I can’t connect with most cosmic superhero comics. To me, the word “cosmic” is shorthand for visual bombast, overly-complex politics, and extended metaphors that writers and artists rely on in place of crafting compelling characters. That’s why, even with current-best-Marvel-writer Al Ewing attached, I wasn’t sure I was going to love the most recent volume of Guardians of the Galaxy.
However, Guardians 2020 is clever, touching, and most definitely a character piece – while still delivering the bombast and spectacle that cosmic comic fans desire.
In Guardians of the Galaxy, Characters’ Pasts Drive Their Present
Guardians of the Galaxy is a comic about heroes reconciling their pasts with their futures. However, Guardians is also nowhere near as naval-gazing as that sentence makes it sound. Like most Al Ewing comics, Guardians moves quickly, introducing a new threat within its first five pages, conscripting the Guardians (or rather, some of them) into action within the next six, and then delivering cosmic explosions from there.
Despite its pace, though, Guardians never lost me or felt like it was bogging me down in mountains of exposition. For example, I’ve never read a comic with this version of Moondragon and Phyla-Vell in it, but I picked up on and processed their deal quite easily. Cosmic Marvel comics, especially, tend to test my relatively-high tolerance for filling in or handwaving backstory, but Guardians seamlessly integrated the most essential pieces of each character’s past into its narrative. And then, more importantly, Guardians went a step further than most Big Two superhero comics do, by using each character’s backstory as not just set dressing, but a launching point for the story that followed.
Bringing up characters’ past not just as narrative shorthand, but to inform their futures, makes Guardians, the characters within it, and the actions they take feel like they matter. There are explosions in this comic (and Nova punches a god, and Marvel Boy runs up the side of Galactus’s helmet, and … ), but they matter so much less than the quieter moments (like Rocket Racoon wearing the fake-est looking fake moustache, or Moondragon confronting Moondragon, or Gamora walking away, or … ). Guardians isn’t a story about galactic turmoil or planets being destroyed; it’s a story about people grappling with those crises. And, it’s a story about people grappling with the fact that they’ve been grappling with those crises, in what seems like endless succession.
Juann Cabal Delivers Cosmic- and Character-level Moments
Because Guardians ping pongs between moments large and small, I don’t know that there is a better regular artist for it than Juann Cabal (who is colored by Federico Blee and Guru-eFX). Many times, the facial expressions and character acting Cabal laid down reminded me of Kevin Maguire’s pages from Justice League International (a series I love).
At other times, his action scenes, page layouts, and unique use of inserts and other graphic devices reminded me of Frank Quitely.
Basically, Cabal can do cosmic-level and character-level moments equally well, which is what this book demands. If Cabal’s execution of either was subpar, I’m not sure Guardians would work – like at all.
This volume of Guardians also features a fill-in issue, with three additional artists/art teams (Nina Vakueva, Chris Sprouse and Karl Story, and Belén Ortega) telling three smaller stories. Making use of a trick he pulled on Immortal Hulk, Ewing uses the additional artists to tell stories that suit their strengths, moving the narrative forward while giving Cabal some lead time for the back-half of this volume. Vakueva’s story, especially, is crushing, and each moment of issue three sets up issues four and five quite nicely.
Sure, the Galaxy Is Fine – But What About Its Guardians?
At the end of this volume, I found myself somewhat interested in the fate of the galaxy – but much more interested in the fate of its’ Guardians. Multiple Guardians face huge upheavals by the end of Ewing and co.’s first volume of Guardians of the Galaxy, and it seems likely that things are going to get a bit worse (and more complicated) for the team before they get better. Cabal and his colorists’ cosmic spectacles are certainly worth the price of admission, but it is Guardians‘ character moments that make it a must-read – and that will bring me back for volume two.