Spencer: The first couple of times I read through Guardians of the Galaxy 20 I found myself utterly unable to figure out how to approach writing about it. To be honest, I’m still a little flummoxed; there’s plenty of moments within the issue I think are quite well done, but I don’t know if any of them ever coalesce into a cohesive whole. Is this an issue about Nova’s heroic sacrifice, or an issue about how his death has affected the Guardians? Writer Brian Michael Bendis is clearly trying to make it about both, but in the process, I’m not sure he gives either thread the full attention it requires.
Over the last few issues Star-Lord has been telling Gamora the story of how he, Drax, and Thanos survived the Cancerverse — and why Richard Rider, a.k.a. Nova, didn’t. Although the Guardians entered the Cancerverse with the explicit intention of sealing Thanos within, their run-in with the Cancerverse-Avengers — The Revengers — quickly got too dicey for them to stay. Already gravely injured, Richard combines the Nova force with the power of the Cosmic Cube to allow his teammates to escape (accidentally releasing Thanos), killing himself in the process. Richard makes Peter promise not to tell anyone — especially Gamora — what happened, and it’s a promise that nearly causes Gamora to leave the team until she discovers the truth, which, in turn, leads to this most un-Gamora-like reaction:
Still, in true Gamora fashion she looks just as angry as she does sad, struggling against her true feelings. There’s a nice mixture of ambiguity to this scene — is Gamora crying because of the death of her friend Richard, because she discovered Richard’s feelings towards her, or because of the other Guardians’ declarations of how much they care about her? My charitable side wants to say that it’s a clever mixture of all three, but my more cynical side says that I can’t read Gamora in this scene because I just don’t know her well enough. That same thought came to mind when Nova mentions that he just wants Gamora to be happy; it’s a beat I can understand, but more because of Gamora’s characterization in the Guardians movie than anything Bendis has done with her in this title itself.
This fact — along with the fractured focus of the issue — all swerves back around to the one major criticism I’ve had with Bendis’ run on Guardians of the Galaxy as a whole: there’s too little focus on the Guardians themselves. Sure, most of this run is about Star-Lord, and Rocket and Groot come across strong due to their unique personalities, but between the title’s obsession with guest stars (Iron Man, Captain Marvel, Venom, Angela, etc.), crossovers, splitting up the team, and flashbacks, we hardly ever get to see the Guardians work together, and Gamora and Drax are often lost in the shuffle.
So if this arc has all been build-up to that last page of Gamora crying, then I don’t know if Bendis has established her well enough for that page to be effective. Likewise, I have the same issue with Nova’s sacrifice; who is this character? That’s probably unfair, as I’ve only been reading Marvel monthlies for around two years and there are no doubt plenty of people reading Guardians who are invested in Richard, but still, suddenly shifting focus to a character who has had absolutely nothing to do with the last dozen-plus issues comes across like a strange digression.
Fortunately, despite all that Bendis still manages to give Nova a touching send-off.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Bendis excels at humanizing characters in this manner, but still, it’s impressive how quickly he fleshes out Richard here, giving power to his sacrifice even if the attention we’re expected to pay to Nova feels a bit unearned.
This is where I begin to get a bit irked, though. One of my absolute greatest peeves in fiction is characters keeping unnecessary secrets from people they love, especially with the misguided intention of protecting them. This is almost always done to female characters, not men (Skylar White and Iris West are the first two who come to mind, but there are hundreds more), and it just feels infantilizing. Maybe Richard didn’t want to cause Gamora pain, but his unexplained disappearance seems to have caused her just as much pain, compounded by the pain his and Peter’s deception caused. Can we just cool it with all the “for your own good” crap, please?
It also, once again, makes me question the purpose of this issue. Readers have no doubt been wondering what happened to Nova the same as Gamora has, but Richard doesn’t want to be remembered for his death, and this issue almost certainly ensures that it will be the first thing that comes to readers’ minds when they think of Richard Ryder for quite a while. I guess there’s only so much weight we can put on the final wishes of fictional characters, but still, it makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable about the story as a whole.
So while there are plenty of things about this issue I enjoy (including the art of Ed McGuinness and Valerio Schiti, which I unfortunately don’t have the room to address in detail), I still find myself struggling with what any of this has to do with Guardians as a whole, whether it makes for a cohesive issue of Guardians, and who the target audience of this issue even is. I know the amount of people who decided to check out the comics after seeing the Guardians movie has to be pretty small, but I still worry about whether they’d actually get anything out of this title.
