Monday, May 29, 2017

Earth Shall Overcome!

In the mid-1970s, writer Steve Gerber began taking an interest in resurrecting the Guardians of the Galaxy from obscurity. Last (and first) seen in their premiere issue in early 1969, the Guardians looked like they had their work cut out for them in what seemed to be shaping up to be a long and difficult struggle to free the human race from the murderous Brotherhood of the Badoon, a race of reptilian aliens who had finally succeeded in conquering the Earth of the 31st century and enslaving its population.

The "Guardians of the Galaxy" were mostly the result of chance meetings between four individuals who crossed paths while trying to survive encounters with their Badoon attackers. Two were products of Earth colonies established on Jupiter and Pluto, where the colonists of each world were obliged to adapt to the extremes of those planets--respectively, Charlie-27, who gained massive bulkness and strength in order to survive the gravity and pressure of Jupiter, and Martinex, part of a genetically engineered crystalline race who possessed heat/cold deploying abilities. Charlie, a member of the space militia and returning from a six-month solo assignment, returned to find Jupiter captured and was forced to teleport to Pluto, where he found Martinex attempting a last act of sabotage before making his own escape.

Fleeing together, the two teleported to Earth and found two others improvising their escape from captivity: Vance Astro, an astronaut of the year 1988 whose thousand-year flight to another world was turned into a cruel joke when he found that humans had beaten him there, thanks to faster-than-light technology perfected just 200 years after he'd launched from Earth... and Yondu, a native of the world that was Astro's destination. Astro can harness psychic energy (a heck of an ability for an astronaut to pick up); while Yondu possesses "yaka" arrows made of sound-sensitive material that allows him to direct their course with a whistle.

The group's brief origin story comes to an end with a promise of hope, though you mostly get the impression that it's hope that the Guardians and their cause catch on with readers:

The story is published just three months following the Badoon's conflict with the Silver Surfer in the 20th century--so if nothing else, the Guardians story at least establishes the potential of the Badoon threat. (To say nothing of the viability of the "if at first you don't succeed..." proverb.)

Unlike Captain Marvel, a character who had used his premiere in Marvel Super-Heroes as a stepping stone to a second appearance in the book and then to his own series, the Guardians remained in limbo; but five years later in 1974, Gerber dusted off the team and dealt them into a story arc in Marvel Two-In-One where they joined 20th century heroes travelling from the past to retake one city (New York) from the Badoon, with Astro, Yondu, and Charlie-27 re-outfitted (and, in Charlie's case, downsized a bit) to give them a more distinctive presence on the team.

It was a promising new beginning for the Guardians that served to jump-start the concept; and a year later, Gerber took it a step further by scripting a plot by several writers (including himself) that brought the Guardians into the 20th century in search of historical records that might indicate how Earth had fought off the Badoon in 1968. Unfortunately, their new friends, the Defenders, can be of no help--in that regard, at least.

Take Dr. Strange at his word, however contemplative it might seem, since that story segues to a four-issue arc in The Defenders that has Strange and his allies returning with the Guardians to the 31st century, resolved to put an end to the Badoon threat--though it's more accurate to say that Strange sets the wheels in motion for the human race to reclaim its own destiny.

(Such scenes offered the opportunity for the PPC to offer a more humorous take on Dr. Strange's *ahem* modest abilities.)

With the mystic liberation of enslaved humanity, the Defenders story gave the Guardians the momentum that the MSH tale failed to ignite and lead the team to its own series, albeit in the Marvel Presents "feature" book that provides the group with a generous ten-issue run that gives it every chance to establish a decent following.

But what are these resistance fighters to do when their long struggle comes to an end?

The new series' "liner notes" on its debut letters page described an interesting premise for future stories, developments you'd expect on a world which has just thrown off the yoke of its alien invaders and must now begin to repopulate and rebuild.

There's information here that supplements the original story and would have helped to make that tale a good deal more interesting than it was--for instance, the numbers involved in the surviving human population as well as the fatalities on Earth as well as its colonies. Also, the peculiar focus on the Mercury colony, as well as the link to the Martian invasion (published in Amazing Adventures)--and there's the revelation that it was Alpha Centauri that Astro's flight was headed for. Many of these details and more were revealed in Astro's description of that century's advancements and achievements in Defenders #26, and worth a look if you want to bring yourself more up to speed on the Guardians' backstory.

