Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m not in love with the Guardians of the Galaxy trailer. I know this puts me in the comic book community’s version of the flat Earth society, but I’m fine with that. I’m sure I’ll still go see it, and I learned a long time ago to reserve judgment on these things. In fact, I worry sometimes that we spend too much time handicapping movies in advance; the cranky part of me wonders what would happen if we spent as much time scrutinizing actual books and movies as we do poring over casting news, production stills, and trailers.
But here I am getting off track before this column has even begun. Since I’m not much of an aficionado on Guardians of the Galaxy, debating the relative merits of the trailer isn’t what this column is about. It’s just that the trailer for the movie is where this particular story begins.
You see, a funny thing happened the first time I saw it. Not being a reader of the comic, I couldn’t have told you who was on the team, but if you’ve seen the trailer you know that the character played by Chris Pratt identifies himself as “Star-Lord.” Well as soon as I heard that, I could only think about one thing—cat urine.
It seems that while everyone else was humming along with “Hooked on a Feeling” and “Spirit in the Sky,” I was coming to terms with the fact that I was going to have to brave the condemned section of our house formerly known as the basement. As rooms go, our basement always had potential, but when you’re perpetually pressed for time and money, things gradually start to … deteriorate. Today, our basement is mostly a nature preserve, home to our two cats and the always-creepy legion of Tennessee spider crickets. It’s also the place where I keep my comic book long boxes.
I don’t read through my back issues much anymore. I like to think that’s because I prefer trade paperbacks, but part of me thinks I simply don’t want to venture down into the “cat house.” Plus, my comics smell bad. I don’t know if it’s the plastic bags that absorb the odors or if the cats somehow have the ability to take off the lids when their litter boxes are full, but all my older comics wind up smelling like cat urine. This time, however, I knew I had to sift through the boxes anyway, because I was pretty sure that somewhere down there was a book I now needed to read—Star Lord: The Special Edition.
It was one of those things you pick up from the bargain bin at your local comic shop. You always intend to read it, but somehow you never quite do. In the case of Star-Lord, I couldn’t remember when I bought it, but as I started flipping through its pages I immediately remembered why. It’s a science fiction comic book in the Buck Rogers tradition created by a pre-X-Men team of Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Terry Austin. That would be enough to warrant a purchase, but it was also a Marvel “Special Edition,” and I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for those deluxe reprint books Marvel and DC released in the ‘80s. Just a few years ago, when trade paperback archives were more spotty and “digital” was something that referred to either music or alarm clocks, these Special Editions were often the cheapest way to find classic Bronze Age stories.
So this week I sat down with my deluxe reprint and read through Claremont, Byrne, and Austin’s Star-Lord. The story had originally appeared in a ‘70s-era, black and white magazine called Marvel Preview, back in a time when many in the industry believed that slick magazines were the path to respectability. The magazine format seemed to work in Europe, and British magazines like Warrior and 2000 AD would certainly help launch the Modern Age in the ‘80s. But in America, that future where adults routinely purchased comics magazines never really happened, and when trade paperbacks and graphic novels took over, the slick comics magazines gradually went the way of the LaserDisc.
But one of the virtues of Marvel Preview was that it allowed Marvel’s creators to experiment with characters, both new and old, in longer stories aimed at slightly older readers. And it was published at a time when Marvel was still very engaged with a variety of popular genres, when the usual roster of Marvel superheroes shared shelf space with the likes of Conan the Barbarian, Tomb of Dracula, Master of Kung Fu, and Howard the Duck.
So Steve Englehart and Steve Gan introduced the world to Star-Lord in Marvel Preview #4, cover dated January 1976. Apparently Englehart had elaborate, long-range plans for the character, but he soon left the company, taking those plans with him. However, the up-and-coming writer, Chris Claremont, decided to follow up on the concept, aided by little-known artists John Byrne and Terry Austin. A few months later, that duo would join Claremont on Uncanny X-Men and together they would change comics history.
But first came Star-Lord. As has been well reported, Claremont was a big fan of Robert Heinlein’s “juveniles”—his science fiction novels aimed at younger readers. So when Marvel Preview #11 first debuted with a cover date of June 1977, the cover compared the story to Heinlein, prompting legal threats, a recall, and ultimately a new cover, sans any references to Heinlein.
