‘A-Hole’ to ‘Awesome?’ The Unlikely Success of Marvel’s LEGENDARY STAR-LORD

Marvel previews for July 2, 2014
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

When actor Chris Pratt proclaims his self-imposed codename, Star-Lord, in the Guardians of the Galaxy trailer, Korath causes him to pause when he asks, “Who?” For many people, both the general public and comics fans, they might share Djimon Hounsou’s question of just who is Star-Lord. For fans who have been reading the Guardians of the Galaxy comic series the past few years, in both the 2008 incarnation or the current run by Brian Michael Bendis, it might be an easier question to answer, but not by much; for decades he was rarely seen in comics, going years between appearances. So how did a once-forgotten footnote in Marvel’s comic history turn become the unlikely leading man of Marvel’s cosmic frontier? As it turns out, it was never the plan – but that turns out to be the key to Star-Lord’s success.

“My original idea was to create a complete a-hole, and then have him evolve over time (and space) into a…Star-Lord,” says Steve Englehart, the man who dreamt up the character back in 1975 before his debut in 1976’s Marvel Preview #4 illustrated by Steve Gan. “He was to move outward across the solar system, having a mythological/astrological story on each planet - a fairy tale on Mercury, a love story on Venus, a war story on Mars, and so on.”

Credit: Marvel Comics

At the time, Englehart was one of Marvel’s top writers, handling both The Avengers and Captain America. Englehart’s admittedly ambitious plans for Star-Lord’s multi-issue story was get a star artist for each of the planetary-themed issues; Sheldon Mayer for Mercury, Jay Scott Pike for Venus, Joe Kubert for Mars, John Buscema for Jupiter, for example.

“Point being, the series was conceived as a series. But I only got to do the first issue, about the complete a-hole, and then I left Marvel,” the writer tells Newsarama. “So for the next few decades, I was sorry about the grand idea that got away…”

After Englehart’s departure, Star-Lord drifted to obscurity despite a last-ditch makeover of the character by then-budding writer Chris Claremont in Marvel Fanfare. To a degree, even Marvel has trouble remembering the character – sometimes forgetting the hyphen in the “Star-Lord” name in comics and on cover pages. After some minor appearances in anthologies in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Star-Lord only popped up once in the 23 year stretch from 1981 to 2004 – as an ancillary character in 2000’s Inhuman series. But in 2004, his inclusion in the latter part of Keith Giffen’s Thanos series set him on a path to take the helm of the reconstituted Guardians of the Galaxy in 2008 after “Annihilation. “

Credit: Marvel Comics

Sam Humphries, who is writing this week’s debuting series Legendary Star-Lord, says the character’s near-complete absence from comics for nearly a quarter century between his earliest stories and his induction into the Guardians of the Galaxy is a “double-edged sword” for him as a writer.

“It's less confining,” Humphries tells Newsarama. “But you don't have as much supporting history either.”

That “supporting history,” what little there is, was revised somewhat – thanks to the character’s lack of popularity early on. In 2013’s Guardians of the Galaxy #0.1, Quill’s origin was retooled by Bendis and artist Steve McNiven to its current status as the half-human prince of an alien space adventure/ruler J’son of Spartax, something established early on in the character's existence but not explored (or explained) much in the intervening years. In the new origin, J'son directly set Peter to be the Star-Lord, a title belonging to his empire, rather than a somewhat mystical being doling out the role in his original story. This key trait – Star-Lord being half-human and half-alien – is a core element to the character going forward according to Humphries.

“His dual heritage is the key to making him tick,” Humphries says. “He is the son of both Earth and space, of an honorable mother and a despicable king.”

Star-Lord's new origin in GOTG .1
Star-Lord's new origin in GOTG .1
Credit: Marvel Comics

After that, Humphries says the key text from Star-Lord’s earlier stories is his interactions in Annihilation. Outside of that, the writer says he influenced by outside works like the European comics series Blueberry and films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark. Although some people might compare him to John Carter giving their similar space-faring voyages, Humphries says they couldn’t be further apart.

“Peter isn't John Carter – the archetypical space man striving and yearning to return home. Peter had a crappy life on Earth. In space, he is awesome,” the writer relates. “Space is his home. For Peter, the cosmos rules.”

When asked about the strange turn of events that has brought Star-Lord from obscurity to his highest measure of popularity ever, Englehart says it’s all thanks to Abnett and Lanning. As a veteran writer of both Marvel and DC, he’s all too familiar with some characters falling by the wayside.

“If Star-Lord had become a better person, he wouldn't have fit the Guardians of the Galaxy in the comic, let alone the movie, so good on the guys who put him in the comic,” Englehart says. “It's the nature of comics that leftover characters get recycled, and there were very few more leftover than Peter Quill, but if I'd had to pick one of my creations to get recycled, he'd have been at the bottom of the list - and to be the star of a major motion picture, he'd have been laughed out of town. But here he is, and all because he never convincingly evolved.”

Chris Pratt as Star-Lord in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
Chris Pratt as Star-Lord in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
Credit: Marvel Studios

To wit, the star of Guardians of the Galaxy when it hits theaters in August, Chris Pratt, says the character's unknown status has helped he and James Gunn craft the character more for their own use. In fact, his journey will play out on screen, Pratt told Newsarama during a set visit.

"Well, he is on a quest to escape, essentially. But in the same way that a lot of people are on Earth. Like, he, you know, he’s got like a hope to him. Like, the kind of hope that you have when you buy a lottery ticket. You know, he thinks if he could just make that score, everything will be fine and everything will be taken care of. And I think he learns through the course of the movie that that’s not ultimately where you find true satisfaction with yourself or real happiness. It’s really gonna come from doing something bigger than yourself and giving yourself up to something that’s bigger than yourself. So we find him in a hopeful, playful place where – and he’s sort of escaping and a little bit on the run."

Credit: Marvel Comics

Although Englehart never worked on the Star-Lord character again after his abbreviated debut arc in 1976’s Marvel Preview, the writer says Marvel “has been very forthcoming” about keeping creators involved in the process regarding characters they created. Although he wasn’t involved in the film, the writer says Marvel “treat their creators like guys who created something valuable.”

And Marvel is looking to actualize that value more with this week’s debut of The Legendary Star-Lord, and it shows Quill coming full circle – at least in terms of his spirit and approach – to Englehart’s “a-hole” origins.  According to Humphries, it’ll be cosmic swashbuckling like the character’s initial promise in 1976.

“Star-Lord will be flying fast ships, flirting with alien girls, visiting astonishing new planets, getting into crazy trouble, and shooting his way out.”

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