I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the Guardians of the Galaxy. They’re one of those teams that I discovered at just the right time in my comics-reading life. I know a lot of people love the version of the Guardians that was written by Jim Valentino, but my Guardians will always have Steve Gerber’s name attached to them.
Beginning in 1974, Gerber performed the same magic on the Guardians as he did with the Man-Thing, the Defenders and Howard the Duck. Gerber made the Guardians uniquely his own, imbuing each character in the series with the sort of manic neurotic intensity that Gerber brought to all of his work.
And Gerber’s work on the series really was quite brilliant, chock-full of the sort of magisterial control of the mid-’70s Marvel style that Gerber was able to do better than any other writer. The man was perhaps the greatest writer of his era, and his Guardians reflects that skill.
But Gerber wasn’t the first writer to work on the Guardians. The four main heroes of the Guardians actually appeared first in 1969, in issue 18 of the anthology series Marvel Super-Heroes. Arnold Drake was the writer of that fateful issue, while Gene Colan was the artist. And while I must praise Gerber, I must criticize Drake. See, while Gerber was the perfect writer for Marvel, poor old Arnold Drake most certainly was not.
Okay, step back a second here. I want to say nice things about Arnold Drake before so intensely criticizing him. The man deserves praise; heck, the man was one of the greatest writers in comics in his day.
Arnold Drake had a long and august career at DC Comics for over 20 years. He did terrific work on such series as “Tommy Tomorrow”, “Stanley and His Monster” and Batman, not to mention his outstanding work creating such beloved series as “Deadman” and Doom Patrol. Within DC’s tight, editor-driven world, Drake was given the kind of freedom that many of his fellow writers didn’t receive. There was really no higher praise that a writer inside DC’s system could receive.
Unfortunately, Drake often spoke his mind to upper management, and, then as now, speaking one’s mind could bring trouble to one’s career. In his case, Drake, along with several other longstanding writers at DC, had the temerity in the late 1960s to request health insurance, reprint fees, and better pay from DC’s management. Drake was rewarded for his advocacy by being unceremoniously tossed out on his ass.
That left Drake at some loose ends, and shortly thereafter he found himself at Marvel, writing X-Men, then the lowest-selling comic in the line, along with other second-rate heroes like the pre-Jim Starlin Captain Marvel and the war comics character Captain Savage.
Drake was just not a good fit for the bombastic Marvel style of the time. His Marvel work betrays none of the confidence that Drake showed while writing Doom Patrol. His Marvel work has a listless character to it that feels quite awkward. Drake continually tried to create comics that reflected Marvel’s outgoing style, but he had too much of the inward-looking, plot-driven DC Comics man in him. He was a man whose style was out of fashion, like a Rat Pack lounge singer trying to perform at Woodstock.
Marvel Super-Heroes #18 is a virtual tutorial on how not to create an origin story. Much of the comic is filled with missteps and poor decisions, poor storytelling choices and dated characters. Even the look of the characters and the art choices by artist Gene Colan are wrong for this story. In short, it’s a damn mess.
Our story begins with a man in the pilot’s seat of a spaceship. The year, we’re informed, is 3007, and the Earth and its dozens of allies are united under an interplanetary government. The man is called Charlie-27, “fifth generation of his family born on planet Jupiter – after space migrating from Earth!” as the narration tell us. Charlie has crew-cut blonde hair and appears to be enormous, explained in the narration as being “adapted from birth to withstand Jupiter’s conditions.”
Flip the page and we see Charlie’s rocket land on Jupiter. He emerges from his spaceship, which is shaped like a giant pen, and emerges in a vast field of green. No, not green grass but plain, dull, uninteresting and undifferentiated green.
It turns out that Jupiter has been conquered by a bunch of two-legged lizard men clad in tight-fitting purple shorts (apparently the Hulk’s wardrobe was fashionable among those lizards) called the Badoon. Charlie is the last free Jovian, and as page five ends, Charlie discovers that his Jovian brethren are literally in chains. Charlie runs, as depicted by Gene Colan at lightning speed, to a Living Matter Transmitter, through which he escapes the Badoon.
Stop a bit here, Mr. Drake, because you’ve started to really bore me. By the time that Charlie discovers the Living Matter Transmitter, conveniently labeled in English with the words “Living Matter Transmitter,” we’ve had six tedious pages of this corpulent-seeming and lonely resident of Jupiter on the run from nasty lizard men.
