Marathon Reads: Marvel’s Original Star Wars Series

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(Yeah, I know. “Star Wars Month” was last month. What can I say, stuff got in the way, better late than never, etc. Enjoy.) 

This is an idea I’ve been playing with for a while. Rather than doing a straight “best stories” list, what I want to do with these “Marathon Reads” posts is pick a series that lasted for a while and divide it into smaller groups of books based on different artistic teams, storylines, and anything else that sets each group apart. That way, we can look at how the series evolved over time while having some fun pointing out the great and not-so-great individual issues in the run.

Today’s subject: Marvel’s original Star Wars series (107 issues, 1977-1986, plus 3 annuals and 1983’s stand-alone Return of the Jedi mini-series):

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1-6: “Enter: Luke Skywalker!”
The story of how Marvel scored the rights to publish a Star Wars adaptation is almost as thrilling as the movie itself. As a fellow fan of vintage sci-fi, Marvel editor/writer Roy Thomas was an obvious choice to help George Lucas and publicity supervisor Charles Lippincott pitch Marvel a comic based on Lucas’s upcoming film (tentatively titled The Star Wars). It was a tough sell; Marvel had already turned them down, citing unimpressive sales of other comic-book adaptations of science-fiction films. Thomas was impressed by the production images the two men had brought with them, though, and he was determined to change his bosses’ minds. He was the natural choice to adapt the film’s script, and Howard Chaykin was tapped for the art chores. Lucas also wanted the comic out on stands two months before the movie’s premiere to help generate excitement; thanks to production schedules and last-minute changes to the film, this led to a few interesting differences between the film and its official comic adaptation. Thomas’s gamble paid off; Star Wars #1 became Marvel’s biggest best-selling comic of the decade, and former editor-in-chief Jim Shooter is on record saying Star Wars saved a floundering Marvel, selling millions of copies for Marvel at a time when all comic publishers were struggling to stay afloat. As works of art, the six issues are serviceable; Thomas and Chaykin (with Steve Leialoha on inks for most of the issues) did the best they could, but it was obvious they had challenges accessing the source material. This is especially evident in Chaykin’s backgrounds, which often looked very different from the backgrounds of corresponding scenes in the film.

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7-10: “At last! Beyond the movie! Beyond the galaxy!”
And just like that, Marvel ran out of film to adapt. The movie’s massive success meant a sequel was inevitable, which led to new challenges for Marvel. While Star Wars had set the stage by literally creating a universe full of stories to tell, most fans buying the comic made it clear they wanted to read the continuing adventures of Luke, Leia, Han and the other stars of the film. This was a problem, as Marvel couldn’t delve into, say, the hinted-at-in-the-film relationship between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, because a story about that might end up contradicting information in the upcoming sequels. Also a problem: the love triangle that developed between Luke, Leia and Han in the first film couldn’t be addressed in the comic, on the very real chance the sequels had plans for expanding on that storyline. Heck, Marvel was even reluctant to change the characters’ clothes for fear of affecting action figure sales. Given these restrictions, Thomas chose to focus on Han and Chewbacca’s backgrounds as smugglers and rogues. Issues 7-10 saw an extended riff on the Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven template: desperate villagers, bad guy, gunslingers for hire recruited to take on a bad guy, you know the drill. The eclectic group hired to protect the village included Jaxxon, a green rabbit who was basically Bugs Bunny in space (he’s the fellow with the big ears above); Lucas reportedly (and, given future film developments, a little hypocritically) registered his displeasure with the comic adding a walking cartoon to his vision. Thomas quit the title after #10 to go back to writing Marvel’s Conan books; the fact that Conan’s creator had been dead for decades (and was in no position to gripe about how his character was handled) might have been just a coincidence.

