"The Saga of a...Star-Lord"

Writers/artists: various.

Marvel Preview #4, 11, 14, 15, 18, Marvel Super Special #10, Marvel Spotlight (2nd series) #6, 7, Marvel; Premiere #61 (1976-1981)
(in all issues save Marvel Preview #11, and the three regular comics -- Spotlight and Premiere -- there were other stories in addition to Star-Lord in the issues).

This is an example of something where some time after I posted this, Marvel actually did collect these stories -- and a few others -- as a TPB (to coincide with the movie "Guardians of the Galaxy" in which Star Lord is a character). So I'm too lazy to move my review into my TPB section, but there is an actual collection out there containing these stories...

When I first started doing my pieces about uncollected storylines that would make good TPB collections, it was to highlight -- in my opinion -- great but neglected stories. Then I kind of expanded my theme to include good, rather than necessarily "great" stories, that nonetheless were enjoyable epics, albeit flawed.

And then we come to Star-Lord.

In some ways, Star-Lord isn't really that great. At the same time, there is something appealing/intriguing about it, and he might warrant a collected edition simply because of the character's erratic publishing history. And because of the clear, finite number of stories -- at least in his original incarnation -- meaning a "complete" edition would be do-able. Star-Lord never had his own comic, bouncing around from anthology magazine to try-out comic, his adventures as long as 50 pages and as short as 17, cropping up here and there between 1976 and 1981 (a 1982 special was just a reprint of an earlier story, albeit with a new framing sequence). The next use of the name was over a decade later and applied to a new character for a 1996 mini-series. And though the original Star-Lord has since cropped up more recently in Marvel Comics, I think we can view the 1976-1981 run as, essentially, complete unto itself (and arguably part of the appeal of the original run was that, unlike now, he didn't really seem to be part of the mainstream Marvel Universe!).

Like so many peripheral characters, Star-Lord was a bit of a creative orphan, being adopted by various writers as their own, then passed on to someone else.

Visually, the series boasted some interesting credits. The first story was drawn by Steve Gan, an artist with a relatively brief comics career (that I'm aware of), yet nonetheless, is a nice, solid, old school artist, showing flashes of even such talents as Al Williamson in his style, and takes well to the grey shades of the black & white art. The next story -- and the character's longest -- was drawn by John Byrne, paired with scripter Chris Claremont, the two having already worked together on a few comics, but this being before their seminal run on the X-Men, and with Byrne teamed, perhaps for the first time, with inker Terry Austin. Definitely a Dream Team combo. Being a huge Claremont/Byrne/Austin fan from their X-Men work, at the time I would've loved to have got this. Unfortunately, it was many years later before I finally tracked down a copy, long after my youthful enthusiasm for those gentlemen had waned (I still respect their better work, but am more aware of their shortcomings). Carmine Infantino drew the next couple of appearances, and though I'm of mixed feelings toward Infantino, he was also an industry pioneer in his day, and well suited to the sci-fi milieu. Bill Sienkiewicz drew the next tale, in his Neal Adams phase, making for some nice, solid work. Perhaps the most visually striking art came from Gene Colan paired with Tom Palmer on the Marvel Super Special story -- the character's first colour adventure, boasting not only Colan's stylish visuals (and some big, sprawling panels) but rich, almost painted hues. The three regular, colour comic appearances are all drawn by Tom Sutton, an artist whose style can vary a bit, but here delivers some nice, almost dreamlike art. The result is a series boasting more than credible visuals throughout, in a variety of styles.

The character made his first appearance in Marvel Preview #4, a black & white magazine-size comic published outside the Comics Code, allowing for some slight mature content. All the magazine stories were nominally outside the Comics Code, but not so you'd notice by modern standards, save Marvel Preview #14, which actually featured some female toplessness (not that Carmine Infantino would necessarily top my list as a Good Girl artist).

