In 2017, the hit toy of the year was an adorable, doe-eyed sapling in a plant pot that would shake its bark-covered booty along to any music playing in its vicinity. Should you wish, you could also have bought a Baby Groot – for that was the dancing sapling – mask, plushie, costume, alarm clock, bobblehead, Hot Wheels car, planter… you name it, in 2017 it had an anthropomorphic tree on it.
Groot-mania, viewed at some distance, was wild, as if it had dropped into the public consciousness from another dimension. And as such, it was perfectly representative of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise that spawned it – a Super Hero team so different, so weird, that they’d been skirting the fringes of the Marvel Universe for 45 years before James Gunn’s 2014 movie catapulted them to fame. In a world of tortured vigilantes and Super Hero teams tackling the knotty problems of geopolitics and universal cataclysms, the Guardians charted their own course to the top of the, ahem, tree, in terms of fan popularity. But how?
“I told my wife, ‘I’m putting together Marvel’s new space team and this is gonna be our star.’ She said, ‘Is that a squirrel?”
– Bill Rosemann, Marvel
Comics are always a product of their time. Marvel’s patriotic champion Captain America first appeared in March 1941, nine months before the attack on Pearl Harbor that pulled the USA into World War II. The Incredible Hulk – scientist Bruce Banner, transformed into a big, green destruction machine following exposure to radioactive gamma rays – arrived in 1962, five years after the reactor at Windscale in Cumbria caught fire and caused a level 5 (out of 7!) International Nuclear Event in Europe. Black Panther was born in 1966, two years after the Civil Rights Act was published.
And so it made sense in 1969, against the backdrop of an incredibly turbulent period in US politics, when Marvel’s Roy Thomas, one of prolific writers working at the publisher during comics’ so-called ‘Silver Age’, proposed a new series about “super-guerrillas fighting against Russians and Red Chinese who had taken over and divided the USA,” in his words. This was a time of dwindling support for a futile war against communism in Vietnam, the unpopular Richard Nixon was the sitting president following the shooting of John F Kennedy and the nation – if not the world – was still reeling from the 1968 assassination of civil rights hero Martin Luther King.
Roy Thomas was a letter-writing fanboy-turned-star Marvel writer who would a year later kick off a huge trend for swords-and-sorcery comics with 1970’s Conan The Barbarian. But such was the working practice at Marvel, ideas were shared in the famous “Bullpen” of writers, artists and editors headed by editor-in-chief Stan Lee, and frequently knocked into a different shape altogether. Before long, Thomas’s Guardians concept had been re-situated from a future America to the far reaches of space in another dimension entirely, and the guerrilla fighters had become an ensemble of two aliens (Yondu and Martinex), a 20th Century human (Vance Astro) and a genetically-enhanced soldier (Charlie-27).
It’s believed the bulk of the re-working was undertaken by writer Arnold Drake and editor-in-chief Stan Lee, and it’s fair to say that the original Guardians of the Galaxy bears the hallmarks of both. Drake can probably account for the sheer weirdness of the team – he’d previously invented Doom Patrol – a Super Team so out-there its original working title was The Legion of the Strange – for Marvel’s rival DC. As for Marvel’s golden goose Lee, who co-created Spider-Man, Daredevil, Black Panther, Iron Man, The Avengers and many more, it’s likely he was the one who helped the team capture a different angle on the zeitgeist than Roy Thomas. For while the end of the 1960s was a time of great trouble, it also witnessed mankind – and, more than that, American mankind – walk on the moon, and saw the counter-culture come of age at Woodstock, the massive “festival of peace and music” in New York State. With performances from Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Sly & The Family Stone and many more, Dancing Groot would have had a blast there – and he’d have been hugged a lot.
Viewed through that lens, Guardians of the Galaxy are every bit a product of the time – a band of outsiders and misfits lost together in the vastness of space. And that might be the reason that their first incarnation was as short-lived as the hippie movement itself, which crashed within a year thanks to the horrors of Altamont (the huge Rolling Stones concert that descended into chaos when the Hell’s Angels working security killed a Black concert-goer) and the murders instigated by hippie-from-hell Charles Manson. And so while the Guardians made their debut at the beginning of 1969 in Marvel Super-Heroes issue 18, written by Drake and illustrated by Gene Colan, an expressive artist best known for his work in horror, they then simply disappeared – for five whole years.
“I’m not even sure I know who they all are, [but] I can’t wait to see the movie.”
