Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Stolen Destiny of... Star-Lord!

It took me decades to get on board the Star-Lord train, but I know it happened well before the Guardians of the Galaxy took off in the cinema. My best guess in narrowing down the timeframe is when I took interest in the character during the Annihilation series of stories in 2006; but he really caught fire for me when he became part of the new GOTG group whose series launched in 2008. Written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, with art by Paul Pelletier and Rick Magyar, and with the team assisted by a talkink... er, talking dog named Cosmo, that series was pure (dare I say it) Marvel magic, and it's where Peter Quill unquestionably belonged.

As happy as I was to read the adventures of the Guardians--and of Star-Lord--from that point on, I was still curious about this character's beginnings. "Star-Lord" may be a cool name for a hero, but it doesn't really "fit" Quill in terms of his role in the galaxy. What the heck is a Star-Lord? Why and how did Quill acquire this type of name? For that answer, I needed to go back over thirty years to the character's introduction in the pages of Marvel Preview in early 1976, where Quill seems to be just as confused by this new designation he's given.

We can thank Marv Wolfman for the name itself, though he had no preconceived notion of what kind of character would be attached to it. The task for developing the who and why of Star-Lord would be passed on to writer Steve Englehart, who would use his background in astrology to inject the character with a kind of pre-destined aspect that unfortunately falls short of giving Quill's new status any true meaning, for either himself or the reader. In addition, the Peter Quill that Englehart presents is a far cry from the present-day Quill whose wit and sense of responsibility carry the day as much as his style of shooting from the hip and thinking outside the box. Quill, as originally written, seems like the last person you'd want to have any measure of power, ordained by destiny or otherwise; on the contrary, Quill's road to the stars is littered with the bodies of those he's killed in his rage at being denied what he considered his due.  This man should have wound up in court with the book thrown at him, followed by either a heavy prison sentence or an indefinite stay in an insane asylum for observation and treatment.

The introduction of "Star-Lord" doesn't paint a pretty picture of Peter Quill at all--and when reaching its conclusion, it's very difficult to look forward to his adventures, much less sympathize with this borderline psychopath. In Marvel's second look at the character over a year later, editor John Warner seemed to acknowledge as much--reintroducing Star-Lord with a few changes, dumping the astrology angle, and smoothing his path to being the type of character who didn't react to personal setbacks by mowing down anyone who got in his way:

"We also set the story some bit of time after Starlord's first appearance so that we could make some alterations on Peter Quill's chracter. We did so because both Chris [Claremont] and I felt uncomfortable with Quill being quite as twisted as he was in the first story. However, I don't think we have contradicted anything in the first issue. Time and his new awareness have mellowed Quill out just a bit."

In the original story's preface--the ideal place for an author to get you stoked on the new character you're about to see--even Englehart appears to have difficulty finding the words to express what it is about Quill that you'll find interesting and compelling, in spite of a title that reads "The Starlord: Who He Is and How He Came To Be." In a full page with three columns of text, the subject of Quill isn't really broached until the point where the introduction is being wrapped up, and then only in words cautioning that Quill's journey in becoming this character is going to require some effort on our part to understand and accept. You may find that it's Quill himself who should first admit to that.

(You might have noticed that there's a discrepancy in the usage of a hyphen in Star-Lord's name, with the magazine's cover including one while the interior omits it. My best guess as to why is that originally there was some effort made to distinguish between Star-Lord being a title of someone chosen for the role, rather than a single character's name. To make things really confusing, the story takes the approach of the former, even though Englehart prefers to use "Starlord." Since more contemporary stories appear to have settled on "Star-Lord," and since the Marvel Preview title shifts over to using the hyphen in 1978 in mid-story, Star-Lord it is.)

We get some inkling as to the tone of Englehart's story--and his treatment of Quill--as early as the circumstances of Quill's birth, a horrendous event which he barely survives.

We certainly won't shed any tears for the absence of the husband in this family's life from this point on--nor do Quill and his mother, who go on to become a reasonably happy and contented family on their own, though the mother is a bit withdrawn from any interaction with the townspeople and is generally shunned and endures petty gossip as a result, leading to similar treatment of Quill among his friends. Quill comes to prefer his isolation, taking comfort from televised science fiction shows and long walks in the fields near his home. An innocent question regarding a mysterious crater nearby plants the notion in his head that the area might have been visited by aliens--but nothing really comes of it until a tragic event later that will change Quill's life forever.

The incident becomes a turning point that sees Quill become obsessed with reaching outer space and making the aliens pay for what they've done. In itself that's not so unusual a story device, having been repeated often in other tales with variations--but in Quill's case, he loses much of himself in the process, and eventually it becomes hard to root for either the character or his cause anymore.

