Cosmic comic book characters, like the Guardians of the Galaxy, may be the geekiest kinds of characters: a whole pocket of sci fi characters within the greater context of a comic book universe — like Lord of the Rings, with its own complexity, has a secret pocket full of Star Wars. Still, it is a rich vein of fantastic characters who remain unjustifiably obscure. This richness in Marvel’s cosmic comics is mostly thanks to Jim Starlin who created many of the characters including four of my favorites, Drax the Destroyer, Gamora, Adam Warlock and Thanos. Thanos gave perhaps the greatest exposure this geekdom-within-geekdom has ever received: he was seen for a few seconds by millions in the closing credits of The Avengers movie, and those in the theater who knew who this character was were inevitably screaming with joy: joy in the promise of future spectacle in later Thanos appearances – but joy more so, I would argue, that one of the greatest characters ever created was finally coming to the big screen. And character, despite assumptions to the contrary, is the greatest value in comics, the feature by which a title lives or dies and the reason why movies can never hope to live up to their source – the reason why we geeks attach ourselves so passionately for so many years to something outsiders fail to understand.
Guardians of the Galaxy, in particular, has gotten a lot of attention lately with preparation for the movie to come out next year – to centrally feature Drax and Gamora, and also Thanos, according to rumor – and the new comic of the same title timed to coincide with this hoopla. The comic Guardians of the Galaxy (vol. 3), written by Brian Michael Bendis with pencils by Steve McNiven, is on one level a great over-the-top space opera in the tradition of anything written by Starlin in his 70s or 90s golden age. If you’re a comic book fan, it’s hard to not appreciate the beautiful Steve McNiven pencils, the snappy dialogue, and rompy space battles. The problem is it’s heavy on the spectacle, the area Aristotle deemed least significant and the area non-fans assume is the sole composition of comic books. I have no problem with spectacle – why deprive anything of spectacle when it works well? – but spectacle by nature is short lived. It provides a temporary burst of sensation which is great in its own right but simply isn’t built to hold the weight of years. It feels dirty to agree with Aristotle on anything, but I’d say spectacle is only of less importance in terms of duration, not any false objectivity.
What non-fans just don’t get is that comics are, by nature, long term storytelling forms. I’ve been a fan of Adam Warlock, the Avengers, and so on for over twenty years, and The Avengers comics have been in steady publication for fifty years. If comics really were built only on spectacle, the repetitiveness would burn them out in only a few years – how many times can Ultron threaten to destroy all humanity before it gets tedious? No, comics are built on characters – a story element historically demonstrated to be the surest anchor for long term storytelling
To say the Bendis Guardians of the Galaxy is weak in this area is a purely selfish need: I want Guardians of the Galaxy to last, but Bendis so far hasn’t done much to help the characters transcend spectacle. Star Lord, the leader, seems only like a bland blonde hero with poorly defined daddy issues that don’t yet add together to make him interesting. He has been made blonde from his former brunette appearance perhaps to indicate he’s lazily placed on a spectrum between two other blonde heroes, Captain America and Hawkeye – kinda good and moral like Cap but kinda rebellious and snarky like Hawkeye. Rocket Raccoon, Star Lord’s gun-toting raccoon sidekick, is so far only a one-liner machine, and one liners are great, but if any relationship is based merely on the cleverness of one liners, it’s unlikely to be lifelong, only a fling where you look back in later years and say, “Whatever happened to that raccoon I used to be friends with? He was funny.” Then there’s Groot who is a tree, so, well, he’s a tree. He punches stuff like a tree would punch stuff, and that’s cool – I’d be the last one to reject a story element that awesome – but at the end of the day, he’s a tree and not much else. I want to love them more than this. These three extraordinarily obscure characters – obscure even by cosmic comic standards – were resurrected several years ago in Annihilation: Conquest, seemingly only as a fulfillment of some trivia challenge, so despite my desire for them to work well as characters, there isn’t much history to demonstrate that this is possible. The title has other characters – Iron Man, Gamora, and Drax the Destroyer – who do have an established history of character development, but Bendis has so far squandered the resources. The banter between Iron Man and Rocket, the most entertaining aspect of the first few issues, has given only little hints at possible character development. It’s like Daniel Day Lewis cast in a Kevin Smith movie; you know he’s just waiting to do something amazing, but those at the helm just don’t have the goods to make that happen.
