The (Un)Queer Planet
In Michel Warner’s Fear of a Queer Planet, Warner refers to the ‘Pioneer Plaque’- an image that was sent on board the 1972 Pioner 10, spacecraft and later the Pioneer 11 in 1973 (Warner & STC, 1993). The crafts were sent by NASA as part of their space exploration program and were built to feasibly travel beyond our solar system. The plaque- designed by astronomer Carl Sagan and his wife- was designed to give basic information about humanity, in case extra-terrestrial life were to encounter the probes.
Warner observes that the plaque represents humanity through the image of a white, naked man and woman (ibid). He describes how this representation says much about the normative assumptions upon which Sagan, and by extension the American institution, understand ‘humanity.’ On the two figures, Warner writes:
They are not just sexually different; they are sexual difference itself. They are nude but have no body hair; the woman has no genitals …To a native of the culture that produced it, this bizarre fantasy-image is immediately recognizable not just as two gendered individuals, but as a heterosexual couple…, a technological but benign Adam and Eve. It testifies to the depth of the culture’s assurance (read: insistence) that humanity and heterosexuality are synonymous. This reminder speeds to the ends of the universe, announcing to passing stars that earth is not, regardless of what anyone says, a queer planet (ibid: 21).
The Pioneer Plaque goes further than this, however. By codifying humanity under the symbols of the white, cis, heterosexual man and woman, it is inferred that any ‘aliens’ encountering the plaque would share the same cultural references needed to reflexively decodify the image- or, at the very least, have a similar enough system of knowledge to decipher the intended message.
The tendency of the ‘Western’ human imagination to envision life outside of space inside a predominantly white, cis and heterosexual matrix is fairly apparent in pop culture and science fiction. In Doctor Who– a series that has run for 58 years- the titular, regenerating timelord has until recently, always been a white, cis man. Even now, when the character has transformed into a woman (notably, a white woman), the writing has refrained from giving her any romantic subplots- a previous common occurrence in the rebooted series. In the Star Wars universe, the few main romantic relationships are between cis, white, heterosexual humanoids. The Star Trek franchise has gone some way in subverting gendered narratives in its adventures in space, but has generally remained confined to heteronormative expectations. Indeed, in much of popular science-fiction, it is not only earth, but the universe as a whole that is decidedly not queer.
Take Offs and Landings
The unimaginative, heterosexual confines of mainstream science fiction is plainly apparent in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy title. Created by Roy Thomas, Arnold Drake, and Gene Colan in 1969, the Guardians of the Galaxy were formed as Marvel’s cosmic-level super group. The team appeared on and off in Marvel’s publishing line until the 1990s, and were not part of Marvel’s main 616-universe (With stories frequently set in an alternate Marvel timeline of the 31st century). Among comic readers, the Guardians garnered new popularity through the 2006 Annihilation storyline, co-created by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. This incarnation of the team had an entirely new line-up and were part of the central continuity. The team featured previously B-list space adventurer, Star-Lord, (Peter Quill), and Thanos’ adopted daughter, Gamora.
It was this version that eventually made it into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). From that point onwards, the Guardian’s ‘underdog’ status essentially came to an end. To be clear, the team was never radically subversive. The original incarnation mirrored much of the mythic wonder inspired by 20th century technological acceleration and the Cold War ‘space race’, in the same vein as Star Wars. And, before the film, the Annihilation storyline combined that myth with the darker tone of mid-to-early 2000s Marvel. The title was not breaking any boundaries. That said, there was a novelty to pre-2014 Guardians of the Galaxy, where the team fit that ‘rough around the edges’ image.
It was inevitable that the Guardian’s debut into Hollywood would effectively change that. This is no judgement call on the film itself (although there is certainly room for that elsewhere)- it is a fun space romp. However, the team were made to fit the part for a worldwide blockbuster. The humanoid characters are sexy, but sanitised. Aliens that do not look like us are the refreshing comic relief. Chris Pratt shows off his new abs as the wisecracking Star-Lord– a departure from the comic’s more stoic version of the character. Gamora- played by Zoe Saldana- is reserved and flawless, only letting her guard down for our leading male antagonist.
