Thinking about the Evolution of Marvel Comics’ Star-Lord
I’ve been doing a bit of thinking lately about puzzling characters in comics and how they change over time. In the last couple of weeks, I decided to reread they comics I’ve got around with the Marvel Universe’ Peter Quill, also known as the Star-Lord.
Now, for those who’ve been living in a hole for the last decade, or for those who only know Peter Quill from the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, Peter Quill made his first appearance in 1976 in Marvel Preview #4 (a black and white magazine), under the creators Steve Englehart and Steve Gan, who envisioned him as an unpleasant, introverted jerk who would go on to grow into a cosmic hero.
I love that arc, and wonder how much it was kicking around then. Around the same time, Jim Starlin wanted to do something similar with Captain Marvel, but Marvel didn’t give him the character, so he did it with Adam Warlock (see my thoughts on that in my series on Adam Warlock I, II, III).
Star-Lord didn’t reappear until Marvel Preview #11, this time under Chris Claremont, John Byrne and Terry Austin (the team that would later moved over to Uncanny X-Men from #108 to #143, famously creating the Hellfire Club, the Phoenix Saga, and the Days of Future Past).
Under Claremont, he wasn’t the introverted jerk, but a straight-faced loner, traveling the space-ways. I haven’t read the Heinlein juveniles, but it sounds like Claremont was aiming for that kind of bland square-jawed adventurer, and that persona stuck in Star-Lord’s appearances through the 70s and 80s.
Star-Lord never quite hit the big leagues (nor even the mid-leagues) in the 20th century. But his star started rising (sorry for the pun) when he was brought back in 2004. The reimagining of Star-Lord was so drastic that Marvel said that the pre-2004 Star-Lord stories occurred in a different universe.
The sass-talking, irresponsible ne’er-do-well Star-Lord of the 21st century was a new person, very funny, very flawed, and he kept on coming back in bigger and bigger roles.
He tangled with Thanos (2004), appeared in Annihilation (2006), and finally in two Guardians of the Galaxy series (2008 and 2012) before his own solo Legendary Star-Lord book (2014). And he obviously starred in the 2014 film Guardians of the Galaxy, where he became known to a much larger audience.
So what made this last incarnation so popular? Is it just sass-talking? I doubt it, otherwise every faux-rebel in comics would have their own comic series and we know that ain’t so. I think that a constellation of changes added up to something bigger.
First, I think that grimdark is on the downswing. The gritty anti-hero that proved so successful over the last 30 years has changed the tone of comics. Frank Miller’s take on Daredevil in 1980, the Claremont/Miller darkening of Wolverine in the 1982 solo limited series, followed by Miller’s 1986 The Dark Knight Returns all served to wave dollar signs in front of publishers.
Grit and noir were in. The 1980s became the decade of The Killing Joke and the killing of a Robin. In various ways, Marvel and DC became far more serious, and grim. And that style sold. But we’re seeing some changes.
I recently saw a blog by a literary agent saying he doesn’t want any more grimdark, explaining that he thinks it’s on its way out and he wants to be ahead of the curve. Marvel has been leading the curve. They’ve got a lot of titles with funny in them. And their movies are serious and funny and they are doing well.
Mark Waid recently pulled Daredevil out of his three-decade grim-soak and fans are loving the brighter Daredevil. I think that the new Star-Lord fits this move away from dark and serious.
Second, Star-Lord isn’t alone this time around. He’s now the leader of a wacked-out band of flawed heroes. Leader I think is a loose term, because it seems that he follows as often as he leads, but his heart is in the right place.
And he’s got a girlfriend who fits the new him better: Kitty Pryde of the X-Men. This social context, with whom he’s never on the same wavelength just bubbles with dramatic low-stakes conflict that’s also fun.
Third, Star-Lord has some really serious villains with cosmic scope. When I reread his appearance in Marvel Premiere #11, it was planetary in scope and lots of people were at stake, but there was something missing.
It was Star Wars, a year before Star Wars, and without the Force. Compare that to his current foes like Thanos and the leaders of the Shi’ar and Kree Empires. These are heavy, heavy baddies with deep and complex roots into the Marvel Universe. What these bad guys do matters.
Last, I think that Peter Quill’s flaws really are center stage. They are plot-driving, character-messing and exasperatingly fun to watch, an endless mine of FUBARs for creators to mine. This is so much the case that Marvel launched a Year One Star-Lord series, starring an 18-year old Peter Quill, following his dream of getting into space.
His potential greatness is on display, as well as a less mature set of flaws. This is not the Hal Jordan or Carol Danvers or Steve Rogers origin of the paragon who works hard, studies and gets to be the best to get their dream. Peter works as a janitor at the human colonization project and sneaks time in the simulator at night, and in the end, he gets into space (and more trouble) by stealing a Kree ship that was being studied.
