Welcome to another edition of “Back Issues”, the column where I examine a character, concept or theme making waves in comics today through issues from the past. This week sees the opening of the latest film from Marvel Studios, James Gunn‘s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the second instalment in the adventures of Marvel’s space-faring band of rascally reprobates. The first film represented Marvel taking a giant step into the cultish and more than slightly silly corner of their universe that embraces giant far-out kooky cosmic concepts, and if the rumours about this second film are true, then we’re about to get more of the same from this new film. In honor of this most unfettered part of the Marvel Universe, let’s dive in to one of the more loopy Marvel Cosmic concepts; The Elders of the Universe!
Big Space Weirdos
So, first off, what exactly are the Elders of the Universe? They’re a bit hard to define, really, mostly because the members of the group were created before the concept of them being a part of a collective was ever dreamed up. Marvel has always had more than its fair share of what I call Big Space Weirdos. BSWs are immensely powerful beings that randomly encounter Marvel heroes, initially appearing almost omnipotent and inimical to humanity before the hero in question finds some way to thwart them. The first BSW to debut and have any staying power is probably Uatu the Watcher in 1963’s Fantastic Four #13. The Watcher set the standard by being immensely powerful in an undefined way, possessing a set mission/cosmic role, wearing some kind of toga/skirt ensemble, and possessing a bizarre physical feature, in this case a big giant bald head.
Soon, BSWs were all over Marvel Comics. The X-Men met the Stranger (Giant? Check. Weird powers? Check. Strange physical attribute in the form of weird moustache? Check. Skirt? Check.) but what really cemented the standing of Marvel’s BSWs was perhaps the defining story of Marvel’s 1960s output. I’m talking about the first Galactus story in Fantastic Four issues #48-50. He may have swapped weird physical attribute for a truly impressive helmet, but otherwise all the other BSW traits were there, right down to a kicky purple mini-skirt.
After Galactus was a hit, Marvel’s writers and artists were free to indulge themselves in creating raft of alien menaces with undefined powers but well-defined central concepts to throw at our heroes and generally be really far out, man. And when you merge that with the oncoming age of, shall we say, mind expansion? Then you get what became the Elders of the Universe, a group of aliens each representing a distinct particular obsession which they pursue with a fanatical devotion. Some are malicious in intent, some are beneficent, but most are depicted as being beyond simple morality and more the personification of certain traits in their purest form. Over time, it’s been pretty much confirmed that the Elders are all the final survivors of their respective ancient races, which tends to bind them together.
So, let’s take a look at some of these Elders, a few of which will be familiar to any viewers of past Marvel films, and all of whom have engaged in some of the most bonkers schemes in the history of Marvel comics. Don your best toga/kicky skirt and prepare yourself, mortals.
The first of the Elders to appear chronologically in both the comics and the films is also the one-trickiest of one-trick-ponies, Taneleer Tivan, aka the Collector. He collects rare and unusual things. Annnnnd, that’s basically it. Created by Stan Lee and Don Heck in 1966’s Avengers #28, the Collector’s initial appearance saw him trying to abduct the Wasp to add to his collection. For years after, that was his basic scheme; pop up to steal someone, get his butt kicked, disappear. In recent years he’s become more inventive in his scheming, but for the most part, his modus operandi has remained the same.
In terms of design, for much of his time in comics he’s basically been depicted as a wrinklier, eviler, slightly more spry Aunt May, which means he cuts neither an imposing or appealing figure. However, after he was included in the first Guardians of the Galaxy film as an exposition delivery system in the form of Benicio Del Toro, he was redesigned in the comics as younger, hipper, and distressingly soul-patched.
