NYCC: Bendis, McNiven & Wacker Relaunch the "Guardians of the Galaxy"

Marvel Comics is famous for its very human heroes, but that doesn't mean heroism is a quality found only in its humans. Many of the Marvel Universe's bravest champions hail from or have connections to interplanetary cultures and empires. Of course, those cultures have also given birth to some of the Marvel Universe's most dangerous villains. The battle between good and evil constantly rages in the cosmic corner of the Marvel Universe, and very often the scope and scale of that battle is as vast as the space it's unfolding in.

Naturally, it takes a special band of heroes to police and protect an area many times the size of the Earth, and for several years that responsibility fell upon the shoulders of a group of heroes known as the Guardians of the Galaxy. The Guardians disbanded at the end of the 2010 "Thanos Imperative" miniseries after saving the Universe from the threat of the Cancerverse, an alternate universe where death is extinct, but in the current storyline of writer Brian Michael Bendis' "Avengers Assemble" series, they've reunited to align with the title characters in order to save the universe from the threat of the villainous alien known as Thanos.

Once the "Avengers Assemble" storyline concludes in mid-October, Bendis says fareweell to this motley band of intergalactic do-gooders -- until February, when the writer debuts an all new "Guardians of the Galaxy" ongoing series featuring art by Steve McNiven. CBR News spoke with Bendis, McNiven and editor Steve Wacker about the project which was announced by Marvel yesterday at their "Marvel NOW!: Cup o' Joe Panel" at New York Comic Con and kicks off in February with a special #0.1 issue before moving into March's "Guardians of the Galaxy" #1.

Over the years, Bendis has enjoyed reading about the adventures of the Guardians of the Galaxy, especially the stories by writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning (collectively known to their fans as DnA), who established the most recent incarnation of the group. The writer never really had the urge to pen any of his own adventures featuring the team but thanks to his work as part of the Marvel Creative Committee, Bendis soon found himself in the perfect position to finally write the Guardians himself.

"A lot of people know they're making a 'Guardians of the Galaxy' movie, and one of my part time jobs is to work with the Marvel Creative Committee. That work involves projects that everyone knows are in development, plus a bunch of stuff people don't know about, where Marvel is deciding if it's something they want to do," Bendis told CBR News. "One of our first projects was 'Guardians of the Galaxy,' and we were doing a lot of research and really thinking about this book and these characters. I had read a lot of the material already as a fan, but not as a writer. So I was rereading it, and I really started to dig Peter Quill (AKA Star-Lord) and Gamora in particular. I liked who they were and what they were about -- especially Peter Quill's origin story and what it meant for him as a character. It's not something a lot of people are familiar with.

"I would get all hyped while we were talking about these characters during the movie meetings and how cool it was that Peter had this very little known origin story that is up there with Spider-Man's origin story if you really lay it out," Bendis continued. "I knew they wanted to get the book going again, and when I was wrapping up 'Avengers' about a year ago, [Marvel Comics Publisher] Dan Buckley said to me, 'You should do the 'Guardians of the Galaxy' comic. You've already done all the research, and you really love the characters.' So I said, 'Let me think about it.' He replied, 'What if we got someone like Steve McNiven to do the book?' And I said, 'Yeah -- if you get Steve McNiven, I'll do it.'

The chance to work with McNiven sealed the deal for Bendis because the writer had been waiting patiently for another chance to collaborate with the acclaimed artist. "Steve was an artist that everybody kept stealing from other writers. I stole him from the 'Ultimate Galactus' trilogy years ago to do 'New Avengers,' then Mark Millar stole him from me to do 'Civil War.' Then, Ed Brubaker stole him to do 'Captain America!' So everyone kept stealing him and I was waiting for my turn at the dance. I was thrilled he said yes to this."

Similarly, McNiven was delighted to be offered the chance to work with Bendis on "Guardians of the Galaxy." In recent years, the artist has become famous for his depiction of costumed heroes and villains in books like "Civil War," but his early comics work included many science fiction-oriented titles and the artist was eager to tackle another sci-fi book.

"I've been a huge fan of science fiction for most of my life. You can blame my dad for that. He always had a sci-fi book or three around the house," McNiven explained. "We both still read and pass each other books we've read. It's a bit of a family tradition now. So when the opportunity to explore the sci-fi areas of the Marvel Universe came my way I jumped at the chance."

