Friday, December 23, 2022

Tales of the Galaxy

I first encountered the Micronauts in the back pages of Star Wars Weekly.

Star Wars Weekly was a black and white comic which ran from 1977-1983 in the UK. (In May 1980 it unsurprisingly changed its name to Empire Strikes Back Weekly, and went monthly the following November.) For the first twelve issues it reprinted the Marvel Comic Book version of the original movie, and then launched straight into the "new" stories -- giant rabbits, cyborg bounty hunters, and all. The twenty monthly pages of American material had to be eked out at the rate of only about five pages a week; and the rest of the space was taken up with text features and comic-strips from Marvel's back-catalogue. The supporting material was branded as Tales of the Galaxy. Doctor Who Weekly would go with Tales From The Tardis a couple of years later.

The back-up stories in those early issues were mostly drawn from US Marvel's black and white anthology titles. Something printed in black-and-white and including text features was regarded as a magazine as opposed to a comic, and therefore exempt from the still influential Comics Code Authority. Children couldn't be corrupted by men's bottoms, vampires, marital infidelity and the word "damn" if they encountered them in publications costing a dollar as opposed to only twenty five cents. It made sense that the editors of UK Marvel would seek for non-superhero, raygun-and-robot material to fill up the blank pages of the Star Wars comic, but it is a little surprising that they went for the more "adult" end of the parent company's output. Perhaps they thought that older kids and adults would be interested in a comic book based on a blockbuster movie? Or perhaps they just grabbed anything they could find that had the word "star" in the title.


Issues #6 - #14 serialised a story called Man Gods From Beyond the Stars, originally published in Marvel Preview #1 (Feb 1975). It is certainly "mature", if by mature you mean long, dull and ponderously over-written. It is narrated in internal monologue by one of the subordinate characters, who keeps saying things like:

"I will not trespass the computers cold domain of facts and figures. I will concern myself only with wonders, with the exhilarated human response to this white moonbeam riding needle through the dark eye of space toward I know not what."

Let that be a dreadful warning about what will happen if you spend your formative years reading nothing but Stan Lee.

The story is not at all bad, but it is a not at all bad curtain-raiser to a series that never went any further. I suppose the point of a title like Marvel Preview was to provide homes for comics which Marvel had paid for but never published. It was a mix of Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey, shot through with an unhealthy dose of Eric Von Daniken, who we are assumed to take very seriously indeed. It's written by Doug Moench, as practically everything was in those days, but it was "conceived and plotted" by Roy Thomas, Stan Lee's representative on earth.

Although it has a radically different tone, the theme is strikingly similar to Kirby's Eternals, which came out only a year later (July 1976). We know that, for Stan, a concept and a plot might amount to not much more than a one line synopsis. ("What if Doc Ock kidnapped Aunt May?") If it turned out that Roy Thomas "dreamt up" the Man-Gods story, handed it to Doug Moench a Stan Lee style pitch, been unsatisfied with the results, and passed the same idea over to Jack Kirby, I wouldn't be entirely surprised. "What if archaeologists in Peru found conclusive evidence that prehistoric earth had been visited by space aliens -- and that they were about to return?" would serve equally well as an elevator pitch for Man Gods From Beyond the Stars as it would for The Eternals.

But probably they are independently riffing on the same cultural meme. The New Age adjacent counter culture in the 1970s may not have literally believed that aliens built the pyramids; but pyramids, aliens and flying saucers went together on many a hippy poster and album cover. In retrospect, one can detect strong whiffs of the First Kingdom (which launched in 1974). It also anticipates Elfquest (1978): the Wolfriders were also alien space travellers who encountered primitive humans. Alex Nino's swirly whafty panel work at times feels quite a lot like Wendy Pini's.

