I like to do these pieces where I’ll examine the entire run of a writer on Guardians Of The Galaxy. It began when I first read all the Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning comics which inspired James Gunn’s film. I fell in love so they naturally led me to Brian Michael Bendis’ run. Then I read Gerry Duggan’s. His All-New Guardians Of The Galaxy was a painfully forced attempt to make the comic feel exactly like the movies, disregarding ten years of narrative character development. It also setup Duggan’s Infinity Countdown and Infinity Wars which may be the worst comic crossover I’ve ever read. Then Donny Cates comes along…and totally redeemed everything!!! Seriously, if I ever meet this guy I’ll buy him a drink or dinner or dinner with drinks. He’s earned it.
I was so disappointed by Duggan’s run I dropped Guardians Of The Galaxy from my file at my local comic shop. I’d heard solid advanced praise for Cates’ run but I couldn’t do it. I needed time away from these characters and a title I had come to resent more each month I read it. Once it dropped, I picked up the first trade collection of Donny Cates’ run and before I was through two issues I was calling Books Galore to put Guardians Of The Galaxy back on my pull list! With masterful storytelling, Cates took all the convoluted, pointless bullshit Duggan wrote and used it to set up one of the most captivating Guardians stories I’ve ever read.
In the briefest summary possible (so I have to relieve as little as possible), Duggan’s run saw Gamora become evil (for reasons poorly explained), kill her father Thanos (because she’s evil I guess?), and gather all the Infinity Gems Stones for herself (for more reasons poorly explained). She kills Peter for (presumably??) standing in her way but he comes back (for reasons either not explained or explained so badly they literally won’t stay in my mind) and then he and a bunch of other heroes do stuff and they save the galaxy. Drax dies in what was probably supposed to be a heroic sacrifice but, really, I was so over the narrative I couldn’t care less and I don’t even remember how he died.
From this convoluted mess, Cates creates a narrative born in brokenness and hopelessness that challenges the reader to not just seek but believe in the possibilities of redemption and rebirth in such times. It does so while taking the Guardians on a powerful journey all their own, honoring everything they were for over ten years in the comics while letting them grow organically. I loved it.
His first issue opens with all the Marvel Universe’s heavy hitter cosmic characters gathered to see the decapitated body of the Mad Titan laid to rest. A recording of Thanos comes to say, in the unlikely event of his death, his consciousness would be sent to a host to hold until he could be reanimated. The Black Order invade to steal back the body of their master.
During this time, Peter and Groot are travelling alone. Drax died (again…somehow). Gamora is a villain in hiding, with the galaxy wanting her head. Rocket is missing for reasons unspecified. While the whole Groot-can-talk-normally-now thing really threw me in Duggan’s run, I appreciate the way Cates handles his dialogue. In addition to saying more than “I am Groot,” Groot’s sanded a mohawk of spikes on his head and spikes all over his body. He’s like this punk rock conscience – with just the right amount of sass (which is a lot) – for the entire team. I love it.
Peter, on the other hand, is a hot mess. After Gamora’s betrayal, he deals with his grief by somberly stumbling around the ship, drinking heavily, and trying to avoid feeling anything as he and Groot drift through space. Through some of Bendis’ run and all of Duggan’s run, there was this weird dissonance in the character of Star-Lord. In Abnett and Lanning’s hands he was a noble – if somewhat morally compromised – leader. But he fit in the “classic superhero team leader” mold. So to watch Bendis try to mesh that with the goofy slacker we see in Gunn’s film – or Duggan ignore it all together to just write movie dialogue – never felt right. But Cates gives Peter his drunken carousing as a response to his trauma and, in so doing, sets the stage for his journey of rebirth.
There is a reason Peter is different – he is a very broken man – and our heart aches for him as he tries to find a way back to some semblance of being whole. Again, everything that happened to Peter, especially with regard to Gamora, in Duggan’s run just made no sense. But Cates took all those ridiculous choices and used them to setup a poignant story of struggle, desperation, and ultimately finding hope and strength in family.
As the Black Order escape with Thanos’ body, Peter and Groot arrive in time to rescue some of their friends form the black hole left in the wake of the Order’s assault. They pull Beta Rey Bill, Moondragon, Phyla-Vell, and Cosmic Ghost Rider free and they band together to go in search of the body and save the others who were sucked through the hole. I cannot begin to say how excited I am Moondragon and Phyla-Vell are back. They were two of my favorite Guardians from the Abnett and Lanning run! There is so much to them as characters. They are powerful heavy hitters (with visually stunning abilities that create exciting panel layouts) who are also such a great couple. I love when we get comic book relationships largely free from drama and we just have two loving, supporting people in a loving, supportive relationship.
