Friday, February 28, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy, Day 5: What to Read


Well, if you’re still reading these entries on my fifth day of obsessive fangirling, you’re probably serious about digging into the world of Guardians of the Galaxy. So here you go—your dubious reward. The reading list. And if you’re in a big hurry to start reading, scroll down to the bottom—there’s two books that are both great starting points. If you don’t read any other GotG titles, read these.

One quick thing
This list is by no means complete. I haven’t read all of Cosmic Marvel, or even all the storylines that have come out since the mid-2000s, when things really started kicking into high gear. This list is based on my own collection and the bits I think you’ll find most helpful as you investigate this new-to-you corner of comicdom. These are the books I would lend to my friends—in fact, in many cases they’re the books I have lent to my friends. They’re good books.

But they’re not self-contained. Cosmic Marvel is big, it’s complicated, and its branches are heavily intertwined. Major storylines move from one comic-book title to another, and one book will often reference events in another book as if everyone in the story has heard of them. (Of course, that’s because those events tend to be big things—such as the destruction of a populated planet—that you’d expect people in the story to have heard about.) There’s some stuff you’re just not going to get unless you read every single issue of every single title, and unless you’re way more of a completist than I am, it’s not worth your time to do that. So expect to do a little Googling, and expect to leave a few questions unanswered. The stories are still good, and the books I’ll list are still ripping good yarns, but you will need to make your peace with incompletion here.

Still with me? On we go!

Early stuff
If you want to read the oldest Guardians of the Galaxy stories, be prepared to do a lot of digging. I’ve been collecting Star-Lord adventures since I was 13 years old, and not only do I not have them all, I don’t even have a complete list of them. The same goes for Rocket Raccoon, Drax, Groot, Gamora—everybody’s history is all over the place. But here are two good starting points, recently published, that will help to catch you up on two of the most popular Guardians.

None of the stories in here involve this outfit.
Thank God.
1. Star-Lord: Worlds on the Brink. This was a big fat comic book—cover price $4.99—that came out a few months ago, reprinting classic Star-Lord adventures. It includes the best version of his origin story I’ve ever seen (okay, it was the one I grew up on) and a couple of the better stories from the classic run. There was even a story I’d never seen before from the 1980s. All in all, it’s well worth your five bucks if you want to see Peter and Ship soaring around the cosmos before everything went wrong.
2. Rocket Raccoon: Tales from Half-World. Another reprint issue, also $4.99, this one reprints some of the better Rocket stories from before he joined the Guardians. At least, I think they’re the better stories. I didn’t actually read anything with Rocket Raccoon in it before GotG came along, so I wouldn’t know. They’re definitely good stories, though, if a bit weird. But come on, it’s a gun-toting space raccoon. You were expecting maybe a comedy of manners?

DnA kick off
If you’re going to dig into the stories that inspired the movie, learn the acronym DnA and the two names behind it: Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. The two were a writing team for a number of years, though they’ve recently broken up, and their names appear together on most of the Cosmic Marvel titles that reinvigorated that whole universe and gave rise to the Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Here are the titles that will give you the best insight into how the Guardians formed.

1. Annihilation: Book Three. Yes, I’m starting with Book Three. I’ve read some of the earlier stuff. It’s nice, but if you want to know where Star-Lord becomes a player—and where his relationships with Richie and other characters lead to the formation of the Guardians—this is it. This volume covers the climax of the Annihilation War (remember, the one with the bugs?) and there’s a whole lot of shooting, blowing up, major characters dying, emotional trauma, and space cussing. Here’s a hint—“das’t” and “flark” mean about what you think they would …
2. Annihilation: Conquest: Book One. This book collects two limited series, one of which (Annihilation: Conquest: Star-Lord) shows the formation of Star-Lord’s first team, his spacefaring Dirty Dozen homage. It also marks the first meeting between Rocket and Groot, and one of the few comics where Groot says something other than “I am Groot.” In fact, he’s quite chatty; apparently the writers decided only later that he shouldn’t be able to say things like, “This will be a glorious death, as befits one of my stature.”