So. Aliens come to earth in huge dramatic space ships -- curvaceous, womb-like, but not quite saucer-shaped. They appear human, and although they speak in long, wordy monologues, they have normal human feelings and concerns. (Very different from Kirby's Celestials who it was quite impossible to eff or scrute.) The leader has a huge winged helmet, somewhere between Marvel's Thor and the old Mobil logo. The story is told from the aliens' point of view which rather undermines the whole mythological angle. It's pretty much just a tale of a starship encountering some primitives and carelessly breaching the Prime Directive. (They do actually call it the Prime Directive.) They have visited the earth once before and are checking up on how everything is going. (You might, if you felt so inclined, call them the Second Host.) The earth is populated by cave-men with spears and fur underpants who instantly assume that the space travellers are gods and exclaim "Kneel to them, they have come down from the sun in a bright stick of flame."

Meanwhile, in the present day -- 1975 -- two archeologists are examining Peruvian carvings and slowly coming to the conclusion that they preserve a race memory about an alien visitation in the remote past. Despite the Von Daniken branding that's all the strip has to say about mythology, archaeology and religion: I suppose this angle would have been played up in subsequent episodes.

The aliens aren't meant to interfere with the cave-men, but the their leader transgresses the rule; first to rescue a cave-lady who is about to be killed by a saber-tooth tiger, and then to have a brief romantic encounter with her. (The rest of the crew thinks he wants to dissect her, which he distinctly doesn't.) They decide they had better leave in a hurry...but not before disclosing the Big Secret. Many years ago, their space civilisation was involved in a Great Big War, during which they bred a race of savage super soldiers. Once peace broke out, they had to retire the clone army, and so they rehoused it on earth. The cavemen are their descendants. (It isn't mentioned whether they also re-homed any hairdressers or telephone sanitisers.) The aliens gift one of the cave-men with a device which contains their knowledge and history. After the space ship has taken off, it is revealed that the cave lady who the leader befriended is pregnant...

Clearly the archeologists are going to discover that most human beings are alien orcs, but that a few of us are descended from the higher life-form. And presumably someone will discover the alien computer-thing as well, and the aliens will come back. A Third Host. H.P Lovecraft arguably came up with the idea of space-gods, and there is something a little Lovecraftian about the revelation that humans are not really human after all. (Who now remembers the Terry Nation story in which it turns out that primitive humans were taken to a planet called Skaro and therefore WE-ARE-THE-DALEKS!!!?)

I think that in pulp science fiction, the idea is often more important than the actual story. A title like Man Gods From Beyond The Stars can have a haiku like poetry that no-story can ever live up to. (For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky. The Brute That Shouted Love At The Heart Of An Atom.) The Neil Adams cover (which didn't appear in the Star Wars Weekly reprint) represents a myth which Doug Moench struggles to embody in a narrative. A man in shiny golden armour, floating on some sort of anti-grav device; a glowy flying saucer behind him; cave men cowering in religious awe... Von Daniken was a hoaxer, but he created a compelling meta-mythology. Some people prefer space-gods to actual gods. If God was an astronaut then astronauts may be gods. 

From issue 15 to issue 53, the back up strip in Star Wars Weekly was called Starlord.

Everyone has now heard of Starlord because of his role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the character in Guardians of the Galaxy has very little in common with the 1970s comic book version. He first appeared in Marvel Preview #4 (Jan 1976) in a story written by Steve Engelhart; but was substantially rebooted by Chris Claremont and John Byrne in Marvel Preview # 11 (June 1977), The Engelhart strip has some aspirations to be proper serious science fiction; the Chris Claremont version is pretty standard super-heroic fare, with a distinct Flash Gordon flavour. Star Wars Weekly skipped the abortive origin story and dropped the reader straight into Claremont's space opera. This meant that we readers had a sense that we were joining the story part way through: but "hopelessly confused" was the default state for British comic book readers in the seventies.

The hero in each case is one Peter Quill. Peter is a fairly common American euphemism for a man's penis. And the word Quill is a slightly less common euphemism for the same body part. On his first appearance, Peter Quill was a bit of a dick. Creator Steve Engelhart said this is literally what he had in mind when he named the character. The "mature" in "mature readers" often turns out to mean "adolescent."