With the new incarnation of the Guardians shaping up, we see Eros and the others sucked into the Black Order’s black hole (ha) survived, thanks to Gladiator and the Shi’ar fleet. They believe Thanos’ consciousness is most likely in Gamora – given she’s his daughter and did try to destroy the universe after he died – so they plan to find and kill her. Aboard the Guardians’ ship, Beta Rey Bill and Groot want to find and protect Gamora. Cosmic Ghost Rider (Frank Castle (the Punisher) from an alternate future who has become a li’l insane and sorta Deadpool-like) doesn’t buy into that so he leaves to join the kill crew. But Peter doesn’t want any part of any of it. Ultimately, Groot “mutinies” and takes control of the ship (again, I love new punk rock conscience Groot) and he, Phyla-Vell, Moondragon, and Beta Rey Bill decide to go protect Gamora…with Peter stuck along for the ride.
The tension in the narrative is Eros and his crew want to kill Gamora out of fear, for something she may do, for something they believe she will do based on her actions with the Infinity Gems Stones. But Groot and the newly reformed Guardians want to protect her. Gamora deserves forgiveness. She deserves a second chance. Most of all, she’s family. And they won’t stand idly by as others hunt and kill her. Family doesn’t do that to family.
This is one of my favorite tropes and it’s illustrated/executed so well here – the family you choose. I love this trope so much because it’s true! Growing up I was always told, “Family are the only ones you can always count on. They are the only ones who are always there for you.” And, as an adult, I’ve realized that’s true…but blood has nothing to do with what makes a “family.” Family – true family – is found with those to whom we are bonded in and through love, not blood. True, we may well find the bonds of love with those whose blood we share. It happens often enough and it’s a wonderful gift. But family is forged in love and that is what makes family an unbreakable bond. While this is often a part of the Guardians’ comics, Cates’ narrative expresses the beauty and power of this truth better than most.
The Guardians catch up to Gamora on Halfworld, the planet Rocket was genetically altered/engineered on, the planet he’s returned to. Once again we see Gamora is motivated by an unshakable sense of honor and her love of her family – her true family – is evident. We find the “deadliest woman in the galaxy” living alone, outside Rocket’s home, protecting him. She will cut down anything and everything that approaches his door. This is the Gamora we see shine through Abnett and Lanning’s run and come even more fully into her own in Bendis’ run. This is the Gamora so tragically and inexplicably absent from Duggan’s run. And I am SO glad to have her back!
While Cates can’t undo what Duggan did with her, he does use her quest for atonement as a way to anchor her once again in the powerful, loyal, steadfast nature that always defined her. We learn Rocket is sick – dying. Whatever was once done to him on Halfworld is coming undone. Gamora goes to Halfworld to protect him, to let him die as he wanted, and to kill any of his enemies who came looking to take him out before his time. She was there to honor him and bury him when he was gone.
When Groot and Rocket are finally face to face, Cates again takes something awkward Duggan did (making Groot speak normally) and uses it for one of the most poignant moments in his run. Groot is furious with Rocket for leaving him and Peter without so much as a word. He tells Rocket why Gamora was there – what she was doing for him. Rocket matches Groot’s anger with his own.
Rocket – “I was hiding because I didn’t want you to see me like this! After all I done for this @#$%& galaxy, don’t I get that at least? Don’t I get to decide how I’m remembered? Don’t I get to own this part?”
Groot – …..
Groot – “No. You don’t just belong to you, Rocket. None of us do. We owe it to each other to keep going. Because you won’t be there – when you die. But we will. That’s what family means.”
I get chills every time I read Groot’s response. See?! Again, Cates has taken something odd and inexplicable Duggan did and redeemed it. No other Guardian could have had that conversation with Rocket. No one else could have made that impact. Our getting to read it directly and not infer what Groot says carries far more emotional weight for us as readers. It feels fitting, given Groot’s character and his place within the Guardians, that he’s the one who speaks so eloquently about the meaning of family.
We don’t just belong to ourselves. We owe it to each other to keep going. That’s what family means.
Remember, again, with the Guardians that word has nothing to do with blood. It’s about those to whom we are bonded in and through love. And we can cast our bonds of love far and wide if we cultivate the right disposition. We don’t just belong to ourselves. We belong to all those to whom we are bonded in love. We owe it to each other – to everyone we are bonded to in love – to keep going. That’s what family means. And, as the Guardians model, “family” can be a large, motley, and galaxy-spanning crew.
