Up until “Guardians of the Galaxy,” every Marvel Studios movie since “Iron Man” in 2008 had its roots in decades-old stories. “The Avengers,” “Thor” and “Iron Man” all debuted appeared in the ’60s — an incredibly creatively robust time at Marvel — and “Captain America” dates back to 1941, concurrent with the Golden Age of comics and the start of the United States’ involvement in World War II.
Yet the Guardians of the Galaxy, as depicted on-screen, have only existed under that name since a 2008, with the launch of a comic book series written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, and illustrated by Paul Pelletier. That series starred the movie lineup of Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Raccoon and Groot — plus other characters like Quasar, Adam Warlock, Mantis, Moondragon and Bug. The origins of the current crop of “Guardians” go back a little further — to the “Annihilation” event, and work of writers like Keith Giffen, who first paired Star-Lord, Rocket and Groot in the “Annihilation Conquest: Star-Lord” miniseries.
Before that period, “Guardians of the Galaxy” exclusively referred to a team introduced in 1969’s “Marvel Super-Heroes” #18 by Arnold Drake and Gene Colan — also cosmic characters, but with adventures taking place in the 31st century. The “Guardians” film does contain one character from that period, Yondu — and the comic book teams have some correlation as well — but other than that, it’s a fairly separate entity.
Bill Rosemann, Marvel editor and creative director, edited the 2008 “Guardians of the Galaxy” comic book series, and discussed with CBR News in-depth about the formation of that team, those comics, his thoughts on the “Guardians” movie and what he’d like to see in the already-announced 2017 sequel.
CBR News: Bill, let’s get to it: What did you think of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” film?
Bill Rosemann: It was more awesome than “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” — I loved it! Humor, action, heart — James Gunn crushed it! Kevin Feige and the Marvel Studios moviemakers took a handful of characters known by a fraction of the population — even within the comic book world — and turned it into a worldwide franchise. Even to put aside the huge box office numbers, it was so entertaining and accessible and relatable. They found the human in the alien.
Right. The story bounces around to different planets, with different aliens, and the viewer is along for the ride. It doesn’t feel distant.
They focused on character; they always remembered to mix the spectacle with laughs. I tell everyone who’s asked me if they should see it even if they don’t know the characters — underneath everything it’s about family. It’s about the families that we lose, the families that we choose to make, and the families that we fight for. From the opening to the ending beat, they kept focus of that. I think worldwide, that’s why it’s going to connect. Everyone has experienced some portion of that.
And it was just a damn good time. I keep saying, “You want to have fun at the movies? Come to a Marvel movie.” There will be drama, and there will be serious moments, but we’re not going to drown you in grimness. You watch the Marvel Universe, and you say, “I want to live there.”
You obviously had a unique perspective going into this.
I’ve tried to keep a very detached [perspective]. Just, “What would I think of this if I didn’t know these characters?” I’d rank it up there with our best films — and what made it even more special was when Joe Quesada thanked me for my contributions to the Guardians in front of the entire Marvel staff & friends screening. To get that acknowledgement and stand there and have the entire audience applaud was humbling and amazing.
I wanted to hear your take on the origins of this version of “Guardians of the Galaxy” in comics — I think it’s fair to say that the fact it’s gotten this far is one of the more unexpected things in recent pop culture. It can’t be overlooked that this version of the team has only existed for six years, which really is a short amount of time.
To me, Marvel Studios have always been balancing classic continuity with new content — you can see influence of “Civil War” and the [Ed] Brubaker “Captain America” run in “Winter Soldier,” and when you look at Thor’s design, that came right from the current run. I would say “Guardians” followed the same pattern — there are classic elements like Yondu and Ronan. But then you look at Knowhere, you look at Cosmo — they did not exist before [a few] years ago, when DnA introduced them in an issue of “Nova” — and then some smart editor suggested to use them in their Guardians run! [Laughs]
But really, you’ve got to give a shoutout to Arnold Drake and Gene Colan, who created the first iteration of the Guardians. There’s a lot of flavor of that original idea that’s in this version. They were the last surviving members of their races, united to free the galaxy and get revenge on the Badoon. You look at this iteration, and some of them are the last survivors of their races, or they have no family. They’re joining together to save the galaxy and get revenge on Thanos. You see echoes from the very original idea from then to today.