Shane, I understand that you have experience with the previous run of Guardians of the Galaxy that the flashbacks here seem to be referencing. Does that give you any more perspective on this issue, or did you run into some of the same problems with it that I had?
Shane: This is not my favorite issue of this series. Let’s just lead with that right out. I did read the previous volume of Guardians of the Galaxy — and all the other books in the Marvel cosmic corner, like Annihilation, Nova, War of Kings, and the rest — pretty religiously. For awhile, they were among the best books Marvel was publishing, and nobody paid attention, so to have Brian Michael Bendis comic along and decide to relaunch the book gave me a lot of mixed feelings. I was glad, certainly, that he was using the team put together by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, because more spotlight on that era can only be great…but Bendis isn’t really my favorite writer, and I was worried whether or not he’d be able to capture the unique feel Abnett and Lanning had put together: high stakes cosmic adventures with plenty of heart thrown in there as well. But I came around, somewhat. The book isn’t as good as it was before, but everyone has a favorite run that gets taken over by a new writer — I’m alright with that. At least Bendis put his trademark charm on the title, and even if it’s not what I had before, it mostly works.
And then this arc came around. There’s a lot of history around this arc that I won’t get into, but here’s what’s relevant: to me, this issue feels exactly like an issue devoted to drawing a line between A and B to explain something away. There are some nice moments, many of which you already outlined, but that’s sort of the tendency of the more formulaic Bendis books: well-written moments strung together within a weaker story structure. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as putting the emphasis on the big moments can lend them a lot of weight, but the problem with this issue is that a new reader — such as yourself — doesn’t really get why these moments are important. You don’t know how terrifying the Cancerverse actually is, and why it was a big deal for our heroes to sacrifice themselves there, moreso than any other alternate universe. You don’t know that after Drax fulfilled his life’s mission to kill Thanos (it didn’t stick), he was finally able to explore his own future, leading to him joining the Guardians of the Galaxy in the first place. You don’t know that Richard Rider is the only person Gamora has ever fallen for, making her seemingly out-of-place grief in this arc all the more significant. And you don’t know that Nova spent years under Abnett and Lanning’s pen transforming himself from an impulsive young hero into a war-hardened champion of the cosmos.
To me, this image is a great tribute to the hero Nova had become: someone who is going to literally rocket in and save his friends, no matter the cost to himself. He’s lost an arm, he’s bleeding out, and he still makes use of his considerable power to rescue Star-Lord and Drax from the Revengers. It’s a great through-line from his early days, when he might not have been brave enough to do this, or had the power to make it there in time. I love how McGuinness presented it. But that’s all dependent on my prior knowledge with the character, and I imagine to a new reader, it might just seem like a cool last-minute rescue. And that’s a large part of my problem with this story arc: because it focuses so much on past events, without having actually built up these plotlines, the momentum of the series has gone off course.
And I could almost be all right with that, but for the fact that…what was the point? Back when Nova and Star-Lord sacrificed themselves at the end of The Thanos Imperative, they were dead. We all got that. And then Star-Lord came back, and Drax came back, and Thanos came back…so there was this mystery. That’s a good thing! There’s a lot they can do with that. And we were teased about the dark deals made between Star-Lord and Thanos, and the terrible secrets that occured in the Cancerverse. The series was building to something. And instead, we got a knock-out brawl between a bunch of characters who’d barely been name-checked in the series before, for the sole purpose of telling us that, yeah, Richard Rider is definitely dead. Had this been done as a single issue, maybe, or even an annual, it wouldn’t have been so bad: an in and out, answer-some-questions, and keep the series going forward. Instead, three issues, and at the worst possible time: not only tying into a major Marvel event, but at the same time as the film. All eyes were on the series, and the creative team made it about as impenetrable as possible. This is a story about another story, for the sake of talking about that story. It’s what Marvel Executive Editor Tom Brevoort claims to hate, and yet, here we are, on one of Marvel’s major titles, with that very same thing.
The issue really isn’t all bad. The camaraderie between Rocket Racoon and Groot on the very first page is a great way to show everyone that the spirit of the series is just as heartwarming and humorous as ever. The Revengers may only show up for two pages, but their dark-magic inspired twists on Marvel’s greatest heroes is still an impressive display of just how twisted the Cancerverse really is. And that image of Thanos emerging from the mists of battle with the cosmic cube in his possession? I have to admit, it gave me a little chill. As an installment in Marvel’s cosmic titles, this issue does a competent job at answering questions that previous stories posed. It’s just as the latest issue of Guardians of the Galaxy, it falls a little short.
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