I’ve been feeling heavy of late, burdened by the seriousness of intent and thick with the art of the alternative. Maybe it’s a product of age. Maybe it’s a result of feeling the solemnity of maturity. Maybe it’s a lack of sleep or a preponderance of drink. Whatever … suffice to say it’s been a bit of a rough go of late.
Casting about for distraction from this lethargy, I sent a message to my dear brother-from-another-mother and avuncular comic book historian Jason Sacks that read something along the lines of, “Dude, I need airiness before I bore a hole into the earth.” His quick response was cast in the form of a dual syllabic yawp, “Gerber.” This, he followed with a wistfully whispered, “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
Now Sacks and I have written quite a bit about the works of Steve Gerber. We’ve covered Omega the Unknown, The Essential Man-Thing (Volumes One and Two), Gerber’s run on The Defenders, and even Destroyer Duck — so when the opportunity arose to gab Gerber some more, I knew this was for me. Hence, I grabbed myself a collection called Guardians of the Galaxy: The Power of Starhawk, a fresh bottle of Jameson, and an eagerness for absurdity and plunged right in.
The following conversation is a result of these actions:
Daniel Elkin: What the hell, Sacks? This is the Guardians of the Galaxy? Where’s that gun-toting marmot and the tree with the speech defect? I was ready to bask in the shine exuding from Dave Bautista’s tiny bald head, not this craziness. What gives? And how the hell did Gerber get involved in this nonsense?
Jason Sacks: The truth is, I dunno. The Guardians aren’t the Guardians but they are the Guardians and I’m not sure where the twain shall meet.
I don’t want to get too boring here, so I’ll just say there were four different eras for the Guardians of the Galaxy. There was their terrible, awful, no good, very bad debut issue from 1968. When I wrote about that origin a few years ago, I loudly declared, “Marvel Super-Heroes #18 is a virtual tutorial on how not to create an origin story.“ and well, the less said about that painfully bad comic the better (it does have some lovely Gene Colan art, though in service to a rotten story)..
Then there’s this brief little run from 1976-1977, by Steve Gerber, Roger Stern and Al Milgrom. We’ll obviously be talking about that delightful run of comics here in this column until your eyes bleed and you tear up from either boredom or joy, depending on your attitude.
Jim Valentino revived the Guardians in 1990, in an all-out action story set firmly in the Marvel Universe, filled with easter eggs and silliness that made the comic a top-50 hit and helped Valentino gain his spot among the early Image Comics creators. That comic lasted a slew of years and featured the same Guardians we see in this comic, along with a few changes. The comic’s a gas: silly, fun, light entertainment.
Then there’s the Guardians we know now: with the tree, the raccoon, Zoe Saldana and Chriss Pratt and Drax and the whole bunch of lovable action rogues who we all saw and loved in the movie theatres. To be honest, I’m too apathetic to look up why Marvel changed these characters. Daniel, did you want to google that question?
Elkin: I try never to google when asked, Sacks. You should know that about me by now. Any sense as to how Gerber got involved in all this, though? I remember there was that bit in the Defenders, right?
jsacks: Exactly. Gerber brought the Guardians in for a memorable four-issue run on Defenders. I’m not sure if he was just playing with the characters at that time or trying them out in his mind, but I’ve always read that run as a kind of pilot for this series. And in fact, that works wonderfully to set the tone of this comic book. The Defenders four-parter somehow manages to be exciting, satirical and rich in subtext, all wrapped up in super-hero garb.
As for how this series came about, I think it was just one of those things from when Marvel was hyper crazy in the 1970s and anything remotely interesting could happen. I’ve always assumed that some corporate bigwig at Cadence Industries, who owned Marvel, decided one day that Marvel should expand its line, and never gave the company time to get their shit together. Marvel Presents, from which these stories are reprinted, and Marvel Chillers which debuted at around the same time, both featured fill-in series in their first two issues before moving on to the regular feature. The comics were behind schedule at the time they were scheduled, typical of the House of Ideas in that era, and had to be released.
As for how Gerber came aboard, I’m honestly not sure. He probably loved the characters and the series. He also may just have been looking for work – at the time his only series were the monthly Defenders and bimonthly new series Omega the Unknown and Howard the Duck.