Engelhart conceived of the strip as a multi-part epic, during which John Thomas would have grown from a generally appalling individual into a proper hero. (The movie version chose to stick with the "appalling individual" angle, but passed on the personal development.) Each episode would have taken place on a different solar planet; and these adventures would reflect the planet's astrological meaning. Engelhart took astrology very seriously: his text intro assures us that he has tried it out and it "just works". But after completing only one issue, he defected to DC Comics, where he re-invented Batman ten years before Frank Miller did. The Starlord character was handed over to Chris Claremont and John Byrne who turned it into a very straight-forward yarn, in which our hero takes on a mob of evil slavers in a generic Galactic Empire.

Cock-jokes apart, the extant Moench episode is clearly trying to appeal to a relatively grown-up audience: Quill's family and school are several shades more realistic than Peter Parker's. There is a strong suggestion of marital infidelity, at a time when the comics code still theoretically banned any mention of divorce. There is something mysterious about Quill's parentage; his dad takes off when he is a baby and his mum is murdered by the occupants of interplanetary craft. Naturally, he swears eternal vengeance; he becomes an astronaut because it is the career which offers the greatest chance of saying "My name is Peter Quill; you killed my mother; prepare to die" to an alien reptile. While working on a 2001-style space station, he encounters a white-bearded figure who pointedly denies being God. The god-like figure gives him a silly costume and a ray-gun, and says that from now on he will be "a" Starlord. So despite a certain novelistic panache, what we actually have is a Marvel take on the Green Lantern Corps. The Guardian of the Sun giving an elemental gun to Peter Quill is not too far removed from Merlin giving the magic amulet and staff to Brian Braddock; or indeed Billy Batson learning his magic word from Shazam. And it has a certain Jedi Fizz about it.

The Claremont/Byrne stories don't have anything like the edge of the Engelhart one: they read disconcertingly like an extended episode of the New X-Men. But they are a much better fit to Star Wars Weekly. We are now in a Galactic Empire, where people travel casually between planets. There are pleasure worlds and throne worlds and an emperor with a wicked uncle. The wicked uncle is consorting with the slave traders to seize the throne. The slave traders are, astonishingly, referred to as Sith Lords, and are the same species that killed Starlord's mummy. (When he realises this "The hate is a rising crimson tide within him, a lust, a need, that will not be denied.") There are no lightsabers or force-wands, but Starlord ends up fighting the Emperor's wicked uncle with a sword. "There is an unreal quality to the combat" interjects the melodramatic narrator "That the fate of galaxy spanning empire...should be determined by two men duelling with swords...on a ledge a mile above the ground." It occurs to many of us that the fate of a different galaxy was determined by two men duelling on an armoured battled station; but although the comic came out in the summer of 1977, no-one seems interested in playing up the Star Wars link. (The Marvel Premier cover blurb went with 'In the tradition of Robert Heinlein' which didn't amuse Robert Heinlein one little bit.) 

Claremont ties up the previous episode's lose ends in a much more comic-booky style. In the old story, Quill's father accused his mother of seeing other men; in this one, Quill turns out to be the Son of the Emperor of the Galaxy. The Emperor says that when he left earth he used a device to erase Mrs Quill's memories, which is a pretty strong signal that we're looking at a ret-con. Star War's weekly uses "I am your father!" as the title of an episode. 

Starlord turns down the chance to become emperor of the galaxy, and decides to carry on wandering around the universe in his ship called Ship. "Let's go carve ourself a legend", he says; the sort of knowing, downbeat ending that seemed very classy in the days when one in three superhero stories ended with the good guy saying "Let's go home." In the months after Empire Strikes Back I built a conclusion to the trilogy in my head in which Luke Skywalker is offered the job of Emperor and rejects it: this must have been where I got it from. The episode is called The Hollow Crown. Richard II was our set text at O Level, and I half-believed Shakespeare was quoting Starlord.