Also, while this version of the Guardians is new to people, these characters have been around for decades. Drax, Gamora, Star-Lord and Rocket all came from the ’70s and ’80s. We just reexamined them, from their physical designs to their personalities, and attempted to modernize them a bit to show the world how cool they are. So really it’s a celebration of all of the cosmic creators from the 60s until today.
What I also love about the “Guardians” movie is that it proves just how valuable Marvel publishing is to the overall company, and to Disney itself. The work of a rather small group planted the seeds for a global hit.
That’s true about them all being preexisting characters, but most were on the shelf for a long time before the “Annihilation” events, including Star-Lord — who hadn’t been around much for years, before being taken out of the archives, right?
The story of Star-Lord is an interesting one. He was a character that only appeared in a handful of stories in the ’70s, and then disappeared for a while, and then Keith Giffen brought him back — but not as Star-Lord. He brought him back as Peter Quill in a “Thanos” series that Tom Brevoort was editing, and then also in “Annihilation.” Then we decided to spotlight him when we created our next big cosmic event.
The full story is, after an eight-year run at Marvel, I left and worked for CrossGen and then for DC. Then I got a call from Joe Quesada, and he said, “Hey, you want to come back and edit comics full time?” When I was at DC, I was having a great experience, working with some awesome people, but I was only editing comics half the time. Joe was offering me a chance to focus 100 percent on comics, which was my first love. So I returned, and I remember we were at lunch, and I asked Joe, “What family of books would you like me to work on?” I was hoping to hear something like Spider-Man or Daredevil — the street heroes. Joe smiled and said, “We want you to work on the cosmic books.” [Laughs]
Inside, I panicked. As a young reader, even though I loved sci-fi — giant “Star Wars,” “Alien” and “Blade Runner” fan — I was not a big Marvel sci-fi guy. Aside from “Fantastic Four,” which is kind of super-science, I focused on the more grounded characters. That said, I was currently very much enjoying the “Annihilation” event, because they were so successful in looking at all these characters that hadn’t been seen since the ’90s, and making them relevant and accessible. Underneath it all, it was a war comic. And that I got. I really enjoyed reading that, and I was a big Nova fan, and I thought it was very cool that they made him our POV character, and they graduated him in power.
So my first assignment was to launch “Nova.” Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning were already attached, and I thought that was great, because I loved their “Annihilation: Nova” mini. I reached out to Sean Chen as our first artist, because I dug his run on “Iron Man” — and here’s another flying character in a helmet; I thought, “Well, Sean Chen could do that very well.” So we did that, kept that going with nice reviews for the first year, and then we decided, “Hey, let’s do an event.” I decided to double-down on Dan and Andy. I loved their approach to sci-fi, because they came from the “2000AD” side of things. Their sci-fi is more grounded, and their heroes are more human. Sometimes American sci-fi can be very retro, “Jetsons,” the future is squeaky clean. They’re the opposite, where the sci-fi and the future is dark and gritty and human, and a bit scary, and the humans are underdogs. I decided I wanted to work more with them, and let them really spread their wings, and own the cosmic playground.
And here I have to mention that Tom Brevoort is the real unsung hero of this. He worked with Andy Schmidt — and also, Andy, of course, deserves a big round of applause, because he’s the one that put “Annihilation” together, and campaigned to bring back the cosmic characters. What a lot of people don’t know is that Tom oversaw all of that, and oversaw my entire four to five year run on cosmic. I bounced everything off Tom. He was the behind-the-scenes person who was making suggestions, and helped keep us on track. And he had a key role in Groot appearing again, and I’ll get to that.