The main event: The Guardians of the Galaxy title
Obviously, if you want to know about the Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s a good idea to pick up one of the Guardians of the Galaxy collections.

1. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 1: Legacy. This collection covers the formation of the team, including the discovery of Major Victory, the beginnings of their conflict with the Universal Church of Truth, and the revelation of a secret that very nearly causes the team to disintegrate. In fact, a bunch of people quit and Star-Lord goes missing. I won’t spoil the secret, though. It’s way too much fun.
Yes, it's the same cover layout.
But look! It's a gun-toting raccoon!
2. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2: War of Kings, Book 1. This book picks up where the previous one left off, with the team in tatters and Star-Lord AWOL. Most of the volume is about Star-Lord getting involved in an extradimensional prison break (hello, Jack Flag!) and Drax and Phyla going on a quest to bring Moondragon back from the dead. Rocket is awesome in this book.
3. Volumes 3 and 4: War of Kings, Book 2 and Realm of Kings. Honestly, I haven’t bothered to pick these two up yet in trade form, though I bought the original comics. There’s more fun space stuff. People die. People come back to life. Rocket is hilarious. Peter is harried. Explosions happen. Time travel and magic continue to screw everything up. If you liked Volumes 1 and 2, then 3 and 4 will be your cup of tea.

Oh, and about the “War of Kings” / “Realm of Kings” thing you’re seeing in those titles … GotG often tied in heavily to whatever bigger storyline was going on in Cosmic Marvel. There are collections of the main War of Kings storyline and the like, but I didn’t buy those series and enjoyed my comics just fine. Seek them out if you’re interested; otherwise, don’t bother.

4. The Thanos Imperative. This is worth your time, I can pretty much guarantee. Besides being the storyline that ended the main Guardians of the Galaxy title (well, until it was restarted), it’s the storyline that exemplifies Cosmic Marvel under Abnett and Lanning better than anything else. There are about twenty different plotlines running at once, the cosmic abstracts get involved, and not one but two universes come crashing down around everyone’s ears … but ultimately, as you know, it all comes down to two guys in a crater, screaming into the face of Death. Epic.
5. The Annihilators and Rocket Raccoon & Groot: The Complete Collection. These two titles came out of Thanos Imperative, and they go in very different directions. Annihilators follows a team of high-powered cosmic superguys, including the Silver Surfer, the Quasar who’s not Phyla, and an alien version of Thor named—I kid you not—Beta Ray Bill. Basically, all the big guns who wouldn’t return Star-Lord’s calls jump into saving the universe now that he’s dead. It’s a fun punch-em-up, with a lot of humor from Cosmo.
Rocket Raccoon & Groot was originally a backup feature in Annihilators, a series about Rocket and Groot roaming the galaxy, starring in a horrible reality TV show, and discovering that Rocket’s origin story isn’t exactly what he thought it was … and just maybe Groot’s isn’t, either. Well worth your dollar if you’re interested in those two characters.
5. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 1: Cosmic Avengers. This is the rebooted GotG title. It’s pretty much about the movie lineup of characters getting into trouble—most notably, trouble that results from a bunch of alien leaders declaring Earth off-limits to extraterrestrial meddling. This, naturally, attracts all the most determined meddlers, and trouble ensues. Subplots include Peter’s escalating war with his royal father and Tony Stark’s little space vacation, which starts out as a lark and ends in tears before bedtime. Not least because he sleeps with Gamora. Doesn’t anybody watch old sci-fi movies anymore? Stay away from the green girls! Long story short, this book is amusing and a good introduction to the current GotG series, but I’m still annoyed that it stars the dumbest version of Peter Quill I’ve ever met. It’s probably closest to the movie, though. Sigh.
If you’re interested in Thanos …
1. Thanos Rising.
This series came out last year and purported to be the definitive origin of Thanos, exploring his twisted romance with Death as never before. And … yeah, it did. Thanos is one sick puppy. If you want to know what makes the purple guy tick, Thanos Rising is your book.

Two great books to get you started
You just scrolled down here from the top, didn’t you? Oh, fine. Here you go.