And yet, what's described here isn't really what we saw at all in this new series, as the story of the Guardians soon shifted to their adventures off-planet without a glance back toward Sol III. It was as if Gerber had jotted down these notes for publication in the premiere issue, only to change his mind before he and artist Al Milgrom began plotting for succeeding stories.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves a bit. In essence, this first issue capsulizes the premise of an Earth that begins to rise again to the promise it held before the Badoon all but crushed its future. Though rather than skip ahead, Gerber has the good sense to use the incredible story material that lies waiting where the Defenders story leaves off--the struggle of the human race to reclaim their world. Even so, the method by which Gerber presents this conflict--and our world--in relation to their importance on a universal scale is certainly an eye-opener that puts such a crisis into perspective.

Yet that bit of cold reflection beautifully draws the curtain to a stunning opening scene that puts us directly in harm's way--a feeling every human of that troubled century could definitely relate to.

Appearances aside, Gerber apparently doesn't wish to take too much time dealing with the Badoon, given his almost conspicuous disregard for the power and resources of the Badoon that made them such a threat to begin with. Even released from bondage, the human population is still a fraction of what it was when it originally fell to Badoon forces and weaponry--so it's difficult to imagine that a planetary uprising would triumph now, even with the Guardians in the thick of things. For that to happen, the Badoon would have had to have left only a token troop deployment on Earth following the subjugation of its remaining populace. It makes for high drama to see humanity rise from its ashes and overcome the forces that nearly wiped it from existence--but is it realistic? Perhaps if this series had been dedicated exclusively to that struggle, it might have indeed proven to be; but here, we have only a few well-placed captions to assure us.

But Gerber and Milgrom have done their work well in these opening pages that depict nothing less than all-out war and sweep us up in the tide of resistance and desperation that drive the oppressed people of Earth to overcome their alien captors, with the Guardians sharing in both their determination and playing a part in the body count. Yet as gripping as the action is, this life-or-death struggle seems to be over even as it's settling in to become a real page-turner.

As we see, there is a new Guardian who's informally been added to their ranks--the enigmatic Starhawk, the self-described "one who knows" who appears determined to play a part in this critical juncture in Earth history. Given the brutality and merciless nature of the Badoon and the suffering they've inflicted on those they conquered, it's no surprise to see the surviving humans succumb to their baser instincts and seek no small measure of revenge on the Badoon who yet live. It would be interesting for the story to pursue this fervor and see where it leads--i.e., if the now free men and women of Earth decide to give in to "mob mentality" and become as brutal and horrific as their former captors in their treatment of the prisoners, or even if they simply decide to execute the Badoon without mercy. Obviously the Guardians have no problem with that option, if Charlie and Martinex are any indication.

Regardless, we're deprived of a dramatic moment that Gerber could no doubt do justice to and scenes that could make this issue resonate with the reader, when Starhawk essentially takes the choice out of the hands of the human race and makes their decision for them--a defining moment for humanity that, as a result, will come to have much less meaning for them than it otherwise might have.

It's hard to definitively say at this point whether Gerber means for Starhawk to be humanity's savior here, but his story nevertheless reads as such. In the cold light of day, however, it's difficult not to share Astro's doubts about the character. In one respect, Starhawk acknowledges the importance of the humans overcoming their thirst for revenge on their own, while in the same breath he abruptly shifts his tone and uses words like "not be allowed" and "forced," followed by a decision that makes it clear that Starhawk keeps his own counsel as far as the human race is concerned. Maybe as far as anyone is concerned.

As for his solution, well, see for yourselves. How would you react if, after all the fighting you've done to be free and all the death you've seen, more Badoon ships land--a terrifying sight in itself--and their royalty disembarks to gather their warriors? How is justice served, just because the male and female Badoon loathe one another? (For that matter, why would the humans assume that's even true?) And why would anyone trust Starhawk, who has taken no visible part in the resistance and shows up only now when the enemy is captured?