So I decided, “Let’s do the event, have Dan and Andy write it.” Then I wanted to expand the cosmic line. I had talks with Tom, with Joe and Dan Buckley — “Look, we have our solo book. We don’t want to repeat that. Let’s do a cosmic team book.” I had asked Keith Giffen to come back, and he wrote a “Star-Lord” mini that was part of “Annihilation: Conquest.” And that’s when we decided, “Let’s bring back the Star-Lord identity.” That is a very cool name, and his visual was great — let’s call him Star-Lord again. I said to Keith, “I want to do a dirty dozen story with him.” At the time, Star-Lord was wracked with guilt, and he was trying to make up for a sin he felt he committed. He wasn’t the joke-cracking person that we know today. He was very troubled at the time. He was burdened by his guilt. So I thought it would be fun to surround him with a bunch of goofy characters that would drive him crazy, and possibly bring him out of his funk.
One night I sat on the floor and went through my Marvel Universe Handbooks, and started putting sticky notes on any old cosmic character that we hadn’t yet brought back. And I remember my wife walks into the room, and sees all these stickies everywhere, and says, “What in the world are you doing?” I said, “I want to build this crazy, cosmic, ragtag, underdog team — and here’s who’s going to be the star of the show,” and I open it, and show her a shot of Rocket. And she said, “That’s a raccoon.” I said, “Yes!” [Laughs] I was a big fan of the “Rocket Raccoon” mini from the ’80s by Bill Mantlo and Mike Mignola — so it is so amazing to see Bill Mantlo get the acclaim he deserves, and to see Marvel and so many people reaching out to him and helping him with his care.
I thought Rocket was the best, with the jetpack and the laser guns — and I felt there would be great humor if we would play him straight, in that we treat him like he’s Spider-Man. He makes jokes, but we don’t belittle or make fun of him. In the stories, Rocket would make jokes, and he would get into humorous situations, and people would look at him like, “Is that a raccoon?” But we wouldn’t dismiss him. I said, “Let’s not mock him.” Let’s show why he’s cool.
Then I showed my list of characters to Tom — Captain Universe, and Mantis, and Bug, and Rocket, and Deathcry, from the ’90s. And Tom started laughing — you’ve got every other decade, why don’t you round it out by having someone from the ’60s? I said, “Tom, who did we really have cosmically back then, aside from Mar-Vell?” And he said, “Well, what about the monsters? A lot of them came from space.” We had just done a Marvel Monster Handbook, so I paged through that, and there was Groot. I said, “He’s our big guy.” Groot was hilarious because he, at that time and in his original appearances, talked about himself in the third person. “I am the Monarch of Planet X. I’m going to destroy all of you humans.” I thought, wouldn’t it be fun, in this Dirty Dozen book, if we had this big tree who thinks he’s the greatest thing of all time, and basically says, “Look, I’m going to go along with this mission to get me out of prison. But afterwards, I’m going to kill all of you.” I thought there would be incredible humor there. He was very much like Doctor Doom in the story.
Keith was the one that put Groot and Rocket together. They were originally on the team, but they weren’t a pair. I’m reading the first script, and there was a scene where Star-Lord is watching the team training to go on this suicide mission. The first panel, you see a close-up on Rocket. He’s got this huge grin on his face, and he’s firing this gigantic gun. And in the next panel, you pull back, and you realize he’s standing in the palm of Groot’s hand. I’m like, “Keith, this is hilarious. Why did you think of putting them together?” Keith said, “Hey, one’s a raccoon, one’s a tree, of course they’re going to be friends!”
In our story, Rocket wants to befriend Groot, and the whole time Groot is pushing him away. “Furry thing, I will kill you.” But then at the end of it, Groot realizes that Rocket is his only one true friend. At the end of the story, Groot sacrifices himself, and he explodes — and all that is left is a little splinter of Groot, and Rocket was the one who planted him in a pot, and then grew him, which may be a very familiar visual if you see the movie. So Keith and artist Timothy Green deserve a lot of credit for developing and pairing Rocket and Groot.