– Stan Lee, 2013
But something about the team proved irresistible to Marvel’s most maverick writers. Steve Gerber, an eccentric escapee from the world of advertising copywriting noted for writing Marvel’s mind-bogglingly strange title Howard The Duck, revived the Guardians in 1974’s Marvel Two-In-One and 1975’s The Defenders. But by 1980, their ignominious guest appearances had caught them up in time-travelling plot-hole hell. The events of Marvel Two-in-One issue 69 snipped ties between the universe in which the Guardians exist and the canonical Marvel Universe and the Guardians were to remain lost in space – and off the shelves – for the best part of a decade.
A renegade from the indie comics scene, where his Average Normalman (no, really) had lampooned the tropes of Super Hero comics, Jim Valentino revived the team for its own title in 1989. He was succeeded by Michael Gallagher, who knew a thing or two about outer space having worked on the comic adaptation of TV’s wise-cracking, cat-eating alien ALF. But by the mid-1990s, the series was cancelled again, and the Guardians, in their original incarnation, were space dust once more.
You’ll have noticed that, until this point, none of the members of what most of us would consider to be the quintessential Guardians team have yet made an appearance. Skip forward another 10 years and enter Marvel editor Bill Rosemann, architect of the second generation Guardians. Rosemann had been poached from DC by legendary editor-in-chief Joe Quesada and handed what was considered to be something of a poisoned chalice. “Joe was like, ‘Guess which books we’re going to give you?’ I was hoping it was the street-based [ones], you know, Spider-Man, Daredevil. But Joe says, ‘We want you to edit the cosmic books. They’re making a comeback, right?’ Inside, I was [deflated], but for a chance to edit comics at Marvel I said, ‘Of course, boss, whatever you want!”
The ‘cosmic books’ are those taking place in outer space, where Marvel has, over the years, created multiple universes packed with diverse alien species and apocalyptic enemies. The core essence of the titles bear the hallmarks of a Marvel original who cast a huge shadow, artist Jack Kirby, famous for artwork that looked like it had been chiseled into an ancient tablet rather than inked onto Bristol Board. Two of his co-creations Fantastic Four and Thor betray the twin obsessions – space and religion – that shaped his formative work on the cosmic books, where his heroes were Godly, the art was inspired by great empires of antiquity and you were more likely to find a ponderous treatise on the nature of power than a sound effect bubble reading ‘kapow!’. While Kirby had long since left the Bullpen, his influence on Marvel was as permanent as constellations in the sky.
“I was not into Marvel’s cosmic stuff as a fanboy kid because it was all old dudes with beards and staffs standing in space – I didn’t get it,” says Rosemann. “Now I’m older I look back at it and I see it’s brilliant, but I couldn’t see that at the time. Then Marvel did the Annihilation story [a 2006 crossover event involving Drax, Silver Surfer, Thanos and a host of other characters] and I read it and I got it – it was Band of Brothers in space, everyone versus the alien bugs. So suddenly it’s, ‘OK, if this is the accessible approach, let’s do it.’”
Rosemann saw the need to reconnect the cosmic books with Marvel’s core principle – relatability – and looked to a completely new line-up of the Guardians to do so. His first pick was not Star-Lord, as you might expect, but the anthropomorphic procyonidae Rocket Racoon, who’d once been the unlikely recipient of his own four-issue mini-series in 1985. “One rainy night, I’m going through all my Official Handbook[s] Of The Marvel Universe and I’m putting sticky notes on cosmic characters who we haven’t seen for a while. My wife comes in and says, ‘Billy, you’re making a mess, what are you doing?’ I said, ‘Honey, I’m putting together Marvel’s new space team and this is gonna be our star.’ I held up a book; she said, ‘Is that a squirrel? But I sold her on Rocket by saying he’s our Wolverine – he’s short, he’s hairy, he’s got a bad attitude. We wanted an entire team of misfits and underdogs.”
Once the core of the team debuted in Annihilation: Conquest – Star-Lord by the team of Keith Giffen and Timothy Green II – which starred Rocket Racoon, Star-Lord, Groot and Mantis – Rosemann picked his dream team behind the scenes, too, hiring rising stars Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning to write the ongoing comic series. Abnett and Lanning not only added on Drax, a muscle-guy-with-heart, and Gamora, a powerful woman with the ultimate bad-dad, they also injected the team with their cornerstone elements of humor and accessibility. “They’re two British ‘blokes’, and that was important because I loved their approach to sci-fi. The US approach to sci-fi has historically been very Jetsons, you know, very clean and aspirational, The UK version was very gritty and grounded.” Well, it does rain a lot here.
