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Making the Guardians of the Galaxy's Star-Lord a comic book headliner

"Guardians of the Galaxy" hits the big screen on Aug. 1, but first, the Legendary Star-Lord comic book tries to make you care about its lead character in print.
The cover of comic book the Legendary Star-Lord.
A page from comic book the Legendary Star-Lord.

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KPCC's pop culture blogger Mike Roe talked with Sam Humphries of L.A. about writing "The Legendary Star-Lord" comic book. The movie "Guardians of the Galaxy" is set to be released August 1. Click the button on the left to hear their entire interview.

Marvel moves this August from making movies about tried and true heroes like Captain America and Iron Man into bold new territory, tackling the universe with "Guardians of the Galaxy."

Watch the "Guardians of the Galaxy" trailer

Marvel's launching several new comic books with that movie's characters, including the Legendary Star-Lord, written by Los Angeles-based Sam Humphries. It's his job to take the relatively unknown character and make comics with him that people care about.

Since Marvel's parent company, Disney, owns the "Star Wars" franchise, Star-Lord — aka Peter Quill — is giving Disney another Han Solo-like character — a scoundrel with a heart of gold. Humphries wanted to set the character in line with the great heroes of Marvel's past.

"Originally it was going to be called Star-Lord, but Marvel has this great tradition of adjectives in titles. You have 'The Incredible Hulk.' You have 'The Amazing Spider-Man.' You have 'The Uncanny X-Men,'" Humphries said. "Peter certainly thinks he's legendary. He thinks he's legendary, because he can shoot fast, and he can fly fast, and he can flirt fast, but the real reason he's the legendary Star-Lord is because he always does the right thing, even when it's the hardest, most difficult, toughest thing for him to do."

Quill's an orphan whose mom was killed by aliens and whose dad disappeared into space, but he's not a dark, brooding character like Batman or the recent version of Superman in "Man of Steel" — Peter Quill is in love with what he does.

"His life on Earth wasn't that great, but in space, he's awesome," Humphries said. "On Earth, he's Peter, this kid who gets knocked around, but in space, he's the legendary Star-Lord."

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It's a character that much of the world isn't familiar with — even comics fans.

"Even being a huge Marvel nerd growing up, I don't even know if I was aware of Star-Lord, because he was so obscure," Humphries said. "He had maybe a dozen comic books to his name for the first 15 years he was around, and then about 10 years ago, Keith Giffen and Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning really kind of pulled him out of obscurity."

(Sam Humphries relaxing after Comic-Con 2010. Image:  Sam Humphries' Tumblr blog)

Humphries has a love for science fiction — his breakout book was "Our Love Is Real," a darkly comic sci-fi love story — and he's pouring into this story.

"It is a way to comment [on the world] in a way that doesn't turn people off and doesn't come across as preachy. You never want to come across as preachy, even when you really have a burning need to say something, to stand up and say 'I think this is bad,' or 'this is wrong,' 'we're going down the wrong path,' because with sci-fi you can dress it up with aliens and spaceships."

The fact that Star-Lord is taking the lead on the big screen makes it a little easier for Humphries to share what he does.

"When I write something like Star-Lord, and I can point to 'Guardians of the Galaxy' ... and tell my mom that's what I'm writing, and then she understands. She's like, 'Oh, that's Chris Pratt, I know who that is!'"

Humphries says that the explosion of superheroes in the mass media has finally made writing comics cool.

"Green Arrow is a television heartthrob, with his abs and everything?! I mean, come on, that's nuts!" Humphries said. "And now Chris Pratt's playing [Star-Lord] in a groovy red leather jacket, and he's going to be in this big movie coming out in, like, a month, and I don't know, the nerds have inherited the Earth, I guess."

Humphries isn't privy to the film yet beyond what everyone else has seen, but he believes what he's doing is in line with what's resonated about this character on the big screen. To write the Legendary Star-Lord, Humphries dove back into the character's history to reacquaint himself with the material.

"You read comics just for enjoyment, and you kind of experience, 'Oh, that was cool,' but it's good to go back and remind yourself just what actually made you feel good reading this comic book. What made you feel interested in this character? Why'd you relate to this person?"