Unsurprisingly, anticipating the success of the Guardians of the Galaxy film, Marvel relaunched the series under Marvel NOW!. Written by Brian Michael Bendis, with Steve McNiven on art, the relaunched Guardians series stays very much inline with the general pattern of Marvel books at the time. Marvel was riding on the hype of the unprecedented success of the Avengers movies, trying to make the 616-universe as MCU-friendly as possible whilst also convincing long-time readers that they would not lose decades of continuity. For the Guardians of the Galaxy, this meant that Gamora got to sleep with Marvel blockbuster hotshot, Iron Man, and Star-Lord got to sleep with a then Fox-owned X-Men character, Kitty Pryde. Oh, you bet these Guardians are very heterosexual, and have very heterosexual sex, thank you.
Bendis led the creative team for Guardians of the Galaxy for a number of years. In 2019, Donny Cates and Geoff Shaw took over the title, which drew on many elements of the Infinity War/End Game films. This series did more with the cosmic continuity of Marvel and was received better critically, but ended on issue #12.
The Guardians were subsequently left in a sort of dead-space. Carrying directly on from the momentum of Marvel movies was not necessarily en-vogue anymore. Even the MCU itself was announcing a new wave of titles that were to be formatted as TV series on Disney +. Back at Marvel comics, the X-Men were being brought to the centre of the publishing line once more, under the premise of the mutant independent state, Krakoa. The Avengers and related MCU-shared franchises were no longer the leading books.
The hiring of writer Al Ewing-who had gained acclaim for his subversive, horror-themed Immortal Hulk– for the new 2020 Guardians run, suggested that Marvel were indeed looking for something more ‘outside the box’. Whilst certainly not a given, there was a window of opportunity for The Guardians of the Galaxy to break free from the comfy confines of heterosexual Hollywood, and finally escape to some queer planets.
Star-Lord, Gamora and Nova: Challenging the Heterosexual Matrix
In 2020’s Guardians of the Galaxy #1, readers first see the Guardians framed in an identifiably family-oriented image, drawn by Juann Cabal and colored by Fedrico Blee. Peter Quill is serving his friends and teammates- Drax, Rocket, Phyla-Vell, and Moondragon- food on a picnic table. Behind him, Groot is bringing salad, and Gamora is donned in an apron grilling on a BBQ. All are notably in earth clothes. The group discuss feeling at home, as a family, with little desire to go back to action. Quill and Gamora embrace, and Quill begins to ponder how they “could just…do this forever.” Before a proper conversation can be had, however, he trails off, distracted by the sudden arrival of a certain guest: Nova, Richard Rider.
On the surface, it would seem that Rider plays the classic role in the ‘will they, won’t they’ dynamic that Gamora and Quill have built over the years. He is the foil to their happy ending together as a committed, monogamous couple. He is the Joey to their Ross and Rachel; the Veronica to their Betty and Archie; the Addison to their Meredith and Derek.
Except, in the text, he is not. The 3 of them became equally close in the Annihilation war, and Gamora and Quill have both outright said that they love Rider. Similarly Rider’s love for Gamora and Quill is mentioned in Ewing’s script. Indeed, the only key difference between the two couples, is that the former pair have been physically romantic on panel, and the latter have not. A heterosexual reading of this love triangle could easily frame Quill and Rider’s love as platonic- as brotherly comradery, perhaps. With a queer reading, however, it comes across as romantic. In the history of the Guardians, it has never been stated outright which reading has absolute authority.
The superhero genre invariably determines that the privileged, reflexive reading of both Quill and Rider is heterosexual. The two characters are quintessential ‘masculine’ protagonists. Both have led books, both are attracted to women, have not discussed their sexuality, and are therefore straight by default. Compulsory heterosexuality rules.
However, the privileged reading of any given text is not the ‘right’ one, nor even the one that the author intended. Many readers have picked up on the mutually romantic dynamic between Quill, Rider and Gamora. As such, there are two major readings of the relationship: the commonly seen heterosexual ‘love triangle,’ and a three-way queer romance. Ewing’s Guardians of the Galaxy acts as a meta-analysis of this epistemic dichotomy—one that arguably leans in favour of the queer reading.
