cat-like Inhuman.

If the series has any fault it's the obvious grasp at sales by including popular characters of the time. Ghost Rider shows up. A female descendant of Wolverine, Rancor, also makes multiple appearances. But the worst offense is the gang that has arisen on Earth inspired by the 20th century exploits of Frank Castle, the Punishers. Yes, they all have black shirts with skulls on them. All three feel out of place in the Guardians' future world.

But Valentino does a lot more right than he does wrong. Despite the whiz-bang attitude, he doesn't skip on thoughtful themes like the limits of religious power and the rise of reality T.V. Diversity is not spotlighted, but instead taken for granted. For example, we eventually learn that Martinex (the last survivor of Earth's colonization of Pluto), is of African descent. There's also the clear-but-never-stated gay relationship between mutants Bat-Wing and Blaster.

Though the series never jumps the shark during Valentino's run, it clearly loses steam around issue #20, coincidentally when Vance Astro ditches his classic cool costume for a terrible one and an even worse name - Major Victory. Seriously.

Valentino stopped drawing at issue #28 and stopped writing at #30. He left to be one of the co-founders of Image, a group of creators who wanted to own their creations. His contribution was a "grim 'n gritty '90s style" hero called Shadowhawk, pretty much the opposite of what he'd been doing. It never did much for me. I stopped reading Guardians of the Galaxy,
which made it to issue 64 before being canceled.

In 2008, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, Marvel's current cosmic writers, brought back the Guardians of the Galaxy concept along with ace artist Paul Pelliter. The team is completely different and is set in the modern day, but thankfully Abnett and Lanning have not forgotten the roots of the name. Both Starhawk and Vance Astro have made appearances in the current storyline, and the series has been high-quality fun, just like its predecessor.

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