Anyway, in "First House: Earth!" (Marvel Preview #4), the 33 page Star-Lord tale was paired with a fantasy story, both testing the waters for future adventures -- but only Start-Lord got those later adventures. Created by Steve Englehart, it's a brooding, talky story, at once cliched, yet also enigmatic, of a modern earth boy, Peter Quill, of mysterious conception whose mother is killed by aliens. Vowing revenge, he becomes a driven, bitter man, joining earth's space program while alienating those around him -- and coming to a dead end realization that earth's paltry space program will bring him no closer to tracking down intergalactic aliens (that no one even believes exist). Then, just as he is about to give up on his dream, a mysterious presence appears to earth, offering to elevate an earthman to the lofty position of a Star-Lord -- Peter isn't selected by the earth committee, but that doesn't stop him from taking matters into his own hands, interfering with the process and getting himself whisked away to a meeting with the mysterious Master of the Sun. After giving Peter a taste of vengeance (possibly an illusion) and offering him a choice between a life of bitterness and revenge...or of pursuing a higher, more noble calling, Peter accepts the latter and becomes...Star-Lord.

With allusions to astrology and celestial destiny (and echoes of DC's Green Lantern), and with clearly a lot of questions left unanswered, this was meant to be an opening story in a series of adventures, as Peter would slowly leave behind his bitter past and achieve cosmic enlightenment (hence why the story is titled "First House: Earth", presumably the second would be "Second House", etc.).

Or something like that. 'Cause Englehart left Marvel shortly after that, and the property was left in limbo.

Until Chris Claremont took an interest and scripted the character's next three adventures. He tried to answer some dangling questions with his first go-round with the property in Marvel Preview #11 (called simply "Star-Lord") in a much splashier, Star Wars-style space opera of intergalactic empires. A bit of trivia -- Claremont introduces his tale by citing the works of Robert Heinlein he had read in his youth...which led Marvel's marketing department to plaster Heinlein's name on the cover...something which Heinlein (and his lawyers) took exception to, and Marvel quickly re-issued the comic without the Heinlein blurb: it wasn't that Heinlein was accusing Claremont of plagirism, it's just that he didn't like his name being used to sell a story he had nothing to do with.

Anyway, Claremont's story ignored the astrology angle (which, as an editorial comment noted, only Englehart probably understood) but explained the mystery of Peter's birth and why aliens killed his mother. He also gave Peter a sentient spaceship, with a female persona and a seeming more than platonic interest in Peter. A theme explored more explicitly in the next story, "Sandsong", where they crash on a planet and "Ship" takes on a female form to help Peter (Peter initially unaware it's "Ship") -- a sexual sub-text largely forgotten in later stories. Being his creation, presumably Claremont really liked "Ship" because in his third (and final) tale, "A Matter of Necessity", her origin is fully explained.

Then Claremont seemed to lose interest...and Doug Moench would be the next writer to adopt the character as his own, writing his next (and last) Marvel Preview appearance ("Less Than Human"), his first colour appearance ("World in a Bottle"), in the lavishly coloured, magazine-sized Marvel Super Special, and finally his three regular colour comic appearances. The first Marvel Spotlight appearance, while heavily recapping Star-Lord's origin, also attempted to answer any dangling questions still lingering from the origin (such as who the mysterious Master of the Sun was, and why he refers to "a" Star-Lord when Peter seems to be the only one) -- which at least allows the saga to feel more satisfying, rather than if questions were forever left ignored and unanswered (not that the answers Moench, or Claremont before him, offer entirely seem like what Englehart was going for).

And the brutal truth is...Star-Lord just was never that great a property (there was even some inconsistency as to whether he was Starlord, or Star-Lord). Few of the stories are particularly memorable, and even with the extra pages of most of them, few really seem that well developed or complex (a few, I'll admit, I wasn't even quite sure what was supposed to have happened!). Some of the character's last stories stand out most in my mind such as the dreamlike fable, "Tears for the World Called Heaven" (from Marvel Spotlight #7), and "Planet Story" (from Marvel Premiere #61) as well as Englehart's original tale (if only with its hints of promises unfullfilled). But in the longest, most epic tale (MP #11), there's very little attempt to develop characters beyond cliches or foreshadow plot points -- we learn there is a coup plotted in a galactic empire...almost before we even know there was an empire, let alone who the players are. Peter Quill himself is too often a non-descript character (and with three scripters, inconsistent, too, such as Claremont having him slide into hardboiled patois, like calling "Ship" "babe"!) -- even his abilities, flight and a gun that fires the four elements, seem bland, hardly warranting such a lofty label as "Starlord".

