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'Guardians of the Galaxy': The Comic Book Origins of the Bad Guys

Thanos, Nebula and Ronan have been menacing the Marvel comic book universe for decades now. Find out where they got their start ahead of their cinematic debut.

Guardians of the Galaxy Ronan - P 2014
Marvel Studios

The heroes of Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy aren’t the only deep-cut characters that the movie rescues from relative obscurity. The villains of the piece — Ronan, Nebula and even Thanos himself — have lengthy and complicated histories inside the comic book Marvel Universe that Guardians wisely chose to ignore for the most part.

The oldest of the villains in the movie is Ronan, better known to comic book fans as Ronan the Accuser. The creation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, he first showed up as an alien heavy in 1967’s Fantastic Four No. 65, two years before the original Guardians of the Galaxy were introduced. Originally a willing servant of the alien race known as the Kree Empire, his loyalty has been called into question in subsequent appearances as plot demands have made him both more and less honorable and tied to the idea of a “greater good” depending on who was writing him at the time.

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(An odd factoid: Ronan was one of the members of the alliance of interstellar characters in the Annihilation: Conquest series that led to the creation of the current Guardians of the Galaxy as fans know them today; but for alternate editorial choices in 2008, he might have ended up as part of the team, instead of one of the villains of the piece.)

In terms of creation, Thanos comes next. His first appearance was in Iron Man No. 55, back in 1973. It was an oddly mundane place for Jim Starlin to introduce what would become his trademark character, given the increasingly-cosmic nature of the villain’s schemes (Thanos is, after all, a character who constantly romances the personification of death, who has once succeeded in — temporarily — annihilating 50 percent of all life in the known universe, and who has survived his own apparent destruction on numerous occasions), but it quickly gave way to appearances in whatever Marvel series Starlin was working on at the time.

Impressively, Starlin has kept a tight leash on Thanos across the last four decades, with the majority of stories featuring the character being ones that he’s had some hand in; it was only recently, with 2013’s Infinity series, that a major storyline involving the character was published without any involvement from him, and since then he has returned to the character with both a one-off Thanos Annual and next week’s graphic novel, Thanos: The Infinity Revelation. Such control over the character has left Thanos one of the more developed, more complex characters in the Marvel firmament — if one given to existentialist soliloquies at any moment.

It was during one of Thanos’ many apparent deaths that Nebula was introduced. From her debut in Avengers No. 257 (by Roger Stern and John Buscema, published in 1985), Nebula was designed to be somewhat enigmatic, claiming to be Thanos’ granddaughter — changed to daughter in the Guardians movie — but with her true origins and motivations left somewhat unclear (Starlin had Thanos suggest that she was merely claiming to be related to him, but refused to clarify matters beyond that; it’s worth noting that Gamora, one of the Guardians, is Thanos’ adopted daughter and the Infinity series introduced his son, so the concept of Thanos having an extended family is not in itself unlikely or impossible).

Of the three villains, Nebula is the one least explored, more often than not reduced to enigmatic femme fatale who has plagued both the Avengers and Fantastic Four or background lackey in some larger story. Sad to say, Karen Gillan’s version of the character in the movie may be the most distinctive to date.

Whether the success of the Guardians movie will cause Marvel to expand on its comic book portrayals of its villains as much as it has the heroes is unlikely, beyond the ongoing exploitation of the Thanos character. If the publisher is looking for some way to build out its Guardians line beyond the existing four titles, however, it could do worse than look to Ronan and Nebula as properties worth further exploration. After all, as the movie makes clear, there’s more going on with them than first meets the eye.