Very early into the series, Quill ‘dies.’ Or, at least, that is what the Guardians think. In actuality, he is blasted into Morinus-“the world beyond the sun.” He wakes up in the home of a pair of Nomads- Aradia and Nomas. In issue #9, we follow Quill as he develops a relationship with the couple. At first, he keeps their friendship strictly platonic, on the premise that he does not wish to betray Gamora. However, after a decade of adventures (in which he does not age), Quill accepts that he may never see Gamora and the rest of the Guardians again, and that this is his new home. He subsequently starts a romantic relationship with the two of them for over a century, one that includes starting a family.
The genders of the couple are never explicitly stated, however it is pretty clear that they are coded as man and woman. The implication of Quill’s romantic involvement with the two is that he is not heterosexual- he is romantically involved with two symbolically distinguishable genders. The issue does not explore this revelation simply because it is not necessarily a revelation within the narrative- it is not relevant. Yet Quill’s time on Morinus is not simply a plot device- it is a piece of metanarrative.
In flinging Quill ‘beyond the sun,’ Ewing effectively takes the hero into a separate narrative space. Away from the rest of the Guardians, Quill’s character is less burdened with the normative framing that inevitably comes with a mainstream superhero team. In Morinus, Aradia and Nomas act as symbolic representatives for Gamora and Rider. Where Quill could not be with both Gamora and Rider together in his world, he can be with Aradia and Nomas in this new one. These characters do not carry the same narrative weight- they exist outside the privileged epistemic authority. Yet, the two couples clearly mirror each other. Ewing’s, Cabal’s and Blee’s plot is self-referential- it implies the potential of Gamora, Rider and Quill as a polyamorous couple when taken outside the heteronormative matrix that mainstream superhero comics operate in.
Yet there may be hope for the triad. Indeed, the Guardians of the Galaxy that Quill left behind is not the same team as the one he comes back to. Between his departure in issue #2, and his return in issue #9, the status quo has changed.
Moondragon: Exploring Queer Intimacies
At the beginning of the 2020 Guardians of the Galaxy run, there are two Moondragons (Heather Douglas): One from the 616 universe, and one from an alternate reality (who was stranded in this universe in an earlier series). 616-Moondragon is envious of her alternate counterpart, who she sees as more heroic and a ‘greater hero.’ Moreover, alternate Moondragon is stranded with her wife, Phyla-Vell—whose 616-counterpart died in battle.
616-Moondragon’s jealously drives her into trying to trap and kill her alternate, with the intention of taking over her life. Instead, however, the two come to a sort of reconciliation. Alternate Moondragon empathizes with Douglas and resolves to help her. With a kiss, the two merge together and become one. Phyla-Vell takes badly to this union- she feels that the unified Moondragon is essentially a new person, and that her wife betrayed her.
Douglas (alternate) and Phyla-Vell exist in different spaces of intimacy. They are sapphic, and thus their relationship is recognizably queer. They are married, and therefore their relationship is legitimated by a historically heterosexual institution. These are not binary labels but modes of identification that serve both the narrative and the reader. Moondragon’s actions raise questions over queer intimacy and subversion. Are her actions- an intimacy of the self in the most forward sense- an act of marital betrayal? And is this act of intimacy inherently queer? Overall- is the narrative device of merging with oneself something that subverts and transforms the couple’s modes of identification?
These are abstract questions that have no right or wrong answer. However, they are worth thinking about when inspecting how Ewing and the creative team have ‘queered’ the Guardians. The arcs of the two Moondragon’s interweave with each other, and come together in the physical manifestation of a kiss. Their relationship with each other is impossible to define- they blur the boundaries between the self and ‘the other.’ Cabal’s and Blee’s art does well to capture this, with panels that lapse and seep into one another.
The story of Moondragon is an example of the author using the science fiction genre to create a queer paradigm– one that explores the intimacy between two versions of the same ‘self’ across realities. Certainly, this consolidation of selfhood and self-defined intimacy can be seen across queer praxis. Among many others, Audre Lorde, Julia Kristeva, and Sandy Stone all discuss internal subjectivity in the face of gendered norms. As such, Ewing’s, Cabal’s and Blee’s Guardians of the Galaxy blends queer ontology with mythic fantasy.
