By Kiel Phegley
The swaggering, surly space criminal known as Star-Lord may seem an unlikely choice for cosmic super hero—and his rise to the silver screen in Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” starts with an equally unlikely origin.
The man known as Peter Quill started his life with the man called Steve Englehart, one of the most acclaimed writers of Marvel Comics in the 1970’s. Englehart had a number of iconic runs with characters like Beast in AMAZING ADVENTURES, DEFENDERS and a pioneering stint on AVENGERS where he created early cosmic hero—and occasional Guardian—Mantis.
Then in 1976, Englehart wrote the origin story for Star-Lord in MARVEL PREVIEW #4. While his plans for the character were cut short, the DNA of the hero seen in the new film all grow from Englehart's original tale.
To celebrate the birth of Star-Lord and the legacy of one of Marvel’s most original voices, Marvel.com spoke to Englehart about the company in the 70’s, the zeitgeist that led he and creators like Jim Starlin to start the cosmic boom, why Mantis became the signature character of his AVENGERS tenure and how Star-Lord went from cosmic jerk to matinee idol.
Marvel.com: Steve, tell us about the period of Marvel Comics that gave birth to cosmic super heroes. In the mid-1970’s, there were a lot of new characters inspired by kung-fu films or other popular cinema, but when you and other creators started playing with space-faring heroes we were still several years ahead of “Star Wars” coming out and changing the culture towards those kinds of stories. What made you and your friends look to space for adventure?
Steve Englehart: Well, it was the 70’s for one thing, with everything that that entails. But in those days in order to work in comics, you had to physically come to New York. The deal was that you had to get there somehow and find a friend’s couch to sleep on, but if you could get the work then you were in the business. And pretty much everybody in the business was around. The old legends and the new guys were all hanging around the same places and going to the same parties. There was a real comic book community in New York City. And a lot of us young guys in the 70’s came in at the same time when you could still meet Wally Wood and Bill Everett and Will Eisner in the flesh, but you could also meet Frank Brunner and Al Weiss and Jim Starlin. We were young, creative people in New York City which was a very unusual place for a lot of us to be.
There was also the fact that Marvel was humming on all cylinders. Those of us who were young and just out of college—or just out of the Army in my case—came to New York and started doing Marvel Comics when it was just cool as hell to be working at Marvel Comics. Everything conspired to make us as creative as possible.
And the final thing that really contributed was that [then Editor-in-Chief] Roy Thomas—and I have no idea why—decided to let us all have complete creative freedom. Roy tells the story that when he was brought in with Denny O’Neil, Stan Lee had drilled them to write exactly like Stan because he was the only voice Marvel had had at that point. But for whatever reason, when Roy took over as Editor-in-Chief he decided to let us all be ourselves. So it was being young, in New York City, a part of the whole comic book reality, being the 70’s and complete creative freedom. We were just looking for anything and everything that would make an interesting comic book story. Marvel was humming on all cylinders, and we wanted to hum along with it. We wanted to take it in new directions and new worlds.
All of that was there, and so space and the cosmic aspect of things was something we all got into. When “Star Wars” came out, a bunch of us went down to some theater in New York and saw it, and I remember saying to the people I was with, “There's a Marvel comic on screen!” That was the first time you’d seen something that looked like a Marvel comic in a movie, and I bet if you asked George Lucas, he might tell you he got his inspiration from the comics. But it is true that we were doing it before other media—partly because it was easier to do that kind of story in comics. All you had to do was find someone to draw it and someone to publish it, then it was practically a done deal.
Marvel.com: It seemed that a lot of this led from Roy writing CAPTAIN MARVEL and bringing the Kree into things in a big way. Then Jim Starlin brought Thanos and Drax into IRON MAN. And then you had a number of stories in that vein between AVENGERS and the introduction of Star-Lord. Was part of this just that you'd see each other’s pages and pick up on similar ideas?
Steve Englehart: I think so. I think you're right on point. In those days, if you worked in comics at all, you got all the comics from the publishers for free. So everybody not only was sort of living in proximity to everyone else doing comics, but you were always aware of what’s going on in comics. In those days, anything in comics was probably known so you drew off any good idea that you saw anywhere.
Marvel.com: One of the biggest series you did in this era was AVENGERS where you were given the biggest characters at Marvel and the biggest playground you’d had up to that point. At the same time, you introduced one of your early cosmic characters in Mantis as a huge part of the book. How did that affect the kind of risks you were taking in your own writing?
Steve Englehart: It was certainly a lynchpin in my evolution as a writer. When I took over AVENGERS—and to this day I'm not exactly sure why Roy chose me—I wanted to keep the feel of Roy’s AVENGERS which I thought was a really, really good book. I wanted to do as good or better, so I tried to do Roy’s book for about six or eight months. I tried to make it sound in my head how I thought Roy would have done it, and I really wasn’t satisfied with that. I was starting to realize that I had my own voice as a writer, and I trying to be Roy wasn’t going to get me there.
So I looked around for a way to shake up the group. I wasn’t going to break up the Avengers, but I could have Hawkeye leave, which I did. Still, that had been done. So I came up with this idea of a woman who would come in as a sort of femme fatale and put the male Avengers through their paces. I came up with this character named Mantis, and she sort of took over. I had this idea that she’d mess with the guys, but as soon as I got her in the book, I got into the situation of doing the Avengers/Defenders clash. I had to make her a good member of the team right then because that whole story was about different teams of people fighting. And it shaped her! After she became a good team member, I couldn’t make her a disruptive force anymore. So her ambitions settled on the Vision rather than all the men, and things kind of settled in from there.
