With “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s” new trailer burned into our retinas, now is the perfect time to binge-out on some classic Guardians of the Galaxy stories. We should clarify: by “classic” Guardians, we mean the modern classic Guardians of the Galaxy; the team that the movie version is based on.
To qualify for this list, the stories in question had to prominently feature at least one member of The Guardians of the Galaxy. Also, for the sake of simplicity and your convenience, stories have been primarily categorized based on their trade paperback volume. Don’t be a flartnard, you know how best-of lists work! With that in mind, here are the 15 frickin’ best Guardians of The Galaxy stories.
15. THE BLACK VORTEX
In this Marvel cosmic event, The Guardians of The Galaxy clash with the X-Men and the newest Nova over possession of The Black Vortex, a mystical artifact that grants those who submit to it cosmic power at the cost of their sanity. “The Black Vortex” by Brian Michael Bendis is ultimately a pretty basic story that often comes across as a bad episode of Power Rangers. It’s nowhere near as corny as, say, “Axis,” where characters literally have their moral alignments swapped, but it becomes obvious fairly early on that this event is just Marvel characters fighting cosmic-themed versions of their friends.
Sure, some of these Black Vortex versions of our heroes are cool, with Gamora’s cosmic cape in particular being an inspired look, but others leave something to be desired. For instance, why is Beast’s true “cosmic potential” basically a super space suit (complete with dumb bubble helmet) instead of a hyper-intelligent version of himself that doesn’t look like a beast? That would have totally been a reflection of Hank McCoy’s more selfish desires. Also, despite the name, The Black Vortex is clearly a black mirror — but Netflix had already claimed that name.
14. THE THANOS IMPERATIVE
In “The Thanos Imperative” by Dan Abnett and Andy Lenning, Nova has discovered a tear in the universe known as The Fault, which serves as the barrier between our universe and the Cancerverse, a realm where death no longer exists. From across The Fault, Lord Mar-Vel leads his team of “unkillable” nightmare Avengers known as The Revengers. Enter Thanos, prisoner of The Guardians of the Galaxy and the only individual who can deliver permanent death to the one place where it doesn’t exist.
Teaming up with Thanos is a great premise, but a super weird thing happens in issue #2. Due to an art error, Drax appears in his pre-Annihilation incarnation. To clarify, pre-Annihilation Drax isn’t just Drax in a purple cape, but literally a different Drax. Modern Drax was reborn into the 616 universe with a new body and personality by emerging from the corpse of the original Drax. Forced to make this flub appear intentional, Drax rocks the retro look, then suddenly catches space-madness before being killed by Thanos. In the moment, no one mourns Drax — and neither do you, because OG Drax is literally a different character.
In “Wanted” by Brian Michael Bendis and Valerio Schiti taking place over “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2016) #6-10, The Guardians must contend against The Brotherhood of The Badoon, who for all intents and purposes, are lizard space Nazis. It is against these creatures that the Guardians must battle, while also leading an assault on a prison planet.
There are quite a few badass moments here to choose from: Kitty Pryde destroys a space concentration camp, Venom combines with Groot to perform a HALO jump, Angela breaks out of prison and back into the most impractical combat boots ever, and Kitty attempts to rip the leader of The Badoon’s heart out via phasing, but isn’t familiar enough with Badoon physiology to successfully do so. Likewise, there’s a particularly poignant moment where Venom realizes he has to protect a large group of Skrulls. This is all despite the fact that he had been kidnapped by them in Knowwhere, and had been fighting against them in “Secret Invasion,” where the Skrulls basically tried to do this exact same thing to Earth.
12. EMPEROR QUILL
In this relaunch of “Guardians of the Galaxy” #1-5 by Brian Michael Bendis and Steve Immonen, Rocket Raccoon fills in as the new leader of the Guardians while Peter Quill adjusts to life as the new King of the Spartax Empire. Kitty Pryde makes for a great new Star-Lord, forcing two Chitauri war-whales to perform friendly fire by phase-dancing in-between them in what we’re pretty sure is a nod to the “Open Wide” music video by Calvin Harris and Big Sean.