Hercules and Noh-Varr: Redefining Masculinities
Phyla-Vell and Moondragon are not the only queer couple to come out of 2020’s Guardians of the Galaxy. When Utopian Kree Marvel Boy (Noh-Varr) gets tied up in a Guardian’s mission, he meets Olympian God of strength, and all-around beefcake, Hercules. A few issues later, and the two are locking lips in the heat of battle. Marvel Boy and Hercules are, in many ways, a match made in heaven. Where the rest of the team are having relationship drama left, right and centre, Herc and Noh are just dashing heroes, who want to go on adventures, explore space, and fool around with each other.
There is more than that, however. Both character’s respective histories share a similar transformation from the archetypal masculine ‘hero’ trope to something far more fleshed out. Hercules began as an arrogant, vein rival to Thor. However, over time, he has become something more of a humble figurehead, with an air of campiness about him. Similarly, Noh-Varr was introduced as part of Marvel’s grittier, grounded line-up of books from the turn of the Millennium. In his original appearances, he was generally detached and deadly. Yet since his time with the Avengers and Young Avengers, his arc has been about redefining himself. Contemporary Noh-Varr is charismatic and trendy. He loves pop culture and enjoys a good flirt.
We have not seen much of Hercules and Noh-Varr’s relationship on panel. Their few appearances together, however, certainly point towards progress in how masculinity and sexuality are presented on the pages of comics. They are not treated as a joke, or even that much of a big deal. They are just there. Indeed, the representation of multiple queer relationships in Guardians of the Galaxy- a global blockbuster franchise- feels indicative of the transformation of the superhero genre overall.
Have We Found Queer Planets?
The first volume of Al Ewing’s Guardians of the Galaxy
is transformative. It uses the plot to both further queer representation on the team, and to analyse the metanarratives that determine its trajectory. Moreover, the series goes some way in challenging the heteronormative assumptions that surround the science-fiction genre, and human conception of space.
But does it truly discover the queer planets that Michel Warner challenges us to find? Unfortunately, no- not really.
At the start of this piece, I went over how Sagan’s Pioneer Plaque codified a reciprocal vision of both humanity and alien life alike- as heterosexual, cis and white. Whilst Ewing’s, Cabal’s and Blee’s Guardians begins to go some way in deconstructing the vision of romantic heterosexuality, very little else is narratively explored beyond this.
For one thing, the human cast of characters in the book is only white. Generally, readers would more often see alien characters such as Groot and Gamora, before they saw a recognizable BIPOC. This is a commonality in the title overall. For all its history, the Guardians of the Galaxy has been made up of overwhelmingly white characters. This has grave discursive implications—a white group of people going around various territories and implementing justice looks frighteningly more like an imperial police force than a super team. White queer people are the minority in a globally queer population. Yet, they also have the most structural power. No matter how many queer characters are on the team- and no matter authorial intention- if the team is consistently predominantly white, the privileged representation is white supremacy, not queerness.
Depictions of gender are also limited to both dual binaries and cis representations. Ewing’s vision of space does not include non-binary genders, nor does it include trans individuals (not to conflate the two). In that sense, the Guardians of the Galaxy remains operative under the binary image of the cis man and cis woman that is seen on the plaque.
In 2021, it was announced that the Guardians of the Galaxy would expand its roster. This was an opportunity for Ewing to expand the representations of queerness that was defined under very limited terms in his first run. However, as member after member was revealed, it became clear that this was not going to be the case. With the exception of Mantis- who is Vietnamese/German- the new team is still white and still binary/cis gendered. The inclusion of newlyweds Wiccan (Billy Kaplan-Altman) and Emperor Hulking (Teddy Kaplan-Altman) means more gay members of the team, which is a good thing. But there is little else to be noted beside that. The Guardians remain confined to the normative imagination.
This is not said to decisively renounce Ewing as a writer. He is an incredibly good writer, and in series such as S.W.O.R.D and Immortal Hulk, has indeed included more characters outside of the white, cisgendered image. Furthermore, this article is a testament to the thought put into the queer narratives he has written in the series. However, that is in many ways, the bare minimum. It is a testament to the power of the prevailing status-quo, when space- the imaginary beyond- is still framed as cis, heterosexual and white. For Marvel, and for popular science fiction in general, we still exist among unqueer planets.
Warner, M. and Social Text Collective (1993). Fear of a queer Planet : queer politics and social theory. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press.