By Dan Spinelli

“I Shall Make You a Star-Lord”

Before those Footloose jokes, before Chris Pratt, before Annihilation, there was just a 1975 black-and-white comic book titled Marvel Preview Presents #4. That inauspicious title is what introduced Star-Lord to readers. Writer Steve Englehart had grand plans for the character, which he laid out in a lengthy prose prologue to the issue, touching on issues as strange as astrology and the origin of cosmology. “Whew! Whatever did happen to simple shoot-’em-ups?” Englehart cracked at the essay’s close.

In that first appearance from Englehart and artist Steve Gan, Peter Jason Quill was transparently unlikable, as vindictive and ambitious as any of superhero comics’ worst villains. That was all by design, down to even his name. “‘Peter’ and ‘Quill’ both mean ‘dick,’” Englehart later told writer Mike Luoma, who wrote the definitive history of the character.

Quill, haunted as in modern times by the death of his mother, doesn’t drown his sorrows by listening to a mixtape from home. He trains as an astronaut – alienating everyone in his path – until a mysterious, otherworldly voice informs Quill and his colleagues that one of them must “assume the Star-Lord’s glorious destiny” on the day of a lunar eclipse. Rejected for the opportunity, Quill clubs and shoots his way through guards until he’s suddenly teleported to an audience with a wizened old man, similar in appearance to Shazam the wizard.

The old man, calling himself the “Master of the Sun,” promises to Quill, “I shall make you a Star-Lord!” So began an elaborate, twelve-part series, meant to correspond to the twelve houses of a horoscope and ending with Quill as an “enlightened being,” as Englehart told Luoma.

Except that planned series never happened. Englehart left Marvel, the character softened under later creators, and after a long hiatus, reemerged as part of the reinterest in Marvel Cosmic characters following the 2006 Annihilation crossover. The Quill we know today – a silly, roguish jokester – is more a product of Star Wars than Englehart’s “Master of the Sun.”

But ideas in superhero comics, much like the universes themselves, are shared. Today’s six-issue flop may be the basis for tomorrow’s box office-shattering success. Nothing ever dies, it just changes.

In the first issue of Al Ewing and Juann Cabal’s 2020 relaunch of Guardians of the Galaxy, Ewing plants the idea that Quill’s modern origin – child of an Earth woman and the evil emperor of an alien race – may not be what it seems. Quill dreams of that wizened, old man again, but refuses to acknowledge him. “Shut up,” Quill says. “You’re just a false memory I got once. You never happened.”

But the visions refuse to go away, culminating in Quill’s death in the second issue. “Do you feel the basis for your life is wrong?” the old man asks as Peter prepares to sacrifice himself. “Yes,” he answers. In that moment, he is gone and Ewing traces the impact of his death through the reactions of characters like Rocket Raccoon, Richard Rider, and Gamora. The Guardians splinter without Quill, unable to accept that he is gone.

Then again, this is comics. No one who’s been lost is ever far from a return.

“The World Beyond the Sun”

Peter Quill was dead, but any superhero comics reader knows that death in comics is never a point of finality. It’s only an invitation to evolve or return – like Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings – as a newly-empowered being. (What is it the Log Lady says in Twin Peaks about death? “It’s just a change, not an end.”) For Ewing, Star-Lord’s death is an occasion for some spectacular change, but also a moment to restore the character to his original, cosmic strangeness.

In the ninth issue of Ewing and Cabal’s run, they finally brought Quill back. In lieu of a lengthy cast list – which in a team book like Guardians rarely dips below half-a-dozen people – Ewing has just one name: Star-Lord. A booming, all-caps subtitle informs us, in a nod to Englehart’s language from Marvel Preview Presents,  that this issue is “THE OFFICIAL ORIGIN OF STAR-LORD–WHO HE IS AND HOW HE CAME TO BE!”

That confident tone is immediately undermined by the issue’s recap text, which has sentences struck out that deviate from Quill’s traditional origin. “The Master of the Sun does not exist. The Master of the Sun has never existed. If you are having dreams or visions of the Master of the Sun, you have been selected these are false memories which are to be ignored.”

The echoes of Englehart’s words are intentional, as Ewing revealed in an interview with ComicsXF. “I thought, what if we could do our version of the whole Steve Englehart plan in one issue?” Ewing said. “So he comes back as this very changed, very grown character.”