Elkin: Okay… My sense on reading this run, though, was how un-Gerber it all was. I mean there was only ONE full page of text interrupting the narrative, and the whole thing is decidedly un-wackadoo. There is the Planet of the Absurd, and, of course, the giant cosmic fuck scene, but otherwise…
jsacks: No? You didn’t dig the space frog?
Elkin: That was a frog? I thought it was more like an aborted concept sketch for some Disney/Marvel crossover character. Mickey the Mole-Man or Princess Larva or some other stupid shit.
The thing that jumped out at me more than anything was how alive the whole series seems. The dialogue and narration feel so slick and well-managed and yet fresh. Over and over it made me smile to read how gracefully Gerber reveals character and contrasts everyone with each other. It’s bright and just really fun seeing everyone react. This may be less whacky Gerber but it’s still slick, professional Gerber obviously having a lot of fun.
Elkin: Slick, professional Gerber is not as great as whack-a-doo Gerber for me. I agree, though, that this is really a character piece more than anything else. Gerber seems to be trying to find the right voice for all these different aspects of the themes he is trying to explore. It just seems that the characters get in the way of the fun.
jsacks: “It’s a party, babe — an all night save-the-galaxy bash! They put those stars out there just for our amusement! It’s fun! When was the last time you had fun, Nikki-mote? How long since you’ve reveled in your cosmic insignificance?” – Vance Astro
Elkin: I’m just a stick in the mud, I guess. Although it did warm my heart to see someone shout, “Cheeze it — it’s the fuzz!” I keep looking for the right moment in my life to say this.
jsacks: These characters smile so much! Nikki especially adds so much life to the proceedings, but she works so well with terminally pissed-off Vance and smart solid Charlie and fascinating Yondu. These are vivid characters who jump off the page for me.
Elkin: I admit that it was very interesting reading how each of the characters responded to their initial success — mostly feeling unmoored and ill-at-ease with their place in the world. Gerber goes to some pretty dark places there. Still… I was hoping for more whack-a-doo.
jsacks: These handful of issues have space convents, cosmic insane asylums, lizard alien women in constant war with their male counterparts, an extraterrestrial harem and space sex, and some wild and wacky character action, and you wanted more? (And I didn’t mention the “one who knows” who might be a cosmic messiah and may be a hermaphrodite.)
Maybe this is a case where the slickness smooths over the strangeness of the material being presented? Are you, as Starhawk says, “dwell[ing] less on the mysteries than on the matter of survival”?
Elkin: As Nikki says, “One man’s messiah is another’s greasy, fat slob.” I think I was just expecting more. Buying into the previous Gerber hype, as it were. This seemed like a concept ripe for riffing — throwing in all the Gerber gonking to the extreme — yet it never really takes off. It is almost as if he just really didn’t know what he wanted to do with these characters in the long run. Which, I guess, is good, as he was only around for such a short run.
jsacks: Of the two of us, I’m the greasy slob so maybe that explains why I love this series so much. It’s interesting that you don’t feel this series takes off. I mean, my passion for this comic may come from the fact that I read, and reread, and reread these comics when I was a kid and filled in the few empty spaces that Gerber left for me. But to me, this is as slick and intriguing an opening to a new series as I can remember. We get the lovely set-up in issue three, then quickly into the mystic, or into the madness if you prefer.
Elkin: It seems like Gerber on good behavior. Or off the drugs. Or biding his time. Or something. I’d be interested in hearing why he left the book so quickly.
jsacks: I think that’s just because Howard the Duck was taking off an eating up his time.But why does it feel like he was biding his time? Our reactions are really different here. I see this as being very loose, light and wacky and you clearly find it weak sauce.
Elkin: Perhaps it is my expectations. Especially after Man-Thing. I realize these are two different types of books, but still….
Don’t get me wrong. For a superhero book, there’s much to grok. I did like what he began to do with the whole Planet of the Absurd, not to mention the whole giant space fucking in order to save the universe thing, but all in all there just wasn’t enough room to wonk. It was as if he was constrained in his own suit to keep himself from disintegrating.
jsacks: The space fuck issue is absolutely glorious, though. It shows what this series could have been, and the glory of Gerber. He takes a fairly ordinary setup (a strange convent in space) and turns it into something wondrous and very, very strange which delivers an ending very different from anything that anybody else could have delivered.