The Thing thunders in as a great new addition to the team, finally giving The Guardians a temporary battlecry just in time for clobbering. Being the only non-lupine astronaut in the Marvel Universe makes Ben Grimm an appropriate fit for our lovely band of space pirates. He is, after all, one of the few characters in fiction smart enough to punch a supposedly downed enemy one last time — you know, just to be safe.
11. COSMIC AVENGERS
In this initial story arc from Brian Michael Bendis and Steve McNiven’s run of “Guardians of the Galaxy” #0.1-3 (2013), Star-Lord’s origin story is retold as we discover how his mom hooked up with an alien, as well as how Peter got his one-of-a-kind Element Gun. This origin story is fitting, as Star-Lord’s relationship with his father, J’son of Spartax, takes center stage in the present. This run essentially tries to shift the Guardians closer to their movie incarnation by inexplicably resurrecting Drax back in his modern body and giving Star-Lord pop culture references. As a bonus, Iron Man is thrown in to mix things up as a guest-star Guardian.
Iron Man’s inclusion on the team is a refreshing roster change, as for the first time ever, Tony Stark is the dumbest person in the room. On a galactic level, Tony’s armor — with the emergency roller skates and everything — is essentially Space-Nerf. Incidentally, considering the fact that he’s the only member of the cinematic Avengers who has nuked the Chitauri, Iron Man could make a perfectly organic cameo in “Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2.”
10. PLANET OF THE SYMBIOTES
We finally get a proper origin story to one of one of Marvel’s classic characters, Venom, in this story arc taking place over “Guardians of The Galaxy” #21-23 by Brian Michael Bendis, Valerio Schiti and David Lopez. The symbiote — or Klyntar, as its race is actually known — wrecks havoc on the Alyssa Milano (the Guardians’ spaceship), hopping from Guardian to Guardian in order to return to the planet of the symbiotes. The symbiote finally gets a chance to speak, as Colonel Flash Thompson is promoted to Agent of the Cosmos, and with it, gains a new symbiote.
“Planet of the Symbiotes” is a must-read if you’re even remotely a “Venom” fan, as not only do we finally discover the alien suit’s origins in a salute to everyone who has ever worn a symbiote/Klyntar, from Cletus Kasady to the Tyrannosaurus Rex from “Old Man Logan.” We also get to see cool Venomized (en-Venomed?) versions of The Guardians, with Groot-Venom wielding the amalgam catchphrase, “I am Venom!”
9. WAR OF KINGS, BOOK 2
The “War of Kings” is in full swing in this tale by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, with the Guardians splitting up into two teams, with Rocket’s crew of heavy hitters squaring-off with nearly every major cosmic player in the Marvel Universe. As if a galactic-scale conflict wasn’t a big enough theater of war for the Guardians, Star-Lord’s team goes on a suicide run through time itself to team up the original Guardians of the Galaxy in the year 3000, courtesy of Dr. Doom’s time platform.
There are lots of memorable moments to choose from here, like Mantis controlling Yondu’s living arrow by whistling, Gamora knocking out Karnak — the cosmic Dr. House — with one punch, and both teams dovetailing together to fight Magus. The best moment, however, would have to be Maximus the Mad being the first individual to completely understand and converse with Groot without telepathy. As Maximus explains, “It may sound as if he is simply repeating his name, but that is simply due to the hardened formation of his larynx. You must listen to the sigh of breeze beneath it. The nuance of meaning.” Lesson Learned.
8. GUARDIANS DISASSEMBLED
In “Guardians Disassembled” (“Guardians of The Galaxy” #14-17) by Brian Michael Bendis, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Nick Bradshaw, the Guardians are (you guessed it) disassembled and scattered across the galaxy. The Spartax Empire tries to reclaim their errant prince Peter Quill, the Kree get a chance to dissect Rocket, the Shi’ar Empire puts Drax on trial, the Brood jack up Groot, and Gamora is forced to play horde mode against wave after wave of The Brotherhood of The Badoon. Meanwhile, the newest Guardian, Avengers liaison Agent Venom, has a space-gun shopping trip interrupted by Skrulls.