The responsibility of editing Bendis and McNiven's collaboration was given to Senior Marvel editor Steve Wacker, who will also oversee Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness' upcoming cosmic series "Nova," which also begins in February. During his days as an editor at DC Comics, Wacker worked on several science fiction and cosmic oriented titles, but since coming to Marvel, much of his work has been on stories featuring more grounded, street-level heroes. Given his background, Wacker is excited for the chance to resurrect and revitalize two books from Marvel's fan-favorite franchise of cosmic titles.

"It's been a learning experience for sure. But in my entire time at Marvel, I've had to cram decades worth of old comics down my throat since I missed most of the Marvel books growing up. It's exciting as hell -- both 'GotG' and 'Nova' are a major part of our plans for the next year, so to say the pressure is on me and [associate editor] Sana Amanat is putting it lightly. I know how strongly the fans of the cosmic characters feel," Wacker said. "That said, Brian and Jeph are committed to hitting this right and have been working their substantial rear ends off. Even more importantly though, Steve McNiven, John Dell and Justin Ponsor on 'Guardians' and Ed McGuinness, Dexter Vines and Marte Gracia on 'Nova' are all turning in the work of their careers, so I'm not nervous about the book not reading or looking great."

Quality art and stories won't be the only connections between "Nova" and "Guardians of the Galaxy." Wacker views the titles as equal halves of the cosmic pie that Marvel is building so readers of both titles will get a big picture look at the space ways of the Marvel Universe.

"The books will be connected, as you'll see the deeper we get into the series. I like having mini-lines of books that run coherently -- but not too tightly -- with each other. I think on the 'street books' the past couple years we've managed to build up a feeling of cohesion readers can feel confident in buying into. You don't have to buy all of them, but if you do you see places where they reflect events you may have read about in say -- 'Daredevil.'"

Through his "Avengers Assemble" storyline, Bendis reestablished the Guardians of the Galaxy with a line-up that included most of it's original members: The group's leader, the half-human, half-Spartoi soldier known as Star-Lord; Gamora, an alien assassin raised by Thanos; Drax, a human transformed into a super-powered warrior tasked with killing Thanos; the arboreal alien monarch Groot; the gun toting, highly-evolved raccoon known as Rocket; and the acrobatic insectoid thief and adventurer called Bug. The writer chose this particular cast because of his love for them as individuals, the bonds between them and the peripatetic life they lead.

"They're kind of living the pirate's life. They've given up a lot to live this lifestyle, and that makes them passionate. I also like that everybody on the team has really intense father issues, which by definition makes them amazing Marvel characters. To be a truly fantastic Marvel character you have to have a really messed up relationship with your father. Your father has to be someone like the Green Goblin, dead, or he abandoned you and then will soon reveal himself to be the villain. So we've got characters like Gamora, who was the adopted daughter of Thanos, and as the father of two adopted daughters who will one day find out their father is the Thanos of comics, I think I can relate to this," Bendis joked. "Peter has a very difficult relationship with his father, who is the king of Spartoi. That relationship is fascinating as well and it's a relationship propelling the new angle for the book."

For McNiven the most enjoyable aspect of the characters that make up the Guardians is their distinctive visual appearances. "My goal is to make every one of the characters to stand out visually," the artist explained. "Brian is doing a great job of nailing the characters, so I can only do my best to make sure I get them to act the scenes properly. This way all Brian's hard work doesn't go to waste!

"I love the contrasts within the group, from Rocket to Groot, to Drax and Gamora -- they all bring something unique to the mix," McNiven continued. "That's when you know you have a good team book. For instance, working on Rocket Raccoon is teaching me a lot about drawing as he's essentially a talking Disney cartoon, something I have never worked on before. My art tends to move more along the realistic line of illustrating. So Rocket is a challenge, and anytime I get a challenge it makes me very interested and engaged in the work. I set out to find the challenge within all of the characters; that something you can hang your art hat on so to speak, and so far so good!"