We find out that Quill has emerged after his sacrifice in issue #2 on the mysterious Morinus, the “World Beyond the Sun,” and in the care of two nomads, Aradia and Mors. Each scene with this beautiful, otherworldly couple is threaded with odd details and descriptive memories, as if the sequence is all a dream. Who are they? Why do they so willingly care for this stranger?

Cabal adds a mystical element to these scenes on Morinus by situating each one within a “house,” just how Englehart intended: first, the “House of Beginnings,” then the “House of Possessions,” and so on. The panels slant at diagonal angles, replacing the traditional squares of a comic page with triangles.

Quill takes a long time to acclimate himself, longing even after 10 year in Morinus to return home to Gamora. After twelve years, when Quill finally agrees to be reborn as one with Aradia and Mors, there is a flickering moment when the reader might see this submission as weak. We are conditioned to want out heroes to resist temptation, take the hard path, subjugate their desires over what is right. But Ewing has already given us the tools to understand this scene as it is: a moment of triumph, of peace.

In issue #6, as Richard Rider finally speaks to Gamora about Quill’s death, she tells him that Peter won her heart because, unlike Rich, he could stop fighting. “He was that place you and I could only describe,” she says. “He came home. He was home. He was alive.”

On Morinus, Quill proves Gamora right. He is not meant to fight an endless war. He was happy there and could have been happy forever. But it does not take much imagination to understand that the love Quill has for Aradia and Mors is itself a reflection of the love he has for Rich and Gamora. In this paradise, he can express himself fully. As Mors puts it, “you’re newborn and ready to learn our ways.” Quill has a son with them. He stays for 144 years—12 times 12.

The result is a singular feat of comic-book storytelling, revealing Quill as bisexual while sweeping the oddest corners of the character’s origin. Ewing is not so much redefining Star-Lord as rebuilding him with pieces from his pre- and post-Annihilation origin.

He has been commissioned by the Master of the Sun on a cosmic odyssey, but his heart remains with his wartime pals Rich and Gamora.

“The House of Endings”

Quill’s return is explored in, of all things, a King in Black crossover. (That’s a metaphor for modern superhero comics if there ever was one.) He reckons with a new understanding of his Element Gun and still has flashbacks to Morinus. He pictures both Phyla-Vell and Gamora as Aradia. “I’m not who I was…but I’m still me,” he tells Rich. “I’m still…there,” Quill tells Gamora. “I had a home there. I had a son.”

He loves her. He loves Rich. But he cannot begin to explain.

Rich could very well say the same. Like any close friend, he mourned Pete and even went to therapy to grapple with his guilt in recruiting Pete back into the Guardians. But this friendship, much like Pete himself, is something more.

“I loved him too. You know that, right?” Rich tells Gamora in issue #6. “I know,” she says. “That makes it worse.”

We are almost conditioned as superhero comics readers to anticipate a love triangle between Quill, Rich, and Gamora. How Ewing instead chooses to define their relationship – as one of mutual, polyamorous attraction – is far bolder, but also truer to the characters and their history.

Whoever Star-Lord is and whoever he becomes must be reconciled with the man we saw on Morinus. He might not be who he was, but he is still that Quill.

“I loved him too. You know that, right?” was what Rich asked Gamora. In the final issue of Ewing’s Guardians run, Quill asks her the same question. This time, she says, “I know. That makes it better.”

Superhero comics are a frustrating medium – stuck in an interminable second act, forever at the whims of big corporations. It may be too optimistic of me to expect that future Guardians creative teams will treat these three characters as polyamorous. Marvel can barely bring itself to show even canonically queer characters in lasting relationships, let alone polyamorous ones.

But much like Englehart’s long-forgotten plan for Star-Lord, Ewing’s Guardians run is a statement of intent that may very well be abandoned, only for some future creator to embrace its radicalism and restore its power. Nothing ever dies in superhero comics – isn’t that right?

 

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 6 #9
Script: Al Ewing
Artist: Juann Cabal
Colorist: Federico Blee
Letterer: Cory Petit

 

Dan Spinelli is a national security reporter for Mother Jones who moonlights as an occasional comics critic. He’s written for sites like AIPT and SKTCHD and can be found on Twitter here.

 

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