Longbox Graveyard #86
Obscure heroes have been my stock-in-trade here at Longbox Graveyard, and I’ve enthused about quite a few of them, whether it was pleading for respect for Captain Marvel, remembering the still-unrealized potential of Deathlok, or lamenting the unfinished saga of Killraven and his War of the Worlds.
But among my favorite heroes, more obscure by far would be Star Lord. At least, he was obscure until this guy came along.
That is Chris Pratt, and until yesterday, I didn’t know who he was. Maybe you didn’t, either.
But now he’s fast-tracked to join a holy trinity of Marvel leading men named Chris (along with Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth) because Mr. Pratt will shortly share center stage with this motley crew:
That is concept art for Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s superhero/science fiction movie coming in 2014, and that guy in the center with the two guns and the funky face mask is Star Lord (sort of … as we shall see). It is shocking enough that we live in a world where there is a Guardians of the Galaxy movie in the first place, but we are really through the geek looking glass when Star Lord is a part of it (though I suppose with Rocket Raccoon also coming to the screen that anything is possible). Still, even with Marvel’s developing reputation for using every part of the buffalo, it has to rate among the least likely of unlikely twists and turns that they’ve opened up their intellectual property vault and dusted off Star Lord for the big screen.
Who is Star Lord? (Besides Chris Pratt).
He’s was one of my favorite characters, and one lost to the ages — or he was until plucked from the purgatory of Marvel’s dead file to begin his transition into the Marvel Universe in the pages of Timothy Zahn’s quasi-canonical Star-Lord #2 in 1997, followed by his eventual integration with the Guardians of the Galaxy (and even the Guardians aren’t my Guardians, but that is another column!)
Of course, this is Longbox Graveyard, the comics blog where it is always 1978, so that 1997 comic story isn’t of real interest to me. I have read a bit of the rebooted Guardians of the Galaxy, and enjoyed both that team and the new Star Lord who leads it, but he isn’t really the Star Lord (or Star-Lord!) that I remember.
This is my guy:
My Star Lord debuted in the black-and-white magazine pages of Marvel Preview #4 in 1976, and he is a distant echo — or maybe the distant progenitor — of the Star Lord now fast-tracked for cinematic stardom. My Star-Lord practiced astrology (for an issue, at least), was loved by his sentient ship, had a pistol that fired blasts of the four elements, and he had a hyphen! A hyphen, do you hear? He was Star-Lord back in the day, none of this Star Lord business!
He was also a bit of a jerk. And definitely NOT a part of the Marvel Universe.
The old Marvel black-and-white magazines were often a place of experimentation. Sold for a buck and not covered by the Comics Code Authority, Marvel’s mags sometimes touched on more adult content than their color comic book line. Dozens (hundreds?) of them came and went over the ages, but aside from Savage Sword of Conan, few of them got much traction in the market. Marvel Preview, in particular, was all over the place, with a rotating cast of editors that all seemed intent on taking the magazine in a different direction. It’s a new character try-out book! It’s a showcase for edgy takes on costumed heroes! It’s a standard-bearer for the legitimacy of graphic fiction! It has tits so it can compete with Heavy Metal!
In its day, Marvel Preview was all of those things, but of interest today is that Marvel Preview was the birthplace of Star-Lord.
Bernie Wrightson‘s Star-Lord frontispiece for Marvel Preview #4
Developed by Steve Englehart under the editorial direction of Marv Wolfman, Star-Lord told the tale of Peter Quill, a young man who saw his mother killed by space aliens, and made it his life’s mission to avenge her death. Star-Lord’s origin story in Marvel Preview #4 is fast-paced and action-packed, during which we learn the astrological configuration of the sky at Peter’s birth approximated that of the birth of Christ; that the young man had a psychopathic father who wanted to kill his son at birth; that Peter’s mother got whacked by space lizards; and that Peter was a brilliant astronaut but not so nice a guy.
whacked by space lizards (bummer)
In subsequent interviews, Englehart said he intended Peter Quill to be a bit of a dick — right down to giving him a prickly name — and that over a series of stories he intended to chart Peter’s gradual march toward enlightenment or at least being a mellow dude.