From there, we said, this “Star-Lord” mini kind of stole the show or our event, and I said, that’s our team book. And they’re going to be the opposite of the Avengers. They’re similar in that they’re all different personalities who have to put aside their differences and come together. But they are the opposite of being the varsity. This is the Bad News Bears. They’re ragtag, picked-on, underestimated, outgunned — everyone thinks they’re misfits and rejects. But they’re our best chance. And they’re the ones that are going to show the world, “You may laugh at us, and think we’re ridiculous, but when our backs are to the wall, we’re going to come together, and we’re going to save the universe.” Dan and Andy took that ball and just ran with it, and we got a good strong two years of that “Guardians” team and also did the “War of Kings” event which elevated the Inhumans and Gladiator. Then we wrapped it up with “The Thanos Imperative.” We said, let’s go out with a bang. It began with Rich Rider and Peter Quill back in “Annihilation” — let’s bring the spotlight back on them, let’s give them their Butch and Sundance moment, and we ended “Thanos Imperative” with Rich and Peter sacrificing themselves to save the universe. We went out in a literally flash of light, and said, “OK, there’s our five-year run.” Just had a wonderful, wonderful time playing in that sandbox.
There hadn’t been a book starring the future version of the Guardians or called “Guardians of the Galaxy” in years up to that point, right?
Hadn’t been since the ’90s. It’s a perfect name. You know exactly what they are. That’s why you can call a movie “Guardians of the Galaxy” — you get it right away! You instantly understand who they are.
I remember, we were going to launch the team book, and thinking, “What are we going to name it?” I said, “Let’s call it Guardians of the Galaxy.” And people thought, “Well, but that’s the name of a group from the future.” And I said, “Why can’t this be the first time someone calls themselves the ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’? Why stay away from that awesome name?” I approached Joe Quesada and Dan Buckley with that, and they’re the ones that gave the green light to that.
And while the books were coming out, someone said, “The West coast group is really digging your cosmic books.” I’m like, “That’s cool.” “No, they really like them.” Of course, because of confidentiality and whatnot, people couldn’t really talk about what was happening. So finally, they made the announcement that we’re doing a “Guardians” movie. I saw the first part of concept art, along with the rest of the world, and I assumed it was going to be the original Guardians — with Yondu, and Starhawk, and Vance Astro. Then I looked at it and said, “Oh my gosh, it’s our Guardians. That’s our team.” It didn’t even occur to us that it would be the recent iteration that we were working on. It blew our minds.
We were so happy, because we knew these characters were great. I would argue with people — they would say, “Rocket Raccoon, really?” I’d say, “Yes, Rocket Raccoon. This character is amazing, and he will appeal to millions of kids, and kids of all ages.” It’s a raccoon with a jet pack and a helmet and a blaster, and a bad attitude. What is not to love? And there’s a giant walking tree that’s his friend. That is gold. James Gunn and the moviemakers, they got it, and did wonderful things with them.
Did you know while the book was going on that there was interest from the Marvel Studios side?
I forget the exact timing. I knew when they released the concept art. There may have been hints — we have to be very, very careful, even internally at Marvel, with protecting our IP and letting people know what’s happening when. A lot of it is a need-to-know basis.
Another hero in this: One of the first people to really champion the “Guardians” to the studio is David Gabriel, our senior VP of sales. David, who has great commercial instincts, was the one to say to Studios, “You know, this ‘Guardians’ book, I think would make a great TV show or movie.”
I may have got a hint that there was at least interest in the Guardians as a project before it was announced, but we were just working our butts off trying to make the best comic possible, and trying to hold on to sales. We had a very loyal readership. The numbers were rock solid. I looked at the print run numbers — “Oh my gosh, they don’t budge.” It was never a huge number, but it was steady. So many books erode, erode, erode, and man, the cosmic fans — they were a loyal crew.
