I’ve spoken before about my snobbishness when it came to comic books that didn’t feature super heroes. As a young reader, my tastes were extremely narrow. I was in the game for super hero stories–not for westerns, or war stories, or suspense tales, or science fiction, or barbarian adventures or romance comics or monsters of movie adaptations or, really, anything apart from a very narrow band of content. Now, in the 1970s, the whole of the output of comic book publishers was beginning to narrow towards that very thing. But there were still an awful lot of non-hero comic books out there, just waiting to waste my time. I’d sampled a bunch of them by happenstance over teh years, and been burned often enough that my knee-jerk move was to avoid anything that looked like something other than a super hero book. (This is partly why I resisted reading NOVA for as long as I did–the ads made it look like a science fiction series, and that wasn’t what I wanted.) So this issue of MARVEL PRESENTS wasn’t something that I would usually have picked up for myself. And, indeed, I didn’t, not directly. For this was another of those coverless comics that were sold in bundles of five or ten at my local drug store, and I got this issue in a bundle containing other books that I genuinely was after. And having it meant that i was at least going to flip through it.
It’s kind of amazing to consider how well the Guardians of the Galaxy are in 2021, as the series is one of the great also-rans of the Marvel Universe, not just one time, but three. Of course, the Guardians who are worldwide movie stars don’t bear any resemblance to the characters who originated that name, and carried it for close to 40 years. Those Guardians of the Galaxy I had met on the fly in the earliest issues of AVENGERS that I picked up, right at the start of the Korvac Saga run. But in those issues, they weren’t especially well introduced or explained, so I had no real understanding of them, apart from the fact that they seemed to live on a space station called Drydock which was in orbit above the planet.Here, though, in their own solo series, they weren’t in the present at all, but rather the future, like DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes. This, of course, made them less compelling to me, rather than more.
Steve Gerber, the writer of this issue, didn’t create the Guardians of the Galaxy–they had previously appeared in a one-off story in the late 1960s under the auspices of Arnold Drake and Gene Colan. But Gerber had put a lot of work into them, bringing them back from comic book limbo in MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE, then featuring them extensively in DEFENDERS before they graduated to their own series in MARVEL PRESENTS. Along the way, he and his collaborators had visually overhauled the existing four characters and added new ones, such as the mysterious, all-knowing Starhawk, and the fiery Nikki, who always struck me as having a similar personality to that of Patsy Walker, Hellcat. I expect that what Gerber was trying to do here was to carve out a small corner of the Marvel Universe where he’d largely be left alone to do his own thing. And that’s pretty much what happened.
The shtick behind the original Guardians of the Galaxy was that they were freedom fighters. In their future era, the solar system had been conquered by the space-faring Badoon, and they were struggling to oust the invaders. Which they did in that DEFENDERS story–leaving the ongoing series to be about the team still being together and going out in search of new adventures, since a hard-fought peace and putting down your weapons to come back from the battlefield is, apparently, boring. The core team included Vance Astro, the 20th Century’s last astronaut whose capsule went off-course, causing him to spend 1000 years in suspended animation Buck Rogers-style. His skin was so old now that without his protective head-to-toe costume, it would crumble to dust and he would expire. He was joined on his adventures bu Yondu, a member of a spiritual tribe of beings from Alpha Centauri, Charlie-27, the last of the Earth colonists sent to Jupiter whose body had been genetically modified to survive in that hostile environment, and teh crystalline Martinex, who had teh same sort of backstory, but substitute Pluto for Jupiter. As mentioned earlier, they’d picked up Starhawk, who seemed to spontaneously switch places with a woman named Aleta at random intervals, and Nikki, who was the last survivor of a similar colony set up on Mercury, and yadda yadda. They tooled around space in a ship whose design was clearly inspired by the Enterprise (as most starships tended to be in the comics, until STAR WARS hit it big.)
As was typical of him Gerber wasn’t interested in writing simple good versus evil morality plays of the sort most super hero comics were producing. He was much more fascinated by the interior lives of his characters. When he was on his game, a Gerber comic book of this period looked on the surface like everything else the company was putting out, but once you got into it, you were sucker punched by the subversiveness of its contents. All of which is to say that this issue didn’t read like a typical super hero story. The Guardians characters were pretty much all markedly messed up and dealing with their own traumas, in particular Vance’s inability to touch anybody through the life support suit that kept him alive, and the mystery of what was going on with Starhawk and Aleta–who they were and what their mysterious connection was. At a key moment early in in this adventure, Starhawk suffers an episode, the result of which is that both he and Aleta manifest in the world at the same time. Which sounds like it would be good, right? But it isn’t–the separation of the pair seems to be killing them, and the Guardians have no idea how to fix the problem. On top of which, they’ve wandered into the space of Arcurus, where the deadly Reaves of Arcturas are waiting to raid and destroy any vessel that crosses into their space.
In an attempt to provide the team with some answers and assist the stricken Starhawk, Yondu uses his Spock-like ability to telepathically touch other minds to attempt to probe Starhawk’s past. From there, we get the first half of the character’s origin. We see how he was born as Stakar, a test tube child grown in a laboratory. He might have wound up lunch for the reptilian forager that finds him, except that the planet is then raided by the Reavers, and the one who finds them mistakes Stakar for a member of his own race. Stakar is taken in and adopted, raised alongside his step-sister, Aleta. But where she is aggressive and physical like the other members of the Reavers, Stakar himself is thoughtful, contemplative–in essence, Aleta is presented with the characteristics more commonly associated with a male figure, Stakar with characteristics that were believed to be more feminine. The flashback ends as we see the young Stakar and Aleta sneak into the temple of their people’s Hawk-God, hand-in-hand–but by that point the Reavers are smashing through the walls, and the time for illuminating infodumps is over.
As the battle is joined, we cut away to Arcturus itself for teh final page, where an elderly General reveals that his true target in this assault is Starhawk himself, whom he is after for crimes against their people. He’s accompanied by a trio of children, and he tells them that they will be the instrument of his vengeance against Starhawk and Aleta. To Be Continued! This wound up being the final issue of MARVEL PRESENTS that Steve Gerber wrote–the reins were handed over to Roger Stern in the following issue, though I assume that Roger followed through in general with what Gerber had in mind (assuming that Steve shared those details with him–or, in fact, had them worked out beforehand. A number of the writers of this era worked very improvisationally, often with teh assistance of some mind-altering substances to help generate inspiration. This book alone wouldn’t have been enough to get me on boards the Guardians train–but fortunately, I also got the subsequent issue in similar coverless condition at the same time. So we’ll be looking at that one tomorrow.