Before 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy, you would have been hard-pressed to find much Guardians merchandise in your average big-box toy store and sales of the rebooted comics series had all but stagnated.
Then, just weeks after the movie's release, the entire comics industry had its most successful month in recorded history thanks almost entirely to the resurgence of interest in Rocket Raccoon. In the course of one month, Rocket Racoon #1 sold nearly 300,000 copies, raked in $53.6 million, and set the groundwork for Marvel to reintroduce the Guardians in a major way within its comics universe. The newest in carnation of The Guardians launched in 2008, but it had never quite seen sales like that before.
Since 2014, Marvel's treated the Guardians' shifting roster as a vehicle to cycle through some of its more classic heroes, like the X-Men's Kitty Pryde, the symbiote Venom, and Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four. As a result, Guardians and its handful of spin-offs spawned from the core series have become one of the interesting corners of Marvel's universe for deep background character development that you might not see in other titles.
In one of the latest issues of Guardians of Infinity, Ben Grimm and the sentient, tree-like alien Groot take a quick shore leave from their cosmic adventures to visit Ben's childhood neighborhood in New York City's Lower East Side.
I spoke with writer Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez about teaming up with Darryl "D.M.C." McDaniels and artists Nelson DeCastro and Christopher Sotomayor to create a version of the LES that rang true to their experiences with the neighborhood's historic working-class, immigrant communities. Infusing Groot's origins with the essence of Afro-Puerto Rican mythos, Miranda-Rodriguez explained, was just one of the ways that he wanted to change the Marvel canon.
What's going on with the Guardians of the Galaxy these days?
After the film, [the comic] reached this new level of mania. So Marvel looked at the roster and decided to shake things up. Guardians of Infinity’s a throwback to classic, '70s-era Marvel. You have this ongoing adventure with a rotating cast and then you have these side adventures like Ben and Groot’s.
Why Ben and Groot?
From the storytelling perspective, it’s a one-shot that we're grounding in NYC. It's a little campy and sort of a throwback to the Hostess ads you’d see in the back of the comic books. We always knew that it was going to be these two guys on an adventure, who were at each other's throats for the whole time and so we thought, ‘Let's have them go on shore leave to the Lower East Side.’
Ben's originally from the LES, right? This is a homecoming for him?
Yeah. When Kirby wrote about Ben Grimm's LES, he was talking about his own personal experiences as a Jewish person living in that neighborhood. What a lot of people don’t know about Grimm’s powers is that they’re largely based on the myth of the Jewish Golem and that heritage plays a big part in Ben’s characterization as an outsider.
How's the neighborhood changed in the years since you grew up there?
What the LES was when Kirby wrote about it and what it turned to when my family moved there are similar: It's a hub of diversity and art and creation.
What you had in that area was a large very section for lower income public housing and when you're dealing with that sort of setting, you're going to get a lot of immigrants.
It still feels like it always has. It's feeling is rooted in its poor, working class communities. That speaks to the non-conformance of what this neighborhood looks like. So, for me, it’s impossible to write about the community without describing what I know’s there.
How do you go about depicting that in a comic book?
It was important for me to steep the community in authenticity. When I work with my artists I'm like, 'We need more melanin and the kind of bodegas that you know you’d see on the corner.'
I wanted to connect Ben with Groot and Groot to the neighborhood and for me it was the perfect opportunity to introduce some cultural mythology from the Puerto Rican community that linked with Groot in an organic way.
This is where the Ceiba origins come into play?
Yeah! Marta Morena-Vega’s a good friend of mine. She’s a professor at NYU where she founded the Caribbean Cultural Center (African Diaspora Institute). She introduced me to the concept of the Ceiba tree.
A lot of people know it as the Guatemalan national tree, but it plays a huge role in a lot of Latin American and West African mythology. Mayans thought that the tree growing through the Earth and connecting the underworld, the living world, and the heavens was a Ceiba that linked all three.
We have this scene where an Afro-Puerto Rican grandmother recognizes Groot as the Ceiba and suddenly you open all of these doors to how that can become a part of his larger backstory and expand the Marvel universe with something from this actual history that people might not be familiar with.
What do you really want people to take away from your run on Guardians of Infinity?
Most of the films and shows we watch and binge on don't really speak to the experiences of people of color, you know? For the most part we have to watch media that aren't for us. When we have the opportunity to create stories that resonate to the people who get it, we have to fully embrace it.
I can see Groot fighting alongside Taino Indians in another life and now that’s something that Groot’s background can reference. I introduced this to the story and now it's out there as a part of the canon.
Editor's note: Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity.