Thursday, September 17, 2009

Marvel Super-Heroes #18

Marvel Comics, 1968, 22 pages plus reprints, $ 0.25

Writer: Arnold Drake
Penciler: Gene Colan
Inker: Mickey Demeo (a.k.a. Mike Esposito)
Colorist: Stan Goldberg
Letterer: Herb Cooper

Arnold Drake and Gene Colan’s “Guardians of the Galaxy!”—which introduces the long-running Marvel property of the same name—is very much a post-Star Trek, pre-Apollo-11 type of sci-fi story, albeit spruced up with superheroes, that couldn’t really have been told at any other point in time. In April 1968, a few months before its release, Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey had begun to prepare the mainstream for a weightier kind of science fiction; and on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin raised the bar for authentic-looking space fiction in a rather dramatic fashion.

Essentially, in this origin story, the concept boils down to a darker, grittier version of DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes—the first line on the first page describes the Guardians as a “guerrilla legion,” in fact. The story is set in the year 3007 (so, not the “30th century,” as one caption states), at which point “dozens of planets” have been colonized by humanity. “Wars among nations long ago ceased,” we’re told, and there’s now a U.L.E.—standing for “United Lands of Earth”—as well as a U.L.E. Federation that includes all the various colonies. Instead of fighting amongst themselves, humans are now at war with… well, communists from outer space, evidently—in this instance, a space-faring race of green lizard people called the Badoon.

The story opens with Charlie-27, a resident of Earth’s Jupiter colony, who returns home “after six months of solitary space-militia duty,” only to find that the planet’s been overrun by the Badoon, “in the name of the glorious Eastern Zone Council!”—because commies always live in the East, globes or outer space be damned. Charlie escapes (via “teleport”) to the Pluto colony, but finds the same picture: A lone free fighter, named Martinex, remains to commit acts of sabotage among the invaders and “blow up some industrial complexes.” The two travel to Earth, also occupied by the Badoon, where they encounter 20th-century man Major Vance Astro and his companion Yondu. We’re leaving the four rebels as they decide to join forces in search of some “free colony.”

Although a few nice ideas went into the design of the characters, they’re a largely bland and generic bunch. “Like all pioneers, Charlie-27’s human body was adapted at birth to withstand Jupiter’s conditions—eleven times the mass and three times the gravity of Earth—!” The character is made to look the part. Martinex from Pluto is a being of “living crystal”—and lord knows how that’s meant to work, particularly since he says his folks are “descended from Earthmen,” as well.

Major Vance Astro, meanwhile, is a pretty blatant superhero version of Buck Rogers. He leaves his old life in 1988 behind and spends a thousand years in suspended animation on a space rocket—something the scientists back home told him was necessary to “reach the nearest star,” because “Einsteinian physics” had it that it was impossible to go “beyond the speed of light.” Once he arrives at his destination “ten lifetimes” later, however, he is astonished to be greeted by humans. “Earthmen! B—but it can’t be! How could you beat me here?”

Well, turns out Einstein isn’t up to date anymore. “Harkovian physics, old man! It replaced Einstein’s 800 years ago!” The news causes Astro to have a bit of a nervous breakdown that, incidentally, makes him the most interesting of the four heroes. “Ha ha ha ha ha!” he goes. “It was all for nothing! My home—my girl—my friends—ha ha ha!—all thrown away for nothing!” Unfortunately, the creators don’t manage to capitalize on the meltdown in the rest of the story, in which Astro comes off as generically square-jawed rather than intriguingly unhinged. In the heat of the battle, he does get the best line by far in the entire script, though: “[…] Like we used to say back in 1988—that’s the way it moves!” Suffice it to say, I thoroughly approve.

Yondu, finally, is a borderline offensive stereotype, even, I’d wager, by the standards of forty years ago. The character, described by Astro as being “native of the planet I landed on,” is blue and evidently naked except for a pair of red pants. He wears a mohawk, fights with a faintly futuristic bow and arrow and is the only one of the four protagonists who doesn’t speak proper English. “I not believe it, Major! Is no free colony! Everybody dead—or slave!” He seems to be a direct descendant of Friday from Robinson Crusoe, in other words—the loyal, childlike savage type who requires strong guidance from the white man.

The highlight of the piece, in lieu of an engaging plot or compelling characters, is the plainly fantastic artwork by Gene Colan, who’s doing some incredibly dynamic and flashy page layouts and figures here. Neal Adams’ work around the same time immediately comes to mind as a point of comparison, but to be fair, I couldn’t tell you which of the two gentlemen got there first. The way Mr. Colan composes his pages and stages the action looks expressive, refreshingly creative and exciting all the way through, without making any sacrifices towards clarity. You can tell that the artist had the time of his life drawing this, and even forty years later, I can’t think of many of his colleagues who are able to produce equally dynamic visuals while still guiding you through the story as sure-footedly as Mr. Colan is doing here.

Thematically, I guess there’s a case to be made that the unusually strong military bend of the characters—either explicitly, by way of their backstories, or, with Vance Astro, in the kind of psychological trauma that soldiers returning home from the war may experience—may have been intended as a nod to the Vietnam War and its growing rejection among the general populace, which certainly came to a boil in 1968. Overall, though, it’s not a very strong case, to be honest. The Guardians of the Galaxy’s debut is tons of fun to look at, thanks to Gene Colan, but as a story, it doesn’t really hold up.

In addition to the “Guardians of the Galaxy” feature, the book also includes a couple of Golden-Age reprints starring the Sub-Mariner and the All-Winners Squad, of which the less said, the better. And on the letters page, a certain future comics professional from Madison, Wisconsin, writes in praise of a previous issue. “In my opinion, the Phantom Eagle is going to be one of the smash sensations of the year,” he writes.

“I, being a student of motives for war, and a confirmed fan of World War I biplanes and triplanes, consider that most comics groups take preference to WWII and its land and sea battles. Well, for battles, WWI is pretty good, too, especially for aerial battles. Too long has the War to End All War been neglected. Now, Mighty Marvel has changed that. World War One has been recognized.”

I’ve never heard of the Phantom Eagle, to be honest, but I do wonder how you become a confirmed fan of World War I biplanes and triplanes.

Grade: D+


David Scholes said...

I can understand the viewpoint that comic writers tend to overlook WW1.


Paul Chadwick said...

For some reason this book hit me, age ten, where I lived, and put me on the Marvel-comics-mad path I trod in my teen years.

My favorite weirdness was Vance Astro's thought upon awakening: "And this copper foil wrapping -- I've got to wear it forever! one puncture -- and I'd age 1,000 years in a second!"

Quite an Achilles heel.

Paul Chadwick said...

It occurs to me that, as a non-American (I presume) you may not appreciate the quartet's last line of the story:

"Earth shall overcome! Earth shall overcome! Earth shall overcome -- someday!"

This echoes the civil rights movement's chant of the 1960s, "We shall overcome," used in demonstrations led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and others.

Believe it or not, this silly story had political resonance.

Marc-Oliver said...


Indeed, I didn't catch the relevance of their battle cry--that allows for a rather different interpretation of the story.

And I guess I should have mentioned the copper-foil wrapping, too.

Two excellent points, thanks.