Comic Book Spotlight Comics

Guardians of the Galaxy: Why Bendis Succeeded and Abnett and Lanning Failed

            Of all the strange and bizarre hits that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has produced in its nine-year history the Guardians of the Galaxy film is easily the strangest.  Even though this was a hit film franchise that featured giant monsters, frost giants, Norse Gods and middle aged men in robot suites, a film that featured a talking racoon and huge number of aliens seemed a little much for people to swallow at the time.  Yet when the film was released back in 2014 it achieved near universal critical and fan acclaim, was a box office hit and is largely considered to be one of the best things that the MCU has produced.  Yet the version of the team that the film is based on could not be any more different from its source material.

            Debuting in 2008, the original series was created by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, spinning out of the Annihilation: Conquest event storyline that happened earlier that year.  It would have a respectable 25 issues run but ultimately ended in 2010 and was mostly forgotten by all but the most devoted Marvel Zombies.  That was until 2012 when the film adaptation was officially announced at that summer’s San Diego comic-con.  The series would then be revived under writer Brian Michael Bendis in 2013 on a run that is continuing to this day.  However, when one reads the Bendis version of the team, you very quickly realize how different of an animal it is then its previous incarnation.  So, with the newest Guardians film due for release later this week, we at The Nerd Hub decided it would be a good time to make some comparisons between the old and new versions of the team and why the current version continues to be successful while the Abnett/Lanning version was ended prematurely.  So, without further ado, let’s compare the two modern runs of Guardians of the Galaxy
            When trying to discover the differences between the two versions of Guardians of the Galaxy you need only look at the first issues of both the 2008 run and the 2013 run to see how different the two are.  In the 2008 version the Guardians are formed by Peter Quill/Star-Lord as what amounts to a preventative team; one meant to end intergalactic threats before they even begin, usually involving things that threaten the space time continuum.  Throughout its 25 issues, the Guardians are always battling something of this nature with the fate of the entire universe in their hands and usually zeroes in on the characters who have a more direct connection to these things.  The Bendis version, on the other hand, opens with Quill’s dad ordering him to stay away from Earth as it is being quarantined by a secret cabal of intergalactic rulers in the galaxy.  That very same issue he and the rest of the Guardians save a space traveling Iron Man from a band of space pirates and effectively sets up the groundwork for the plot for the entire series.  Within it the team focuses on smaller antagonists that gradually works its way up to intergalactic politics and is often directly involved with the personal lives of its main characters.


           This is easily one of the biggest things that sets the two apart in sheer writing quality and is probably the only area where the Bendis book is objectively better than the Abnett/Lanning version.  The main problem with the 2008 version’s plot ultimately comes down to pacing and escalation.  In the very first issue we see the Guardians battling a church whose belief powered spaceship engines are about to blow and tear a hole in space where the fabric of reality is already weak.  While this is a pretty cool intro the book never really finds a way to cool down from it or truly escalate it to a higher point.  Very rarely does the book deviate from these kind of large scale, universe ending threats and, because of this, the stories became a tad bit boring and predictable after a while.  The Guardians always run into a new threat to the space time continuum and will always solve it with some kind of Star Trek-style techno babble with the occasional time travel mechanic and a few parallel dimensions thrown in the mix in a vain attempt to shake things up.  As a result, the stakes never really get higher because they quite literally can’t and the plot quickly stagnated as a result.