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11-37: “An untold tale of Luke Skywalker’s past!”
With Thomas’s departure, the job of writing the book fell on Archie Goodwin, another former Marvel editor-in-chief with a solid reputation for storytelling. Chaykin was replaced by Carmine Infantino, an old-school artist best known for his work on Adam Strange and the Flash in the 1950s. After serving as DC’s publisher from 1971 to 1976, he left DC to freelance for Marvel, which brought him on board to lend some “star” power to Star Wars. Aside from some fill-in issues, this was the creative team for the next two-and-a-half years, with Terry Austin, Gene Day and Bob Wiacek all taking turns on inks. Sales-wise, this period was a high point for the title, with some sources citing circulation figures that placed Star Wars as the industry’s No. 1 comic in 1979 (and second only to The Amazing Spider-Man in 1980). Still, Goodwin and Infantino ran into the same challenges as Thomas and Chaykin in trying to work with heavily protected licensed characters. Fortunately, Goodwin (who also wrote the daily Star Wars newspaper strip) figured out how to keep the main players moving around the board while discreetly keeping them away from plot points in the film franchise. Han and Chewbacca end up battling in a gladiatorial arena, Luke searches for a planet to serve as the rebels’ new base, Leia tells a story about Obi-Wan’s early adventures… oh, and space pirates. Lots and lots of space pirates. This was a time in which readers saw new villains making life difficult for our heroes, from space pirates to crooked Imperial governors to Valance, the former Stormtrooper-turned-bounty-hunter with a serious hatred of droids. As far as the art went, Infantino made some choices that didn’t always work out: his robots (especially R2-D2) always seemed too squat, and his women had the tendency to sport arched eyebrows that reached up to the backs of their heads. Even so, this was the point at which the book seemed to start finding its own unique voice, by peering into the corners of the Star Wars universe that the films couldn’t or wouldn’t address.

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38-44: “Duel a Dark Lord!”
By the time The Empire Strikes Back was filming, Marvel had no doubt it was going to be just as big a sensation (if not bigger) as the first Star Wars. So for their official adaptation they tapped Al Williamson, an artist who made his mark working on EC’s acclaimed Weird Science and Weird Fantasy books in the 1950s, and later drew Flash Gordon comics for King Features. “He was absolutely the best Star Wars artist you could ever want to have,” Goodwin said in 1996. “He’s also an artist that Lucasfilm begged and pleaded for and always wanted to have him do Star Wars material. There was that comfort factor in it as well.” Like the adaptation of the first film, there were a few small differences between the comic and the film’s final cut, mostly because there was no way the comics could fit everything in the movie inside their pages. Also, as Goodwin noted in a making-of essay in Star Wars #41, some of those differences were intentional, as Lucas asked that specific parts of the film be left out of the comic to save some surprises for movie-goers; that’s why the comic version doesn’t show the Wampa creature or the giant space creature that almost swallows the Millennium Falcon. (Uh… spoiler alert, I guess.)

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45-69: “Resurrection of Evil!”
After The Empire Strikes Back, the comic found itself back in the same predicament as before. With a third movie in production, the comic couldn’t follow up on crucial plot points in Empire, such as whether Luke confronted Obi-Wan about what he had learned regarding his father. To make it even more challenging, the comic writers didn’t have access to Han Solo, since he had been frozen in carbonite during Empire, and they couldn’t show the other characters trying to rescue him from Jabba the Hutt’s clutches (resulting in a lot of “Gosh, the Empire sure is making it hard for us to get to Tatooine and rescue our friend!”-type situations). On the plus side, this era saw a number of guest writers and artists bring their own unique takes on the Star Wars universe, new series regular Walt Simonson contributes some beautiful covers, and Lando Calrissian proves a suitable stand-in for Solo-style adventures. With a more fully established Star Wars universe in place, the contributors (particularly Simonson, scripter David Michelinie and inker Tom Palmer, who settled in as the regular creative team around #56) turned their attention to the inner workings of the Rebel Alliance, with tales of Imperial infiltration and sabotage alongside an extended storyline about someone trying to frame Luke for a friendly-fire incident. This is the series’ creative high point, with a variety of established and upcoming artists adding some interesting ideas to the mix; Simonson and Michelinie’s Shira Brie storyline — which introduces a new love interest for Luke just before he’s framed for a friendly-fire incident — stands out as the series’ best.

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70-80: “The quest for Han Solo… ends here!”
Michelinie handed the writing reins over to Mary Jo Duffy with #70, just before Return of the Jedi hit theatres, and she stayed on as the series’ main writer until the end. Simonson also moved on to draw and write Thor, allowing new series regular Ron Frenz to join the team. It was an interesting time for the series and the franchise as a whole; Jedi premiered in May 1983, just a few months after Duffy took over scripting chores, and the change in the way Marvel and Lucasfilm handled the film adaptations (see below) meant the comic had to tread water while Jedi was playing in theatres, presenting adventures that took place pre-Jedi at the same time our heroes were wrapping up their trilogy on the big screen. More non-spoiler shenanigans involving the search for Han Solo ensue, along with the introduction of characters that would continue to play significant parts in the book until the end of the series, including Dani, a thief and smuggler with an interest in Luke, and Kiro, a member of an aquatic race who joins the Rebellion.

