Brian Michael Bendis and a roster of artistic collaborators just wrapped up a years-long run on “Guardians of the Galaxy” that spanned nearly fifty issues, successfully integrating the once-niche cosmic characters into the Marvel Universe’s larger picture. However, looking at the run as a whole, from start to finish, it becomes apparent that “Guardians of the Galaxy” wasn’t just a cynical ploy to play off the characters’ more popular film counterparts, but a real labor of love for Bendis. Specifically, it appears to be a nod to one of the greatest team superhero books of all time.
Keith Giffen and JM DeMatteis’ run across various “Justice League” titles is commonly referred to by its most popular incarnation, “Justice League International.” Along with artists like Kevin Maguire and Adam Hughes, the writers forged a new approach for superhero comics. The “Justice League” books were fun not only did they featured team-members you wouldn’t expect to join, what a lot of people forget about their run is that it often had real stakes and real consequences.
A lot of the methods pioneered by Giffen and DeMatteis’ tenure can be found in the DNA of Bendis’ run on “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which brought with it a decidedly different tone than fans of the comic’s earlier incarnations were used to. The previous run, for example, penned by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, was more akin to another classic ’80s DC Comic, “Suicide Squad,” in how it kept readers on their toes regarding its own cast and their chances of survival at any given moment.
Bendis’ “Guardians” often felt consequence-free, but that’s not an entirely accurate description, because a lot did happen. Kitty Pryde and Star-Lord became a thing, while the entire backstory of Venom was explored and defined, with the word “Klyntar” being introduced to describe the race of symbiotes. And in “The Black Vortex” crossover, the Kree homeworld of Hala was destroyed completely, shaking up the Marvel Universe on a truly galactic scale.
While not short on big moments, Bendis’ run did lack a certain forward momentum a lot of the time, something that may be due to being sandwiched between two “Guardians” movies meant Marvel didn’t want to push the team out too far in any one direction. Instead, Bendis populated the team with other Marvel characters such as Iron Man, Captain Marvel, The Thing, Kitty Pryde, Venom and the then-newly acquired Angela. This allowed a lot of things to happen to and around the Guardians of the Galaxy, without massive status-quo shake-ups that are seemingly the norm in superhero comics.
This is a set-up similar to the one Giffen and DeMatteis’ “Justice League” dealt with, because outside of Batman and Martian Manhunter, they didn’t have access to any of the characters you’d even associate with the League. They did have a Green Lantern (Guy Gardner), but the rest of the roster was filled by the likes of Booster Gold, Blue Beetle, Rocket Red, Fire, Ice and other B- and C-Listers. While you weren’t going to get any major shake-ups to Batman in the pages of “Justice League,” the series was packed with character development for the rest of the team.
As mentioned earlier, “Justice League International” often gets overlooked when it comes to how high-stakes a comic it could be. Storylines like “Breakdowns” came as a huge emotional gut-punch for fans expecting the series to be all bwa-ha-ha, all the time. This, too is a page Bendis’ “Guardians” took from JLI, as he played with similar tonal shifts to reinforce the impact of pivotal moments.
One of Bendis’ best issues starts with Star-Lord and Kitty Pryde infiltrating a Badoon prison planet, with Peter Quill ribbing his fiancee over her terrible costume choices. Only pages later, Kitty comes across the conditions the Badoon are keeping their prisoners in, and it dawns on her that this is, effectively, a concentration camp. It’s not played exploitatively or for shock value, and Kitty’s range of emotion drips off the page as the reader takes the same journey with her. It’s an incredibly affecting single issue.
One of the biggest comparisons to “Justice League International” comes from the fact that Bendis snapped up Kevin Maguire to draw a couple of issues following an unceremonious departure from DC Comics. In 2013, the artist was released from DC’s “Justice League 3000” book — written by Giffen and DeMatteis — because DC wanted to skew, in Maguire’s words, “dark and gritty” with the series. Maguire reportedly turned down work with Bendis to do “Justice League 3000” in the first place, and when he was given the boot by DC, Marvel and Bendis swooped in and brought him on board.
Maguire only drew two issues of <“Guardians of the Galaxy” across two volumes, but his influence permeates the latter years of the book when Valerio Schiti was added to the series’ roster of artists. The book floundered artistically at first under the likes of Steve McNiven and Sara Pichelli, not because they aren’t phenomenal A-List talent, but because their style didn’t suit the kind of superhero stories Bendis was telling. The run found its legs under the Art Adams-inspired Nick Bradshaw, and when Schiti and colorist Richard Isanove came aboard, the book really began to pick up steam creatively.
If you’re still unconvinced about the influence “Justice League International” had on “Guardians of the Galaxy,” you just have to read the final issue by Bendis and a murderer’s row of artistic collaborators. The issue features Thanos coming to Earth to finally crush us all into submission, but you could easily swap him out for Manga Khan as all-too-cocky approach to world domination costs him big time. He even starts off his address with “People of Earth, hi!” which seems just a bit too informal for The Mad Titan, but at this point in the run, Bendis is wearing his influences on his sleeve. The very final page of the run features Annihilus and Y-Gaar of The Brotherhood of the Badoon watching Thanos’ defeat and deciding that Earth isn’t worth their time anyway, a scene that’s such a Giffen and DeMatteis approach to villains, it makes you wish there was more of it.