Another challenge for McNiven has been redesigning the looks of the individual Guardians. "I love to tinker with designs. Usually I tend towards simple designs as they usually become more iconic, (and they are easier to draw!) but for the Guardians, I am going more complex. I've also figured they need different sets of costumes, because, well, you can't eat lunch in battle armor. As you go about designing things for the characters, you get a better handle on them and how they differ from one another. Getting them to stand out as individuals is the ultimate goal for me."

While many fans are happy to have the Guardians back as a team there are a number of lingering questions left over from the characters' last appearance in the "Thanos Imperative." Like, how did Peter Quill and Thanos escape the Cancerverse that they were supposedly trapped in? And why and when did this latest incarnation of the Guardians of the Galaxy form? Readers will get some answers to these questions before the storyline in "Avengers Assemble" is over, while answers to other questions will come further down the road.

"The Cancerverse will be making an appearance in 'Avengers Assemble.' Nothing will be ignored and nothing will be taken for granted," Bendis explained. "I really liked what DnA did and their contribution to these characters and this concept is immeasurable. When I took 'Ultimate Spider-Man' I came at it with the philosophy that Spider-Man wasn't broken and I have the same feeling about this. The Guardians are not broken. I'm not coming to fix them because there's nothing wrong with them."

"Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning did a wonderful job setting some of this up over the past few years and helped me fall in love with these characters I knew little about," Wacker added. "All of us are trying to be respectful of that while also giving readers who missed that run an easy place to jump on. But to be blunt, we're going for a fresh start here."

Part of that means allowing Bendis to put his own spin on the Guardians and the world they inhabit. "I have a different philosophy about what kind of sci-fi I like to see in my comics. So I'm going to attach the Guardians to that. The biggest difference between my book and DnA's book is theirs was very hardcore sci-fi, and very plot and concept driven. I thought that was very, very cool especially during 'Secret Invasion' where they really came up with some fantastic stuff. I think what I'm more interested in as a fan and as a writer is getting to know more about the characters and their relationships. My sci-fi comes from the original 'Star Wars' trilogy, and shows like 'Firefly.' That's the kind of stuff I like. That's the tone I'm angling for. These characters will have a lot of fun together but the stakes will be high."

Akin to the characters in the sci-fi stories Bendis loves, the Guardians of the Galaxy will be a tightly knit group with an interesting dynamic. Sometimes, like in the current "Avengers Assemble" storyline, the team will operate as a well-oiled machine and other times they won't get along as famously.

"In 'Avengers Assemble,' they were guest-starring in someone else's book, so they were always going to be on their best behavior. It's like going to a dinner party. If you're having trouble in the marriage, you're not going to yell it out at the dinner table. There are hints here and there though and what you do get a sense of in 'Avengers Assemble' is how much these characters love each other and how much they have to offer the Marvel Universe," Bendis remarked. "These are damaged characters though. That's the thing they share the most with each other. They've all been through the wringer and they're all desperate to rise up from what they were raised in.

"I always admire the shit out of people who grew up in unfortunate circumstances and pulled themselves up by their boot straps and made something of themselves emotionally," Bendis continued. "I don't think I respect anything more than someone getting their shit together because so many people use their environment as an excuse to act a fool or just be a loser. When someone doesn't though, I admire that and that's what I admire about the Guardians. Each of them could have wallowed in the hell fate had brought them, but instead they rolled up their sleeves and together they try to rise above their status. I really, really like that."

The dynamic between the Guardians will change slightly when their new ongoing series begins. That's because they'll welcome one new member into their ranks in the form of Tony Stark, the Invincible Iron Man.

"This is character motivated as well. With Tony being a futurist and an adventurer, I imagine he gets itchy that his surroundings aren't enough. I also witnessed artistic and creative people hit a ceiling in their work and struggle to get to that next level. Here's an Avenger who wants to get to the next level and he's just not going to get it where he is, but if he does a tour of duty with the Guardians he may find himself opening up his eyes to things that will help him with his inventions and the way he sees the world," Bendis explained. "He's going on a kind of working vacation with them. He's hoping to have different kinds of adventures, see different technologies and experience new things. Ultimately he's hoping this will give him new perspective and ideas on how to achieve his goals."

"Tony makes every story more interesting," Wacker added. "In this book, the smartest guy in every room is now a fish out of water and seeing his ego react to that is worth the price of admission. And Tony with alien women? Come on!"

