Who Are the Guardians of the Galaxy and Why Did Marvel Invent Them in the First Place?

Photo: Marvel

A version of this article originally ran on August 7, 2012.

Rocket Raccoon, Groot, Gamora, Star-Lord, and Drax the Destroyer. Though it sounds like a Beatles song character and his four sidekicks, the oddly monikered quintet comprise the newest movie franchise in the Marvel Comics universe — Guardians of the Galaxy. As a group of superheroes, it’s an infinitely more bizarre lineup than Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and Captain America. As a superhero team name, it just doesn’t have the same ring as the Avengers. But it’s hitting theaters this weekend all the same.

The motley lineup is composed of decades-old, long-abandoned, lone-wolf characters who were brought back starting in the nineties. In 2004, Marvel was in the midst of a giant crossover event titled Civil War, and while everyone was distracted, a handful of restless creators began to carve out their own corner of the comic publisher’s universe. “A lot of these characters were sort of laying around,” says one former member of the editorial team involved in their resuscitation. “We thought, ‘No one really seems to have a great deal of affection for them, so maybe we can push the Marvel science-fiction universe a little further.’” Whereas a story that involved A-listers like Wolverine or Spider-Man required bureaucratic hurdles, Groot and Rocket Raccoon guaranteed creative leeway. Their efforts culminated a couple of years later, when the characters landed their own big crossover event, called “Annihilation.” It was a breakout hit, and by 2008, the team was formally gathered as the Guardians of the Galaxy. (Even that name was something of a leftover, having once belonged to an earlier abandoned group.)

Keith Giffen, who co-created Rocket Raccoon in the seventies and then helped reintroduce him in the aughts, says the tone of the comic is a natural match for Hollywood. “It’s the lighthearted, fun, quip-filled, bouncy stuff that fits in pretty well with all the stuff they’re already doing, and going out into space will be a nice change of setting.” And although it would seem a safer bet for Marvel to exploit slightly more established characters — Doctor Strange, say, or Black Panther, or even Iron Fist — the lack of expectation that liberated the creators of the Guardians of the Galaxy comic book may be a similar boon for the filmmakers. “Everyone has a firm idea of who and what Spider-Man is,” says the ex-staffer. “If you stray too far from that, people will say, ‘That’s not the Spider-Man that I know,’ and they’re disappointed. Whereas if you throw a bunch of characters like Drax on a movie screen, there are relatively few people who have some idea in their head.”

And it’s easy to see why. Simply put, these characters are weird. Here’s a quick Guardians guide.

In the late fifties, Marvel Comics had fallen on hard times and laid off nearly its entire staff. In the months before 1961’s The Fantastic Four marked the rebirth of the Marvel superhero, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby turned out a parade of bizarre aliens and monsters that menaced American cities, with names like Monstrom, Krang, and Droom. And then there was Groot, the Monarch of Planet X, a walking and talking tree that consumed fences, cabinets, and barrels. Or, as one member of the panicking populace exclaimed, “A creature of wood, who feeds on wood!” He was primed to become the overlord of all the timber in the galaxy, had a shrewd scientist not thought to breed termites and let them loose on the barky beast. Over the next 45 years, Groot appeared exactly twice.

Drax the Destroyer
After the evil alien Thanos — a.k.a. “The Mad Titan,” a death-obsessed, craggy-faced bruiser from one of Saturn’s moons — thought that pipe-smoking, saxophone-playing real-estate agent Arthur Douglas had blown his cover, he aimed a death blast at Douglas’s car, killing him and his wife. Shortly thereafter, Thanos’s estranged father merged Douglas’s spirit with a bunch of earthen rubble to create the green, caped, and very powerful Drax the Destroyer, whose all-consuming mission was to destroy Thanos. Writer-artist Jim Starlin introduced Drax in the pages of Iron Man in 1973; within a month, Stan Lee had him removed from the title. In 1982, Marvel’s editor-in-chief Jim Shooter wrote an issue of The Avengers in which Drax was killed. He remained dead for the rest of the decade, until Starlin revived him in the early nineties. Giffen, who dusted Drax off again in 2004, says that although he increased the character’s intelligence, he remains “too macho for the room,” noting, “I just turned him from a green imbecile into a green douchebag.”

After Jim Starlin was booted from his Iron Man gig, he continued to chronicle the dastardly actions of Thanos in both Captain Marvel and Warlock. By this time, Starlin was having problems with editorial constrictions, and the 1975 story in which the alien assassin Gamora debuted was, in part, a metaphor about Marvel Comics as a purveyor of conveyer-belt junk. Green-skinned and decked out in a fishnet unitard cut down to the navel, Gamora wielded a dagger and called herself “the Deadliest Woman in the Whole Galaxy,” but when she tried to slay her adoptive father Thanos, he killed her instead. She was out of the picture for nearly a decade and a half, until — as he had done for Drax — Starlin raised her from the dead.

Test pilot Hal Jordan became the Green Lantern when a dying alien bestowed a powerful ring upon him. Astronaut Peter Quill, on the other hand, achieved the Star-Lord power a little more dishonestly — by taking out his compatriots with a rifle, hijacking a rocketship, and flying off to visit the godlike Master of the Sun. Steve Englehart, who created the character in 1976, intended to write a series of adventures for the hero — a love story on Venus, for instance, and a war story on Mercury. “I deliberately made him a complete asshole,” Englehart says, “with the idea that I was going to write twelve stories about him as he worked his way through the galaxy, and by the end of it he would have become this great hero.” But Englehart, citing editorial interference, quit Marvel Comics soon after the first issue was published. X-Men writer Chris Claremont experimented with a less prickly version of the character before abandoning it completely in 1981, and 23 years passed before he was revived again. However, the character’s very name still carries the seeds of Englehart’s sharp humor. “Peter Quill — Peter as a reference to a dick, and Quill as a reference to a dick,” he explains. “I wanted him to be completely unlikable.”

Rocket Racoon
Originally named Rocky Raccoon, this gun-toting alien from “somewhere near the black holes of Sirius Major” debuted in a 1976 short story by Bill Mantlo and Keith Giffen in the back of Marvel Preview, a black-and-white magazine-size comic. The legal department was skittish about the prospects of a character named after a Beatles song, so five years later, when he finally returned for a guest appearance in The Incredible Hulk, he was given the sobriquet Rocket Raccoon. Writer Bill Mantlo received considerable amounts of hate mail for that issue (“Are you all regressing to your childhoods?” wrote five enraged University of Maine students), but in the wake of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles phenomenon in 1984, a four-issue Rocket Raccoon miniseries was green-lit. It was hardly a best seller; the character popped up exactly four times over the next two decades.

Sean Howe is the author Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.

Where Did the Guardians of the Galaxy Come From?