If it was worth using once, it's worth using twice.
1. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 1: Legacy. This book is the best guide to the GotG oeuvre, in my humble opinion. You’ve got the big cosmic conflicts, the team infighting, the talking animals … it’s just bonkers and it’s great. If you can handle a story that doesn’t wrap up in one volume, this is your entry point. If you like it, read more. If you don’t, now you know.
2. Avengers Assemble Vol. 1. If you’d prefer a more accessible and self-contained version of GotG, perhaps in more familiar surroundings, check out this collection of the Avengers Assemble comic, which was designed to present self-contained stories featuring the Avengers that everybody saw in the movie. This story is mostly about Thanos messing around with Earth and trying to gain ultimate power. The Avengers fight him off once, and then the Guardians of the Galaxy show up to reveal the bigger plot and drag the whole team off into space for some true Cosmic Marvel insanity. The action and banter are dead-on, and the story’s not too concerned with continuity—which is probably why Star-Lord spends the whole story wearing his pre-Kyln costume and his team flies around in a craft that looks remarkably like Ship. Still and all, it’s a good story and a great introduction to the characters. Oh, and it contains one of the better “I AM GROOT!” moments ever.

Well, that’s it. I hope you’ve enjoyed this entirely-too-long magical mystery tour of Guardians of the Galaxy and my own minor obsession with the title. With luck, you’ve come away with a clearer understanding of how the story works and whether you want to see it on the big screen. If you enjoyed this series, let me know in the comments or on Facebook and I’ll do another on Captain America: The Winter Soldier before that movie comes out. I’m not sure I’ve got five days’ worth of stuff, but I can probably string together a few interesting entries for you.

Thanks for reading, and until next time, if Death ever comes your way and won’t let you pass, make sure you scream right back in his face.

But then, you really shouldn’t trust anything I say. Most of the time I just make stuff up.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy, Day 4: Nerdsad


Don’t get me wrong. I’m excited about this movie. But I’m also a bit nerdsad.

If I could travel back in time, find my thirteen-year-old self reading Star-Lord comics in the back row of math class, and tell her that someday there would be a big-budget Hollywood movie called Guardians of the Galaxy, about an interstellar butt-kicking team led by none other than Peter Quill, I would probably kick myself in the shins and call myself a liar. This movie is something I never thought would happen, and I am delighted beyond words to have been wrong.

But. Nerdsad.

What is “nerdsad”, you ask? It’s a word I coined after seeing that trailer for the first time. You’ve probably heard the term “nerd rage” (also spelled “nerdrage”) before, describing that vitriolic, bile-spewing furor that erupts among geeks when the things they love are threatened or compromised. Superman has a kid? Nerd rage! Galactus is a puffy space cloud? Nerd rage! Nipples on the Batsuit? NERDRAAAAAAGE!

It looks like this. Thank you, The Gutters.
But I’m not actually angry. I’m not even particularly upset. I’m mildly annoyed and deeply disappointed. And so, since “nerdrage” is so clearly inappropriate, I give you “nerdsad”—a term of my own making, meaning that exquisite combination of melancholy, disappointment, and just a smidgen of annoyance that arises out of a geeky thing not turning out the way we geeks wanted it.

So why am I nerdsad? And why am I hoping against hope that I’ll turn out to be just as wrong in my nerdsadness as I was to believe this movie would never happen?

Peter and Cosmo, a boy and his dog. And raccoon, I guess.
Peter Quill. That’s why.
The one bittersweet point in the GotG trailer, for me, is Peter Quill, as played by Chris Pratt. Let’s look at that trailer again, shall we?

Okay, I hear you saying. He seems amusing enough. Kind of a big, dumb, lovable goofball. Sure, he’s weirdly possessive of his Walkman and has an overinflated sense of his own fame and importance, but hey, those are adorable first-act traits in a character who will eventually grow into a recognizable hero. What’s to be nerdsad about?

Just this—that’s not Peter Quill. At least, not the one I’d buy a ticket for.

Ignore Asshole Pete and Hero Pete for a moment. Cut out all the goofy cosmic stories from the 1970s and 1980s that I enjoyed so much. Ignore Timothy Zahn and Sinjin Quarrel. The first version of Star-Lord that became really popular was Antihero Pete, the one that showed up under Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning—so who was that guy?

