10 Essential Reads Before Seeing Guardians of the Galaxy

An aggressive marketing push from Marvel Studios has seemingly succeeded in making the Guardians [...]

An aggressive marketing push from Marvel Studios has seemingly succeeded in making the Guardians of the Galaxy into a household name. But even with all of the film's cleverly conceived and well received trailers and promotional images, there's still a large contingent of casual fans/prospective moviegoers who know very little about the movie's five featured characters: Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, Rocket Raccoon and Groot.

With less than a week to go before Guardians of the Galaxy hits theaters, use this list as your last minute primer. The first half is filled with key first appearances or origin issues for the five main characters, while the latter half mostly consists of storylines that focus on the Guardians group dynamic and how they became a team.

All of these comics are easily available through Comixology, Marvel.com or the Marvel Unlimited app (not to mention good old fashioned trade paperbacks). So if you're still on the fence about seeing this movie because you wouldn't know a Rocket Raccoon from a talking squirrel, take to your comic book reading vessel of choice and let this list guide you to opening night.

First Appearance and Origins

1. Star-Lord The Hollow Crown

Marvel released a one-shot last year that collects two early stories about Peter Quill, aka, Star-Lord, including his very first appearance in Marvel Preview #4.

Typical of the Marvel Cosmic movement of the late 1970s, Quill's origin story, written by Steven Englehart, with pencils by Steve Gan and Bob McLeod, is pretty out there in terms of its themes and imagery. It's definitely an acquired taste, though if you're already a disciple of the works of Englehart and other Marvel Cosmic writers of the era like Jim Starlin and Steve Gerber, you'll likely enjoy this tale of a smalltown Ohio boy whose mother is murdered by aliens. Quill vows vengeance and joins NASA to become an astronaut, but is eventually ostracized for his arrogant and nasty behavior towards his colleagues. Peter eventually becomes Star-Lord after he ambushes a fellow astronaut, steals a spaceship and meets the "Master of the Sun," who bestows powers and a new costume onto Quill, transforming him into the space pirate we sorta know him as today.

The collection also includes Marvel Preview #11, created by the very famous collaborative duo of Chris Claremont and John Byrne. Together, they further fleshed out Quill's character. Claremont's script softens some of Peter's edges, as early touches of his trademark sarcasm and sense of humor start to shine through. The story also introduces readers to Peter's alien father, Emperor Jason of Sparta.

Elements of Quill's origins were later retconned by the 2013 relaunch of Guardians of the Galaxy (more on that in a minute).

2. Rocket Racoon #1-4

Direct from the wild imagination of Bill Mantlo, the talking, gun-toting raccoon that would is popularly known as Rocket, got his very own limited series in 1985, which introduced readers to the zany land of Halfworld – a planet filled with killer clowns and the mentally unstable "loonies." Rocket Raccoon also marked an early artistic credit for Hellboy creator Mike Mignola.

The mini ends with Rocket curing the "loonies" and setting off into space with his friends. Elements of Rocket Raccoon would be later mined for some of the Rocket/Groot back-up stories in the Annihilators miniseries, and there are also some references from this mini in Skottie Young's new Rocket Raccoon ongoing, which was released earlier this month to much critical and commercial acclaim.

3. Iron Man #55

Jim Starlin provided both script and pencils for this landmark 1973 comic that introduced Drax the Destroyer and (more importantly) one of Marvel's most iconic villains in Thanos.

Iron Man #55 demonstrates how Thanos and Drax are inextricably linked due to very, very personal reasons. While we would later learn that Thanos has killed Drax's family and then adopted his daughter (who becomes the telepath Moondragon), Starlin's introductory story teams Drax with Iron Man as the two battle Thanos and the Blood Brothers on the Mad Titan's space craft.

Thanos makes an especially grand entrance, stepping on Iron Man's hand and declaring himself emperor of the soon-to-be conquered Titan and "later Earth." In a trademark Tony Stark quip, he tells the villain that he's not about to go licking his boots just yet.

Starlin would later go on to more effectively use Thanos in Captain Marvel, Warlock, Silver Surfer and the Infinity Gauntlet. The Mad Titan is expected to make some kind of appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy, and stands to play a larger part in the Marvel Cinematic Universe down the road, most likely in Avengers 3.

4.  "The Warlock/Magus Saga" (Strange Tales #178-181, Warlock #9-15)

Fans of the "deadliest woman in the whole galaxy" should be sure to look up this 1975 run of issues that make up Jim Starlin's cosmic masterpiece, "The Magus Saga." This storyline, in addition to being a prime example of the wonder and awe of Marvel's Cosmic movement in the 1970s, introduces the world to the female assassin Gamora. We learn in these issues that her family was killed by the Universal Church of Truth cult, and she was raised and trained by Thanos so she could one day strike back against those who wronged her (and take care of those who were an inconvenience to Thanos as well, 'natch).

In this story, Gamora works alongside Thanos and the golden-hued hero, Adam Warlock, to seek out and destroy the Magus, a future "dark" version of Warlock and leader of the church. She later becomes suspicious of Thanos and turns on him.

Gamora was apparently killed by Thanos in Avengers Annual #7, but it turned out that she was reunited with Warlock in the "Soulworld"  and was later resurrected when Starlin started churning out more Marvel Cosmic content in the early 1990s.

5.  Tales to Astonish #13

Before his catchphrase (and really the only thing he can say) was shortened to "I am Groot," Groot, the Monarch of Planet X, was considerably more long-winded, not to mention evil. In his very first appearance in this 1960 Stan Lee/Jack Kirby/Dick Ayers story, Groot arrives on Earth intent on conquering a small town by controlling the area's vegetation and lifting the community into space. Groot is eventually conquered by a scientist named Leslie Evans, who fights the living tree the best way he can – by unleashing termites.