To me that sequence is fractal Gerber: inside that onecell is a recursive version of everything that makes him great. He takes something ordinary, something that nearly every other writer would take and make something fairly predictable out of it, and he makes it glorious and funny and kind of sweet. He proposes a different way of presenting his story, a way that feels radical and strange and yet seems completely perfect at the same time. When Nikki says “I…really… don’t know… I’ve never felt this way before!” after the climax of their… umm… encounter… and Vance replies “me neither”, it’s easy to imagine that sexual act as giving birth to a new attitude and approach to this type of comic.
It’s tragic that we didn’t get anymore of the Gerber Guardians Group from him, but to me what we get is tantalizing. And of course it reaches a satisfying climax…
Elkin: I see what you did there, Sacks.
The whole piece at the beginning of the run, the idea of man’s basic cruelty due to their emotions over-riding their logic — as well as the whole diatribe against mob-think and mob-action — really set me up for what I hoped would come next. Gerber brought it up again with the Planet of the Absurd, but the viciousness and the bile that Gerber would normally spew about all this seemed a bit more tame than it had in the past.
Plus he only brings up aerosol cans once, in the letters page!
Maybe if there had a longer run with these characters, there would have been more of this, but what we have is but a tease. And I hate being teased.
But enough of what I think about that. Let’s talk more about space fucking.
jsacks: Always with the space fucking.
But yeah, that whole sequence is just transcendent. Allen Milgrom is nobody’s favorite artist, but he draws the shit out of the “ space sex” issue. The enormous vaulted ceilings in the scene when Nikki is being escorted to the cosmic psychedelia chair are impressive and give us a sense of the enormity of what Nikki will have to do. Notice how Nikki’s face is looking away from the reader on that page, showing maybe her ambivalence or worry that her tough exterior will be exposed by her virginal lack of experience. She’s being forced into “a sort of marriage” and she’s not remotely ready for that.
She has the chance, though, to become part of the “expanded reaches of the universe”, which may be a very strange analogy for the female orgasm or may mean that she has the chance to experience a transcendent moment in her life. As she faces this responsibility, Nikki starts making eye contact. She’s become more confident in herself. She knows she’s on the cusp of this change. Only those with the strongest sense of self can return from the experience, but Nikki embraces it in full and returns. She’s changed, perhaps forever, but she is changed.
Remember, she saw her family killed, then lived alone on a spaceship during her tween and teen years. She’s desperate for contact of any sort, and even this sort of bizarre cosmic forced sex act gives her a chance to have that experience. The sex act thus takes on multiple levels: it defeats the cosmic baddie with love; it allows her and Vance to have virtual safe sex; it gives Nikki a chance to learn more about herself; it forces Nikki to grow in a way that she didn’t expect. And itb curls her toes.
If the series had gone longer, this might have been a key early turning point.
Elkin: I get that. Seriously. Though I find it interesting that Milgrom chooses, at the moment of cosmic orgasm, to depict gigantic Nikki seemingly pulling away and allowing gigantic Vance to spew his seed into the cosmos. That whole image is both confusing and intriguing at the same time. I wonder what it would have looked like in the hands of a better artist (like Ploog, for example).
Maybe I should start a sketchbook and take it around to artists at cons and have them draw this scene for me.
Naaah…. that would be weird.
Still, what I do like about that whole thing is that it really puts a female character in charge of her sexuality. Gerber seems to have a certain strength when it comes to writing strong and assured women, especially those that have been forced into these male dominated groups. I think of the Valkyrie in The Defenders, as well as Nikki here.
I’d be interested in reading someone more sure of themselves than I writing about Gerber’s women. That could be a fascinating read.
jsacks: Yeah, Gerber’s women are an interesting collection of characters. I want to say that they were progressive for their time, but I’d have to give it more thought. From Nikki here to Jennifer Kale in Man-Thing to Valkyrie in Defenders to Amber in Omega to Beverly in Howard the Duck, Gerber’s women all are people who know who they are and how they engage in the universe, They’re not shrinking violets. They are strong, powerful women with a strong sense of self.
If you collect sketches of the great cosmic space fuck, I’ll have to hit the alt-comics cons and request that from other cartoonists so you’ll have a big collection!
There’s a note in the letters page of Marvel Presents #7 that comments on what you said above:
Gerber’s style has been undergoing some interesting chances lately. He seems to have shifted from the heavily emotional, occasionally bathetic prose which characterized Man-Thing into a lighter, breezier, tighter style of storytelling with a much broader range. It seems equally adaptable to the wacko-quacko Howard the Duck, the space opera of Guardians and the brooding psychodrama of Omega. And it hasn’t hurt The Defenders, either. He’s flirting with mainstream prose here, something comics have never had to contend with before. It will be interesting to see who “wins”, the readers or the readers.