Well, this is the first thing you hear about him, through the voice of Richard Rider, a.k.a. Nova:

Sorry about the size. Had to blow it up to make yellow text legible on a blue field. Click and zoom if you still can't read it.
It’s the worst defeat in history, Peter’s just broken out of prison, and he signs on with the vastly outnumbered and outgunned good guys. Brave and possibly crazy. And he’s good at his job, too—his advice gets Richie through the war, and his support turns Richie into a bona fide A-list superhero.
Pep talk from Captain Crazy. Perfect.
“Ain’t nobody gonna be calling Nova a lightweight Earth boy by the end of it,” he tells his protégé.

“If I live that long,” Richie replies.

“Well, obviously there’s that.”

And goofballery? No. I’ve always enjoyed Star-Lord’s sense of humor, when he had one, but it tended to be more dry wit than screwball comedy.

Yes, Rocket is STILL going on about the name.
Do you see that guy picking a fight with a prison guard over a Walkman? No, you do not. My best guess at the moment is that the Walkman is the only thing that character’s got left from Earth, which would naturally make it more precious … but that conflicts with another thing I really like about Antihero Pete.
This is not a guy who wants to be human anymore (or half-human, in his case—remember that the comic-book Pete, at least, is half-alien). This is not a guy who wants to remember Earth. He’s carrying around a huge weight of guilt, and his way of dealing with it is not dealing with it. He throws himself into fight after fight, disaster after disaster, because that’s the only way he can cope. The closest he gets to missing Earth is when he discovers that the Skrull incursion that has taken down transport and communications at his home base is just a tiny ripple of a huge Skrull invasion of Earth. Yelling at a bureaucrat who’s getting in his way, he says:
And honestly, he might or might not actually be worried about his home planet. He might just be guilt-tripping the bureaucrat. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s manipulated people.

Now, that’s quite a bit of complexity to pour into a two-and-a-half-minute trailer, or even a two-hour movie. But let’s look at the trailer version of Peter Quill, shall we? What are we getting instead?

1. He’s petty. On a lot of levels, he’s petty. He’s a petty crook (and while I can imagine the comic-book Peter Quill getting arrested, I have difficulty imagining him getting busted for something so minor as public intoxication). He picks a fight over a petty matter—a Walkman. He can’t resist flipping off authority figures, apparently just because they’re authority figures; I can see the comic-book Peter flipping someone off, but only when they’d made a serious neck-pain of themselves first. Nothing else penetrates the shell, really.
2. He’s inexperienced. That rap sheet is pathetic. He calls himself a “legendary outlaw”, but he seems to be pulling a major job without so much as posting a lookout. Nobody’s heard of “Star-Lord”, and he reacts to that non-recognition like a spoiled teenager. Honestly, the fact that Korath is clueless about him was my biggest tip-off that this wasn’t comic-book Peter. Everyone of any importance in Cosmic Marvel has heard of Star-Lord and the Guardians. Most people think they’re insane, but everyone’s heard of them. This version of Peter has not been pinballing around the universe as a cosmic hero, or fighting in any major wars, or killing thousands of people. He hasn’t done jack.
Sigh. At least he's got the insignia.
3. He’s shallow. This is less about being a shallow person (which trailer-Pete does seem to be) and more about being a shallow character. There doesn’t seem to be much going on behind him. The capsule descriptions of Drax and Gamora suggest there’s some kind of background there, some kind of motivation for what they’re doing. There are hints in Rocket’s screen rundown, too. With Groot, there’s never any way to know, but still—that’s three out of five Guardians with something resembling their rich character backgrounds from the comics. Trailer-Pete has zip. Which brings me to …
4. He’s not qualified to be in this story. Everybody in Cosmic Marvel thinks Antihero Pete is crazy and/or dangerous. But nobody questions his qualifications to lead his merry team of nutbars. He fought in the wars. He made the hard choices. He’s been around and has an established history of throwing himself into the precise moment of conjunction between fan and fecal matter. He was usually the lowest-powered member of the Guardians, but his brain and heart made up for his lost powers. Trailer-Pete, on the other hand, is obviously the hero of this story and probably going to end up leading the team because … well, apparently just because he’s their only white human male. And that is pretty thin, even for Hollywood.

