Mike Dell looks back at the classic Guardians line-up from MARVEL PRESENTS # 6 (1976).
MARVEL PRESENTS No. 6 – featuring Guardians of the Galaxy (August 1976)
Writer: Steve Gerber
Penciler: Al Milgrom
Inker: Terry Austin
Letterer: Irv Watanabe
Colorist: Don Warfield
Editor: Archie Goodwin
With a major motion picture due in August 2014, the Guardians of the Galaxy are about to hit the mainstream. The movie is a modern take on an original concept that made its debut in 1969. It featured intergalactic vagabonds defending Earth against the Badoon, a nefarious alien race hellbent on dominating the solar system (please do not confuse the Badoon with the macaroon, which is a delicious coconut-flavoured cookie with few political aspirations).
Writer Arnold Drake and penciler Gene Colan created the original Guardians for Marvel Super-Heroes, a partial reprint title that served as a proving ground for new ideas. After being unveiled in issue No. 18, the Guardians started making the rounds in various Marvel titles, getting help from other heroes in their fight against the Badoon. This set the stage for a 10-issue run in Marvel Presents during 1976, but the team failed to find an audience. The Guardians wouldn’t get their own book until 1990, running five years and 62 issues before being cancelled. In 2008, nearly 40 years after the original Guardians found print, the revamped modern team launched a new title that lasted only 25 issues. Yet despite the repeated failures, Marvel has relaunched the title AGAIN and is throwing hundreds of millions of dollars into a film. Yeah, this will end well.
Anyway, the movie Guardians with the talking rodent and the former WWE champ are completely different than the ones who filled the pages of Marvel Presents. The original team is no doubt unfamiliar to most comic book fans, but before we set the lineup, it should be noted the story takes place in the 31st century of an alternate timeline to the main Marvel Universe. With that in mind, here are your 1976 Guardians of the Galaxy:
Vance Astro: Born Vance Astrovik, he changed his last name to Astro after enlisting in the U.S. Air Force’s astronaut program because, well…wouldn’t you? In 1988, Astro volunteered for NASA’s first interstellar space mission to Alpha Centauri. To survive the journey, he encased his body in a special copper alloy and pumped preservative fluid into his veins (which, I believe, was a scientific technique first pioneered by Keith Richards). It took Astro a thousand years of prolonged suspended animation and maddening solitude to arrive at his goal. Sadly, technological advances enabled later astronauts to beat Astro to his destination by two centuries (Hard to get happy after that one). But at least Astro developed some keen psionic powers along the way, giving him the ability to shoot concentrated energy bolts from his mind (Oh, and he’s also emotionally unstable and prone to violent mood swings. So he’s got that going for him).
Yondu: When Astro lands on Centauri IV, the fourth planet orbiting the Alpha Centauri B star, he encounters Yondu, a spiritual mystic from a primitive tribe of natives known as the Zatoans. Yondu is blue-skinned with a big red Mohawk, and his weapon of choice is the bow and arrow.
Martinex: Another distinctive fella, Martinex is a crystalline being from Pluto who can generate beams of intense heat or bitter cold from his hands. He’s also the last living member of his race, as those Badoon bastards exterminated everyone else on Pluto. Jerks.
Charlie-27: Hailing from Jupiter, Charlie is the group’s powerhouse, his broad build and immense strength courtesy of his home planet’s crushing gravity. Charlie served in the Jupiter army but couldn’t prevent the Badoon from decimating his friends and family. What gives with these Badoon creeps?
Those were the four original Colan and Drake Guardians. When the team hit the pages of Marvel Presents, writer Steve Gerber and artist Sal Buscema added two new recruits.
Nikki: Born on Mercury, Nikki is from a line of genetically modified humans designed to withstand the planet’s scorching heat. The Guardians took her in after finding her floating through space in an abandoned ship, a result of the Badoon having ravaged her planet. She possesses a ridiculously high body temperature and her head is constantly on fire, which no doubt makes it difficult to find hats. Nikki is also freakishly agile, an expert in hand-to-hand combat, and a deadeye shot.