Tony Stark doing a tour of duty with the Guardians of the Galaxy also makes sense with the role Kieron Gillen is establishing for the character in his upcoming new volume of "Iron Man," which finds the title character in search of truths about the Marvel Universe. "Me and Kieron have been hand in hand on this from the get go, I'm happy to say. When I got this job, I wanted there to be someone on the team from the Marvel Universe proper. It wasn't until Kieron acknowledged he would love to write a Tony Stark space book that I got my hopes up that I would get to use the character," Bendis said. "Tony is going to do a tour, then other characters are going to come in and out. Plus, we're saving a surprise announcement for the book itself so we don't give everything away."

Iron Man is a rather visually distinct Marvel character, and McNiven was delighted when he learned he'd have the chance to draw him again in "Guardians of the Galaxy." "I've designed a new set of armor for his outer space adventures -- it's a bit more rugged and durable," the artist said. "Hopefully readers will enjoy the new design. Like I said, I love redesigning stuff, and Iron Man's suit is one of the best things a Marvel artist can get his or her hands on design-wise."

Iron Man will join the "Guardians of the Galaxy" right when the team is given a new mission and purpose. "The premise behind the book is that to the cosmic civilizations like the Kree and the Spartoi, Earth looks like a mad house. We appear to be this unevolved species that keeps disrupting the time space continuum for selfish reasons. All of that is very scary to them," Bendis remarked. "Plus, thanks to characters like Reed Richards and Tony Stark, it's not hard to imagine that we're about a generation away from being part of those space cultures. The way things are going though, it looks like we're going to be a warring tribe. It looks like we'll come at the other cultures with Asgardians, mutants, Eternals and Inhumans. It looks like trouble is coming."

"They decide a lot of that has to do with the fact alien races keep poking Earth with a stick. The Kree come down and perform experiments and the Skrulls try to take the planet over," Bendis explained. "They decide the Earth is off limits. No one is allowed to touch the planet. Touching it breaks their number one rule. So the Guardians of the Galaxy have been called to protect the planet from all galactic comers without ever touching it, but of course they're going to touch it because they never do exactly what they're supposed to do."

For the Guardians, protecting Earth doesn't mean setting up shop here or staying within the confines of our solar system. The team's new mission will still take them out into space and the far off corners of the universe. "They're still roaming, because even though they're protecting Earth, they're not in orbit above the planet doing circles. If something like a Badoon attack force was heading towards Earth, they'd go out and meet it head-on. So they're not hanging around the solar system all the time watching Earth with binoculars or something like that."

Tasking the Guardians with protecting our planet also gives Bendis a way to tie together the cosmic corner and main sections of the Marvel Universe in a clear and immediate way. "There are lot of people who don't read the cosmic books because they don't feel like they're connected to what's going on in the Marvel Universe, even though if you read them you see that they are. There was a definite feeling though that, 'They're over there in this corner.' A lot of people who read the books actually kind of like that too," Bendis stated. "I liked that it was untouched, but I wondered if there is a way to tell these stories and have them connect directly to what's going on in the Marvel Universe. I think we came up with a pretty interesting idea that will have the Guardians specifically guarding Earth from all comers for a very important reason. That will engage Tony Stark and other characters from the Marvel Universe to be part of their adventures. It's a lot of fun to write."

Writing the adventures of the "Guardians of the Galaxy" means combining the super heroics of the Marvel Universe with the space opera and science fiction genres. It's not the type of material Bendis is known for, but the writer has told intergalactic tales in the past and is enjoying the chance to stretch his sci-fi writing muscles on a regular basis.

"For people who are trying to wrap their heads around me doing a space book, I have done stories like this a couple of times, but never in the guise of, 'Here is a book that takes place in outer space.' The majority of the 'Illuminati' book I wrote with Brian Reed took place in outer space and there have been a few other books I've done as well like 'Halo,'" Bendis explained. "So it's a great deal of fun, but really we're using that setting to discover these characters and how they interact and why they're a team. That's the stuff that really gets me excited.

"This book will have plenty of action. I love writing that, but I think in the book itself we will have a lot of quiet time to enjoy the characters as well," Bendis explained. "What I like about a book taking place in outer space, and you see this in shows like 'Star Trek,' is there's a big set piece and then they have to travel to the next one. That gives you time to have characters get into trouble with each other or do things like speak their mind. That's a lot of fun."