In the years that followed, Groot's character would change significantly. He maintained his monarch status on Planet X, but was far less concerned with conquering other planets. He was later absorbed into the Dan Abnett/Andy Lanning cosmic universe in the late 2000s. Still, Guardians completists who are unfamiliar with storylines before the "Marvel Age of Comics" kicked off with Fantastic Four #1 in 1961, should check out this Tales to Astonish tale just to get a sense of what Stan and Kirby were up to before they revolutionized the comic book industry.

Modern Guardians of the Galaxy Stories

1. Annihilation: Conquest

As a sequel to the 2006 miniseries Annihilation – which is largely responsible for reinvigorating Marvel's Cosmic line of comic books – Annihilation: Conquest is written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning (DnA) and can be cited as the birthplace for the modern incarnation of the Guardians of the Galaxy.

DnA had been scripting Nova when they were approached by Marvel to be the heralds of the publisher's next big cosmic event. The makeshift crew of spacefaring heroes, which includes Star-Lord, Rocket, Gamora, Warlock, Moondragon, Ronan the Accuser and others, join together to fight the Phalnax and the deadly cyborg Ultron.

By the end of the event, Star-Lord proposes that the group be maintained in a more official capacity in order to defend the galaxy against similar threats in the future. This would lead directly into the launch of DnA's run of Guardians of the Galaxy (volume two), featuring the assembly of heroes that are being featured in the film adaptation.

2. "Legacy" (Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 #1-6)

As the opening arc of Marvel's 2008 revival of its Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, writers Abnett and Lanning discard the original Guardians line-up in favor of a wise-cracking space pirate (Star-Lord), a cold-blooded warrior looking to avenge the death of his family (Drax), a deadly assassin (Gamora), a talking raccoon (Rocket) and gigantic walking/talking tree (Groot). As the trailer for the Guardians film says: "what a bunch of A-holes."

In all seriousness, DnA just throw their audience into the weird and wild world of the Guardians, introducing its large supporting cast in rapid succession and crafting the perfect mix of cosmic space action and humor (the Real World-esque "testimonial" panels featuring different Guardians members is a particular stroke of comedic genius in the series). And while everyone in the book gets equal-billing, the series undoubtedly becomes Star-Lord's domain, as DnA depict him as a larger than life personality who wants to save the universe, even if his methodology is unquestionably underhanded (the first arc ends with the bulk of the team walking out on Peter after they learn he used a telepath to trick them into joining the group).

The DnA run lasted only 25 issues, but developed a very passionate following. Without the book's success, the film version of Guardians of the Galaxy is probably one of those ideas that gets laughed at and never made.

3. The Thanos Imperative

After nearly three years of cosmic stories involving the Guardians of the Galaxy and Nova, Abnett and Lanning seemingly tie everything together with this six-part miniseries featuring Marvel's cast of cosmic heroes battling an alternative version of Captain Mar-Vell and the looming threat of the Cancerverse.

In a unique twist, Star-Lord aligns himself and the group with Thanos, who he believes is the only being powerful enough to destroy Mar-Vell and push back the invasive Cancerverse. As a demonstration of Thanos's cunning intellect and extraordinary selfishness, he double crosses both the Guardians and Mar-Vell, refusing to fight and instead surrendering himself to his former mistress Death. When Death once again spurns him, Thanos is enraged and promises to destroy the entire galaxy. As a means to protect everyone, Star-Lord and Nova trap themselves with Thanos inside the Cancerverse, and series ends with their presumed death.

The series is definitely an emotional capper to DnA's otherwise funny and weird ride. But it does manage to seemingly tie-up a number of loose ends in a way that services the larger cosmic narrative, while also staying true to its characters.

4. Rocket/Groot "B" Stories (Annihilators #1-4)

Judging from the assortment of Guardians of the Galaxy clips that have been released to the public, the film version of the team is expected to emphasize the kinship between its two CGI characters, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). While the two certainly share a bond in the Abnett/Lanning Guardians series, the relationship is more fully explored in the four connected backup stories in 2011's Annihilators miniseries.

The storyline is also a throwback to the Mantlo/Mignola, Rocket Raccoon mini from the 1980s, as it features the planet Halfworld along with its kooky cast of killer clowns and gun-toting animals. While dealing with the emotional fallout of The Thanos Imperative, Rocket has taken a job at a mail room, where he helps fulfill a "cute sentient animals" quota. After getting fired, he sets out to find Groot on Planet X, eventually reuniting with the monarch and forging a dynamic and funny duo. Rocket appears to be the only person who "gets" Groot, which in turns leads to some great comedic scenes of Groot saying "I am Groot," and Rocket completely understanding his friend's context and tone.

5. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 3 #0.1

After Marvel Studios shocked the world by announcing that a Guardians of the Galaxy film was in the works (leading to a bunch of people to ask "who?") Brian Michael Bendis and Steve McNiven were brought in to create this prequel to what would be the third volume of a new Guardians of the Galaxy series (which is still being published today).

Confusing numbering system aside (who opens a series with a point one issue?), the comic reimagines and simplifies Peter Quill's origin story, while providing a logical and worthwhile impetus for why he was motivated to become a protector of the galaxy. It has also functioned as a great jumping on point for new readers curious to find out exactly who was going to be starring in this new movie. In that regard, Guardians of the Galaxy #0.1 has been a major success for Marvel, as the series has been a consistent top 25 performer in sales each month; considerably better than previous volumes of the series.