We knew that the “Guardians” and “Nova” just needed a bigger platform. They just needed more eyes on them. And we knew they would be popular. That’s what the appearances on all the cartoons, and the video games, and the movies, that’s what it’s doing. They haven’t changed the characters. When you compare the characters in the movie and the cartoons to the comics, they’re very close. They’ve made some changes to make it more cinematic, of course, and sharpen their personalities, and focus on different aspects of their histories, and make them as accessible as possible — but they’re very loyal to the characters as they appear in the comics, and that’s a tribute to the creators who worked on these characters. We just knew that they would click with people around the world.
That sounds like a similar approach to the current “Guardians of the Galaxy” comic book series — which is a bit of a different tone and presentation, but much of the same cast.
Yeah! Same cast, same continuity, no one’s been rebooted. There may be different aspects that are spotlighted now, but it’s the same characters. The current run has been more influenced by what we knew was going to happen in the movie. It’s fantastic — they brought the characters back with a relaunch, and now it’s one of our top-selling books.
I’m a big fan of the current books. Everyone asks, “How does it feel — you used to run the cosmic books, and now you don’t.” But I love it what everyone is doing. My hat is off to Brian Michael Bendis and Gerry Duggan on “Guardians” and “Nova,” and the artists are doing a fantastic job. And my gosh — how fun are the new “Star-Lord” and “Rocket Raccoon” books? Amazing. It’s wonderful to see these characters get the big budgets and push and focus that they deserve. And it’s working. I love it.
Another thing I’m curious about is the decision to kill off Star-Lord and Richard Rider at the end of “Thanos Imperative.” Obviously Star-Lord returned in 2012 in “Avengers Assemble” — was there a plan then to bring him back, or was it seen as the end of the character for a while?
We knew it was time to end that run, and to let them step into the shadows again, so that they could possibly regroup and come back. If you’ll notice, when Richard and Peter “die” — you don’t see any bodies. They disappear, literally, in a flash of light. Our intention was, “Let’s give them a heroic, triumphant ending,” but let’s pass the baton. Let’s make it so whoever’s coming after us is able to do whatever they want. And that’s why you didn’t see charred skeletons. They sacrificed themselves. It was a heroic end, there was real grief felt by the characters that knew and loved them. They disappeared in a flash of light, and you’re able to read into that.
I can’t wait to read upcoming issues of “Guardians” to see what Bendis is going to say about what happened to Rich and Peter and Thanos during those ending moments in the Cancerverse. I’m refusing to look at pages. I’m waiting until the comic is in my bundle, and then I’m going to read it.
Since we now know there is a second “Guardians” film coming out in 2017, is there anything you’d like to see? More characters added to the mix, or general hopes that you might have?
I was talking to one of my co-workers about this very subject, about our wish lists. The impulse may be to throw in a bunch of new characters, but I said, “You know what, the moviemakers, they’re the smartest guys and girls in the biz.” I have no idea what they’re doing. I’m just theorizing — I think the smart thing to do would be to look at what’s going to happen in “Avengers.” You focus on the team that everyone knows, and you slowly, and organically introduce a few new characters.
I would imagine that might be a smart way to go. You focus on the core five that everyone loves, and sprinkle in some new characters. It is wide open. You could look at the original Guardians, you could look at characters from the ’90s, you could look at the characters that have been brought back from “Annihilation” and “Conquest.” There are all sorts of characters you could add to the mix. Would I love to see people like Darkhawk, and Adam Warlock and Moondragon and Mantis? Those are all real fun characters, ripe with potential.
Even if I didn’t work for Marvel, I would say everyone at Marvel Studios are the smartest crew in the biz. Kevin Feige is “the guy.” And with James Gunn is coming back, whatever they do, it’ll be awesome, and I will be sitting in my seat and enjoying it. It’s so fun to see these characters come to life on a whole different and huge stage, and seeing the world fall in love with them. What a blast!