My favorite appearance of the Collector has to be from 1976’s Incredible Hulk #197-198, which finds the Collector trying to….sigh….add the Hulk to his collection. What makes this story, written by Len Wein with art by Sal Buscema and Joe Staton, so enjoyable is the ridiculously convoluted plan of the Collector. His scheme winds up involving Man-Thing, actual honest-to-god 17th century pirates, an additional behemoth called the Glob, a Civil War Soldier and a character that is pretty much confirmed to be Shahrazad from 1001 Nights. It’s a great example of the way writers in the Sliver and Bronze Ages were totally comfortable with chucking everything and the kitchen sink into their stories, unrestrained by limitations or even plausibility, really. These two issues somehow manage to be both completely over-the-top silly adventure even as it succeeds in moments of poignancy and actually boasts a surprising and somewhat jarring downbeat ending.
I actually prefer this version of Taneleer Tivan, which has more in common with the bizarre and absurd character in the film as opposed to the scheming modern comics version of the Collector, which I think Marvel kind of wants us to somehow take seriously. But this is guy who literally has been shown to have ships in bottles in his collection alongside artifacts of incredible power, so the best way to treat a guy like that is portray him as the kooky space equivalent of a malicious hoarder, which is how both the film and the classic comics have treated him.
Ego, the Living Planet
I have to be delicate with this one, because it’s rumoured (well, confirmed, pretty much) that the character Kurt Russell is playing in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is connected to Ego in a major way. I’m not going to spoil anything intentionally here, but if you really want to avoid any revelations, skip onwards.
Ego may be the most unconventional of our BSWs in that he doesn’t ever wear any kind of androgynous clothing but that’s only because he truly is what it says on the tin. Dude is a giant planet. With a beard. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966’s Thor #132, Ego is also unconventional in that he doesn’t represent the quintessence of a particular human obsession, but rather represents….well, a big sentient planet, I guess.
I’m a big fan of his first appearance in the pages of Thor. Ego’s personality is pretty on the nose when you consider his name, though a sentient living planet would think rather highly of himself wouldn’t he? This story takes place during a long story arc where Thor and artificially intelligent android called the Recorder are journeying around together when they encounter Ego, who they fear wants to consume the planet Rigel. This leads to conflict with Ego, with Thor fighting off antibodies as he makes his way across Ego’s surface and eventually inside the living being. The whole central idea behind this story is basically, “How goddamn weird would THIS be?” and when that’s the driving idea of your story, it’s probably best to have Jack Kirby on art. The whole issue is over the top, but in a limitless, not an annoying way. Kirby clearly relishes the opportunity to depict something as genuinely bizarre and awesome as planet that is alive and possessing a gigantic bearded face as its landscape.
Later appearances of Ego would take advantage of the fact that Marvel had also independently provided him with a natural enemy in the form of Galactus, whom Ego would try to destroy or protect himself from over the decades. Most recently, Ego learned he was created by fellow BSW (though not an Elder) the Stranger, and that he was an opposite in the form of Alter-Ego, who has become Ego’s moon. Because this is comics, folks.
En Dwi Gast, the Grandmaster, like most of the Elders, acts as a kind of living personification of a human quality, in this case the love of game-playing and chance. Created by Roy Thomas and Sal Buscema in 1969’s Avengers #69, Gast has popped up in Marvel stories over the years whenever creators want to tell stories about cosmic contests and heroic challenges. And, yeah, before you ask, he fits right into our BSW guidelines. He’s vaguely powerful, dresses in comfortable non-gender specific robes, and has a big blue head.
Like our previous two entries, some aspect of the character is soon to make his cinematic debut. In the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok, the Grandmaster will be played by Jeff Goldblum, continuing Marvel’s stellar trend of matching genuinely eccentric actors to play genuinely eccentric Marvel characters. At this rate, Christopher Walken will be popping up as Uatu the Watcher when Marvel inevitably gets the rights back to the Fantastic Four.