When Gamora is captured by Eros’ kill crew, Peter Quill is back. To protect a fellow Guardian, to protect a friend, to protect family, Peter finds his calling again. With Peter’s connection to Gamora, we see Cates yet again create something meaningful from something Duggan forced onto the characters in his run.
As I’ve written of before, one of the things that surprised me the most when I first started reading Guardians Of The Galaxy was Peter and Gamora were NEVER a couple. In the MCU they are second only to Tony and Pepper but a possible attraction wasn’t even hinted at through all of Abnett and Lanning’s run nor in Bendis’. But then, with Duggan, they were a couple – apparently a couple with a long history – who had also broken up?? Again, while Cates can’t undo what Duggan did, he takes all the history/baggage Duggan drops on them with no explanation and uses it to model something so nourishing and healthy. After a battle, Gamora and Peter share a tender conversation.
Gamora – “Peter…why did you save me? In the battle, when I was down…I thought…I thought you hated me.”
Peter – “Sigh…I don’t hate you, Gamora. I hated myself because even after everything you’ve done…I love you. I always have. Even now. And I don’t know what that says about me. But I needed to tell you…because we almost die. A lot.”
Gamora – “Peter…I – I don’t know what to do with that right now…”
Peter – “That’s okay. No one has to decide anything today…”
Who cares about their relationship never being a thing when it can be used to give us this scene? We see honest and open communication. We see a confession of love in all its confusing complexity. We see respect for each other’s boundaries, even and especially when a declaration of love can’t be returned right now. In a few lines of dialogue we see two characters speak from the heart, truly hear each other, and then meet and honor the other exactly where they’re at. We should all be so lucky to have a relationship – any relationship, romantic or platonic – like this in our lives. We should all be so courageous as to be so honest and vulnerable, too.
The beauty of this scene, the lesson it teaches, the type of connection and communication it models – it makes all the stupid plots worth it because they’re transformed into something so, so valuable here.
I realized…just now…I don’t want to tell you anymore about the plot. I don’t want to tell you what happens with the hunt for Thanos’ body and his consciousness. If you want to read these comics (and you so should!), I want you to experience the bulk of it on your own. But I DO want to tell you, for all I’ve shared here, I’ve only scratched the surface of what Donny Cates does with his time writing Guardians Of The Galaxy. I’ve given you snapshots of a story where this thoughtful poignancy runs through each issue. The action is FREAKING FANTASTIC, too.
I do want to add, while Cates’ first arc deals with Thanos’ consciousness and body, for his second he brings back the Guardians’ old adversary, the Universal Church of Truth. This time the Church is from the future and their engines are not powered by faith but by life. They strip people of their will to live and use that to power their technology. The idea of a corrupt religion preying on people’s sense of hopelessness to fuel their own devious ends and gain power is a pretty brilliant analogy.
While simultaneously being an exceptionally moving and entertaining comic story, Donny Cates’ Guardians Of The Galaxy also serves as the perfect analogy for our modern world. The opening narration of the very first issue echoes so many of our real life fears and anxieties, “The galaxy…the galaxy is broken. A hundred worlds are at war. The stars run red across the black as ancient gods stir from their slumbers. Never in my time have I seen such hatred and division among the various houses and tribes of the cosmos…never have I seen such unmitigated death. The abyss is burning ladies and gentlemen.” After years of the Trump presidency, Brexit, and the inexplicable rise of nationalism the world over – not to mention increasingly rabid climate change deniers and now people who disregard all clear science and any sense of morality to refuse to do something as simple as wear a mask in public to protect lives – we are all a little bit broken. How can we not feel that way in a world like this? We are all trying to find a way back to who we used to be. It all so often seems hopeless.
Like Peter Quill, we don’t want to fight because we can’t really remember how to and we don’t really see the point anyway. Why battle when we only ever seem to lose? But…but, just like Peter, deep down we know what’s right and – in that moment of choice – we’ll do it. The Guardians show us it is in and through family that we find our strength. When we allow ourselves to be bounded once again in love, mercy, forgiveness, and trust, we’re ready to kick the entire flarkin’ galaxy’s ass if need be to protect that which needs protecting. In those bonds of love we can do anything. The whole series is a little dark and a little sad but in the darkness and in the sadness it gives birth to HOPE. That hope inspires us to live and love boldly and bravely in the face of everything.
No matter how dark things seem, we have to keep on loving. Because we don’t just belong to ourselves. We owe it to each other to keep going. That’s what family means.
Donny Cates wrote Guardians Of The Galaxy from January 2019 to December 2019. If you’d like to read more about their comic history, here are their other eras!