Welcome to the Guardians of the Galaxy:
Tony Stark (you know who he is) is meeting with Corporal Flash Thompson in Avengers Tower, asking him if he's ever been off planet Earth, to which Flash responds, "just a little". Tony tells him he has an off planet assignment for him and asks if he knows who the Guardians are? As it happens, Flash doesn't know a whole lot about them so Tony briefs him on the Guardians of the Galaxy: Star Lord, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, Groot & Rocket Raccoon (though apparently you should only call him "Rocket" to his face). Among the many details Stark lists about them are Star Lord being half human, half alien, Gamora being the daughter of Thanos, Drax's family being killed by Thanos, Groot is basically a talking tree that says "I AM GROOT !", and that Rocket is tech savvy, talks a lot and likes blowing up bad guys.
Tony also mentions that he recently spent some quality time with the group in space and had a brief tryst with Gamora (though I don't think that would surprise anyone given his reputation). He reflects that the experience was life-affirming, that it changed his whole perspective and it was exactly what he needed. But he also realised that the Avengers should be represented up there with them, that one of the team should go on a "tour of duty" of sorts with the Guardians, helping to keep Earth and the galaxy safe. And in this instance, Tony thinks that the Avenger for the job is Flash, so he should say yes. Flash answers that he doesn't see how he could say no. Tony then turns to the kitchen entrance and shouts "HE SAID YES!". The Guardians emerge from the kitchen (along with a slightly dishevelled Jarvis), with Rocket commenting that they're out of pickles. He spies Flash and expresses surprise since Flash is in a wheelchair, telling him "no offence, but, you know, we expected legs". Gamora apologises for Rocket's bluntness, but notes that it is a legitimate concern. In response, Tony asks Flash to suit up, which he does, becoming Agent Venom. Drax remarks that he's seen Venom's kind before, but he doesn't know where. As the rest of the Guardians speak to Flash (with the exception of Groot whose just off in the corner). Tony pulls Peter aside and secretly gives him a small device to use just in case they run into any "symbiote trouble"...
Spider-Man: Staging Ground:
In another universe designated as 311, Peter Parquagh, better known by his stage name, The Spider, performs at the Globe Theater in London with Marion Jane Watsonne in the year 1602. At first attempting to emulate Shakespeare, Peter heeds Marion's words about giving the people what they want and wows the crowd with his amazing abilities. Marion's father then offers out ten shillings to the person who can wrestle the Spider to the ground, knowing full well that such a feat is impossible in this day and age. Or is it?
After fending off a few helpless civilians, the Spider asks if anyone else will accept the wager. A voice in the crowd answers yes, but asks that the Spider keep his money, as this individual seeks a different prize...dinner! The new combatant steps onto the stage, introducing himself to The Spider as Morlun (oh $#!+.) and surprising him by addressing him by his real name, Peter. Realising that this man isn't what he seems, The Spider calls for Marion and her father to retreat, then punches Morlun right in his smug face. Of course, this being Morlun, it does jack squat, in fact Peter breaks his hand doing it. Morlun sends his prey careening backwards into one of the support beams, tearing a makeshift stake from the another and causing part of the Globe Theater to collapse.
As Marion watches helplessly from the sidelines, Peter wonders in disbelief how his story could end this way, before Morlun stabs him in the back with the wooden stake. The monstrous villain then absorbs the Spider's very essence, declaring that everything Peter Parquagh is, was and could have been is now his. And yet it still isn't enough for Morlun, who heads through an inter-dimensional portal, stating that it was foretold that all of 'his' (Peter's) threads in the Web would be severed, that all the Spiders would die (as Julia Carpenter, aka Madame Web, previously foretold in Superior Spider-Man #20)...
Here we have two stories that are pretty much a set-up for things to come and while that obviously leaves us as readers wanting more, Brian Michael Bendis & Dan Slott do a very good job in making these little shorts stand on their own as well as setting the stage for future Guardians stories and Spider-Verse respectively.
With the Guardians story, Bendis takes full advantage of this being a free issue and gives anyone who hasn't yet picked up the series a chance to get to know these characters. Importantly though, it doesn't feel like a rehash of information for us established readers, since it's really Tony Stark giving the information out. Through his dialogue, we're shown what Tony thinks of each individual member of the Guardians, which I'm sure will make any new readers want to pick up the previous stories where he was featured, particularly to see what he meant by spending some "private time" with Gamora (it happened in #4). This is also the pivotal issue where Flash Thompson joins the team, and if anyone found his inclusion a little odd when it was initially announced, I'm sure they'll find this to be a good explanation. I really like the idea of the Avengers having a representative on the Guardians, sure it's pretty much a marketing ploy to ensure the series isn't cancelled, but narrative-wise, it helps to tether the Guardians and the reader to Earth. Drax's line about seeing Venom's kind before also gives me cause to be excited as a Venom fan. Aside from Secret Wars & Planet of the Symbiotes, the Venom symbiote's origins has been largely ignored, not to mention how the symbiote race at large is perceived by the rest of the galaxy, but it looks as though Bendis is going to be exploring those concepts to some degree while Venom's on the team.
Dan Slott gives us a decidedly darker story with Staging Ground. While it was rather predictable that Spider-Man 1602 fell to Morlun, it was nevertheless a little sad to see, especially with Morlun's talk about the Spider's potential and all that he could have been. I suppose Slott now has one less Spider-Man to work into Spider-Verse, which is shaping up to be the biggest event ever in the characters history! Morlun is an excellent choice of villain for this story. His first appearance in J. Michael Straczynski & John Romita Jr.'s run on Amazing Spider-Man was an instant modern classic and one of my personal favourites. However, the main thing that made Morlun such an effective villain there was that he was a man of few words. Even when he was beating the snot out of Spidey, he would barely speak a word, other than saying that it "was nothing personal". Slott's Morlun seems at odds with Straczynski's characterisation of him. Here's he's a bit too theatrical in his dialect. Then again, he has suffered defeat from Spider-Man more than once since he first deputed, so that could account for his change in personality. Morlun's next destination appears to be 2099 judging by the futuristic look of the city in the portal. It's been confirmed that the Superior Spider-Man will be returning in two new issues of his series, which will take place during the events of 'Necessary Evil' and reveal that Otto Octavius was transported to Nueva York in 2099 when he was caught in the temporal explosion at Horizon Labs. It's very likely that SpOck is set to have a run in with Morlun during his trip here, which could maybe even lead into his joining forces with Peter Parker and the other versions of Spider-Man before he's brought back to the present by Max Modell and Grady Scraps?
The issue also boast some brilliant artwork. Nick Bradshaw's work on the Guardians issue looks superb and the inking by Scott Hanna adds plenty of fine detail to the action (Fun Fact, Hanna also served as inker on Morlun's first appearance). Rocket, Groot and Venom all look awesome here, and the latter only suits up in the final two pages. I'm also glad that Star Lord now has the same costume as he does in the upcoming movie, as it's a better look than the space armour he was sporting previously. If you've read Superior Spider-Man then you'll be familiar with Giuseppe Camuncoli and he hasn't broken his stride from 'Goblin Nation'. There's a nice visual callback to Amazing Fantasy #14 when Peter Parquagh is wrestling some of the crowd, and Morlun looks notably decrepit, possibly to show how obsessive he is over gaining power.
In conclusion, there's plenty of exciting implications laid out by these two stories, and the fact that they're free makes things even better. There's also a preview of the OGN Thanos: The Infinity Revelation by Jim Starlin included. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing where Bendis is going with Agent Venom & the Guardians, but even more so for Spider-Verse and all the different Spider-Men that will feature. Spider-Ham for the win!!