Now, Mr. or Ms. ComicBulletin reader, I enjoy reading stories about giant Jovian escapees from two-legged lizard men in the 31st century as much as the next man, but this chase just goes on and on, aimlessly meandering from one scene to the next. Each scene looks pretty much like the one before it, and Charlie has done absolutely nothing to make readers really care about him. What differentiates Charlie-27 from George-41 or Patrick-6 or Beverly-90210? Umm, like Olive Oyl in the movie Popeye describing Bluto, all we really know about Charlie-27 is that “he’s large. And he’s large. And he’s large.” In other words, not a damn thing makes this man stand out from the crowd.
Charlie’s not even dressed well. He wears a giant yellow work suit, kind of a space hazmat suit, which at least matches his oh so fashionable crew cut, which was quite popular in 1969 after all. It’s hard to imagine a less compelling lead character to follow in this story, but just wait. Arnold Drake has another, even less compelling character, soon to appear.
I should add a word about the intensely frustrating page layouts of Gene Colan in this comic. I’m as big a fan of Colan as anyone. I absolutely adore his work on such classic series as Tomb of Dracula, Doctor Strange and the aforementioned Howard the Duck, but Colan could sometimes deliver some of the most self-consciously oddball page layouts in his comics.
Page after page are filled with poor storytelling choices. Readers are somehow never given a full, front-facing shot of Charlie-27 anywhere in the first few pages of the comic. The man never gets a chance to shine or show himself off as a real hero. One of the reasons we don’t care about the giant Jovian is that we don’t quite know what he looks like. Every moment is depicted at an odd angle, and every panel is shaped at a sort of random shape, like reading page after page of a comic through panes of jagged glass.
Colan was perhaps the most experimental of all Marvel’s ’60s artists. He had one of the most original and distinctive art styles of his time and always seemed to strive to find different and unique ways of telling a story. But this comic highlights all of Colan’s weaknesses.
He produces no establishing shots and seems to be deliberately working hard to keep readers from being interested in the characters. Colan’s work here is a tremendous disappointment.
Page seven brings Charlie to Pluto, which sounds cool, but Pluto looks just like Jupiter. Like, absolutely and completely identical to Jupiter. At least the spaceport looks just like Jupiter’s spaceport. There’s a note kind of generically on a wall about “atmo-suits for rent,” but really all we ever get to see of Pluto is the spaceport. It’s a little like saying you’ve been to Chicago if you’ve only changed planes at O’Hare.
But wait, it gets even more bizarre and befuddling. The next page brings us the Badoon’s pet animals, the Saturnian hound-hawk, which is, you guessed it, a hawk crossed with a dog. Yeah, these creatures look as stupid as you might imagine, these hound-hawks. They have wings and claws like a bird but the snout, fangs and fur of a dog. These desultory creatures search for Charlie. But Charlie has met a very special friend.
Inside a locked something-or-other – exactly what they’re inside is never explained to readers – Charlie meets a “Crystal Man”, a Pluvian “Rock Head.” Because a giant hazmat-suit-clad crew-cut resident of Jupiter isn’t compelling enough, we now get to meet a crystalline pseudo-man who has… a radio transmitter in his head? I’ve heard of crystal receivers, but what the hell is this? A crystal man from Pluto with a radio transmitter embedded in his head?
Why in the world would Arnold Drake think that any aspect of this story would be compelling for any reader on planet Earth? Why should I care at all about these weird alien guys? At this point we readers are already halfway through this wretched story and I’m so filled with apathy and annoyance that my mind is wandering badly. How is my fantasy football team doing? What was that song I wanted to find on iTunes? What new comics are out this week? Please, God, when is this comic over?
Sorry, but we must stick it out, fellow FOOMers. Maybe there will be hope as we flip the page and find a blessed full-page spread. There, we meet a man clad in purple from head to toe along with a blue-skinned alien guy. They seem to be heroes because the Badoon are holding them prisoner. The purple-clad man is 1000-year-old Vance Astro, “first spaceman to the stars.”