Starhawk: Starhawk has an absurdly convoluted backstory involving abductions, adoptions, and borderline incest. But he’s also pretty cool because he’s been fated to relive his life over and over, so each time around he tries to manipulate events to achieve desired outcomes. He’s basically an intergalactic Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Aside from his memories of past life cycles giving him the appearance of precognitive abilities, Starhawk is super deluxe powerful and can manipulate light. He also has the personality of a carp and goes around referring to himself as the “One Who Knows,” so yeah, don’t invite him to any parties.
When the book opens, an enormous space monster that kind of looks like Pac-Man’s meth-addicted cousin is preparing to devour a planet. The Guardians are powerless to stop the creature and decide the best course of action is to run away screaming. But Nikki has other ideas.
Unwilling to witness another planet get destroyed the same way her beloved Mercury got trashed, Nikki grabs the ship’s controls and flies the Guardians into direct combat with the menacing beast. Their weapons proving useless and unable to change their course, the Guardians end up speeding right into the monster’s mouth, passing through some bizarre energy field and crash landing on what appears to be an alien planet.
Astro flips out and berates Nikki for risking their lives. The other Guardians are far more accepting of the misguided altruism, and Astro storms off in protest, retreating to his private quarters. When Nikki shows up to apologize, Astro greets her with maniacal laughter and insane ramblings before eventually committing some space sexual harassment. Charlie-27 intervenes, and Astro is once again left alone with his disturbed thoughts (This guy’s pretty much all oatmeal north of the eyebrows).
Leaving Astro behind to man the ship, the other Guardians venture outside to explore the alien world. Not only are they trying to figure their location, they’re also hoping to run into their pal Starhawk who apparently got eaten by the same Pac-Man in an earlier issue. Amidst the barren desert landscape, the Guardians spot a tent city straight out of Arabian fairy tales. Martinex acts as spokesperson and requests help from the natives, only to get a sword upside his head. The Guardians make short work of the combative citizenry to earn an apology and an open invitation to all the food, women, and wine they can handle. But when they arrive at the big tent, Starhawk is there waiting for them. After all, he’s the “One Who Knows.”
Back at the ship, a miniature version of meth Pac-Man attacks. Astro scores a kncokout with a devastating psionic blast and examines the cosmic critter under what appears to be a professional, entry-level children’s microscope. He realizes the little fella isn’t so much a monster but one living cell of a greater being. And each sand grain from the surrounding desert landscape could very well be other, undeveloped cells. The Guardians aren’t stranded on a planet; they’re inside the body of a planetary man!
Most famous for creating Howard the Duck, Steve Gerber broke into comics in 1972 as a 25-year-old and remained a prominent name in the industry until his 2008 death. Gerber helmed a long list of titles including The Defenders, Man-Thing, and Daredevil. He also had a highly successful career in animation, creating Thundarr the Barbarian and working as script editor for G.I. Joe and Transformers.
Gerber’s work here is, shall we say, “interesting” (shall we say “batshit insane”?) Again, just to recap the plot, the Guardians fly into the mouth of a giant space bug only for Astro to later be attacked my a tiny space bug and realize the space bugs are actually akin to cells of a giant space dude. Yeah, I can only guess the story makes more sense if you’re really, really stoned (Hey, it was the 70s! Groovy, daddy-o).
Astro has a dynamite backstory and could be a great character, but Gerber fails to make him more than a petulant crybaby who doesn’t play well with others. The remaining Guardians, while visually intriguing, are fairly forgettable. Nikki is the most relatable, because we see her making a dramatic choice to try and save innocent lives. Action is character. Everyone else is just kind of there. Not Gerber’s best work.
