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'Guardians of the Galaxy': The Characters' Comic Book Origins Explained

Marvel's "Guardians" got their start almost 50 years ago, but the team familiar to movie audiences is far more recent.

Guardians of the Galaxy Poster Crop - H 2014
Marvel Entertainment

In many ways, the origins of Guardians of the Galaxy are unlike those of earlier Marvel Studios properties. For one thing, neither Stan Lee nor Jack Kirby is responsible in any way but the most tangential (Together, Lee and Kirby created Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor and the Avengers, as well as the X-Men and next year’s Ant-Man; separately, Kirby co-created Captain America with Joe Simon and Lee co-created Spider-Man with Steve Ditko). For another, unlike earlier Marvel Studios movies, this one is based on a property that, for all intents and purposes, is less than a decade old.

To be fair, there has been a Guardians of the Galaxy in the Marvel library since 1969’s Marvel Super-Heroes No. 18, but the creation of Arnold Drake and Gene Colan bore almost no resemblance to the team of the same name making its debut in movie theaters Friday.

Instead, the original Guardians were a group of freedom fighters gathered from multiple human colonies on alien planets in the 31st century to fight a race of alien invaders known as the Badoon intent on ruling the universe. With names like Vance Astro, Charlie-27 and Martinex, they were far removed from the central Marvel appeal of “heroes just like you and me,” and were quickly reduced to guest shots in other characters’ series punctuated by their own less-than-successful attempts at stardom.

(Of those original characters, only one — Yondu, played by Michael Rooker — makes an appearance in James Gunn’s movie.)

The Guardians that we — and, thanks to the wonders of marketing, everyone else anywhere near the Internet, a television or any other form of media over the last few months — know and love came together as a team in 2008, although their individual origins came much earlier. In fact, one character, Groot, technically predates Marvel itself, having debuted in the 13th issue of Tales to Astonish, published in 1960 — a year before the launch of Fantastic Four, generally recognized as the beginning of the Marvel Universe. (Groot’s original appearance, by the way, was by the aforementioned Lee and Kirby, their one contribution to Guardians.)

Following Groot’s debut (also his sole appearance until 1976), the next Guardians to debut were Drax and Gamora, both created by Jim Starlin (with Mike Friedrich co-creating Drax) in 1973 and 1975, respectively, as part of his ongoing story featuring archvillain Thanos. Entirely separately, Steve Englehart and Steve Gan created Star-Lord for the fourth issue of the Marvel Preview series in 1976 (Shortly thereafter, the character was handed off to the soon-to-be-fan-favorite X-Men creative team of Chris Claremont and John Byrne).

All of these characters — and Rocket Raccoon, also created for a 1976 issue of Marvel Preview by Bill Mantlo and Keith Giffen (and, yes, based on the Beatles' song "Rocky Raccoon," as early references to "Gideon's Bible" would underscore) — would go on to make rare, sporadic appearances throughout the Marvel line until the 2007 Annihilation: Conquest series, which resurrected a number of abandoned Marvel properties and concepts under the control of writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, as well as editor Bill Rosemann.

Following the end of the series, Rosemann, Abnett and Lanning launched a spinoff series that resurrected and re-purposed the Guardians of the Galaxy brand. Combining the core team of heroes from Annihilation: Conquest with the Guardians name for the first time, the 2008 series essentially created the basis for much of what appears in the new movie, in terms of both character lineup and tone (Current Marvel executive editor Tom Brevoort made a point of highlighting Rosemann's contributions in a series of tweets earlier this week, saying that the original idea of a "dirty dozen book with Star-Lord" came from the editor).

In 2012, following the cancelation of the Abnett/Lanning series after two years, writer Brian Michael Bendis brought back the second Guardians team in the pages of Avengers Assemble — a series launched specifically to act as an "entry point" into the comic book continuity for new readers who had enjoyed Joss Whedon's Avengers movie of the same year. From there, Bendis then launched a new, currently ongoing Guardians of the Galaxy series centering on those characters in 2013, which — in a nice nod to the concept's origins — sees the contemporary team take on the Badoon, almost a millennium before they accidentally create the first Guardians.

As the movie approached, Marvel added more Guardians-related material to its publishing schedule. As of July 2014, there are three ongoing titles related to the concept: Guardians of the Galaxy, Rocket Raccoon and The Legendary Star-Lord. In October, a fourth title — Guardians 3000, centering around the original incarnation of the concept — will be added, with Abnett returning as writer.

For a movie with such simple, obvious appeal (It's Star Wars meets Avengers), Guardians of the Galaxy has surprisingly convoluted origins. The original team had a certain appeal, but it wasn't a broad one. After many attempts to redeem the characters, it took a complete do-over to get Guardians right, but they finally got there, almost four decades after someone thought up the name in the first place.