In retrospect, however, it's rather interesting to see the progression of Quill's life over the years, given that authors of fiction in the '70s were likely to view future decades as being much more scientifically advanced in space travel than what we know to be the case in 2017. In this case, a good example would be Quill's chosen profession. Given what Quill seeks to do, and, more importantly, where he seeks to go, his course seems clear. In the coming years, he trains and excels in the astronaut program, his dedication driving him to become their top candidate; yet the baggage that remains with him from the incident in his youth makes him difficult to get along with, his temperament unpredictable and at times hostile. There's no question that Quill's performance is exemplary; but by the time of his graduation from the program, it seems inevitable that he's viewed as his own worst enemy.

(Note how futuristic the astronaut program is envisioned by Englehart only a little over a decade in the future, which would put it in the late '80s--it's like something out of a space cadet film, even down to the cloak draping the program's director.)

If nothing else, Quill's harsh evaluation serves as a wake-up call that forces him to look back on his wasted life and view his prospects for success realistically. Given what happens next in just a few months' time might lead us to believe that Quill took the incident to heart and rededicated himself to his chosen career--but there are undertones to his sentiments that perhaps provide good reason for his superiors to proceed carefully with him.

Artist Steve Gan provides us with quite a different picture of life on board a space station than the comparatively cramped confines of the present-day ISS. For Quill, though, the spacious surroundings of his new post is still too confining, a mere stepping stone to where he really wants to head to. Yet as the station aligns to view an eclipse event (along with the planets--the astrology angle in play again), Quill would see an opportunity to advance to the next stage of his plans, when planet Earth receives what the authorities believe to be its first extra-terrestrial contact.

Quill is adamant about being the person chosen to be taken by the message's sender--but a more experienced officer is selected instead, marking the second time Quill is passed over and his dreams dashed. His violent reaction proves to one and all that Quill was never suitable for the space program, and never would be--and that would seem to be that as far as what he'd spent most of his life striving for.

But as the time approaches for the chosen officer to be whisked away to an incredible encounter, Quill basically snaps, stealing a ship at gunpoint to return to the station and begin a murderous rampage to force his way into what he sees as his last chance to achieve his ends.

When Quill is finally cornered, the decision is made to open fire on him--but at the last instant, he disappears, beginning his transport to the alien world. What we find on his arrival is another familiar device that's been used to initiate a mortal being into the unknown--the biblical Methuselah figure, who speaks in wise if cryptic words that ease Quill's way into the life and role destined for him. Almost immediately, Quill's host has guessed that Quill wasn't the one selected to come--but where the story is concerned, it really makes little difference at this point.

"Maybe" a murderer. It's going to be difficult for Englehart to backtrack in that respect now, given what we've seen of the carnage that Quill has dispensed from the barrel of his laser-rifle. Quill's regrets, if you can call them that, are too little too late and sound anything but heartfelt--far too inadequate to have us accepting what appears to be a change in his fortunes in the presence of this being.

True to the promise made at the station, Quill is provided with the outfit and equipment that makes him a Star-Lord, though we're mostly shown what that means in terms of his new abilities than his presumed purpose.

We're given little insight to the alien's methods of initiating this new Star-Lord, so we're left to assume that he wishes for Quill to resolve what has up to now been his life's mission before taking up the mantle of a Star-Lord in full. Whether what happens next actually takes place or is experienced only in Quill's mind is something that neither the alien nor Englehart is willing to make clear; but given how the scene plays out, it seems intended for Quill to get it out of his system, so to speak, as well as to clear Quill's path to becoming a new hero in our eyes.

It's a most abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion to this man's story, meant to hold the promise of a better life and a brighter future for the troubled man named Peter Quill but offering no real closure for him, as well as little to no redemption for the choices he made that led him to this point. The Claremont/John Byrne tale which follows up with the character in a year would help to smooth over the feel of unfinished business here by adding further details in regard to Quill's parents as well as the circumstances of his mother's death, which allow Quill to make more of a fresh start than Englehart's closing scene attempts to provide him with. Yet though the character went on to flourish, particularly in the 21st century, this story indelibly makes clear that there was no shortage of innocent people who had to pay the price.

Marvel Preview #4 (Star-Lord segment)

Script: Steve Englehart
Pencils and Inks: Steve Gan and Bob McLeod


johnlindwall said...

I must have read the Claremont/Byrne version of early StarLoad back in the day, because I am sure I would have remembered him being a total jerk if I had read this! What an unlikable character. He deserves nothing that he is given in this story, so if his tale had continued I'd never have been rooting for him

The StarLord I vaguely remember had a ship that he could communicate with, like it was actually alive as I recall.... Named "Ship"?

Anonymous said...

Jeez, this guy was outta control! I'm only familiar with the film version of Starlord, who apparently inherited his easygoing charm and casual attitude from his dad Ego/Kurt Russell, who is no doubt one of the coolest and well-liked sentient planets in the Black Galaxy.
Finally a planet you could have a beer with, or talk about sports.


Comicsfan said...

John, yes, you're correct about the ship; in Englehart's story, I think it's Star-Lord's helmet that assumes that role, though there is no personality to the extent that we see in the ship.

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