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.