Star-Lord puts one in mind of Marvel's Captain Marvel and one wonders if Englehart was thinking of that character, for whom he had earlier written. Particularly as Captain Marvel's character growth over many issues also involved being an embittered man who then achieves a kind of spiritual awakening and cosmic enlightenment. But Marvel, with his Cosmic Awareness, at least more convincingly seemed like he had achieved some grandeur -- Starlord's main gift is that he can understand a variety of languages!

Generally they drop the embittered persona Englehart introduced (though in "Sandsong", Claremont alludes to Peter having trouble with relationships), without really substituting anything in its stead. Indeed, that story focuses almost more on "Ship" than Peter...kind of odd given it's only Star-Lord's third adventure! Half the stories seem to involve some aspect that is meant to "re-define" the character. Yet, ironically, those character changes...often tend to be more theory than fact. In the intro to Marvel Preview #18, editor Rick Marschall even brags the story allows Peter to shake off his "space sissy" image -- not a good sign when even the editor seems contemptuous of the character (and yet then, in his intro to the later Marvel Super Special, Marschall waxes on about how "sensitive" the story is). And though many of the stories involve Peter meeting up with new characters...few of them really stick in your mind, either.

There also seems to be an oddly right wing aspect to the series, too. As mentioned, Englehart's original tale is about a bitter anti-hero who, by the end, sets out on the path to inner peace and nobility. Later stories have Peter talking about a reluctance to kill...yet in most issues...he does kill, getting into do or die conflicts! Yet a bunch of the stories are basically wrapped around the idea of the pacifist Peter having to "man up" and realize sometimes you just got kill 'em. It's kind of creepy, actually. I mean, if the series really was about a pacifist, and then they decided to do a "very special" story where he is forced to renounce those values, okay. But as I say, Peter never seriously comes across as a pacifist, getting into a duel-to-the-death in his very second adventure. So basically a lot of the stories set up a false dilemma. And given that most of us in our daily lives are unlikely to find ourselves in a situation where we "need" to kill someone, to wrap story after story around this "message" can seem a bit...well, I said "creepy", didn't I?

So why did Star-Lord keep getting try-outs, why did both Claremont and Moench seem eager to adopt him -- and why am I writing about him now? Well, for one thing, they're well drawn and there is a moodiness to some of the stories. As mentioned, many are longer than the average regular comic, and though the plots and characterization don't often justify the length, it does allow the stories to unfurl in a more relaxed way.

As well, I think the big appeal was simply the science fiction angle. In a medium dominated by super-heroes, Star-Lord was an unusual property -- not unheard of (particularly in the mid-1970s, though many of the SF comics then were post-apocalyptic series rather than cosmos spanning, Star Trek/Star Wars hybrids). With no supporting cast save "Ship", and Star-Lord just tooling about the galaxy, it allowed for an anything goes approach to his tales. Englehart's original was a brooding, near future tale. While MP #11 was a Star Wars/pulp fiction adventure, while others had aspects of a Star Trek episode of Star-Lord coming upon planets or space ships, while story's like "Sandsong" have a definite, SF short story feel, where it's as much about the characters surviving an alien environment as it is about fighting a sentient threat, and other stories even had a bit of a dreamlike/fantasy vibe. And though none of these tales were alien to mainstream super hero comics, with Captain Marvel, The Fantastic Four, Superman and others using such plots from time to time -- there probably wasn't another character where that was the bread-and-butter of the series.

And it's this science fiction flavour that maybe makes the character linger in your mind, mixing one part super hero with two parts science fiction. And why, if collected in a single volume, the short comings of individual stories might be forgiven sandwiched between the others and where, bit by bit, the mysteries of his origin are answered...albeit by later creators.