“We wanted an entire team of misfits and underdogs”
– Bill Rosemann, Marvel
“And so the comic came out and it didn’t sell hugely, but those who bought it, loved it,” says Rosemann. “And then one day, I got a call from my friend in Marvel Studios and he says, ‘Hey Bill, we really like your cosmic books.’ I’m like, ‘That’s cool’. And he’s like, ‘No, we really like them.’ Click. Eventually we heard there was going to be a Guardians movie. Well, I thought it was going to star the original Guardians from the `70s, or maybe even the `90s. And then we see the first piece of art and I call and wake up Dan Abnett and yell ‘Dan, they’re making a Guardians movie… and it’s our Guardians!”
You might draw a line between Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn – an auteur, albeit an occasionally controversial one – and those Marvel mavericks who went before, and such is Gunn’s love for the team, he wrote a 20-page document detailing the look and feel of the movie before he’d even been hired. Funnily enough, Rocket Racoon was the big draw for Gunn, as for Rosemann. “I love raccoons,” Gunn has said. “I had a raccoon figurine collection as a kid, and I now have two movies with ‘Ranger Rick’ jokes in them. I love ’em. They come in my backyard all the time, and we just stare at each other like a couple of idiots.”
“I love raccoons.
I had a raccoon figurine collection as a kid”
– James Gunn, director
To say Gunn had plucked the team from obscurity is no understatement – the late Stan Lee himself said ahead of the film’s release, “I didn’t write Guardians of the Galaxy, I’m not even sure who they all are. I can’t wait to see the movie.” Neither could the cinema-going public: the film was a smash hit, and no fluke – its 2017 sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, outperformed it at the Box Office, and the hotly anticipated third instalment is due next year. Having finally reached a mass audience, the Guardians became hot property: a revived comic title, All-New Guardians of the Galaxy, has been in constant publication since December 2015, there are toy lines, cosplayers, T-shirts and, of course, dancing Baby Groots. Their turnaround has all the hallmarks of an overnight success story, but for the fact it took 45 years for it to happen. They do say that time is relative in space.
Before the third and final movie lands, fans of Guardians of the Galaxy have much to celebrate thanks to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, the video game heading to all the major consoles, PCs and streaming on October 26. Just as every successive writer brought their own ideas to the team, this version is reimagined by the creatives at Eidos Montreal. There are things that fans of the movies will appreciate, like Star-Lord’s love of 1980s rock, Easter Eggs for comics lovers (like the mug bearing the 1969 Guardians logo, on Star-Lord’s desk in the Milano) and cool new tweaks to the Guardians story, like Star-Lord taking his name from a fake 1980s ‘space metal’ band made real by the game’s Senior Audio Director Steve Szczepkowski, and a brand new threat in the form of the cult-like Universal Church Of Truth. Rosemann, who now as VP, Creative of Marvel Games, has a role overseeing Marvel’s expanding forays into gaming similar to that of Kevin Feige overseeing the MCU, even if he’s too humble to agree to that statement (“No one can compare to Kevin!!”), says that’s the key to making an authentic Marvel experience.
“Eidos-Montréal really drove into the core of Guardians of the Galaxy – the comic books,” he says. “So yes, there will be a large percentage [of people] who maybe only know the Guardians from the excellent films, which we love, but the core of Marvel is comics, so you have to go and study them. And then you can reinterpret, you can modernise, you can bring your own flavour, and that’s what we love. We said to Eidos, it’s your Guardians. It’s your story. We are going to do everything we can to make sure it’s authentic.”
Perhaps the special magic of the Guardians team is something every NME reader can understand, because with their five distinct personalities and talents and constant evolution, they operate like a band – bickering and fun-loving and bonded by something ineffable that they can only create together. James Gunn has said he considers the Guardians to be the Rolling Stones to The Avengers’ Beatles. Steve Szczepkowski says seeing them as a band was key to unlocking the process of creating the game. And so, perhaps, the great appeal of the game, then, is the chance to join the band yourself, and as band leader, no less, because Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy challenges you to step into Peter Quill’s boots and take control of the Guardians, no matter how much backchat they give you.
Bill Rosemann might argue the opposite, that the reason the Guardians appeal to people is because they’re just like you and your mates, if four-fifths less human. “Marvel is about storytelling and that’s what made Marvel different. As Stan Lee said, ‘We’re going to put the human in the superhuman’ – you’re going to understand them as people before they get their powers, and you’re going to see that they’re like us, and once they have their powers it only exasperates their challenges – yet they meet them, and that’s why they’re heroes.”
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is coming October 26 to PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC and streaming via GeForce. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy: Cloud Version for Nintendo Switch also coming October 26.