Perhaps the reason I mourn the lack of character development in Guardians of the Galaxy so far is because Jim Starlin is so good at it, and the title is so similar to a title from twenty years earlier, Starlin’s Warlock and the Infinity Watch. Comparing both titles on the surface, the earlier title may seem a lot cheesier – perhaps because the McNiven pencils seem so slick or maybe it’s the 90s haircuts – but if you look at Starlin’s run on Warlock and the Infinity Watch, you can see how much time Starlin spends on character development, whole issues just exploring who some of these characters are. The essential set up of the title gets more complicated than any non-fan ever needs to tackle, but essentially the five main characters are given Infinity Gems, the most powerful weapons in the universe which made the villain Thanos essentially God – as seen in Starlin’s Infinity Gauntlet, a story generally agreed by comic book fans to be one of the greatest of all time – and the first issue of Warlock and the Infinity Watch is spent with two cosmic entities arguing about whether these characters are even worthy. The beginning is not spent on what will make these characters cool and fun, Starlin doesn’t start with a big space battle like Bendis – he starts with what will make these characters worthy of interest, lovable but in that frustrating love/hate that keeps us hooked forever like nerd heroin.
Starlin is skilled at using a feature of all great characters we love: paradox. The technique he uses to make these characters complex and fascinating is deceptively simple when taken apart, and it can seem like a crutch or gimmick at times, but it’s remarkably effective. Making paradox work for characters is not as simple as giving a character two opposites to play out. It must be organic paradox, irreconcilable opposites that seem natural and unforced, to truly have the long term effect necessary. Starlin sets aside whole issues in his run of Infinity Watch exploring the organic paradox of individual characters. Gamora, for example, gets the solo in issue nine. She is the adopted daughter of Thanos – and Thanos has perhaps the most extraordinarily complicated Starlin paradox, but more on him in a moment – who trains her as an assassin from a young age, merely a tool he uses to complete a bigger plan. In a flashback in Infinity Watch, Starlin tells how Gamora is gang raped and brutally beaten at a young age; Thanos finds her nearly dead, and he reconstructs her body to be nearly invulnerable. He then slaughters all of her attackers. Her organic paradox is a merciless coldness when assassinating targets, but this is driven by a deep vulnerability and fear. Likewise, she’s prone to seek love from a strong male, as demonstrated by the arc-long infatuation she has for Adam Warlock, the leader of the team, who is nearly as distant and manipulative as Thanos while showing the same sort of paradoxical kindness. Starlin shows that no hero is completely kind, no villain is completely heartless, and an assassin’s coldness has an emotional source.
This sort of paradox stimulates readers in part because it is so essentially relatable – it’s too human to be torn apart or undermined as it might in abstract logic – which leads to an effective long term anchor since the more deeply we relate to a character, the more loyal we become. Fitzgerald called believing two opposite thing the mark of genius, but it’s the mark of humanity (of course Fitzgerald would consider his own humanity the mark of genius). But I wouldn’t attribute this solely to the that old Aristotilean inaccuracy “the human condition” – to claim all humans know what it feels like to be gang raped and become cold because of it is not only inaccurate but belittling – so I’ll add a factor which I consider much more accurate: paradox works so well because the act of reading itself is paradoxical. Gamora’s infatuation with Adam Warlock and her paradoxical resistance to such feelings is a perfect parallel of this: to welcome the vulnerability of becoming the other while simultaneously resisting it is the essential condition of the reading experience. Paradox hooks us so hard because of the guilt and delight of finding in these characters precisely what we are doing. This is why spectacle has such short term effect: not because it’s shallow, whatever that means, but its distilled stimulation fails to ignite the multiplicity of stimulation that comes with both wanting and resisting the beautiful awfulness of becoming another person. This likewise disproves the Aristotelian catharsis nonsense: if the value in a text comes from reconciling tension and releasing emotion, these comic book characters really would be as valueless as some make them until their stories come to an end. I argue instead that the tension of the paradoxical itself is the source of value and overcoming that tension is merely the mark of the end, not the purpose or goal. The relative effectiveness of a comic book story that retains tension and one that releases tension is clearest place to demonstrate this.
