The Guardians of the Galaxy have been in for a bit of a ride these past few years, acting simultaneously as a lens to introduce the cosmic corner of the wider Marvel universe and emblematic survivors, outlasting cataclysm after cataclysm in the line of duty. While this is by no means a new hand for most of the comprising characters to be dealt, the battered heroes have emerged from the Infinity Wars with a more personal cost taken from their spirits; the loss of Drax and the interpersonal drama specific to Gamora’s betrayal have left the team fried. Following this tragedy and the ensuing power vacuum after Thanos’ death, it is natural that the Guardians would feel damaged by their trauma. In a surprisingly fresh direction for the franchise, writer Donny Cates, artists Cory Smith, Victor Olazaba, and David Curiel, and and letterer Cory Petit take the time to examine the emotional toll the universe’s protectors endure with every passing tragedy.
Guardians of the Galaxy means a lot to me as a reader. The now-legendary run by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, as well as its companion Nova series, explored themes of pain, loneliness, survivor’s guilt, and depression, culminating in the thesis that while not every day will be good, it’s our duty to continually put good into the world if we are at all able. This relatability to the characters, the fact that they deal with the same mental anguish as the rest of us, is what first endeared me to the further adventures of the Guardians and what has encouraged me to continue with reading their exploits. When the story of Cates’ volume of Guardians of the Galaxy veered to the more personal, I could not have been more thrilled. Strangely, to my knowledge there has never been a full arc since the current team’s inception that has been entirely focused on the mental state and turmoil of the Guardians. To put it lightly, there has been a lot worth unpacking for the team and the dedicated story real estate to do so is much appreciated.
The question, to my mind, lies therein: how does Faithless, the closing arc of Cates’ cosmic epic, achieve its goals as a storyline? As a piece of character work, how does it treat its characters and handle their personal struggles? This is the main thrust of the story arc, so how is it balanced with the context of the run, as it builds to the epic conclusion Cates et al so clearly desire?
There is a lot to love about Faithless. This arc, and Cates’ larger Guardians run as a whole, marks a tonal shift in the publication of the franchise, solidifying the book with a cohesive direction for what feels like the first time in years. With Cates at the helm of the larger cosmic storyline, Guardians feels like the hub for a transcendent narrative, with characters and plot elements woven into and out of the story organically. This cohesion is key to the enjoyment of Guardians, a stability that harkens to the post-Annihilation era of Marvel. For a fan of Cates’ style, for a fan of the cosmic work put out over the past two years, Faithless is a satisfying piece of character work that makes a strong thesis statement about the familial bond between the Guardians.
Unfortunately, I can’t count myself among these fans. This is not to say Cates is not a charismatic, capable writer who guides the narrative with a steady hand. I truly respect Cates, Smith, and the rest of the team on Guardians of the Galaxy. These creators put clear passion into their work, and the result is a plainly well-crafted comic. There was, however, a disconnect in my enjoyment of the comic. Despite the beautiful, detailed artwork and the strong character development, I struggle to feel pathos for the team and its comprising characters under their current imaginings. The core of the emotional struggle is that the team is broken, seemingly beyond repair. Symbolically broken, Rocket is pictured as frail, literally pushed past his breaking point and deteriorating by the minute, and in a state where he feels the need to isolate himself from the world. Peter Quill, albeit a more metaphorical mess, has been broken nonetheless by the betrayal of Gamora and a systemic pattern of the universe pushing him down. While this is a completely valid character arc for the team and for the individual heroes, it does not gel with my interpretation of the characters in a satisfying way.
At the risk of letting my reading of Faithless devolve into a mess of “well, I just don’t like that” or “this feels wrong to me,” the thesis statement of the run is not one that I can agree with. The crux of it seems to be that the characters are fundamentally broken people who look to each other for strength, and through their familial bond they can find the power to stand back up in an oppressively bleak situation. While this is an admirable view of the team’s dynamic, I feel that it misses the element of heroism present in previous interpretations of the characters, a sense of duty that justifies the torment they endure as defenders of the peace. Without the driving force of that responsibility, there is a fundamental void in the characters’ motivations that tends to cause them to come off as abrasive and mean rather than worn and weathered, yet ultimately good people. Again, this is by no means the end-all-be-all take that defines the Guardians, but it hindered my enjoyment of the comic in a way that at times overshadowed the textual story.
The story itself is indeed well done, for the most part. Given the characterizations presented, the characters feel consistent and the storyline presents ample room for those characters to flourish. It is, however, frustrating that the book tends to cage itself with pacing issues, and that the balance between emotional story and finale fanfare is never quite achieved. With multiple narrative threads running concurrently, the story never truly has the time to breathe that it needs, thus truncating emotional beats that would otherwise be central to the storyline. The treatment of the Magus storyline feels underwhelming in particular, ultimately serving as a side-narrative that could have easily supported its own emotional development, rather than being quickly resolved to further the Universal Church of Truth plot.
The rapid succession of scene changes between storylines does no favors to this feeling of emotional unfulfillment, leaving the reader unsatisfied with what should be an incredibly introspective piece on the characters’ mental states. The book tends to feel disorienting, up until the final sequence where the team comes together for the final act. By this point, though, the comic is in Finale Mode, and the pieces begin to come together to celebrate the saga’s conclusion. With this comes the commemorative splashes, the spreads focused on stories past. It honestly comes off as self-serving on the part of the creators, half-earned and obstructive to the actual story being told, despite taking place after the main plot’s end. The scene in particular feels like a setup for this indulgence, overshadowing the resolution to the arc itself.
There are, of course, good aspects to Faithless that should not be overlooked. Smith’s pencils are wonderful, lending a nice balance of realism and grit to the emotional core of the characters’ journey. One of my favorite “tricks” from the art team is their style of putting a character’s headshot on a blank colored panel background when they are in conversation. It seems simple, and describing it does not do it justice, but it helps the reader to focus on the message of the text, rather than the background noise, as it were. Additionally, the annual included in the trade collection is wonderful. It is entirely disconnected from Faithless, but it brings fresh voices into the series, shining a spotlight on fresh characters in a way that heightens the enjoyment of the story as a whole.
Ultimately, Faithless is built on a good concept that misses a few steps along the way. While I do have issues with the structure (as well as more fundamental and subtextual concepts) I think the idea of introspection into the Guardians’ lives is novel and fresh, something that the characters have needed as a dedicated story focus for some time. And if you’ve been impressed with Cates’ character work so far, I think it’s just that. Though strangely paced at times, the story is consistent under its own pretenses. The enjoyment of this second arc of Guardians is, in the end, dependent on the enjoyment of previous stories. For better or worse, it’s more of the same, and while I can’t personally recommend it, it serves as a solid conclusion to Cates’ cosmic saga.