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Return of the Jedi 1-4: “The Official Comics Adaptation!”
For their official Return of the Jedi adaptation, Marvel again tapped Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson for script and art duties, with Williamson’s art finished this time by Carlos Garzon, Tom Palmer and Ron Frenz. Unlike Marvel’s previous adaptations of Lucas’s films, Jedi was presented as a self-contained mini-series separate from the numbering of the ongoing Star Wars title (art for all four issues also appeared in the 27th issue of Marvel Comics Super Special). Another difference: unlike the adaptation for the first film, which was put out ahead of the film’s premiere to generate buzz, Jedi (with a cover date of October 1983) didn’t ship until well after the film’s May premiere date, likely because there was little need for the comics to promote a film already eagerly awaited by millions of fans. On the upside, this adaptation is far more faithful to the script and look of the film it’s based on, thanks in no small part to Williamson’s spot-on renditions of Darth Vader, Yoda and the rest.

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81-93: “Darth Vader is dead! Long live the new dark lord!”
With Return of the Jedi bringing the Star Wars saga to a close (for the time being), the Star Wars comic entered uncharted waters. The book may have had to do a bit of creative dancing around the first two films, but at least those stories had the benefit of knowing another film would be coming along to keep fans stoked. With the third movie bringing the saga to an end, what was left for the comic to do? The series’ existential dilemma in its final years was echoed in the stories themselves; a common theme in these issues was the difficulty of rebels and warriors adjusting to peacetime when they’ve won the battle. Han and Leia rebel (as it were) against their new roles as diplomats and ambassadors, while Luke spends time trying to figure out how not to follow in his father’s footsteps. Side trips to places like Chewbacca’s home planet (which featured the introduction of the alien race introduced to replace the Empire as the Big Bad Threat) couldn’t hide the fact that no one at Marvel or Lucasfilm really had any idea where to go with the franchise after the credits for Jedi rolled.

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94-107: “All Together Now”
The last year-and-a-bit of Star Wars is notable for being one of the first — if not the first — examples of a female-led creative team at a mainstream publisher. Joining Duffy was new regular artist Cynthia Martin, Glynis Wein as colorist and Ann Nocenti as editor. Perhaps not coincidentally, the focus of the final stories started shifting to Leia, with more emphasis being placed on her internal conflicts about her new role as a peacetime diplomat. And while there’s still a good amount of swashbuckling and skulduggery to go around, Duffy’s preference for delivering more character-based stories is clearly evident in stories like “Tai,” which finds Leia showing compassion for a wounded enemy on a hostile planet. These changes earned applause from Star Wars fans (including a sizable number of female fans), whose letters in the final issues’ letter columns expressed their appreciation for the new direction. Sadly, it wasn’t enough — with only kid-oriented stuff like the Ewoks’ TV movies to keep the franchise going, most Star Wars fans moved on, and sales of the comic went into free-fall. The final issue (cover date September 1986) wrapped up the Nagai-Tof war that our heroes found themselves embroiled in and featured some of the earliest professional work by artist Whilce Portacio. A shirtless, Rambo-esque Luke spends the entire issue toting a gun that’s almost as large as him, which was either a last-ditch attempt to do something different or a sign it was time to wrap things up.

reads-starwarsannual1 reads-starwarsannual2The Annuals (1979, 1982, 1983)
As you probably guessed, Marvel was less than consistent in publishing Star Wars annuals, and frankly there’s little in the stories themselves to suggest why they merited the “annual” treatment, other than the fact they were longer-than-usual Star Wars tales. The first annual, “The Long Hunt,” is notable for featuring a flashback to the Clone Wars in which Anakin Skywalker and the man who would become Darth Vader are shown as two separate people. The second, “Shadeshine,” features a flashback to one of Han’s earlier despot-overthrowing adventures, while 1983’s “The Apprentice” is a lacklustre affair introducing an angry young man who may or may not follow in Vader’s footsteps (though the art by Klaus Janson makes it worth a look).