Jon Miles of University City, MO, was feeling the way you were feeling, 40 years ago!
Elkin: And here I was, thinking I was having an original insight. Pfffffftttt…. Just goes to show you that there are no new ideas.
I wish I had written “occasionally bathetic prose” first, though.
I’m a little disturbed, though, by the idea of Nikki being so young in this situation. Not sure what to make of that, though.
jsacks: How old do you think she’s supposed to be here? I would guess maybe 15?
Elkin: That’s what I was thinking too. And to submit her to this ritualistic sexual experience seems a little … ummmm … wrong.
jsacks: Vance isn’t much older, really. Maybe 18… but those three years are a long time.
It does feel wrong, yes. For all the good work he does with women, Gerber has trouble with kids.
Elkin: Hmmmmm… this seems like we are headed into a whole different discussion. One, perhaps, that we, as a couple of middle-aged white guys, should probably leave to someone a little more invested.
That’s an essay I would like to read.
Ultimately, though, given the context and the times in which Gerber was writing, it seems to me that he was progressive in this area.
Shifting gears, let’s talk a little about Gerber’s politics in this series. Aside from his disdain of the mob, he also offers a pretty bleak observation of the political climate. There’s that guy on the asylum planet who says, “We don’t entrust nobody with nuttin! We just figger: ‘ Hey, he can’t screw things up any worse’n the next schlemiel, right? Taxes go up, wars flare up, the average joe gets took — a smart guy couldn’t handle it any better’n a dumb guy, who cares?”
This is a pretty damning assertion about the state of the body politic.
jsacks: “We name it thus, Major, because that’s what it is — a mental institution for the most hopelessly neurotic specimens of some fifty loosely confederated planets in this sector of the galaxy.” “B-but the culture — the parallels to old Earth — why did you arrange –?” “We allowed nothing, Major. We’re a very progressive institution. We allowed the patients to structure their own society. What you saw — was their creation, not ours.”
1970s New York was hellish – a cesspool of crime poverty, and despair that became symbolic of post-Watergate cynicism and the economic decline of the country… I feel like I remember my dad saying things like that ordinary joe in “Planet of the Absurd.” (Also: great pun title for that issue!)
Elkin: That’s one of the things I really like about Gerber’s books. He has an obvious agenda and he bends his stories and characters to suit his ideas. Given the fact that he is operating within the clearly defined morality of right and wrong intrinsic in superhero comics, this comes as breath of fresh air.
Gerber works best when he is railing and ranting. When he goes large in terms of pointing out absurdity and hypocrisy and pulls no punches when it comes to these things. There are great glimmers of this in Guardians, but, as we have been saying, his concerns with character seem to override this.
Given time and space, though…. who’s to say where this series would have gone. Certainly, I feel, not where Roger Stern took it though. And certainly not where that darned smart-mouthed marmot and tree thing went either.
jsacks: I love the movie Guardians, though, and they’re way more fun than this oddball group of misfits and weirdos. Would this group have have the legs that the film crew had? Who knows and who cares. (I did love Yondu in the movie, though!)
Steve Gerber’s final issue of Guardians was cover-dated February 1977, which means it apparently was on sale November 22, 1976. (my copy of this issue has a stamp on the first interior page with that date!). Star Wars premiered on the nation’s movie screens on May 25, 1977, almost exactly six months later. Despite the flashy scenes of space war and the thrilling two-page space battle in “Breaking Up is Death to Do!”, this is pre-Star Wars sci-fi. That means, as a Marvel Comic, that these heroes had deep flaws that were part of their characters. That was part of the Marvel way, after all.
Would Guardians have been different if it had premiered after Lucas’s masterwork? Would there have been more space and less angst in this series? Perhaps, but the angst and weirdness is what gives this comic its spice. This version of the Guardians may have been short lived, but it was a total fucking kick in the pants.
Elkin: A total fucking kick in the pants indeed.
**with space fucking.
So here’s the pull-quote moment: Guardians of the Galaxy– Not great Gerber, but still better than whatever slop Marvel’s spewing in your face today.
P.S. I just want to re-iterate that I’m NOT doing that sketchbook idea.
** Unless, of course, always, Mike Ploog would want to give it a go….