Everyone’s a little puzzled by the strange choice of number on this issue, somewhere between a #0 traditional origin story and a #1 launch of what’s rumored to be a major contributor to the Marvel Universe this year and beyond in the lead up to the 2014 film release of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. If this issue is more than just an origin story for Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, then we can assume some of the elements of a wider arc of action for the series are already being drawn up in the narrative, however much of a prequel it may be to the galactic sweep ahead.
The long, sporadic, but often well-received publication history of GUARDIANS makes it ripe for a return, and whatever readers were expecting, they are bound to be struck by the energy of #0.1 and the disorienting sense that they are, in fact, looking at something refreshingly new. Writer Brian Michael Bendis is so well-versed in crafting origin stories that the surprise is not how well he knows how to introduce a character’s early days, but that he manages to do it so succinctly, given his history of expanding origin stories well into established story-lines (take, for example, his ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN which stretched Peter Parker’s transformation into Spider-Man to span 7 issues).
His experience handling origins has clearly given Bendis an edge in handling a short-form version while maintaining the humanizing qualities in his characters that he’s also known for. Steve McNiven’s pencils are easily a match, though, for Bendis’ writing skills in the sense that his pauses to convey motion, his almost minimalist panels, and nearly constant emphasis on facial expressions to express emotion give the reader instant recognition of the importance of key moments without creating drag. John Dell’s inks give the comic an even more fluid feeling with hardly a static line and Justin Ponsor’s choice of color sets a kind of tonal theme a reader might expect not only from Marvel Comics but from Marvel meets sci-fi: intense earthly sunlight and shadow blended with slick, luminous technology. Bendis has said that he read lots of sci-fi leading up to his work on GUARDIANS, looking for things that inspired him the most, but it’s a fair guess that the entire team have drawn from their own impressions of the best elements of an alluring sci-fi tale.
[Spoilers for issue #0.1 ahead!]
Trust Bendis to bring in quirky dialogue to contrast with ethereal galactic realities, one of those humanizing elements that renders his characters appealing. Peter’s mother bitching into a cell-phone opens the story, and the deluge of questions and commentary she launches at the space-ship crash victim from Spartax helps establish the conflicting world views that will no doubt impact Peter’s life. The rapidly-developing romance between the two, the predictable departure of a man on a mission in wartime still has a grounded feel due in part to Meredith’s satirical but emotional responses. When she’s told she can keep J’Son’s gun, she comments to herself (and the reader) “How romantic”. One of the simplest panels, and one that makes you forget that this is a story that’s been told before, is one in which Meredith, despondent at J’Son’s departure, says simply “Take me with you”. McNiven’s use of expression strikes home easily; she already has the look of someone abandoned, a victim, in her own way, of war.
Peter’s life with his mother “22 miles from anything and anyone” at age 10, reading comic books and ditching math homework, contains plenty of the formulaic elements (partly due to Bendis’ influence on comic tradition already) of the misunderstood kid soon-to-be-hero mythos, but again, Bendis and McNiven always manage to catch the reader’s attention and distract from easy identification of familiar elements. Racism, sexism, bullying all come to the fore within a few panels of introducing Peter’s school life. The eruption of violence is part of a wider pattern, of course, as the little wars that Peter fights, significant in human terms, mirror the bigger wars to come. The second half of issue #0.1, however, makes the first half seem like a pleasant diversion as the plot moves rapidly into unexpected violence and the trauma usually associated with hero origins. McNiven proves that he’s up to the challenge of presenting shocking violence in a painfully memorable way depicting the murder of Meredith by Badoon hitmen, forcing Peter into the role of a rifle-toting avenger.
Cue another hero motif, the discovery of a super-powered weapon, but rather than gloss over what comes next, Bendis settles in for a moment on Peter’s experiences waking up in a hospital, his bizarre narrative reconstructed by doctors and child psychologists into something banal: a gas-leak that destroyed his home and the alien gun a favorite “space-toy”. Readers are included in the brash hospital lights and the jarring conflict between realities yet again, all increasing a sense of Peter’s reality and giving readers an opportunity to understand his future actions by experiencing where he’s been before. But the psychologists do get one thing right: he’s an unfortunate and fortunate soul. He’s been left with nothing unless he chooses, as his older self reflects to Tony Stark, to “find a way off Planet Earth”.
The jump between the hospital scene with Peter, age 10, to Star-Lord, age 30 is visually transferred by McNiven repeating a nearly identical angled view of the mysterious space-gun, and rather ingeniously tied into a scene of immediate action by Bendis’ revelation that Quill is telling his own life-story to Tony Stark onboard a space-ship. It’s a light-speed jump into the thick of GUARDIANS territory, and a pay-off for devoted fans to “see” for the first time in this new incarnation, some of Star-Lord’s Guardians team, albeit in silent roles, as well as McNiven’s new design for their costumes. It’s interesting to note that Stark, apparently, has been questioning Quill’s motives for fighting the Badoon, and that readers, in turn have been included in this explanation of motivation. It’s “exactly” what Stark “wanted to know”, mirroring a reader’s need to understand, even in short form, what makes Quill tick. Stark is not only satisfied by this explanation, but he’s “all in”. It’s tempting to read this as a prod to fans, hinting that they, too, should be on board with the up and coming revelations of the comic now that they feel they know Quill pretty well.
Does it work? If there’s any swagger or attitude in the comic, it’s reserved for Stark (appropriately). The seriousness of Quill’s origin story, the moments that readers have not only been told, but experienced along with Meredith and Peter, are fairly difficult to dismiss as “just another sci-fi hero story”. Bendis’ writing makes such a dismissal not only difficult but uncomfortable to imagine, but in combination with McNiven’s artwork, the story is almost daring you not to care about an orphan on a cosmic vendetta.
Whatever liberties the creative team may take in bringing a new version of GUARDIANS to the page, the earnestness they convey reminds readers of one more feature of sci-fi hero stories: anything can happen next. That’s why it’s so important to get origin stories right, to get even a small amount of personal history pinned down for the hero to form the jumping off point into such vast potential. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY #0.1, which makes it a little surprising that retailers may have ordered fewer than needed of this introductory issue. If the current GUARDIANS creative team brings as much craftsmanship to the rest of the series, you’ll be glad to have jumped in at #0.1 to get to know THIS version of Peter Quill and his world (and not to have to scramble for back issues later).
Title: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY #0.1/Publisher: Marvel Comics/Creative Team: Brian Michael Bendis, Writer, Steve McNiven, Penciler, John Dell, Inker, Justin Ponsor, Colors, VC’s Cory Petit, Letterer.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.