Englehart would leave Marvel before penning another chapter in his magnum opus, so what we have is this brisk and sometimes harsh origin story that doesn’t try to redeem our hero in any way.
The story sees Peter aboard a space station when an alien presence promises to turn someone into a superhero. Peter is instantly disqualified by his NASA bosses … then adopts a novel approach to fulfill his destiny. I believe it is singular in that Peter more-or-less steals a Star-Lord identity intended for a more worthy character. It would be like some mentally-unstable schmo laid something heavy across the back of Hal Jordan‘s head and took for his own that Green Lantern power ring proffered by Abin Sur.
Peter was so driven to get into space to avenge his mother’s death that he resorted to mass murder — I mean, how else are we to interpret this particular scene …
… and I’m not sure we can excuse his behavior just because it leads to him becoming the Star-Lord, whatever the “Master of the Sun” might suggest.
Still, it is an original superhero origin, this idea of stealing powers and identity that were supposed to go to some other character. It reminds me a bit of the story of one of my own Irish ancestors, who knocked out his brother and stole his ticket to America. Maybe that’s why this tale spoke to me, as a lad — or maybe it was because Peter and I were born in the same year of 1962, and if he was destined for some cosmic transfiguration, then maybe I was, too.
Whatever the reason, I liked Star-Lord, I liked that he was a bit of a prick, I liked his uniform and I liked that he flew around in space with a water pistol (excuse me, “element gun”). I wanted more Star-Lord, and (years) later, I got my wish, when the character received his “second launch” in Marvel Preview #11.
This was a different Star-Lord. Englehart was gone, and with him all that astrology hooey. In it’s place was a two-fisted space opera tale, by the first-time-together superstar team of Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Terry Austin, and Tom Orzechowski. While not exactly a reboot, this was a new take on the character, picking up his adventures sufficient years into the future that our hero can be expected to have evolved past his difficult origins and become a kind of seeker and protector of the galaxy.
Citing Robert Heinlein’s “juveniles” as his primary inspiration, Claremont’s vision for Star-Lord was one of unapologetic space opera, and so we have an adventure centering on intrigue inside a stellar empire, with nobles wearing capes on the bridges of their starships, and a nifty bit of meta story-telling where we’re asked to reflect on the anachronism of men fighting for the destiny of stars by dueling with swords …
There is imagination to burn in this story, told at a breathless pace with exciting elements absorbed on the fly. Peter Quill is afraid of his own powers and potential! Peter has a secret heritage! Our hero helms a sentient, shape-changing starship that appears to be in love with him! There’s a sprawling interstellar empire out there brimming with intrigue and adventure!
If this tale had the good fortune to come out after Star Wars, instead of a few months before, Star-Lord might have become an instant superstar. Instead, John Byrne and Terry Austin moved over to X-Men with Chris Claremont to change the face of superhero comics, and Star-Lord’s next outings — in Marvel Preview #14 and #15 — failed to build on that dynamite tale from #11. Chris Claremont returned to script, but Carmine Infantino was at best serviceable on pencils. These issues were also smaller in scope and spirit of adventure than the previous tale, as Claremont abandoned the fast-paced space opera derring-do of his previous tale, opting for a planet-of-the-week kind of story that centered on Peter’s relationship with “Ship.” Having “Ship” take on humanoid female form was an interesting step (and it provided Infantino an opportunity to draw “Ship’s” female avatar in various states of undress, hubba-hubba), but the development of Peter and “Ship’s” relationship felt forced and rushed. Rather than teasing out details of “Ship’s” true nature on-the-fly as Claremont had done in issue #11, much of the character’s mystery is explained away by the end of issue #15, and the character was less intriguing for being better understood.
Doug Moench took the reins of Star-Lord for his final black & white adventure in Marvel Preview #18, then shepherded the character into his color era in Marvel Super-Special #10 and Marvel Spotlight #6 and #7. Moench retained Claremont’s planet-of-the-week structure but also saw Star-Lord as a vehicle for morality plays, putting the character in situations that tested his avowed and emerging pacifism. The Marvel Spotlight books were also the first Star-Lord stories published in conventional comics format, and under a Comics Code Authority stamp, which had little effect on the story, save to make Star-Lord seem that much more like any other Marvel book — indeed, looking back at it, I can see seeds being planted for Star-Lord’s eventual transition to the Marvel Universe.