Clearly, Star-Lord was beginning to look like a hard-luck case. But the character’s biggest problem may have been timing. As Steven Grant notes in his Introduction to the Special Edition, Claremont was ahead of his time—just not by much. While it’s not clear exactly when the book went on sale, it would’ve been almost simultaneous with the May 25 debut of Star Wars. Had Claremont’s Star-Lord appeared only a few months later, in the wake of Star Wars mania when the movie was gone and the fans were hungry for more, it would likely have found a much more enthusiastic audience.
Upon reading the story, several things stand out, but for a contemporary reader the most obvious one is tone. Unlike the upcoming movie, Claremont’s Star-Lord is no tongue-in-cheek satire. It’s pure, unadulterated space opera, clearly in the tradition of … well, I could tell you who but my lawyers have advised me not to name names.
But the scope of the story is impressive. There are worlds here with histories and futures of their own. There are also lots of interesting bits of technology, including, oddly enough, invisible lasers hidden in some characters’ fingers and swords. (I think I had one of those as a kid.) But perhaps most intriguing is “Ship,” the entity with which Star-Lord flies through the galaxy. Despite her name and appearance, “Ship” is not a spacecraft but rather a sentient companion that even has the ability to take human shape. In some ways it’s reminiscent of what Neil Gaiman would do with the TARDIS in his first Doctor Who script many years later.
Starlord’s (Claremont doesn’t use the hyphen) sleek costume and helmet suggest Buck Rogers, while some of the scenes, including one underwater, hand-to-hand battle with a multi-tentacle sea monster, owe more to Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon. And the artwork is also a nice reminder that at his best, John Byrne was always a very crisp, clean storyteller, and here he draws far more detailed backgrounds than found in much of his later work.
All of which isn’t to say that the book’s an unqualified masterpiece. Even though the four chapters of the story were published at the same time, some of it feels disjointed, with revelations and plot developments that read like last-minute decisions, almost as if the chapters were being written months if not years apart even though they clearly weren’t. And the story itself is a clear reminder of how much mainstream comics would change during the next ten years. That’s a polite way of saying that after reading through the more than 50-page saga, I still can’t tell you what Star-Lord is about. Besides being a further adventure of Star-Lord, there appears to be very little subtext.
The closest thing to a larger idea involves Starlord’s personal struggle with his own violent impulses, but rather than elevating the story, this internal battle ultimately provides the book with its most awkward moments. According to the backstory, when Starlord was a child, his mother was killed by a lizard-like alien known as, believe it or not, a “Sith-Lord,” proof that both Claremont and George Lucas knew how to pilfer from Edgar Rice Burroughs. Near the end of the story, Starlord finally squares off against this alien in a fight that lasts all of one page, culminating with the hero plunging his sword through the alien’s chest while proclaiming, “In my mother’s name, Monster.” Claremont’s narrator adds in a caption box below, “God forgive him, it feels glorious.”
Given the genre, this wouldn’t really arouse too much attention if it weren’t for the fact that Starlord has talked about his unwillingness (and perhaps even inability) to kill. Perhaps he was just learning how to go where no Starlord had gone before.
But then, over the course of the next four pages, he duels with his villainous uncle who was working with the Sith-Lord and neither combatant seems to get what just happened. Instead, when the moment of truth arrives, his uncle tells him that he knows Starlord won’t kill him, to which our hero reluctantly agrees: “The man’s … right. Like ‘Ship’ says, I’m Starlord. I have to stand for something.” Of course, we already witnessed what he stands for, or rather what he stands next to—the dead body of the alien he just “gloriously” skewered. Again, this wouldn’t be an issue if he weren’t reveling in his nobility at the same time. But perhaps killing aliens doesn’t count. After all, the Sith-Lord looked kind of like a lizard, and as the song says, it’s not that easy being green.
Then, as if things weren’t inconsistent enough, when his uncle strikes at him, Starlord spins around and on “instinct” hurls his sword through his chest. Couldn’t help it, of course. Just a “hero reflex” I guess. But that makes two killings in five pages, which makes you wonder what the body count might be like if he weren’t so dedicated to not taking a life.
As I’ve said, given the genre and the context, neither of these killings would be particularly troublesome if it weren’t for the inconsistency and seeming obliviousness. But perhaps I’m giving Claremont a hard time because he’s one of the writers who would soon raise our expectations for mainstream comics, training us to expect even a genre story to be about something besides the character and the plot.
Or perhaps I’m just suffering from the crankiness that comes from inhaling 45 minutes worth of cat urine.