Fans of Bendis' work on the Avengers franchise of titles know the writer routinely wrote stories that balanced intense action sequences with deep character moments. So in many ways "Guardians of the Galaxy" will feel like a Cosmic Avengers book. In fact that's how the creators involved view the series. "'Cosmic Avengers' is the term we've been using. It's an odd assortment of characters whose backs are against the wall, trying their best to protect the universe -- specifically Earth," Wacker explained. "The odds are against them at every angle and their reaction to that is what's interesting."

In the "Marvel NOW! Point One" anthology, readers will get a sneak peek at Bendis and McNiven's "Guardians of the Galaxy" in a tale telling the extended origin of the team's leader, Star-Lord. "This is going back to what I said about not many people knowing Peter Quill's origin or understanding what he wants as a character. Even Dan Slott didn't know it. When I was talking about it at the retreat, he was like, 'Really?' So a few months ago I started writing the origin of Peter Quill in comic script form, but I didn't tell anyone. I just started writing it for myself to kind of experience it," Bendis said. "I was writing and writing, and I had a double-sized first issue when I got to the end of the origin. So I took a two page origin story in "Marvel Premier" and I blew it up to 30 pages. Not unlike when I was doing "Ultimate Spider-Man" and I took 15 pages of 'Amazing Fantasy' #15 and I blew up into the first few issues of 'Ultimate Spider-Man.'

"I thought, this is why you want to read a book about this character. This is why he does all of the things he does. So I handed the origin story in to Steve Wacker and Tom Brevoort and said, 'I don't know where this goes, but we should show this, right?'" Bendis continued. "Everyone kind of agreed we should put this out first. It's an origin story that makes you understand why you would read a book about Star-Lord. The #0.1 issue is an origin story, but it's one very few people know or have experienced. You may have read about it online or seen it reprinted in places like 'Annihilation: Classics' where I first saw it. The 'Marvel NOW! Point One' story is a section of that, a tease of that story."

Bendis has seen some of McNiven's "Guardians of the Galaxy" pages and couldn't be happier with the work his collaborator is doing on the title. "Steve is an amazing designer, and he's a wonderful, subtle character actor. He really creates a world and everyone who sees his stuff loves his stuff," the writer explained. "Steve brings humanity and gravitas that a book like this needs. There's going to be a lot of people who have never read a 'Guardians of the Galaxy' book who we're trying to convince to buy this book. Hopefully they'll buy it because Iron Man is in it or they see my name or Steve's name. The people that do hang in there and buy a book outside of their wheelhouse will see what Steve and our inker John Dell and 'Ultimate Spider-Man' colorist Justin Ponsor are doing. It's a gorgeous package, and we're very proud of that."

"I think one of the most exciting things for me is to explore these characters for the first time. It's really been crazy to draw a talking raccoon and a living tree! The way that Tony fits into the mix is, I think, worth the price of admission," McNiven stated. "I hope folks give this book a chance. I think they will get a markedly different book than anything else out there in the comic world."

Bendis added, "It's going to be both shockingly intimate and at the same time hilariously huge. You'll learn a lot of secrets about Earth and what it means to the Marvel Universe proper. Earth has a place in the Marvel Universe and we'll learn a lot more about that going forward. Plus, we're going to get to know the characters very passionately.

"We're also going to get a lot of cool appearances from new villains and some Earth bound villains you have not seen in a cosmic setting before. So I'm very excited for that as well. Plus, HOW ON EARTH COULD THIS BOOK POSSIBLY TIE-IN TO 'ALL-NEW X-MEN?' You'll find out very soon," Bendis continued. "And for fans of DnA's work, I'm a fan as well. This is an opportunity to try something new with these characters we all share this equal love for. I know change is scary, but I'm not changing the good stuff. I'm flat out stealing it. So characters like Groot will be there. He'll sound slightly more Jewish coming out of me, but he'll still be Groot."

"Guardians of the Galaxy" #1 by Brian Michael Bendis & Steve McNiven goes on sale March 2013.

Birds of Prey Cover Art Reveals the Film's Huntress, Black Canary

More in Comics