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Guardians Of The Galaxy spotlights the ouroboros dynamic of comics and film

Image: Marvel Studios
Image: Marvel Studios

[This post is brought to you by Skittles—buy any specially marked bag for a chance to win tickets to the upcoming film Guardians Of the Galaxy Vol. 2.*]

In Page To Screen, we compare a movie to the comics that spawned it. The analysis goes into deep detail about specific plot points—in other words, you’ve been warned.

When Marvel Studios announced in 2012 that it was making a movie based on the Guardians Of The Galaxy comics, the general reaction was perplexed surprise. There have been various iterations of the Guardians Of The Galaxy in the comics, and none have featured characters that are anywhere close to household names. Sure, Iron Man and Thor weren’t especially popular outside of comics when their movies were released, but they were still had more name recognition than Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and Groot (Vin Diesel). The fact that two of the main characters in the movie were a gun-wielding raccoon and a talking tree was the strongest indication that Guardians Of The Galaxy was going to be unlike any previous Marvel Studios release, and the 2014 movie successfully took the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) off Earth for a thrilling space opera with a charming cast, dazzling visuals, and brilliant soundtrack.

Written by Nicole Perlman and James Gunn and directed by Gunn, Guardians Of The Galaxy isn’t a straight adaptation of any single comic-book story, although the character lineup is pulled from the Guardians Of The Galaxy comic that ran from 2008 to 2010. Written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, who were creative partners for over 20 years before splitting due to personal differences, with art primarily by Wes Craig, Paul Pelletier, and Brad Walker, Guardians Of The Galaxy spun out of the Annihilation: Conquest event miniseries, which united these characters against the robot Ultron and his cybernetic alien army. Annihilation: Conquest was the follow-up to the 2006 miniseries Annihilation, which revitalized the cosmic corner of the Marvel Universe, and the Guardians Of The Galaxy series that followed these two events was a love letter to the cosmic concepts and characters of the publisher’s past.

Image: Marvel Comics; Guardians Of The Galaxy #1 (2008) cover by Clint Langley

With their work on DC Comics’ Legion Of Super-Heroes in the comics Legion Lost, Legion Worlds, and The Legion, Abnett and Lanning revealed a talent for handling cosmic superhero teams, which requires a lot of imagination and the ability to juggle a large cast of heroes from dramatically different backgrounds. They applied that talent to Marvel’s cosmic characters with their work on Annihilation: Nova (a miniseries tie-in to the first Annihilation) and Annihilation: Conquest; then they stepped into even bigger roles by writing both the Nova and Guardians Of The Galaxy ongoing series. (The Nova Corps played an important part in the Guardians Of The Galaxy movie as the space cops that send the characters to prison and later team up with them to help take out Ronan The Accuser and his Kree armada, but none of the prominent Novas in the comics appear on screen.)

Image: Marvel Comics; Guardians Of The Galaxy #1 (2008) art by Paul Pelletier, Rick Magyar, and Nathan Fairbairn

Abnett and Lanning have a strong appreciation for the rich, convoluted history of these superhero properties, and know how to use that history to create compelling, exciting stories, and Guardians Of The Galaxy gave them the opportunity to explore many different facets of cosmic Marvel. The work of Jim Starlin, creator of Thanos, Drax The Destroyer, Gamora, and Adam Warlock, was a major influence on Guardians Of The Galaxy’s plot, and the series also folded in the mythology of the original Guardians Of The Galaxy, a superhero team from the 31st century introduced in 1969 Marvel Super-Heroes #18. One member of the original Guardians would make it into the movie: Michael Rooker’s Yondu, who retains his blue skin and sonically powered arrow but has a completely different backstory and a much smaller Mohawk.

The roster in Abnett and Lanning’s Guardians Of The Galaxy comic book was larger than the one in the film, and included other cosmic Marvel heroes like Adam Warlock, Quasar, Mantis (who joins the movie team in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2), and the telepathic Russian dog Cosmo (who makes a brief cameo in the first Guardians Of The Galaxy movie as a prisoner in The Collector’s collection). A stripped-down cast is a wise move; when the script has so much heavy lifting to do in terms of world-building, it makes sense not to overload the audience with characters, especially ones with overly complex backstories. There are still a lot of characters, but that’s part of the fun of the Guardians Of The Galaxy movie. There’s a strong sense of discovery as Perlman and Gunn reveal these new faces and their colorful extraterrestrial worlds, many of whom look very different from what viewers were exposed to in past Marvel Studios films.

Chris Pratt’s Peter “Star-Lord” Quill is at the core of the film, and he’s the most traditional Marvel Studios character of the bunch. A handsome, beefy, wisecracking human who is abducted by aliens as a child immediately after his mother’s death, Peter is a cocky thief trying to market himself to the universe as Star-Lord, and the movie is largely about him realizing his heroic destiny with the help of his new companions in the Guardians Of The Galaxy. Unlike in the comics, Peter’s mother isn’t killed by aliens in the film, but dies from cancer, which provides a more relatable childhood trauma that makes it easier to empathize with Peter. The mixtape given to Peter by his mother serves as the soundtrack for the film, and using songs from the ’60s and ’70s gives the movie a distinct flavor while reinforcing Peter’s emotional connection to his mother throughout the story.

