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‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ #1: A New Reader’s Perspective [Spoiler-Free Review]

If the measure of success of the Marvel NOW relaunch campaign is truly how accessible these many decades-old superhero sagas can be made for fresh eyes, then the publisher and its roster of creators deserve whatever praise is coming to them. Some very recent runs notwithstanding, the Marvel Universe is largely a new place to me, and I’ve availed myself of the publisher’s scheme to welcome first-time or lapsed readers with an ever growing line of new or relaunched series — with attractive and new #1 issues — from its most popular writers and artists. With few exceptions I’ve had no trouble picking up the gist of the new Marvel series I’ve tried, and some of them — like Rick Remender and John Romita, Jr.’s Captain America — have become new favorites.

Guardians of the Galaxy #1 is another new-reader-integration victory for Marvel. Written by industry leader Brian Michael Bendis with artwork by bestselling artist Steve McNiven with John Dell and and Justin Ponsor, this first issue performs its function in safely parachuting the new reader into what’s obviously a very rich mythology full of different kinds of alien cultures, heroes and villains. It’s also a really cool comic — indeed, I think this is probably a career high for McNiven in particular. The only thing I don’t like about the first issue of Guardians of the Galaxy #1 is that it isn’t really the first issue.

The Bendis comics I enjoy most are his street-level crime books like the gritty, self-illustrated Jinx, Torso and Goldfish, and his Daredevil with Alex Maleev, Alias with Michael Gaydos, and the superhero noir series Powers with Michael Avon Oeming are outstanding. But just on a superficial level I didn’t expect Bendis’ idiosyncrasies — the naturalistic dialogue, the character-heavy approach to story, the pervasive angst of his heroes — to work in what Marvel was promoting as a superhero space opera, particularly one drawn in McNiven’s lavish, hyper-detailed style. As it turns out, that synthesis of styles is exactly what makes this book click (and it’s something I should have expected from Guardians editor Stephen Wacker, whose Hawkeye by Matt Fraction and David Aja, Daredevil by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee, and Captain Marvel by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Felipe Andrade demonstrate his skill in pairing writers and artists).

What I’m describing is most evident in the opening two-page spread of Guardians #1. McNiven, Dell and Ponsor provide the kind of exotic vistas and seedy space locales we’ve come to expect from our science fiction, and Bendis provides the character. It’s a scene that kind of recalls the famous Star Wars cantina sequence, with our roguish hero Star-Lord aka Peter Quill going about his business — in this case, running his best game on a beautiful space babe — before an old guy walks in and changes the young man’s destiny. Here it’s his dad, who the new reader learns is a space king and kind of a space hater. The contentious dialogue between them reveals that Peter Quill is a half-human space prince whose father visited our world at some point in the past, hooked up with Peter’s mom and bailed. In one shot of Peter’s eyes — suitably obscured by messy, angsty, hunky space hair — McNiven and his collaborators tell us everything else we need to know about this father-son relationship: it is space dysfunctional.

(click image to enlarge)

What follows that exchange might be too much of an exposition bomb for some readers, but if you’ve watched enough Star Trek you’ll find a kindred spirit in Peter Quill, who frequently interrupts his father’s speech about a council of galactic empires’ decision to ignore Earth and that travel to the planet is strictly forbidden with cries of “Wow!” and “Are you kidding me!?” Indeed, Quill behaves throughout this issue as an earthling like your or I might should we suddenly find ourselves a very important space bro, and it’s a helpful choice by Bendis to make his new reader sympathetic with his hero. We’re just as bemused as he is by his odious father’s strange remarks, and intrigue compels us to find out what’s going on.

Certainly, the half-alien Quill seems more human than the 100% earth-born Iron Man Tony Stark, who appears halfway through issue #1 in what I presume is a new space-capable armor, and for reasons that are as confusing to the reader as they are to Peter Quill. The Star-Lord asks Stark what he’s doing in space and Stark matter-of-factly tells Quill that he invited him. “Oh yeah. I did,” Star-Lord replies. It seemed a peculiar exchange, but when I got to Wacker’s text piece in the back of the book I discovered that I’d missed some relevant material in Guardians of the Galaxy #0.1, which as it turns out is kind of the first issue of the series.

If you didn’t know, Marvel “Point One” issues were originally devised as new-reader entrance points for long-running series in the pre-Marvel NOW days, and the publisher would go on to use the branding on special anthology issues to introduce new themes and storylines that will appear in future comics. An eight-page Guardians story by Bendis and McNiven & Co. appeared in such an issue, and I learned by reading Wacker’s remarks that the creators were inspired to expand that short piece into a 30-page Peter Quill origin story. Cool, but it was easy to conflate what I’d heard of a Guardians prelude issue with the Guardians of the Galaxy Infinite Comics we’ve talked about before, which are free digital comics spotlighting individual members of Quill’s team. Both take place before the events of the series and both use the same Steve McNiven cover artwork on ComiXology. Additionally, the “point-one” concept overlaps with that of the whole Marvel NOW idea of renumbering series from #1, an even more explicit new-reader-attention-getter. Evidently, #1 is a much more marketable number than #0.1, and in the storm of all this new Marvel stuff I simply missed the point-one issue of Guardians. The result? I was briefly pulled out of the story by the dialogue exchange above. It’s an admittedly microscopic note on balance, but a nagging one in my mind because so much has been invested in making these Marvel NOW series hospitable to readers who in the past have felt frustrated by superhero comics’ tendency to alienate people who don’t read absolutely everything, and they came so close to executing that aspect perfectly here.

However, I don’t have an alternative to what Marvel did in this case, and Guardians #0.1 — which, for the record, is also very good — is easily available on ComiXology. I recommend you read that first, if you haven’t already.

Mitigating any of my arcane thoughts on publishing strategies is of course McNiven’s artwork, which looks better here than I’ve ever seen it. I’ve always admired McNiven’s drawing skills, but the work for which he’s probably best known, Civil War, felt too stiff and the coloring was over-rendered for my tastes. It may be the case that McNiven’s talents simply lend themselves better to the extraterrestrial, because what he’s done with John Dell and Justin Ponsor in Guardians of the Galaxy is really great. The super-intricate, Travis Charest-esque line work and luxurious, textured coloring remind me less of Marvel books of the past and more of the stylish European sci-fi comics released by Humanoids. This distinctly immersive sci-fi style has been the apparent visual inspiration for a couple other Marvel NOW relaunches I’ve enjoyed — namely the first Avengers issues by Jonathan Hickman and Jerome Opeña and Captain America by Rick Remender and John Romita, Jr. — and I think it’s a good aesthetic direction for some of these superhero books to take as more English-speaking comics readers are being exposed to the classic works of European and Japanese masters. If nothing else, Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t look anything like the work of Marvel’s closest competitors in the superhero/adventure comics game, who for the most part are still practicing a style that hasn’t really changed in decades.

Unfortunately long-term collaborations are increasingly rare in superhero comics, and it’s likely that McNiven won’t be drawing Guardians of the Galaxy for as long as Bendis probably intends to write it. But with issue #1 (and #0.1) as templates, this team has set a good standard for the kind of Marvel space adventure comic I want to keep reading.

Guardians of the Galaxy #1 goes on sale this week in local comics shops and digitally from ComiXology. Issue #0.1 is now available digitally, as are the free Guardians of the Galaxy Infinite Comics, spotlighting the individual members of Star-Lord’s team.

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