I think Marvel struck gold with this character, and that’s why I wanted to give a bit of a think about him. If you have alternate views, let me know!
Derek Künsken writes science fiction and fantasy in Gatineau, Québec. He tweets from @derekkunsken.
Back in those days it seemed Steve Englehart could do no wrong-still consider his Avengers work a highlight of the run. It wasl also the days when I could afford to ready everything DC and Marvel put out and even that one year wonder Atlas comics. I found Marvel Preview an uneven read over the course of the series. yes Peter Quill was a hard character to root for so was looking forward to the journey. The Claremont/Bryne revival was a fun read but was slightly annoyed Englehart’s beginnings were ignored. I think by then -could be wrong-he had moved on to DC for that magnificent Detective Comics run #469-475. That’s the Joke I like.
I tend to disagree about Jim Starlin not being able to do things with Captain Marvel. He really changed things around for a character that just couldn’t keep a premise going (though I have an affection for the original green uniform and Colan’s run). Warlock of course was a blazing sun in comparison but -to me- less connected to Earth unlike Marv-Vell saddled as he was with Rick Jones.
As to Peter Quill I jumped back on board after the movie having ignored the Guardians for years-cost of comics meant couldn’t read everything and their last 60 some issue run was an alternate universe. Enjoying this ride and someday when the price drops will work backwards on Annihilation and the other items. Besides I read Bug was a Guardian for a bit and I have all the Micronauts from marvel and others. Look up issue #10 of the original Marvel run you’ll see a letter from yours truly Richard Marvin there – one of the few times I ever made a letter column. 🙂
I love your Marvel posts.
I’m about halfway through the Abnett/Lanning Marvel Cosmic stuff. Its very good, but i enjoy the cosmic side of marvel a lot. Marvel Cosmic supposedly gets a lot worse after Abnett leaves, so we’ll see how it holds up.
Sadly Marvel Unlimited only has marvel preview #11. (it does have all of the Warlock series though)
I don’t know how to feel about digital Allard, but Marvel Unlimited gives you access to most (if not all) of that material for just $5.75 a month.
I appreciate the advice on digital. For me frankly it always comes down to two things-a stretched income and a preference for having the comics in hand. If this helps all the early Star-Lord stories were reprinted in a trade titled Star-Lord: Guardian of the Galaxy (2014). I DO read OLD Quality Blackhawk comics on the internet for free on a site called Comics Plus devoted to in public domain comics as well as some newspaper strips and pulps.
Hey Glenn! Thanks so much for the kind words and the digital boost. I love paper comics, as much as I love paper books, but I’ve been migrating to audio books and digital comics, just for reasons of space and maintenance.
Hey Richard! I checked out those public domain comics maybe 8 years ago, when Dynamite Comics was reviving so many of them successfully. And I hear you on the costs. When I was a kid, I discovered I could buy twice as much second-hand, so my collection is rich in once-owned 1970s comics.
I picked up that Star-Lord trade. It was … kind of weird, just because there were so many slightly-different takes on the character, none of whom had actually stuck around for very long until the Guardians of the Galaxy started to take off with Abnett & then Bendis.
I do still have my original copies of the Marvel Spotlight issues that had Star-Lord in them.
Thank you for your response Derek. I have some small thoughts on your character changes over the years. I submit Killraven as one. I have the reprint volume of the Amazing Adventures series and the final Graphic novel from MacGregor and waited years (still waiting) for him to be allowed to more properly finish the saga. Instead Marvel released that update mini a few years back and shoehorned him into the Avengers. It was cool seeing the Marvel Team-Up appearance with Spider-Man referenced awhile back. The other would be Shull the Slayer another 70s title when Marvel truly seemed to be in a we’ll try anything mode. Being ex-military and from the Viet Nam era I had a fondness for his troubles though in real life I missed being sent to Viet Nam by the Air Force by two weeks–short story but true. He changed a lot when years and years went by until he finally showed up again pretty much unrecognizable in a Hawkeye series when he gets one that is.
Hey Richard! I *loved* Killraven and bought the entire Amazing Adventures run for 10-15 cents each because “The Paperback Shop” marked everything half the cover price and while I was in grade 7, someone was unloading piles and piles of almost-famous comics from the 1970s. I should really reread them and do a blog post. I’m not sure I liked his later appearances, though. There was something innocent and isolated about him – bringing him into contact with the Marvel Universe never felt quite right to me…
I cleared out a whole lot of my own comics collection, but I held onto those two Marvel spotlights with Star Lord myself. I’d always enjoyed them and wondered why I hadn’t seen the character before, or after.
He was very different from the new version of course, but I didn’t think of him as a square jawed hero, either. There was something sad and forthright about him that felt very different to me. I wonder if I’d see that if I’d re-read them now, or if I was just projecting? I loved that his only friend was the AI ship, and that he wasn’t wise-cracking, or grim. He just seemed sad and wise and driven.