So to frame Gamora as merely a kick ass assassin – as she seems too often in the Bendis version with the exception of some brief references to “daddy issues” and some perfect expressions rendered by McNiven indicating the multiplicity of what’s hidden behind her eyes – then it’s fun for a while to watch her kick ass until she gets boring because all she’s doing is kicking ass as a kick ass assassin; she’s merely a cold killer who remains cold from no emotional resonance, merely as a function of the story.
In fairness, Starlin struggled with characterization of Drax as he seemed too married to Drax as a joke. The organic paradox that defines Drax is that he was created to kill Thanos and has that monomaniacal urge built deep within him, but at the same time he is a caring father – he was only a normal dad named Arthur Douglas before Thanos killed him and threatened his daughter Heather’s life, and Kronos resurrected him to be his anti-Thanos weapon. In Infinity Watch, Drax is suffering the after effects of an attack by his daughter – who has become the semi-evil super-psychic Moondragon in one of those Starlin-esque paradoxes – who has wiped his mind in the fight that ended his comic book presence back in the 70’s. During his 90’s resurrection, he appears merely as a childish doofus whose banter with Pip the Troll (the Infinity Watch equivalent of Rocket Raccoon) functions like the entertaining but forgettable dialogue between Rocket and Iron Man. Drax really reaches his potential as a great character with Keith Giffen’s depiction in the first Annihilation as once again the killing machine with echoes of his former identity as normal father pulling him in opposite directions. So far Bendis has put Drax firmly in the background which is, by far, the biggest waste of the series.
On the other hand, a potential flaw in my argument might be that Warlock and the Infinity Watch did not last long, around three years, a short run for a comic. There can be various reasons for this. Perhaps the characters were too obscure and failed to gain a more mainstream interest, or perhaps Starlin spent too much time on character and not enough on spectacle. Another problem with the title that still affects smaller titles today, like the most recent incarnation of Guardians of the Galaxy to end – volume 2 which only ended in 2010 – is getting too caught up in major event stories. The Avengers can survive a major event story like Infinity Gauntlet because they have a well-established identity separate from the story, but Infinity Watch was born out of Infinity Gauntlet and lasted through Infinity War, Infinity Crusade, and Blood and Thunder. Without a separate identity, the end of events like these feels like closure for the whole series. Thus, the previous Guardians of the Galaxy was born out of Annihilation: Conquest and ended with The Thanos Imperative. This worries me about the role of present Guardians of the Galaxy in the upcoming Infinity event, but it’s too early to know.
More importantly, what Infinity Watch was missing and the current incarnation of Guardians of the Galaxy is missing – and one key to long term character love and what I’m more desperate to have in some of the lesser known comic book teams that I and very few others love like The Defenders, The Slingers, certain incarnations of The Thunderbolts – is a really good archenemy. Archenemies make all these elements pop in just the right way: they help us fall in love with the good guys by contrasting or reflecting their paradoxical qualities and are quite frequently fascinating paradoxical characters themselves. The Avengers archenemy Ultron isn’t just a one dimensional robot; he’s obsessed with the least robotic and most human element: family. This functions to highlight the contradictions of humanity inherent in the human characters and the way family creates the most dysfunction and most complex emotion and deepest tie between them. Infinity Watch starts with one of Adam Warlock’s old archenemies, the Man-Beast, and these first few issues present the most effective balance of elements because the story is a character study of Warlock as communicated through the necessary spectacle of comics as facilitated by Man-Beast’s master plan. Starlin most often accomplishes character development through flashback and contrasting history to present state – sort of the Lost method of storytelling – which is a simple way to do it but can become a crutch. That first story of the Man-Beast works even better than merely contrasting flashbacks because he highlights all the contradictions of Warlock’s past but does it through tension in the present moment. Warlock is an inhuman construct who struggles to be human, as reflected by Man-Beast’s inhumanity. He has had the messiah role thrust upon him without the requisite wisdom that would allow him to know how to deal with hard decisions like having to kill the Man-Beast – as he has in their previous encounter, but death is not permanent in comics, so Man-Beast of course would come back – and this guilt over killing Man-Beast the first time resonates in the present moment. This messiah role also leads him to be controlling and manipulative (and this is reflected most effectively in his other archenemy, the Magus, a dark mirror of Warlock who uses the messiah role to gather an army of worshipers) though Warlock always strives to be compassionate and to understand what human compassion means. His soul gem allows him to steal the souls of others, something he finds horrific, but he secretly wishes only to rest within the paradise of the soul gem without the responsibility of being a hero. The Man-Beast, by stealing the soul gem, highlights the complexity of choices that are far from black and white (black and white choices don’t maintain interest long and aren’t, despite the assumptions of outsiders, the core of comic book storytelling). But Man-Beast is only Warlock’s archenemy and doesn’t manage to maintain that status for the whole team; the perfect balance of those first six issues disappears as self-defining story arch is subsumed by a mix of character study and event build up.