The rest of the Guardians are aliens, and Peter meets the green-skinned Gamora when he’s trying to sell the Orb that is also wanted by Ronan The Accuser, the Kree radical working with Gamora’s adopted father, the warlord Thanos. Rocket and Groot are a pair of bounty hunters tracking Peter down to take him back to Yondu and his gang of Ravagers, and the four of them end up in prison after the Nova Corps interrupts their fight on the planet Xandar. In the prison, they meet Drax, a hulking, tattooed bruiser with a personal vendetta against Ronan, Thanos, and anyone connected to them. Despite personal tensions, the quintet joins forces to break out of jail and bring the Orb to The Collector, who is willing to pay a huge sum for the Infinity Stone contained within.

With the exception of Rocket and Groot, the main characters in Guardians Of The Galaxy are taken in different directions than their comic-book counterparts. Star-Lord is a smarmy womanizer not unlike Tony “Iron Man” Stark, and Peter is presented as a man-child who never really grew up after his mother’s death and doesn’t take responsibility for his actions. Drax is initially introduced as an intense, aggressive criminal with a tragic past, but he becomes comic relief over the course of the film due to his lack of tact and inability to understand figurative language. Gamora is still the most dangerous woman in the galaxy, but there’s an added layer of vulnerability to her character and a desire to find a new family to replace the one that Thanos took from her. That’s a common thread amongst all the Guardians: a need to find companionship in a universe where they’ve had to fend for themselves for far too long.

The Guardians Of The Galaxy movie isn’t explicitly inspired by any one comic-book story, but the success of the film made it a huge influence on the Guardians Of The Galaxy comics. This franchise is a prime example of how superhero comics change to reflect the interpretation of concepts on screen, and because the Guardians weren’t especially popular on the page, Marvel had even more reason to adjust the comics so that they were closer to Perlman and Gunn’s vision. Writer Brian Michael Bendis is a creative consultant for Marvel Studios, and he facilitated the Guardians’ shift in the comics when he started writing the Guardians Of The Galaxy series in 2013. His cast was the same as the one in the movie, with one major addition: Iron Man, the hero at the foundation of the MCU.

Image: Marvel Comics; Guardians Of The Galaxy #1 (2013) cover by Steve McNiven, John Dell, and Justin Ponsor

Over the course of Bendis’ first volume of Guardians Of The Galaxy, the voices and appearances of these characters became more aligned with what was in the movie. Star-Lord became more smug, Drax took on the vocal patterns of his onscreen counterpart, and Gamora gradually softened up (and got a much more sensible costume). New additions to the team kept Bendis’ run from being too similar to the movie, while also making the Guardians a bigger part of the overall Marvel Universe. Angela, Venom, Captain Marvel, the X-Men’s Kitty Pryde, and the Fantastic Four’s The Thing all became Guardians at different points, but with Bendis’ run at an end with this month’s Guardians Of The Galaxy #19, Marvel is getting back to the movie’s core team for the Guardians’ comic-book future. Next month, Marvel is launching All-New Guardians Of The Galaxy from writer Gerry Duggan and artist Aaron Kuder, and the team consists of Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Baby Groot, who is making his way to the comics after capturing the hearts of movie audiences at the end of the Guardians Of The Galaxy movie.

Image: Marvel Comics; All-New Guardians Of The Galaxy #1 cover by Aaron Kuder and Ive Svorcina

After the crossover event Secret Wars altered Marvel Comics’ continuity, the comic-book Guardians became even more connected to the characters on screen. Writer Sam Humphries and artist Javier Garron gave Peter Quill an updated origin in the Star-Lord ongoing, and Nicole Perlman’s long-awaited Gamora series with artist Marco Checchetto is so similar to the movie’s interpretation of the character that it feels like a prequel set in the MCU rather than comics continuity. All of the Guardians in the movie have received their own comic-book titles in the years since the film’s release: Star-Lord is on his third ongoing; Gamora currently has her own book (although the future of that series is uncertain after April’s issue #5); Drax had an 11-issue series; Rocket is on his second solo series with a third on the way; and Groot had a six-issue solo series before a 10-issue series pairing him with Rocket (and a Baby Groot series is launching in May).

The Guardians books aren’t Marvel’s best sellers, but they perform well enough for the publisher to keep putting out a steady stream of them. This is a common trend in superhero comics, and if a character is going to appear in a live-action movie or television series, it’s very likely that they will receive a comic series capitalizing on that exposure. Wolverine “died” in 2014, but with a grizzled older version of the character appearing in Logan, Marvel brought the Wolverine of the future into the present-day Marvel Universe to join the X-Men and star in the Old Man Logan ongoing series. X-23 is also appearing in Logan as a child, and the young adult version of the character currently holds the Wolverine mantle in the All-New Wolverine ongoing series. All of the heroes in Marvel’s Netflix series will have their own solo titles in the next couple months (Power Man And Iron Fist is ending so that the two leads can have their own books), and the upcoming The Defenders comic series features the same lineup as The Defenders Netflix miniseries debuting later this year.

Comics provide the source material for these Hollywood projects, which in turn dictate how these publishers approach the characters on the page. The results are often mixed, but publishers are so hungry for readers that it makes sense to push the characters and concepts that are getting the most exposure in the larger cultural consciousness. Unfortunately, adhering to interpretations that are simplified for movies and TV can be creatively stifling, preventing writers and artists from doing genuinely innovative work because it may not have mass-market appeal.


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