There is a distinct feeling that the second story wipes out the first one and leaves subsequent writers with a blank slate: which makes one wonder what the point of the exercise was. Englehart's astrological cock-head was not entirely like any other character: Claremont's is a guy in space ship travelling around the universe having adventures. (The third story focusses entirely on the fact that "Ship" is female and sentient, which is just about the only distinct thing about the character.) Englehart says that Marv Wolfman gave him the name Starlord but gave him carte blanche to create any character he wanted to go with it. In 1967, Stan Lee had created a character called Captain Mar-Vell purely so that the company could maintain copyright on the name. One wonders if there was some legal reason why there had to be a Marvel comic called Star Lord. 

Man-Gods From Beyond The Stars played with idea that gods were aliens and aliens were God. Starlord presents astrology as a form of mysticism with scientific collateral. Engelhart's curtain raiser starts with pictures of stars and galaxies, and suddenly jumps to the Biblical start of Bethlehem which was (we are assured) an astrological conjunction. The idea of science-as-magic and magic-as-science sits alongside space-sword fights and the idea of science fantasy. 

Which brings us to our third strip. It arrived in Star Wars Weekly in issue 5 and lasted until issue 13. It came from the same black and white magazine that Starlord and Man Gods did, and it also had the word Star in the title. It was much more explicitly a mixture of fantasy and science fiction than either of the other strips, and the title was much cooler than anything in the comic.

It begins with a war. The hero's people are slaughtered, and his father sends him on your actual Quest. "The Gods have other paths for you to walk" he explains "Ways that will lead you to a time when you will return to your homeworld, to a day when it has been prophecied that you will see with more than your eyes and the sword you bear in blistered hands will glow with the fires of the stars." After his father's passing he is adopted by a Wizard. In case we are in any doubt as to the story's Epic Pretensions, the hero's people are called the Ithacon and the wizard is named Delphos. The hero himself rejoices in the name Prince Wayfinder.

Wayfinder speaks fluent Dungeons & Dragons. ("You would drive me from you, father? You wouldst divest me of my honour as well as my birthright?") He wears armour that would not look out of place in John Boorman's Camelot. But Ithacon the wizard speaks a sort of Ben Grimm jive ("here's the teacher, kiddo, c'mere while I fix it on your head") and has a home full of Modern Technology. It turns out that Wayfinder, and the aliens who have wiped out his people, and all the other races of the Galaxy are distant descendants of a human race that colonised the galaxy thousands of years ago. (Presumably, pre-empting Battlestar Galactica, by several years the "homeworld" where he will find the skin-blistering glowy sword is The Earth.) The wizard is simply an incredibly long-lived mutant human who has witnessed the whole show. He dies, right on cue, at the end of the first episode (or "stave") and leaves Wayfinder with a massive starship and a robot helmsman called Alkinoos. In "stave" two, they arrive on a forest covered world where they are menaced by evil plants and encounter a space-witch called Kirke (geddit?) whereapon the story comes to an end. There is a text piece by the writer in Marvel Preview #7, begging readers to write to the editor and demand more episodes. No more episodes were forthcoming.

The artwork has a slightly out of control detail to it -- the first issue is credited to P Craig Russell (as inker) and the second to Keith Giffen (his first published work.) It recalls Druillet's Lone Sloan and anticipates Kev O'Neil's Nemesis the Warlock. The vast spaceship at the beginning of "stave" two seems part Star Destroyer and part gothic cathedral. Both episodes came out too early to be under the influence of Lucas, but the writer has drunk from a similar well. Dying fathers. Quests. Swords that glow. Wizards with spaceships.

The title catches the space fantasy atmosphere as well as anything ever has. Wayfinder and Delphos have something of Arthur and Merlin about them, and the title of the strip is The Sword In The Star. 

The author of the Sword in the Star was, of course, Bill Mantlo. Some years in the future it would transpire that Arcturus Rann is Prince Wayfinder's very distant descendent. And one of the creatures that Wayfinder encounters on the forest world is a bad tempered gun touting space racoon called Rocky.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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