Thanos can be considered the archenemy of the group as he has traditionally been the archenemy of all the heroes in the Marvel Universe but most often the cosmic ones, but in some ways Starlin is the victim of his own success in this case. He made Thanos too complex and too contradictory to actually function as a villain for his title. Thanos is really an ally of the Infinity Watch, but it’s hard to even call him hero. Here’s how Thanos is the ultimate Starlin-esque paradox: Thanos first grew to hate existence because of bitterness over his grotesque appearance and his exile from his community. First motivations: vanity and insecurity. He then sought to destroy his people but became fixated by his own scientific inquiry into the mechanism of the universe, often pursuing scientific inquiry for its own sake. Second motivation: curiosity about existence. Through his inquiry into the nature of existence, he finds and falls in love with the embodiment of death. Third motivation: love. So he seeks means (scientific inquiry) to increase his power and control over others (vanity) through technology/mysticism/cosmic power objects/etc. to ultimately slaughter masses to win Mistress Death’s attention (love) though, as a conceptual entity, she can never give him her love (insecurity). Many fans consider the greatest Thanos moment (and therefore, I would argue, the greatest moment in comics) when Captain America in The Infinity Gauntlet stands up to Thanos, who has become capital-G-God and dismissively bitch slaps him to death (and Captain America’s complexity comes from moral certainty meeting morally uncertain scenarios – for example, stupidly facing ridiculously overwhelming odds and a bitch-slap-death based on a moral ideal that has failed in the face of evil’s clear, decisive win in this case) but my favorite part of The Infinity Gauntlet is Thanos losing godhood – allowing in his vanity a blindspot which leads to Nebula, his granddaughter who has been tortured throughout the story, to steal the gauntlet, the source of his power – and having to join the heroes to stop Nebula. Warlock and Thanos discuss in great detail later how this is all a result of his insecurity: because he believes he doesn’t deserve to be God, he subconsciously leaves this blindspot that leads to his own failure. So Thanos is such a great villain he could only beat himself. My favorite Thanos moment, however, is in Annihilation when Drax, finally succeeds in the directive of his new birth, killing Thanos by thrusting his hand through Thanos’ back, clutching Thanos’ heart in his fist. Thanos looks down at his own heart and says, “Interesting.” That’s such a perfect moment because it sums up what’s so great about Thanos in one image (and what’s so great about Drax since he is trying to protect his daughter at that moment). “Interesting” is his scientific inquiry but also metaphorically witnessing that heart that motivated him so long in his love for Death. It’s also arrogantly demeaning to Drax whose most badass moment only elicits this dismissive response. All the complexity of personal history can be wrapped up in a perfect image and a simple word like “interesting.” While Starlin’s flashback contrasts are gimmicky crutches that work fanatastically, that moment shows it only takes one panel.
Thanos is the main villain of the upcoming Infinity event for which Guardians of the Galaxy will be central, and this is a positive development since Thanos improves everything, but this does little to serve Guardians of the Galaxy as Thanos won’t likely stick around long after the story is over. If they hope for any longevity, Bendis needs to tie delight in the title to more than jokes and alien battles. He has no shortage of potential material, as Starlin demonstrated for years; he simply needs to know how to use it.