Humphries says the aspect of Star-Lord that he relates to is being a smart-ass.

"A smart-ass always thinks he's the funniest person in the room, even if it's not true, and I speak from experience. So even though Peter is a smart-ass, and I love that about him, and I'm going to lean into that, part of the equation of being a smart-ass is being checked a lot, both by your friends and your enemies, who don't think you're as funny as you think you are."

Humphries is volleying story back and forth with Brian Michael Bendis, who's been writing the main Guardians of the Galaxy comic for the past year.

"[Bendis is] so generous with ideas, and he's so generous with setups," Humphries said. "We're all kind of building a new corner of the Marvel universe together. Not building from scratch, but we're coalescing, like a bunch of gas in space coalescing into becoming a giant star."

Those other spacefaring Marvel comics include Rocket Raccoon, Captain Marvel (Marvel's version, not the classic DC character), Cyclops (of X-Men fame) and Nova.

Now that his book is out in the world, Humphries is going to be doing some signings, as well as meeting fans at San Diego Comic-Con later this month.

"Comic books can tend to be a very anti-social profession. You sit at a table all day, either writing on a keyboard or drawing on a tablet, or a piece of paper, and your collaborators can be all over the world. My editor's in New York, and I've probably worked with more artists outside of the U.S. than I have inside of the U.S. And there's all sorts of time zones, and geographic barriers, and sometimes language barriers, and you feel that synergy, but it's not quite the same as working in Cheers or something."

Humphries says he meets everyone from professionals to other creative types, and that while comics have grown up, a lot of those fans will bring their kids.

Humphries has also taken steps to be less anti-social — even though there's no company office to go to, he now shares an office space with Bryan Lee O'Malley, the creator of Scott Pilgrim, and Andy Khouri, the editor-in-chief of major comic book news site Comics Alliance. They work together here in Southern California. 

"Los Angeles really is just my favorite place. I just think it's the greatest place in the world. Moving here is one of the best things I've ever done," Humphries said. "And it's not just the weather, but it's also the culture and the cultural diversity. It's the respect for creative professions, and also the respect for the underdog in the creative professions. You can do something independent and small scale, and people really get into that."

He says he also loves the area's outdoor opportunities — and the food. He points out that while the editorial side may still be in New York, the movies, TV shows, cartoons, video games, toys and everything else is based in L.A. Their distinguished competition, DC Comics, is in the process of moving to Burbank.

While Humphries has become one of Marvel's go-to guys for new projects, he's still working on keeping his indie cred.

"One genre of sorts that I've always wanted to tackle that is going to be one of my next projects is political satire. While I'm here at KPCC, I figured I might as well bring up political satire to make myself seem a little smarter," Humphries said, laughing. "I can't say it's going to be inspiring. This is not going to be the inspiring tale of somebody who does the right thing."

He says he wants to use this story to put some of his personal outrage onto the page.

"When you go through the process of making a comic book, or a TV show, or a movie," Humphries said, "you really process why some of these things are important to you, these things that make you angry, and why that anger is important and how to really channel that into something that's lasting, instead of a silly rant on Twitter."

He's also looking forward to working outside the constraints of superhero comics.

"I think there's a darker edge of outrage that can be expressed. I mean, hell, just stay tuned to KPCC and you'll hear plenty to be outraged about, there's no shortage of things to be outraged about."

Still, he's not forgetting his love for superheroes.

"Superheroes are great because they are heroes, and even the gray area characters, they do strive to be the best kind of people that they can be. And there's something that's very inspiring, not just to read, but also to write," Humphries said. "And I think the superpowers, the spaceships, the suits of armor, the green skin guys, whatever, some people find that unrealistic, but I think it just takes our internal dramas, which is really just the core of any drama, and just writes them in such a big scale, epic way, that we can't help but feel triumphant and feel inspired right along with them."

"The Legendary Star-Lord" came out this week and is available in comic book stores everywhere, as well as digitally. "Guardians of the Galaxy" hits theaters Aug. 1.