The Grandmaster claims to have mastered all games in existence, and now gets his kicks by assembling opposing teams of sentient beings and pitting them against each other in challenges, usually as part of a wager of some kind with a similar cosmic being. His opponents range from Kang the Conqueror, to fellow Elder the Collector to the embodiment of Death itself. Like all Elders, his powers and abilities are pretty vague, though it’s been implied that he can manipulate energy left over from the Big Bang itself, ranking him among the most powerful of the Elders, though not as powerful as Marvel’s higher cosmic beings such as Galactus, Eternity or the In-Betweener (and sometime I really have to do a Back Issues on those guys). This “Power Primordial” is the source of all the Elders’ powers, though apparently individual Elders possess it to a greater or lesser degree. Like, does the Collector even have any? Because I can’t imagine he’d keep that hair style if he did.
Probably my favorite story to heavily feature the Grandmaster is the classic JLA/Avengers miniseries from 2004. Written by Kurt Busiek with art by George Perez, this story saw the two premiere super-teams from DC and Marvel join forces to combat a threat posed to both their realities by Marvel’s Grandmaster and DC’s Krona. Though the Grandmaster, like most of the Elders, isn’t depicted as evil per se, he is a being whose morality is beyond human concerns and therefore can be destructive, callous and malicious simply out of a lack of empathy. But though in the past, his games have seemed like little more than plot devices to get people fighting, in JLA/Avengers his typical scheme is put to such epic and large-scale purpose that it feels weightier and more consequential than in other stories. If there’s only one Grandmaster story to read, this is it.
The Champion of the Universe
The last Elder we’re going to look at probably has the healthiest ego of the lot, and that includes one whose name is actually Ego. With the real name of Tryco Slatterus, he opts to go by the title Champion of the Universe, meaning he wins “dumbest name” awards in both categories. Pride and vanity seem to be the qualities this Elder embodies the most, as Tryco travels around the universe besting warriors and powerful beings in ludicrously regulated single combat. Created by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson for 1982’s Marvel Two-In-One Annual #7, the Champion defies previously established BSW tropes by not wearing any kind of robe/toga/kilt/skirt/dashiki. But he makes up for it by somehow possessing a glorious mane of red hair while also being kind of bald at the same time? Not sure how that works, but there it is.
His first appearance is spectacular in its comic bookiness. He journeys to Earth to fight the strongest men he can find, eliminating women from the selection because basically he’s just kind of a sexist dick. He winds up choosing The Thing, Thor, Namor, Colossus, Sasquatch, Wonder Man, Doc Samson and the Hulk as opponents in a boxing match at Madison Square Garden. But, rather than delivering on a battle royale, Tryco’s scrupulous adherence to the rules of the challenge causes things to not go as expected. He disqualifies Namor for refusing to train, Doc Samson for not possessing enough fighting skill, the Hulk for being a mindless brute unworthy of his time, Thor for throwing his hammer, and Wonder Man for damaging the ring. Sasquatch gets knocked out in the first round, while Colossus is defeated by technical knock out. But the Champion doesn’t count on the never say die heart of one Benjamin J. Grimm, the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing. Despite beating the holy snot out of our favorite Yancy Streeter, the Thing won’t quit, and even though the Campion clearly wins, the Thing’s effort earns his respect.
The annual may be silly, but it’s a fun kind of silly, and I have to admit, I love stories that focus on the giant heart of Ben Grimm. There’s a reason the big lug is so beloved. As for the Champion, there’s also a reason why he hasn’t popped up in a Marvel movie as of yet. He’s basically the Marvel comics equivalent of a WWE wrestler, and this is a publisher who has actually tried to make superheroes out of wrestlers and vice versa (the Thing once spent some time as a professional wrestler). He’s popped up here and there, and currently is a supporting character in the Thanos series, where writer Jeff Lemire has made him much more compelling than anyone could have though possible. But, as ridiculous as Tryco Slatterus is, I still have a soft spot for the big guy.
There are other Elders we could discuss, of course, but from here on out we’re talking about characters with names like Contemplator and the Gardener, so you’re not going to get a ton of crazy action out of those guys. As far as Big Space Weirdos go, these four are among my favorite in all of Marvel comics, so now we just have to wait and see who they’ll cast as the Champion. My money’s on Jon Cena. Any takers on that bet can pay up around the quarter bins. Till next time!