Marvel Presents: Guardians of the Galaxy (#3 – 12) – Steve Gerber, Roger Stern

Gerber issues: 5 out of 5

Stern issues: 3 out of 5

During Steve Gerber’s quite-busy run of mid- to late-70s comics, the man, and his editors, were not shy about selling his wares: Steve would often cross characters and light story points over between his various titles, and letters’ pages and editorial asterisks would frequently tell a reader to go check out some other title Gerbs was working on, because if you like this one, etc…

Oddly, despite making a relatively big splash with the Guardians of the Galaxy (the o.g. version) across The Defenders, there’s no followup mention of when they were awarded their “own” book, headlining Marvel Presents, starting with issue #3. Within those pages, the title is also pretty sheltered, taking the origin details the group inherited from their previous appearances, yes, but otherwise launching off on something that’s wholly it’s own thing. It surely helps to be set in the future, but it’s not like that prevented their initial appearances alongside Hulk and whoever, so it’s still somewhat surprising.

And then there’s the title’s legacy amongst Gerber’s works: I know I read these issues when I was first building my Steve collection, but I have to admit that I had little memory of it. And based on how it’s not generally highlighted in writeups of Steve’s comics career, I wonder if others had similarly selective memories concerning it. Reading it through the lens of Howard the Duck, Man-Thing, or Defenders, I can probably see why, as it’s not as outright weird or literary as Defenders and Manny, and doesn’t use the humor or commentary bite of the Duck; and then set alongside some fantastic standalone efforts like Foolkiller or Nevada, it’s not as directly emotive or far-reaching.

But Steve’s six issues of GotG are some of the best things he’s ever written, and are a key part of the writer’s 70s Marvel career, gathering feedback from his readers along the way and trying to reformulate that into something people “wanted” that he also wanted to read, and the sci-fi epic sketched out here may be one of the most fascinating applications of that, ever.

Steve manages to leverage the complex people-from-different-Earth-outposts setup to, firstly, explore the effects of living in a post-war society – our featured Guardians cannot settle down after their planet’s liberation from the Badoon – and then takes that restlesness and applies it to a spin on The Defenders formula, of people working together who don’t necessarily get along. But unlike that title, where it often felt like Gerber was stretching to make Strange and The Hulk make sense in the same room and conversation, the “core” of the characters in Guardians, despite their disparate appearances and birth places, are very, very human. The series has this bizarre momentum where each issue feels absolutely vital, as the group is ushered to the center of the universe on a mission as defined by the always-cryptic Starhawk, and yet it’s hard to say exactly what happens in each issue, up through the points where they’re discovering giant cosmic frogs and star clusters shaped like people and cults that worship members who are perpetually set on fire; we don’t even really know what the mission is, and Starhawk themselves is a big ol’ mystery box that keeps on giving. This might still sound like some of Steve’s usual randomness, but this is no elf with a gun: it all feels very tightly tied together and purposeful, and I was amazed at how the whole thing builds into this very surreal – but still very pulpy, very sci-fi, very comic book – study of self-expression. It’s maybe one man struggling with understanding more positive emotions like Love within the battle of negative thoughts that rages within; it’s also just maybe about spaceship superhero antics. It’s brilliant.

…And if you want a rollercoaster experience that lurches between “regular” comics and this brilliance, experience the fill-in issue by Roger Stern (#8) and then the writer’s closing out of the series, from issues #10 – 12. Stern, to his credit, concludes things with Starhawk that Steve had set up in a way that tracks – not an easy task at all, as it’s a complex character – and that takes up his time until the book is cancelled with issue 12, meaning he’s only allowed to do a quick bit of setup for potential future appearances. Taking over things mid-stream and then a sudden The End isn’t an enviable writerly position, but all the same, the day-and-night contrast between the quality of Steve’s writing, and the personality of his characters, and the sudden, stock, Stan Lee-style Excelsior! dialogue and quips is frustrating. There’s no transition: everyone sounds like a human being, and then they suddenly sound like mix-and-match spandex heroes. And while, again, Stern thankfully did close out the Starhawk business, assuming the ideas are similar to what Steve had in mind (the letters pages suggests that’s the case), it’s a messy job of it, the stranger ideas trailing from Gerber’s work butting up against Stern’s impulses to turn things into more acceptable fisticuffs and whatnot. Read on their own, these are perfectly serviceable books; average stuff. But in comparison to what came before is a sharp contrast, very much favoring Steve’s issues.

Across it all, artist Al Milgrom shines. Although it takes some great / okay / not great inkers to land on the consistent embellishments of Bob Wiaceck, Milgrom lays out some really surprisingly dense pages throughout, and handles even the most out there of Steve’s ideas with gusto. Of course, he excels once Stern comes in and gives him more action – he’s definitely a key part of what keeps those issues readable – but he really he outdid himself on the Steve-scripted pages that I might’ve considered out of his comfort zone.

Steve Gerber’s Guardians of the Galaxy run seems, from my perspective, to be overlooked amongst the writer’s lengthier runs from the same era, but that’s a shame. It features some of the most consistent and thoughtful writing of his career, and absolutely deserves to be considered a classic, both in terms of his work in general, and overall.