One of the papers I usually assign in my composition course is a cultural antecedents essay. The students choose something from popular culture and then examine its relationship to its cultural antecedents. Or, put in non-academic language that actual humans use, the idea is to pick something from pop culture and take a look at its family tree.
The easiest way to understand it is to think about Star Wars. When the original film was first released, it was a bit of a paradox. The film as a whole was startlingly original even though almost none of its individual parts contained any originality whatsoever. Like most of his fellow 1970’s film school graduates-turned-directors, George Lucas wore his influences on his long, plaid sleeve, so anyone could easily find bits and pieces of the Arthurian legends, Burroughs’ Barsoom novels, the Flash Gordon serials, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kurosawa’s samurai films (especially The Hidden Fortress), Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, Hollywood westerns, Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Saga … and the list could go on and on.
As an approach to art, it’s similar to the way in which Star Trek’s Data plays violin. There’s nothing original about any of the techniques he uses—he simply reproduces effects from some of the great virtuosos—but the choices he makes and the way in which he compiles them becomes, in itself, an artistic expression.
All of which, I guess, makes for a pretty pompous introduction to this week’s column on Guardians of the Galaxy, but these are the things that kept crossing my mind as I read the first volume of the recent series by Brian Michael Bendis, Steve McNiven, and Sarah Pichelli. It’s a fun read with lots of energy and style, but a big part of what makes it work is the way in which Bendis combines elements from a disparate array of sources.
If you read my column from a few weeks ago on Claremont and Byrne’s Star-Lord, you’ll remember that I’ve been a bit baffled by the whole Guardians phenomenon. While I was always vaguely aware of the title, I had never really perceived of it as required reading. And given its checkered publication history, it seems a particularly odd choice to become one of Marvel’s tentpole franchises. Unlike most of the company’s icons, the Guardians didn’t start with a self-titled series from the early ‘60s, they never enjoyed an uninterrupted, 200-plus issue run, and their pedigree doesn’t include names like Lee, Kirby, or Ditko. In fact, their history is so convoluted that even attempting to read a simple summary is enough to drive someone to James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.
And yet, here they are. Through various fits and starts, those hard-travelling Guardians of the Galaxy have somehow inspired a hot new comic book series, provided a home for Neil Gaiman’s long-dormant character, Angela, and become the standard bearers for one of the summer’s most anticipated movie blockbusters.
So in an effort to figure out their appeal, I’ve decided this week to try round two. The Claremont-Byrne Star-Lord didn’t offer any real answers, so I thought I’d look at a much more recent incarnation instead. Cosmic Avengers, the subtitle for the first story arc of the new Guardians series, would seem to suggest a good place to start, because the group certainly demonstrates most of the tropes of a superhero team. They are varied in appearance, skills, and personality, but they have to work together for a bigger cause. As a concept, this sort of team goes back at least as far as the legends of Jason and the Argonauts, and it’s certainly the driving force behind what Quentin Tarantino calls those “bunch of guys on a mission” movies like The Guns of Navarone and The Dirty Dozen.
But in this case, Bendis has gone further than simply using superhero tropes. As the subtitle suggests, the team is essentially being incorporated into the overall Avengers franchise, and he even goes so far as to include—rather gratuitously—Iron Man as the new team member.
To be honest, there’s a lot about this I don’t typically enjoy. For example, I loved Bendis’s re-launch of the Avengers a few years ago beginning with Breakout, but as both Marvel and DC are prone to do, the corporate franchise mentality eventually led to the introduction of multiple teams and spin-offs and I gradually drifted away.
However, the sheer crassness of trying to brand this Guardians team with the Avengers label and then tossing in Iron Man—a character whose current prominence at Marvel seems mostly due to Robert Downey, Jr.—somehow makes it all forgivable. To paraphrase that great Peter O’Toole line from My Favorite Year, this Iron Man isn’t a character; he’s a movie star. It’s that kind of superficial, pop swagger that seems to be at the heart of the modern version of the team as well as the upcoming movie.
But despite its superhero connection, the series is still connected to the pulpy space opera tradition that fueled the Claremont and Byrne Star-Lord. Much like Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, or the Heinlein juvenile novels that inspired Claremont, we get lots of aliens, ray guns, rockets, and space battles. And from more prestigious sources like Dune, we also get intergalactic leaders, politics, and conspiracies to capture the young Star-Lord.
What makes this particular series unique is the narrative focus of Bendis. He avoids one of the most damaging traps of science fiction by refusing to spend all of his time on universe building and minutia. Now I’ll readily admit, this may be my own personal bias, but I’ve always appreciated getting a story first and details later. In this sense, he’s writing neither traditional science fiction nor high fantasy. We don’t get scientific or sociological explanations for much of anything, nor do we get lots of internal history or epic, Tolkienesque battle scenes.
Instead, Bendis keeps the focus on the characters, letting the humor and the lyrical beats of his David Mamet-inspired dialogue drive the story. Things happen, changes take place, mysteries are unveiled, but it wouldn’t take much imagination to switch out the settings and the costumes and tell the same story in the old West or on a pirate ship or even within the halls of a medieval castle.
Bendis also structures the narrative in a way that reminds me of Joss Whedon’s Firefly. After the initial story arc concludes, Bendis uses the next issue to show us how the team came together in a series of character vignettes. In much the same way, one of the most effective things Whedon did with Firefly was to hold onto most of his characters’ backstories until the 8th episode, “Out of Gas,” which used flashbacks to show how most of them had come to serve aboard Serenity. The result was that those stories, rather than providing lumbering exposition in a slow-moving, self-indulgent pilot, provided texture and deepened the series after it had already established its legs.
But Guardians of the Galaxy shares more with Whedon than the narrative structure. The glibness of the tone seems particularly in keeping with much of Whedon’s writing. I was actually a slow convert to Firefly, having been trained to take my space opera with a spoonful of Shakespearian melodrama. Firefly seemed too cutesy and lightweight. I had originally quit Buffy for much the same reason. I saw the broad characters and informality of the tone as attempts to dumb down the material and pander to a larger audience.
But as I gradually came to learn, there is an intelligence and a consistency of vision behind all that glibness and irony. It’s a Postmodern irony, a self-awareness of the artificiality and meaninglessness of most of the things we do in life. While it doesn’t come across as “naturalism,” which is the style people like me tend to privilege, in its own way such a casual, knowing style speaks as much to our existence as anything more formal or mimetic. (Forgive me for “mimetic.” The fall semester starts soon so I sometimes start talking like an academic. It’s a disease, but I think it’s treatable.)
All of which is to say, I’m not sure there is much depth in Cosmic Avengers, but there is genuine human emotion and attention to character in a slick, self-aware package. My favorite line comes from Rocket Raccoon. As the team gets set to make a final charge, he says, “We need a battle cry,” presumably something like “Avengers Assemble!” When Star-Lord says no, Rocket Raccoon responds with, “I’ll workshop something.” Without the use of the verb, “workshop,” there’s little new there, but by using the language of creative writing and committee work, and by using it specifically as a verb, the little throwaway moment becomes much more witty, much more self aware, and much more wise.
Perhaps Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t being designed with someone like me in mind, but I think I’m starting to warm up to it anyway.