22 Apr 2017

From The Vaults: MARVEL PREVIEW #11

While we spend a great deal of time engrossed in the current crop of comic books, let us not forget those fantastic tales from the past that still sit in amongst our collections and are always worth revisiting...

Writer: Chris Claremont
Art: John Byrne & Terry Austin

Rob N: 'All New! One Man Against a Galactic Empire!' screamed the exclamation mark heavy cover.

It was the summer of 1977 – a hot one, as I recall - and like every other 13 year-old boy I was getting rather too excited about a new science fiction film called Star Wars that hadn’t yet reached the rundown Flora Cinema in Helston, Cornwall (a place where films came to die after a long run in more respectable movie theatres the length and breadth of the UK). Everyone was suddenly in a Sci-Fi frenzy, as starships and blaster rays and old fashioned pulp storytelling had bludgeoned the rather more literary pretensions of the New Wave of SF which had dominated the scene since the late '60s. Just a few years ago a typical SF title might have been something like I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream, or Time Considered As A Helix Of Semi-Precious Stones or "Repent, Harlequin!" Said The Ticktockman, with narrative flourishes that matched the ambiguity of the titles.

But that was then, and now it was now, and by 1977 it was the return of Space Opera, harking back to the 1930s, '40s and '50s, when chiseled-jawed heroes (almost certainly American) piloting jet-fighter starships in combat with surprisingly humanoid looking aliens who were trying to carry off long-legged heroines with heaving bosoms. The pseudo-intellectual titles were soon to give way to Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica and Battle Beyond The Stars.

You get the idea.

And Marvel comics of course were quick to jump on the bandwagon. For many years the general assumption was that SF comics did not sell. You could incorporate SF elements into mainstream superhero stories, but traditional SF as such didn’t sell comic books, and it was certainly true enough that throughout the '60s and much of the '70s, SF was seen as a niche interest, popular amongst fanboys but with limited crossover appeal, in much the same way that superhero stories were before Marvel and DC successfully crossed over into film.

And so, while still waiting for that big screen Star Wars showing (The Flora cinema in Helston took over a year to acquire Jaws for example) I began to devour whatever spaceship driven SF I could find. And in amongst the burgeoning offerings was Marvel Preview issue #11 featuring ‘a novel length science fiction spectacular in the tradition of Robert A. Heinlein.’ (a cover blurb sentence that was notable for lacking an exclamation mark).

A bold promise, especially since anyone familiar with the works of Heinlein would find little in common in the pages of this issue, but what it did deliver was classic Space Opera on a grand scale.

The first thing to say about Marvel Preview #11 (and indeed Starlord's first appearance in Marvel Preview #4) is that this isn’t technically the same Starlord of Guardians Of The Galaxy fame. Following these two one-off novels, Marvel opted for a reboot many years later and because of inconsistencies in the original stories that no longer suited the current incarnation, this first version of the character is now considered to be an alternative world version.

To be honest, Peter Quill’s first appearance in Marvel Preview had been a so-so affair, and hadn’t exactly set the world of publishing alight, and the only really good thing I can say about it (bearing in mind I own a copy) is the ludicrous prices it now commands as a back issue. So when Chris Claremont and John Byrne came on board to create a sequel, they were basically given a free hand to push the story away from its original roots, while still being faithful to the basic concept of an Earth Man patrolling the stars and seeking revenge ever since his mother had been killed by aliens. Marvel Preview was part of Marvel’s black and white magazine format range that mostly concerned itself with Swords and Sorcery (i.e. Conan) and Horror, but in recent years had branched out to embrace the Kung-Fu craze, popular movie adaptations (Planet Of The Apes) and with the Marvel Preview title, offer a one-off ‘try out’ anthology series for potential new concepts.

Accordingly the B&W range of titles were given rather more time, effort and budget than the regular size colour comics enjoyed, and artists in particular were selected for their painstaking attention to detail, and most importantly were given the time and resources to apply it.

And it shows with arguably the finest example of John Byrne’s art in his entire history of comics. It’s not just the exquisite draftsmanship, nor the fact that he’s ably inked by Terry Austin (Austin was always the best inker for Byrne’s pencils), nor merely that the B&W format brings out the best in the art, for it’s also clear that Byrne was creatively inspired when it came to this concept, in that his designs for the world are nothing short of breathtaking. Here is a man who has gone to town in designing coherent looks for the clothes, weapons, floating cloud cities, starships and alien races. Indeed, it’s quite clear that the initial design work must have taken months in itself, even before any of the panels had been drawn. And every page is overflowing with detail. Alien worlds are rich with background designs, and everything here feels like it's on a big budget scale. It was a comic that after I read it, I re-read it and re-read it and re-read it, until eventually I had to replace my tatty copy with a new one. Because in the summer of 1977 it was about as good as comics got, art wise.

And the story showcased Claremont’s writing skills before he became a pastiche of himself towards the tail end of his X-Men run. This is Claremont playing to his strengths as a writer, keeping his tale clean and simple with a stripped down approach to his overly wordy internal monologues and moments of crisis that ruined much of his 1980s work. It has the feel of a novel, which in the accompanying text pieces is something that was the overarching principle.

To begin with, Starlord is almost a bit character in his own story as we are introduced to Kip and Sandy, two surviving young victims of an enormous slaver ship that has sacked worlds and enslaved the inhabitants in its vast cargo holds. In a storyline that seems almost prescient of the first few Blake’s Seven episodes, the slaver vessel encounters a strange alien ship out in the gulf of space, belonging to the mysterious Starlord, and its appearance triggers a ship board revolt. Starlord is a mysterious figure to the reader to begin with, and little about him is easily explained. What is obvious is he travels with a sentient shape shifting starship that seems to be in love with him; he can breathe and exist in open space without a suit and he carries a blaster gun capable of projecting all four elements. And he also appears to be human. But before we can ponder much more we are thrown headfirst into a revenge plot as Peter Quill agrees to aid Kip and Sandy in tracking down the Slaver Lords and ending their trade in human flesh. In doing so they run smack into a galaxy-wide conspiracy plotting to overthrow the Emperor which leads them to a floating cloud city where every pleasure and vice is available at a price, and then finally on to the Imperial palace itself. While there’s nothing incredibly original in the story, it’s told with a sense of vigour and panache that belies its pulp origins. And gradually as the tale unfolds we learn the true background of Peter Quill, and the truth about what happened to his mother Meredith when she was gunned down by aliens (if you’re not totally familiar with Quill’s background, I’ll say no more on that point as it will no doubt be explored further in the movie, and anyway, it's almost certainly changed in the current incarnation of the character).

It feels like a labour of love, and I can well imagine the enthusiasm that Claremont and Byrne must have felt when they were creating this – drawing on their combined love of classic space opera and infusing it with a radically modern (for the ‘70s) overhaul. Again, everything about the art is sleek and cool in the way that only 1970s SF art can be.

Unlike the (inferior) Marvel Preview #4, this one is still very reasonably priced as a back issue and well worth picking up if you can locate a copy as one of the finest examples of 1970s Marvel comics.

And as a final note, it even includes a 'Sith Lord' as one of the villains. Now, it's just possible that this comic came out slightly ahead of Star Wars in which case Marvel might technically own the copyright on the phrase 'Sith Lord' without quite realising it...

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