Actually, Vance Astro is one of the few elements of this story that is kind of cool. The concepts may be a bit of a sci-fi cliché, but they’re always interesting. See, Vance was sent out into the stars on a 1000 year mission, but, ironically, in the meantime mankind had already found its way to the stays. So, ironically, Vance’s mission was pointless. Astro the astronaut threw away everything he loved in order to undertake a mission that was ultimately unnecessary. That’s kind of cool. And, to make matters worse, Vance believes that if he takes off his head-to-toe body sheath, he will instantly fall to dust. So Vance is literally a man out of his time who has no hope of direct human contact. As Astro whines, “Ha ha ha ha ha! It was all for nothing! My home – my girl – my friends – ha ha ha! All thrown away for nothing!”
Several years later, Steve Gerber will explore these topics in very interesting ways when he writes the Guardians. Here, the plot element is interesting but kind of tossed off.
And once again Gene Colan does an odd job with the art here. On the page in which Astro is placed into suspended animation, he’s lying in a coffin-like structure with what seems like ice all around him. But Colan doesn’t draw the ice as anything other than abstract shapes. They might be white bricks for all we readers know about them. The scene is distracting and odd and really throws me out of the story.
Also, Astro’s jumpsuit serves to distance him from the reader. As drawn by Colan, Astro’s suit is a shapeless sheen of purple rubber that covers the man from the top of his head to the end of his toes. Astro’s eyes and mouth are covered, so it’s nearly impossible for Colan to convey any emotions with the man. And of course, although much of the character’s pathos flows from his ironic humanity, he really looks pretty much inhuman. The suit makes logical sense, but from a storytelling standpoint, it’s a bit of a fiasco.
I almost forgot our fourth member of the Guardians, because it seems like Drake also almost forgot him. The fourth Guardian is that blue-skinned alien guy I mentioned before. We’re informed that Yondu is the man’s name, and through circumstances too stupid to explore, Vance is forced to try to kill Yondu, to which Yondu states, in the most cliché and offensive “Indian” broken English, “You called me – friend. You were liar, copper-man! Go – kill!”
But Yondu has amazing powers over his bow and arrow. Using his weird whistling powers, Yondu causes his arrow to strike down the Badoon that hold him and Vance prisoner, allowing the pair to escape. Vance also uses something called a psyke-pusher, which appears to have some sort of ray gun hooked up to his brain, but my brain hurts just thinking about it.
Hooray, the purple man and the blue man are free. So now we have the fat man, the crystal man with a radio in his head, the purple time-lost man and the pseudo-Indian primitive blue man all escaping from the Badoon. There’s not a single hero that even remotely looks like a hero I’d want to spend time with, but that’s the way it goes.
Astro and Yondu transport to the same O’Hare Airport on Pluto that Charlie and his crystal friend Martinex – what are the odds on that – and immediately figure, what the hell, this is a Marvel Comic so they may as well fight each other. A stupid and pointless battle ensues, which somehow leads to the team fighting some Badoon and running away back to New New York.
The very last panel shows all four of our heroes together at a medium distance. Their faces are in shadow, and Vance’s face is looking away from us in the last panel. The team isn’t given a chance to go out with a bold statement; no, they’re kind of indistinct and unfocused. Behind them is the vague shape of a city in flames while Vance rallies them with a little song leading. “Listen – there was a struggle song they sang in my time – it’s still good, if you alter it a bit! Try it with me – Earth shall overcome! Earth shall overcome! Earth shall overcome! -Someday!!”
Yes, that’s right, Drake ends this melodramatic nonsense with a complete non sequitur stolen from the Civil Rights movement. It’s bizarre and inappropriate and leaves the whole story with the oddest sense of being unsatisfying. It also makes the comic feel very, very dated.
There’s so much wrong with this comic that it’s almost impossible to believe that the same man who created the wonderful Doom Patrol could have created this book. The Guardians are a group of very strange looking heroes fighting an obscure battle in the far future against underwear-clad lizards. Why in the world would anyone have thought this idea was even worth exploring? It was a truism for many years in comics that sci-fi didn’t sell; you need no remind
er stronger than this comic to prove that fact. No way would sci-fi ever sell if it was done in such a thrown-off, halfhearted way, which almost seems to sabotage its own self as the story moves on?
Of course, Marvel has dramatically improved their handling of their cosmic characters in recent years. The Guardians are back again as part of a critically-acclaimed and popular sci-fi universe. But their first story is an example of just how bad comics could be. Sorry, Arnold.