The books themselves, ably illustrated by Tom Sutton, aren’t especially memorable. All of issue #6 is spent recapping and subtly cleaning up Star-Lord’s origin; issue #7 puzzlingly recaps the recap, before offering a talky and vaguely preachy parable where Peter gets involved in a karmic conflict on a planet called Heaven (which makes the preachy part inevitable, I suppose). Star-Lord seemingly becomes more homogenous by the page, but at least Moench and Sutton pull off the most convincing (and maybe the first) demonstration of the value of Star-Lord’s element gun to date.
Star-Lord continued his nomadic publication ways, next appearing in Marvel Premiere #61, a Moench tale where all the gears were on the outside. “Planet Story” was a (you guessed it) planet-of-the-week story crossed with a (ta-da!) morality play. Using a bifurcated narrative to tell the same story twice, Star-Lord first encounters what from his point of view is a sentient planet along the lines of Harry Harrison’s Deathworld, where every rock and vine is out to kill him. Then we see the same tale from the living planet’s point of view, where all it wants is … love (sniff).
This is all well and good, but Star-Lord has completely jumped the rails by this point. The promise of that warts-and-all-origin story and that spectacular, swashbuckling sophomore outing have given way to weak-sauce, second-tier Green Lantern-style stories. Marvel must have felt the character had come adrift, as well, as Star-Lord’s next appearance was in 1982’s Star-Lord Special Edition #1, which reprinted that great Star-Lord tale from Marvel Preview #11 (this time in color), and added a few pages of story wrapper that saw Peter reconciled with his actual and mysterious birth father, and rocketing off to new adventures with “Ship” and his old man.
Star-Lord seemed to know who he was, even if his creators didn’t
And that was the end of Star-Lord. The name would next be used for a successor character, in Timothy Zahn’s 1990s-era series, before the character formally entered the Marvel Universe in 2004’s Thanos #8-12. By this point, the character was practically unrecognizable from his origins, with Peter blinged out with cybernetic inputs, “Ship” long gone, and a new uniform replacing those elegant 1970s threads of yore.
As an original vintage loyalist and curmudgeon of the first order, I came into this blog locked and loaded to blast this new character as not really being “my” Star-Lord (or Star Lord, as he is known in this brave, new, hyphen-less future) … but you know what? I can’t do it.
I can’t do it for two reasons.
First, the new Star Lord is an entertaining character. I hate the costume — he looks like a bellhop — but as Han Solo writ small and tasked with holding together the quarrelsome and bizarre new Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Lord is more readable than at any time since his inaugural appearances. His connection to that original character is one of name only but Star Lord works well in an ensemble format (who knew?).
Second, re-reading these Star-Lord books after so many years, I see there was no “there” there with the Star-Lord of my acquaintance. I thought I was a Star-Lord fan, but I see now that all I really had were memories of a promising origin story and a dynamite Claremont/Byrne/Austin space opera. Everything else published under the Star-Lord name was pretty dire — a rattling box of disparate concepts that didn’t fit together at all.
And so I consign Star-Lord back to the airless tomb of the Longbox Graveyard with a poor overall letter grade and the recommendation that you read my in-depth review of Marvel Preview #11 over at StashMyComics.com, and then drop the best two bucks you will ever spend on a color copy of that story’s reprint in Star-Lord Special Edition #1. My own issues likely won’t see the light of day again unless they improbably skyrocket in value when Star Lord leads his Guardians of the Galaxy into cinematic battle in 2014 … but maybe I shouldn’t bet against it, given the odds this peculiar character has overcome to make it this far. I suspect the best part of Star-Lord’s story is still to come.
- Title: Star-Lord
- Published By: Marvel Comics, 1976-1982
- Issues Rescued From The Longbox Graveyard: Marvel Preview #4, 14, 15, 18; Marvel Super-Special #10; Marvel Spotlight #6-7, Marvel Premiere #61, Star-Lord Special Edition #1
- LBG Letter Grade For This Run: C-minus
- Read The Reprint: MyComicShop.com
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #87 By Any Other Name: Darkseid