Even though the Guardians thrive when they’re together, splitting the team up reinforces what makes each character worthy of being a Guardian. We have to give the nod to Drax in particular however, who insists that his space-trial be resolved via combat. You can’t help but laugh when Drax’s sole defense against Gladiator’s highfalutin cosmic litigation is “Gladiator, I challenge you.” When Drax is sentenced to death, The Kree allow him to choose the form of his destruction. Drax’s choice? “I choose… a battle to the death.” Never change, Drax.
7. ORIGINAL SIN
In “Guardians of the Galaxy: Original Sin” by Brian Michael Bendis, Ed McGuinness, and Valerio Schiti, Gamora straps Peter to a chair and makes him finally fill in a major plot hole from “The Thanos Imperative,” a mini-series that was created largely in part to resolve storylines from earlier Guardians stories. Regardless, when the Cancerverse was approximately 60 seconds away from imploding, Star-Lord and Nova stayed behind to ensure that Thanos wouldn’t be able to teleport away. It was an epic moment, severely undercut by Star-Lord inexplicably surviving.
That “approximately sixty seconds” is extended to, like, hours in a bittersweet fight that has Nova and Star-Lord wielding a Cosmic Cube against Thanos in a universe-ending fight that no one will ever witness. Drax is also here, stuck in a universe fighting Thanos and The Revengers for eternity — so, basically Heaven for him. This is a delightful story of death, rebirth and death again, as our 616 characters cannot die in the Cancerverse, but must still contend with its twisted team of Avengers as they play keep away with the Cosmic Cube.
6. WAR OF KINGS, BOOK 1
In “War of Kings, Book 1,” by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, Ronan The Accuser whoops Star-Lord so hard he is sent into the Negative Zone, where he is sent in to negotiate terms of surrender with the inmates who have taken over the Negative Zone prison from “Civil War.” Star-Lord winds up teaming with D-list inmates like Skeleton Ki, Jack Flag and the most literally named villain, Gorilla-Man, to hold off King Blastaar and the Annihilation Wave from seizing control of the prison’s portal to Earth. It’s basically The Battle of Helm’s Deep meets “The Shawshank Redemption”… in space.
Everything in this story is just fun. It’s got Star-Lord beating the prison’s only telepath super hard to send a stronger message to Mantis, blue-collar hero Jack Flag joining the Guardians and constantly lamenting their cosmic nonsense, Skeleton Ki’s reward for betraying his teammates being a poignant pat on the face… it’s all just so… Guardians of the Galaxy. All of these shining moments are but flickers, however, compared to Gorilla-Man (who is literally a guy’s head on a gorilla body) arguing with Star-Lord that his name is too ridiculous to be real.
5. ANNIHILATION – CONQUEST: STARLORD
Though “Annihilation – Conquest: Starlord” (2011) by Keith Giffen and Timothy Green technically predates the formation of the Guardians of the Galaxy, there are too many poignant Guardians moments here not to include it on this list. The premise screams Guardians of The Galaxy — Peter Quill must take on the helm of the Star-Lord for the first time ever (and simultaneously for what should have been his last time ever), as he assembles a squad of galactic misfits comprised of Mantis, Bug, Captain Universe, Deathcry, Rocket Raccoon and Groot for a suicide run.
“Starlord” also serves as the meet-cute of The Guardians of The Galaxy, with Rocket Raccoon teaming up with Groot for the first time. That being said, there are still some kinks that definitely needed to be worked out, as Groot is not only gigantic enough to hold Rocket and a machine gun platform in the palm of his hand, but also talks. The decision to have Groot just say “I am Groot” was the best thing anyone could’ve done for this character.
4. THE TRIAL OF JEAN GREY
In this crossover special with “All-New X-Men” by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli, Jean Grey of the time-displaced original X-Men team is put on space-trial by The Shi’ar Empire for her future crimes as the Phoenix. Our temporal litigation is rusty, but basically the reasoning here was that Jean Grey went on a cosmic rampage as the Phoenix, but was killed (multiple times) before she could be tried. Thus, the Shi’ar believe her temporally-displaced incarnation to be liable for planet-murder. Though Jean Grey is the one on trial, much of the character growth belongs to teen Cyclops, granted the opportunity to reunite with his father Corsair, who, despite reconciling with an adult Scott, is still “long-lost” from teenage Scott’s perspective.