“Hey! Lemme down, ya big lug!” — Nikki
“Here –you want ‘er, take ‘er! I can party better alone anyway! You two were born too late to know how to boogie!” — Vance Astro
“You’ll never know what you missed — the 1980s — dancing in the streets with the Ozone Amputees — ooh, wah!” — Vance Astro
“It’s a chuckle a minute, you frigid-faced, fat simpleton!” — Vance Astro
“Jeesh! Grime? Tongue? Listen, Mac, personal hygiene is one of my few claims to fame!” — Nikki
Al Milgrom has done it all in comics, working as a penciler, inker, writer, and editor. His big break came in 1975 when he handled the penciling chores for Captain Marvel. Over the next three decades, he drew such titles as Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Avengers, The West Coast Avengers, and the iconic limited series Secret Wars II and Kitty Pryde and Wolverine. Among his other many accomplishments, Milgrom joined forces with Gerry Conway to create Firestorm and did a lengthy eight-year stint inking X-Factor.
Milgrom was a prominent Marvel editor during the 1980s and apparently had his share of grief with colleague Bob Harras, who assumed editor-in-chief duties in 1995. When Harras got the ax in 2000, Milgrom took the opportunity to sneak some parting words into his inking for Universe X: Spidey. Observant readers noticed one background bookshelf contained a secret message disguised as book titles:
“Harras, ha ha, he’s gone! Good riddance to bad rubbish, he was a nasty S.O.B.”
And that, my friends, is how to get fired. Marvel recalled the unsold issues, destroyed them, and published a new version. Milgrom did indeed lose his job, but he would return as a freelancer in subsequent years.
Looking at Milgrom’s work in Marvel Presents no. 6, it’s difficult to understand how he went on to have such an illustrious career. To be fair, this issue came only a year or two after he turned pro, but many of the panels are downright amateurish in composition and perspective. Planetary Man’s reveal is nicely done, and he has one other swell shot of Martinex pointing toward the viewer, but not much else is worthy of praise.
The cover is actually really good, a true throwback featuring intense conflict and four text blurbs. Unfortunately, the cover’s also guilty of blatant false advertising.
Milgrom depicts a surging Charlie-27 slugging Yondu while the other Guardians look on in horror. Two stacked blurbs reading “Who is he? What is he? The Planetary Man!” label the action. Having no previous experience with the Guardians, I figured this meant the fella doing the punching was the mysterious Planetary Man. Nope. The real Planetary Man, who is also referred to as Topographical Man, appears nowhere on the cover. Charlie-27 and Yondu never even fight. The closest thing to a physical confrontation between teammates is when Astro gets handsy with Nikki. Folks guarding galaxies should be above such cheap bait and switches.
When Astro runs off to his room to pout, dig the walls. He’s got at least four pictures of Captain America displayed. The ship itself is called the Captain America. Someone may have a problem. Astro should want to be a fan of Captain America, he should not want to…never mind.
Astro goes toe-to-toe with the tiny space termite and the other Guardians mix it up with the Bedouins. The Guardian fight lasts barely more than a page, but we get to see Nikki bust out some space Kung-Fu, Yondu launch a screaming arrow, Charlie-27 toss some fools, and Martinex heat the sand into glass. One-sided domination in a glorified sparring session.
Hostess always delivered. In this issue, we get a full-page spread starring Captain America (Calm down, Vance Astro! Calm down!) battling the Red Skull and his deadly Cosmic Cube. And even the all-powerful Cube can’t resist a tantalizing Twinkie, siding with Cap after getting a whiff of the “delicious golden sponge cake” and “smooth cream filling.” Beaten yet again, the defeated Red Skull can’t help but mutter “By George Washington! My cube has gone square!” Beautiful.
There’s also a full-page ad hyping Bulletman the Human Bullet, who was joining Eagle-Eye, G.I. Joe and Mike Power the Atomic Man on the Adventure Team. Not sure what the Adventure Team was, but Bulletman’s skimpy hotpants couldn’t have been good for morale.
I can definitely see potential in the original Guardians of the Galaxy. The premise is strong, Astro possesses wonderful internal conflict and Martinex and Yondu are visually striking. My problem is with the execution. But I’d still bet money Marvel Presents no. 6 will be far superior to the impending box office disaster. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go boogie with the Ozone Amputees.