And so, incredibly, Starhawk uses his power to enforce a decision that the humans have neither reached consensus on nor acceded to--a violent scene that is repeated worldwide and, it must be said, gives no sense of closure (good or bad) to a conflict that has resulted in massive destruction, most of the human race meeting their deaths, and over seven years of enslavement for those who were allowed to remain alive. It's a decision made for humanity's own good, in Gerber's eye--the same human race that Gerber had made clear in the Defenders story had advanced on its own merits to a point of peace and a new golden age, but people which the writer now feels cannot be trusted to rise up again without being properly guided.

The preliminaries over, the story turns to post-war scenarios for not only the humans who are faced with rebuilding their world and their society, but also for the Guardians, who suddenly find themselves rejected in one way or another by the world they fought to save. Given Starhawk's behavior, it stands to reason that would make sense; Starhawk is likely now highly mistrusted and perhaps even detested for actions which appeared to favor the Badoon, making the Guardians guilty by association. But Gerber instead chooses to go in another direction, by treating the Guardians as if they were now out of place on Earth.

There are some interesting angles being explored here by Gerber, if briefly. Martinex's scene is notable in that it brings attention to the fact that he is, indeed, a human, for all intents and purposes; while his fellow scientist's aversion to him could have as easily been due to living so long under alien rule, instead of his unease with the crystalline state of Martinex himself. (The real shocker in this scene, however, lies in something more subtle and altogether different: Tapes? In the 31st century? And as a storage medium?)

For Astro, it's a nice nod to his origin that his modified suit, now metal to offer better protection than his original covering of copper, can never be removed because of his skin's vulnerability to air. That, and the fact that he hails from the 20th century, tends to anchor the Guardians and make them more accessible to the reader, since Astro has an edge to him that the others lack--with perhaps the exception of Charlie, who started out as more "home-grown" than he comes across today. Charlie is the obvious muscle of the group, but his personality appears to be in flux--one moment thoughtful and reasoned, the next reactive and letting his fists do his talking for him.

Yondu, of course, is treated differently, since he has no human heritage to bemoan; but given his spiritual nature, Gerber nicely leaves the options open for him as far as pursuing his journey elsewhere.

Clearly, all of Astro's comrades have room for growth, something the group will need to excel in if it's to survive.

And so the stage is set for the Guardians to live up to their collective name and become more of a galactic group whose potential for adventure perhaps cannot be realized on an Earth focused on reconstruction, purged of its alien enemy. Again, however, it seems that Starhawk knows best in that respect, as well.

Perhaps being led by the nose by Starhawk in their adventures isn't the best way for the Guardians to emerge as a force in their own right. But that's something we'll touch on as we explore this series further.

Marvel Presents #3

Script: Steve Gerber
Pencils: Al Milgrom
Inks: Pablo Marcos
Letterer: Denise Wohl


Anonymous said...

What I loved about the Bronze Age GotG (besides outer space) was the interplay, banter, and tensions between all the group members. Gerber did with this team what he was doing brilliantly with the Defenders; he was showing us an ensemble of very different characters with very different sensibilities. This made for a lot of great drama and humor. Particularly with Vance, the team hot-head and cynic (and a favorite of mine, along with Nikki).
I didn't realize until I read this review that the Guardians didn't show up after their first appearance in that one-shot until they showed up in the pages of the Defenders, so we've got another reason to appreciate Gerber.
Great post!


Comicsfan said...

M.P., you're partly correct in that we have Gerber to look to for bringing the Guardians out of their five-year hiatus--but their reappearance took place in the MTIO story, with the Giant-Size Defenders tale occurring a year later. (That guy Gerber sure gets around, doesn't he?)

Anonymous said...

Whoops! Yeah, you indicated that in the review and I spaced it out.
I've got that MTIO issue. Ben Grimm and Captain America are always a great combination. There's a lot of mutual respect there.
Gerber wrote that too? It must have been part of a master plan of his to bring back the GotG.


Anonymous said...

I love the new GotG - I don't think you've ever mentioned them, CF.

Comicsfan said...

Only in passing, Colin. I loved the 2008 Abnett/Lanning series--one of these days I'll have to dive into it again and feature it in a few posts.