“The Trial of Jean Grey” is a legitimate space drama loaded with teenage drama, gorgeous splash pages and “It’s Tricky” by Run-D.M.C. From Ice-Man explaining that he likes talking to a talking raccoon because it makes him feel like a Disney princess, to Cyclops sniping Gladiator — The Shi’ar Imperial Guard’s answer to Superman — this is not just a great Guardians of The Galaxy tale, but one of the most entertaining Marvel comics of the time.
In Brian Michael Bendis’ and Steve McNiven’s “Guardians of The Galaxy” #4-10, Angela is ripped out of the grim-dark “Spawn” Universe to join The Guardians of the Galaxy. Seeing as how the Guardians are predominantly made up of murderous outcasts, the Heavenly bounty hunter makes for a lovely addition to the team. Seriously, both Rocket and Gamora propose at one point or another. To highlight the grandeur of Angela’s arrival, The Watcher, who has sworn never to interfere, breaks the fourth wall to essentially say, “I’ve seen everything, but I’ve never seen this fight scene before, so it’s probably going to be pretty freaking sweet.”
Tony Stark also repairs his freshest set of Iron Man armor, which is “cute” according to Rocket. Do you understand how humiliating it must be for The Avengers’ resident smart-guy to be talked down to by a talking raccoon? Likewise, despite being the Casanova of The Avengers, Tony is painfully out-sexed by Gamora, the most dangerous woman in the galaxy in every scenario. Even as Tony parts ways, he is denied a shred of dignity, fumbling with his space-phone like some sort of cosmic-toddler.
2. REALM OF KINGS
Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s run on Guardians comes to its epic conclusion in “Realm of Kings,” as we learn The Church of Universal Truth’s master plan — resurrecting Thanos. The Mad Titan has never been madder, being pulled away from his inattentive skull-faced girlfriend, Death. “Realm of Kings” ranks so high for literally going out with a “bang.” Every Guardian has their space-cowboy moment: Rocket gets to use an improbably large gun. Drax goes full destroyer in some of the finest knife fights ever inked before being psionically attacked with his legacy — a spiraling galaxy of all the pain he has ever inflicted upon others.
And yet, even these golden moments are but pieces of space-trash compared to Star-Lord’s most Star-Lord moment ever: sauntering over to “Thanos, baby” to unleash the last wish of a cracked Cosmic Cube at point-blank range with a simple “bang.” We also learn Groot’s full title: “His divine majesty King Groot The 23rd, Monarch of Planet X, Custodian of The Branch Worlds, Ruler of All He Shades, Flora Colossus.”
This first volume of “The Guardians of The Galaxy” by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning combines high-concept space action with down-to-earth dialogue to create what we all know as The Guardians of the Galaxy today. “Legacy” takes a bunch of dangling cosmic threads of “Annihilation: Conquest,” jams them together and says, “Hey, you’re a team now.” Just like “The Avengers,” The Guardians’ formation is kicked off by finding a Captain America frozen in the ice, with Cap in this instance being the Cap (of a sort — he has the shield, anyway) from the future, Major Victory.
This parallel is deliberately set up to demonstrate how different “The Guardians of The Galaxy” are from typical Marvel teams. Peter convinces the team to join via brainwashing while Drax saves the day by murdering everyone just a teensy bit. Even Gamora spends the bulk of the book looking like a pickled Emperor Palpatine. Throw in pre-cog Mantis — the walking foreshadowing — revealing that one of the members will turn traitor, and you’re scrutinizing each member’s every already morally-questionable actions in the perfect introduction to the team, with the one notable exception of Groot being too small to be heard.
What is your favorite Guardians story? Should we have included Rocket’s gorgeous solo book? I am Groot? Let us know in the comments!
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