All of the sudden I had this character where half of her backstory no longer applied in my mind. The stuff I thought I knew about her, I didn’t know about her anymore. So in filling that backstory in, I started to draw on what was out there, and she became more and more cosmic.
The specific idea for me with cosmic was that I had written Dr. Strange in DEFENDERS as a magician super hero amidst all these other weird heroes. But Frank Brunner had become the artist on Dr. Strange in MARVEL PREMIERE, and when Gardner Fox left that book, Frank asked if I would write Dr. Strange for him. So when I was confronted with writing Dr. Strange solo, I realized I had to know more about magic. I thought, “If I'm going to write a guy who knows all this stuff, I can have him talk about the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak and all that stuff, but it’d be nice to know what magicians actually do.” So I read up on magic, and that leads you into the cosmic worldview. Once I’d opened myself up to that, it got used in a lot of other places in my work.
When it was time to fill in the backstory of Mantis, I added a piece from that and then another piece, and eventually she married a tree. [Laughs] She became the Celestial Madonna, but that was all very organic. I was in the midst of all these different influences so I'd stick it all together, and it would lead me to the next big idea. That was the most fun part of writing for me in those days: going down the road untraveled and seeing what was there. I liked being on the cutting edge of stories and flying by the seat of your pants.
Marvel.com: That Celestial Madonna idea also plays into one of the most popular ideas associated with cosmic super heroes which was pushing the characters to be “Cosmically Aware” which seemed the end point of a lot of the world building that had happened in early Marvel Comics with the introduction of the Inhumans or the Negative Zone as more far out spaces. Did you all feel the need to push the boundaries on that front?
Steve Englehart: I’m aware that Jack Kirby was interested in cosmic stuff. He liked the gods and all that stuff, so I think it’s fairly well accepted that a lot of that stuff comes from what he and Stan did. That said it is true that you have to open up new avenues after you’ve been doing a book for a while, and the 70’s was a time of mind expansion and all that stuff.
Marvel.com: Your other major contribution at this time was the character of Star-Lord who debuted in an issue of Marvel's black and white MARVEL PREVIEW magazine issue #4 in a story you did with Steve Gan. Were those magazines a bit of a playground to try even more non-traditional ideas?
Steve Englehart: I don’t think those magazines fell under the Comics Code. I can’t actually swear to that now it’s so far in the past, but it was supposed to be more adult—or adult as defined at that point in Marvel Comics history. It wasn’t like doing a completely different thing. It was an extension with fewer boundaries. It was part of the same writing gestalt, as far as I’m concerned. I do think that for some of those books, the impetus was to try and get eyeballs on the newsstands. You had to compete with Time Magazine and everything else, so anything you could do to open up a new niche and take up some space, the publishers were happy to do.
Marvel.com: Even though you only wrote the first issue, Star-Lord certainly has a memorable origin, one current GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY writer Brian Michael Bendis has cited as a huge inspiration for the current run. What were the origins of the character for you, and what’s it like to see what Peter Quill has become?
Steve Englehart: Comics back in those days were basically assigned. Frank Brunner could go in and say, “I want Steve Englehart to write Dr. Strange,” but he had to get Roy's approval, and Roy had to say yes. And I took whatever job they gave me, be it AVENGERS or if they said, “We've started a new black and white magazine, and we want a new space character for it. Do what you want.” Again, that was the editorial directive at the time: “Do what you want.”
So I came up with this guy, and what I wanted to do—which still looms large in my mind even though it doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of Star-Lord at this point—was build a 12-issue run around the zodiac. Like I said, I’d been studying magic and astrology at that point, and I thought, “Wouldn't it be interesting if a guy started at the sun and worked his way outward by having a different adventure on each planet tied to the mythological/astrological background of that planet?” So there would be a love story on Venus and a war story on Mars. And I wanted to have a different artist on each one with a romance artist drawing the Venus story or Joe Kubert drawing the war book. But that was the idea.
In order to make that happen and make that guy’s journey makes sense as he expanded out through the universe I decided to make him the most anti-social, sociopathic, repellant guy ever to start with. So in that first storyline, Peter Quill was this total jerk who would end up at the center of the solar system before having this 12-issue run where he’d grow and learn and eventually become “the Star-Lord.” I blocked this all out in my brain while planning to write the other 11 issues on the fly. So I wrote a character that I didn’t even like, which was a novel concept for starting a series.
But then after I wrote the first issue in which he’s a complete jerk, I left the company and never got to finish that idea. Meanwhile, Chris Claremont and other people did various other Star-Lord stories where they tried to salvage that character. But Star-Lord never really caught on anywhere until 2008 when the Guardians of the Galaxy took him.
To me, Peter Quill was always a truncated epic, and to see him come around again—albeit mellowed out—is amazing to me. I did create a whole bunch of different characters along the line, and he’s the least likely character I'd expect to see in a movie! [Laughs] And yet, I’ll take it. I’m certainly enjoying seeing this stuff all over, and I owe a great debt of thanks to [GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning] for putting him into their book.
For more of Marvel’s 75th anniversary, visit marvel.com/75 and join the conversation on Twitter with the hash tag #Marvel75