FIVE TO SKIM 

“Behemoth from the World Below” (#10) has everything: shamans, space-pirates, giant rampaging lizards, flying snowmobiles, things going “SPLAT!” and a wannabe Jedi named (no joke) Don-Wan Kihotay. It’s also the first time (but not the last) Han wielded a lightsaber, for anyone keeping score.

“The Hunter!” (#16) is the first Star Wars comic that doesn’t feature anyone from the main Star Wars cast in the story. Valance, a droid-hating bounty hunter with a particular hatred for the rebels who destroyed the Death Star, is on the hunt for Skywalker. Guest-penciled by an early-career Walt Simonson, it’s an early glimpse into the wider storytelling possibilities in the Star Wars universe.

“To Take the Tarkin!” (#52) finds our plucky rebels infiltrating the Tarkin, a super-weapon built by the Empire after the destruction of the original Death Star. It’s everything that fans liked about the original Star Wars: tightly paced, focused on action, gives everyone in the cast a moment to shine, and reminds us what kind of bad-ass Darth Vader really is.

“The Search Begins” (#68) has Leia and Threepio travelling to a forested planet in search of someone who might be able to lead them to Boba Fett before he hands Han over to Jabba the Hutt. This leads to their meeting Fenn Shysa, an honorable guerrilla fighter who shares some information about Boba Fett’s origins — which is frankly much better than the story we saw in the prequels.

“Shadeshine” (1983 annual) is set between events in Empire and Jedi, and opens with Luke, Lando and Threepio on a primitive world finding a giant statue of Han Solo. As a native of the planet explains, Han visited them in the past and (in no particular order) hooks up with a hot space babe, overthrows a despot and makes life better for the people of Ventooine. Nice work if you can get it.


FIVE TO SKIP 

“Whatever Happened to Jabba the Hut?” (#28) finds Han and Chewie on the run from Jabba the Hut (yep, it was just one “T” back then), who’s depicted here not as the fun-loving giant slug seen in Jedi but as the yellow bipedal alien first seen in the deleted scene from Marvel’s adaptation of the first film. Right away, that renders this story completely unnecessary, but then Jabba’s precarious position at the end of the story leads to him canceling Han’s debts and calling off the bounty on his head — again, moot.

“The Third Law” (#48): And then there was that one time Darth Vader tried to keep Leia from getting a bank loan. No, for real.

“Serphidian Eyes” (#64) has Luke traveling to an alien world where red lizard-people live in the extra-terrestrial equivalent of a Medieval Times restaurant. Luke jousts, regimes are toppled, nothing that happens matters to anything anywhere else. Also? Lizard-babes in bikinis. Brrr.

“Jawas of Doom” (#81) is the first comic set in the series that takes place post-Jedi, and features a newly thawed Han Solo having problems getting his bank to accept his revive status and un-freeze his account. Seriously, guys, we’re not checking in because we can’t get enough of our heroes’ banking problems. But that’s not the worst sin in this issue, as it also brings Boba Fett back from the Sarlaac pit — only to have him go right back into it like a punk for the second time within the space of a single issue. What a waste.

“All Together Now” (#107) has, as mentioned earlier, a buff and shirtless Luke in a headband shooting his way to freedom, or something. Honestly, they couldn’t make him more an ’80s movie action hero if they tried. The story also isn’t helped by the limp concluding panel that gives the ending to Superman IV a run for its money on the saccharine scale.

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3 responses to “Marathon Reads: Marvel’s Original Star Wars Series

  1. Really good write-up. I posted a link to this blog on Facebook.

    By the way, the reason why Star Wars #107 was a rather lackluster issue was that Jo Duffy was informed by Marvel that it was going to be the final issue of the series when she was already halfway done writing it. So she had to scrap a her long-term plans and bring everything to a close in an insanely short amount of time.

    • Yeah, I read something to the same effect. I knew the abrupt cancellation of the series wasn’t Duffy’s fault, but even so they could have handled the conclusion of the series a hella lot better. Count me among those who liked where she was taking the book in those final few years; sure, there was a little bit of slapstick and silliness, but there were also some stories that tackled the “where do we go from here” theme head on. As we’ve learned all too well in recent history, history doesn’t stop when you declare “mission accomplished” and hope everyone freeze-frames on the victory instead of focusing on the work that’s left to do.

  2. I loved issues 7-10! The Han Solo “Magnificent Seven” was a great story and I loved the big green rabbit.

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