Against all odds, the Guardians of the Galaxy have swept the world as one of the most popular superhero teams, on par with the Justice League and the Avengers. They rose up from obscurity in a dark horse sort of way. You may not know this, but Guardians of the Galaxy debuted as a comic book team in 1969. The group has featured in various books and their solo series have gone in and out of print on numerous occasions, and they’ve had more roster changes than a minor league baseball team.
Prior to their introduction in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Guardians of the Galaxy had been around for decades and went through various dark times. Both the original team, led by individuals like Yondu and Starhawk, and the modern ragtag group, with megastars Groot, Star-Lord, and Rocket Raccoon, share extraordinarily tragic backstories. While the MCU's Guardians of the Galaxy are certainly no strangers to heartbreak, Disney and Marvel wisely chose to keep the very worst of the Guardians’ dismal comic book canon from the big screen.
Perhaps the most repeated quote from the Guardians of the Galaxy films is also the simplest: “I am Groot.” The self-declaration is constantly played to expert comedic effect throughout the movies, but the comic book origin of the phrase is actually quite tragic.
Groot used to be able to speak, but his race is plagued by a genetic disorder that causes the vocal chords to tighten over time. Eventually, all that Groot and other members of his race can say is, “I am Groot.” Not so funny now, is it?
The story for the movie version of Nebula is quite sad. She and Gamora were raised by Thanos, the big bad boss of the MCU, and the sisters were cruelly forced to battle one another for their father’s approval. The comic book version of Nebula also has a connection to Thanos, but it’s a lot less direct and even more violent.
Nebula is a space pirate who isn’t really related to the Mad Titan, but claims to be his granddaughter during a period when he was thought dead. Thanos returns, as he always does, and captures the titular weapon in The Infinity Gauntlet.
One of his first acts is to capture Nebula, and as punishment for her false claims, turn her into a half-melted and decayed figure of “living death” that he keeps by his side at all times.
The character of Peter Quill, AKA Star-Lord, has been around since 1976, when he debuted in Marvel Preview #4. The Quill who appeared at that time stuck around for the next several decades and was a far cry from Chris Pratt’s roguish portrayal that has left fans enamored worldwide. Star-Lord ended up being a veteran of all sorts of brutal space wars, seeing things that no Terran should ever see.
By the time Quill reached Annihilation, Marvel’s largest cosmic crossover to date, Star-Lord was a bitter and grizzled war veteran with a dark sense of humor and a real “I’m getting too old for this sh*t” sort of attitude. When Pratt was cast to portray Peter Quill on the screen, though, the comic book character got a quick reboot to match the youthful and charismatic new Star-Lord.
Sylvester Stallone made a surprise appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 as Starhawk, the leader of the Ravager group from which Yondu was exiled. Comic book fans will recognize Starhawk and his allies as the original crew of Guardians, even though Starhawk is the only one who gets significant screen time. Also making a brief cameo is Michelle Yeoh, who also plays Starhawk. Wait, why are there two Starhawks?
You see, Starhawk is actually one entity made up of two beings in the comics. Aleta Ogord and her adopted brother, Stakar, are able to combine themselves to form the cosmically powered Starhawk. Only one of the two is able to “pilot” Starhawk at a time. So, in the GotG films, you see a male-piloted version and a female-piloted version of Starhawk. In addition, the pair begin a romantic relationship in the comics, just to make things more complicated.
In the end, the partnership predictably sours and the two part ways.