That’s why I’m nerdsad. Not because trailer-Pete is so bad … but because he has the potential to be so much better. And I’ll be sad if James Gunn and the others involved with this movie pass up a great character in order to present a mediocre one.

Of course, I might be wrong.
I’d really like to be wrong about all this. I’d really like to see movie-Peter show some real character depth, and turn out to be a lot more competent and a lot more psychologically complex than the trailer made him out to be. And honestly, that’s still a possibility. Trailers are, by definition, quick hits. The Novas might not have had a complete rap sheet on him—if he does have a history that includes something like the death of a small planet, he might have changed his identity to get away from it. The Walkman could have something important in it, or the pettiness of Peter wanting to keep it could be connected to a motivation that runs deeper than just not wanting people to touch his stuff. The goofball flipping off the Nova Corps might be running a long, deep con on the audience as well as his captors. It wouldn’t be the first time. We still don’t know what those five characters were doing on Xandar; if it’s still Nova Corps headquarters, then breaking in there is the kind of trouble Antihero Pete would gladly get into in a good cause.

And that act-one theory might be true. We might be seeing Antihero Pete in this trailer, at a much earlier stage in his development—perhaps an alternate form of Asshole Pete. After all, the title of the first issue of GotG summed up why these particular loonies were the ones defending the universe:

Someone’s got to do it. Maybe the character we see in the trailer is just someone who hasn’t yet realized that someone’s got to do it … or that he’s someone. Maybe.

It’s a long shot. But I’ll hang onto it for a while. Because this next bit—this next bit right here—is the Star-Lord I’m hoping for.

Everything you need to know about Star-Lord in three scenes.
Because the Thanos Imperative storyline was designed to kill off Richie and Peter, there was a lot of character time devoted to the two of them. That includes my favorite capsule description of Pete, and my favorite moment between the two characters.

The capsule description comes fairly late in the series, in issue 5 of 6. Richie is trying to figure out where Peter and the Guardians have disappeared to. He’s gone against conventional wisdom (and the advice of most of his allies, who’ve written the Guardians off as unreliable crazies) to head off with Major Victory and go rummaging through the Guardians’ abandoned headquarters. And they have this conversation:

He’s a loon with a short fuse who jumps in without looking. That’s what’s so great about him. Bravest man I ever met.

Except, as the series has repeatedly demonstrated, Peter’s fuse is a lot longer than most people give it credit for. And he always looks. It’s just that he jumps in anyway. That conversation sums the character up—just not the way Richie meant it to.

Don’t believe me? Remember this conversation from Day 1, about abstracts?

There’s a reason it stuck in my head. That’s because the rest of the conversation, which was first shown during a Thanos Imperative flashback to the war where the two characters first met--the last panel at the bottom of the page--went like this:

That’s the first part of my favorite moment. If Death comes your way, and won’t let you pass, make sure you scream right back in his face. That has got to be the world’s stupidest life philosophy. But it works for Peter, and it obviously stuck with Richie.

The second half of the moment comes later. At the end of the series, when Star-Lord and Nova are about to face down Thanos, when they know they’re going to die horribly but they also know it’s going to save everyone they know and love (most of whom, in Pete’s case, will never know or care that he was the one who did it), this is the conversation they have:

“Rich, you really shouldn’t trust anything I say. Most of the time, I just make stuff up.”

“I know. Let’s scream in his face anyway.”

That is why I read Guardians of the Galaxy. And that is why I will be buying a ticket to this movie, even if it turns out that Star-Lord on the big screen is a refugee from a Judd Apatow flick. Because I love these characters. I love these stories. And I want to believe that somewhere, buried under all the goofballery and the Blue Swede soundtrack, is a group of characters who mostly make stuff up but will scream in the face of Death anyway.

Somebody’s got to do it.

Tomorrow: The long-awaited (or long-dreaded) reading list.