            The Bendis version, on the other hand, knows how to pace its plot more properly.  Early issues had the Guardians fighting smaller scale threats that eventually escalated into lager, intergalactic political stories.  Very rarely have these stories crossed into universe, space time continuum ending threats and when they do it’s usually because of some of their involvement with the latest companywide crossover event.  As a result, the storylines never come off as stale and allow for a greater variety of tales to be told.
            The actual role that the Guardians play in the universe and how other people perceive them is also significantly different and plays a big role in both books.  In the Abnett/Lanning version the team is formed by Star-Lord and Nova as a means of preventing large scale threats before they become large scale threats and seem to have some form of lawful authority.  Not everyone likes the fact that the team exists and that they answer to no one, but the powers that be usually end up letting them do what they do if only because their success is usually in everyone’s best interest.  The Bendis version, on the other hand, sees the team function in a way that is not unlike the crew of the Serenity in the Joss Whedon show Firefly; a crew of misfits that operates mostly outside of the law, preventing and avenging injustices where they find them but are considered to be something of an annoyance by official governments and even hunted by some.  Once again, the result is a larger pool of possibilities to pull from and allows for more diverse storylines to be told.
            The general look of the books is also radically different.  Now, in all honesty, this is something that is to be expected and happens in the medium all the time. Both came out in different times with multiple artistic teams lending their talents to both runs and each undoubtedly had their own ideas as to how these books should look.  What one may find jarring, however, is that the differences go beyond simple aesthetic choices.  Literally everything from the character designs to the backgrounds to the very color pallet of the book are thoroughly different from one another.  The 2008 version, for one thing, features a color pallet that is significantly darker than its successor.  The entire book is drenched in black and grey with most of the colors on display sporting a darker hue to them then you would expect out of a Marvel series.  The designs of the characters are also nigh unrecognizable when compared to the Bendis version.  Rocket’s look tended to change from artists to artist that was, at times, so radical that one could be forgiven for thinking that it was a completely different character.  Groot also couldn’t help but look like some generic tree monster out of a 50s B monster movie and fails to have anything resembling a memorable look.  Several of the characters also have matching uniforms which I personally found very odd.  Star-Lord, Rocket, Groot and Mantis all wore grey/red shirts that look like a late 1800s Western European general uniform.  They weren’t very appealing to look at and with such a diverse roster of characters, one cannot help but wonder why they decided to give them matching outfits when so many possibilities were before them.
Gamora sports the generic barbarian woman look with the skimpy, revealing outfits that no one in their right mind would ever wear into battle and looks positively ridiculous when compared to the future designs of the character.  In fact, most of the female characters in the Abnett/Lanning spot a similar look where they’re missing a required piece of clothing like an undershirt or a pair of pants.  It’s a design choice for women that has been in the industry since its start and has only just now began to go away.  There is an ongoing debate over whether it’s the revealing outfits that sexualizes the character or the writing but that is a discussion for another time. In this context, however, the lack of clothing is just distracting and I kept finding myself wondering why this woman doesn’t have any pants on?  In recent years, these kinds of looks have been slowly dying out but this book is, if nothing else, a reminder that this only started happening a few short years ago
The Bendis version, on the other hand, is the complete and utter opposite of all of this.  The color palette is bright, vibrant and full of life.  All the characters have their own unique looks to them that make them all memorable and never fall into generic territory the way the 2008 version did.  And while some of the characters have outfits that could easily be considered skimpy, I never found myself wondering why certain characters couldn’t put a pair of pants or a shirt on.  All and all, it’s a much more appealing look.

Now all of these are pretty big differences and can easily result in entirely different experiences for a reader.  But these sorts of things are not uncommon for a comic series at all.  This is especially true for a long running one that has had multiple creative teams over the years with different ideas as to how best approach a story.  There are, however, three things that truly distinguish the Bendis version from the Abnett/Lanning run and, as it turns out, made both runs fundamentally different from one another.  These three things are character writing, style and tone.

The thing about the 2008 version is that it was a very self-serious, plot driven series that was, at times, a slog to read through.  As mentioned earlier, every single story focused on some kind of space time continuum destroying event and the characters were constantly stressing the importance these points.  Because of this the writing for the individual characters had a way of taking a hit and only a select few ever got anything resembling an arc, much less a satisfying one.  Worse still, most of them rarely had a personality beyond their respective team roles due to this lack of attention.  The Bendis version, on the other hand, is a far more joyful one full of humor with each character having distinct personalities.  Rocket Racoon is a far more animated character who always has a sarcastic comeback to any given situation.  Groot’s dialog never goes beyond “I am Groot” but the character is drawn in ways that allows for body language and facial expressions to tell us everything that we need to know about him.  Compare these to the Abnett/Lanning versions where Rocket was a talking racoon that just happened to be the tactician and Groot was just a tree monster that would occasionally become important to the plot out of nowhere. 
Story arcs also have a way of being more character driven as well.  A good chunk of the early Bendis storylines, for example, revolved around Star-Lord’s complicated relationship with his father, J’son, the king of Spartax.  Throughout the series, the Guardians would go against him several times with J’son constantly trying to groom Quill to be his successor while disposing of the Guardians.  At other times, seemingly mundane storylines found ways of tying more long-term, character driven plot threads into them that make the arc more interesting in both the short and long term.  And for me this is what truly separates the 2008 run from the Bendis version and is why the latter remains successful while the former almost went forgotten.


Now to be fair the Bendis version does have a major movie franchise to help promote it and undoubtedly has a lot to do with the comic’s ongoing success.   But one cannot deny that when you compare the two, the Abnett/Lanning comes off as just another superhero team book without much to distinguish it beyond its alien characters.  It wasn’t a bad book by any means as it had plenty of charm and did contain a few interesting ideas.  Unfortunately, these ideas were not enough to make it a must read.  The Bendis version, on the other hand, is a bright and colorful book full of fun characters and satisfying plot threads that’s an all-around good time to read.  It’s a book that I would personally recommend and think everyone should give a shot.  Ultimately, Guardians of the Galaxy is a testament to how sometimes a creative team can do a much better job with an older idea then others can with an original one.

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By Trey Griffeth

Trey Griffeth is the Head Writer of The Nerd Hub's Comic Book Spotlight section as well as a contributing writer to Video Game Spotlight. In addition to his work with The Nerd Hub, he is also a Staff Writer for Heroic Hollywood.