1. Shooter said it himself: Star Wars saved Marvel.
The 1970s wasn’t a good time to be in the comic business, especially at Marvel. It’s not that they didn’t have any good comics, they just couldn’t seem to figure out how to get readers to buy them. To get a sense of how dire the situation was at the time, DC launched more than 50 new titles between 1975 and 1978, and only a half-dozen were still alive by the end of 1978; Marvel barely fared better in the same time period, launching just as many and seeing two-thirds disappear within 15 issues. “It seemed like the company as a whole was in a death spiral,” former editor-in-chief Jim Shooter wrote in a 2011 blog post. “Then Roy [Thomas] proposed that we license some upcoming science-fiction movie called Star Wars and publish an adaptation.” It’s impossible to overstate the impact that decision had on Marvel. The first issue of Star Wars #1 sold out immediately, and more printings were ordered — something unheard of at the time. When the dust settled, Star Wars #1 was the first million-selling comic since the height of Bat-mania in 1966. “We reprinted the adaptation in every possible format. They all sold and sold and sold,” Shooter said. “It is inarguable that the success of the Star Wars comics was a significant factor in Marvel’s survival through a couple of very difficult years, 1977 and 1978.”
2. It re-energized the film adaptation genre.
For decades, Hollywood producers and New York comic publishers got along great. Animated features were a natural source of new material for the comics (think Carl Barks and his stories about a certain town full of ducks), and pretty much every movie or TV show with any kid appeal could expect a comic book as part of its marketing strategy. That trend started to wane in the 1970s as a more serious, auteur-driven Hollywood made films that didn’t lend themselves easily to comic book adaptations. It also didn’t help that Dell, the king of film and TV adaptations, got out of the comic business in 1973, leaving smaller outfits like Charlton to publish rush jobs based on The Twilight Zone and The Six Million Dollar Man. But Star Wars’ success went beyond rescuing Marvel’s bottom line; suddenly, studio executives were once again very receptive to the idea of using comics to promote their films. Dune, Time Bandits, The Last Starfighter, Sheena, Krull, Masters of the Universe, Dragonslayer, Annie, For Your Eyes Only, Buckaroo Banzai, The Dark Crystal… Suddenly, dozens of films came out with official comic adaptations. And that’s not counting the ongoing series based on the more popular film properties, like Robocop, Star Trek and The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones.
3. It blew the doors wide open for collectable toys.
“It was Star Wars that jump-started the idea of collecting modern toys,” wrote Stephen Sansweet in his book Star Wars: The Ultimate Action Figure Collection. “With home video still half a decade away, Star Wars toys became a way for children to bring home a piece of the fantasy and experience it again and again in their imaginations.” The roaring success of Star Wars caught marketers and toy manufacturers on the hop during the 1977 Christmas season; Kenner, which scored the licence to produce Star Wars action figures, ran short on inventory and resorted to offering an “Early Bird Certificate Package” that kids could mail in to Kenner to receive their Star Wars action figures as soon as they were ready. Between 1977 and 1985, Kenner sold nearly 300 million Star Wars action figures, cementing its status as a toy industry leader and leading the way for the line’s 3.75-inch molded plastic figures to become the new industry standard for action figures. The success of the Star Wars line led to other hugely popular lines of action figures in the ’80s trying to duplicate its success, including Mattel’s Masters of the Universe, Hasbro’s G.I. Joe, and Kenner’s own Super Powers Collection, which was the most successful marketing of superhero action figures to date. And then most of those toy lines went on to inspire much-loved (and not-so-loved) comics of their own… it’s the circle of life.
4. It inspired a lot of existing comics to reach for the stars.
In X-Men #107 (cover date October 1977), the team of mutants meet the Starjammers, an inter-species crew of space pirates with a swashbuckling captain, a towering first mate, and other small details that made them resemble a certain Corellian smuggler and his crew. As far as I can tell, the artist working on the X-Men at the time, Dave Cockrum, conceived the Starjammers before Marvel knew it had a hit on its hands with Star Wars #1, and if that’s the case then it’s one of the better examples of synchronicity. Not too long after everyone started to realize Star Wars was kind of a huge deal, comic book characters were suddenly finding all kinds of reasons to go into space and battle evil empires. The X-Men helped Empress Lilandra of the Shi’ar Empire regain her throne. The Teen Titans battled Starfire’s power-hungry sister and her Gordanian allies. The Omega Men banded together to fight the evil Citadel. Green Lantern’s book made room for stories about life on alien worlds. The Legion of Super-Heroes — who had the advantage of already living in a futuristic universe of aliens and blaster-guns — saw themselves battling organized (one might even say “Empire-like”) threats like Khunds and the Dominators more frequently — not to mention the forces of Darkseid in “The Great Darkness Saga,” perhaps the greatest Legion stories ever told. And that’s not even counting the many comic mini-series and short-lived titles that were specifically created to capitalize on the Star Wars-fueled demand for space fantasy and cosmic adventures. I’m not saying all these great stories wouldn’t have happened if Star Wars hadn’t come along — I just think it would have been far less likely.
5. It encouraged other artists to take a chance on their ideas.
The story of how George Lucas got Star Wars made has changed over time, but one detail that stays the same is the very small number of people who expected Lucas’s pet project to be a hit. Lucas himself was so sure the film would flop he went to Hawaii for a holiday instead of attending the premiere. In the end, those low expectations worked in his favor, as 20th Century Fox was more than happy to give Lucas the licensing and sequel rights they figured wouldn’t be worth much. That bit of shrewdness on Lucas’s part not only made him a very rich man, it also ensured he had the financial clout needed to retain control over his own creations. This lesson wasn’t lost on others who had their own big dreams in the 1970s and ’80s, especially young comic artists who weren’t keen on giving away the rights to their characters just to get their work published. For instance, when two New England kids came up with a parody of ’80s comics starring turtles with mad ninja skills, they created their own studio and self-published their comic to retain ownership of their characters. Again, I’m not saying the independent comic boom of the 1980s would never have happened if Star Wars hadn’t come along, but it’s easy to see how the success of Star Wars inspired a lot of those artists to take a chance on their own offbeat ideas. As co-Ninja Turtles creator Kevin Eastman once said, “I was one of those guys who saw Star Wars five times in the theater when it came out. It just had such a huge impact on me, and the rest of the world.”
6. It popularized the idea of shared fictional universes.
Star Wars is set in a literal galaxy (specifically one that’s far, far away from here), and the Star Wars movies (and novels, comics, TV shows and games) took advantage of that large stage by populating it with a huge cast of fascinating characters. Spend an hour or three on Wookieepedia and you’ll find detailed biographies of every character that made so much as a millisecond of an appearance in the films or in any of the “expanded universe” channels (fun fact: before she was lead vocalist in the Max Rebo Band, Sy Snootles worked part-time as a bounty hunter and assassinated Jabba the Hutt’s uncle). Having works of fiction co-exist in the same universe but written by different writers is not a new concept — Marvel’s writers had their characters cameo in each other’s books all the time back in the ’60s — but the fan interest in every aspect of the Star Wars universe sent the concept of a shared universe into hyperdrive. It’s no coincidence that comic-book “events” like Marvel’s Secret Wars or DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths were filled to bursting with casts of thousands, multiple storylines, and settings that took our favorite heroes across the galaxy. Just as the stories within comics slowly changed to give fans more of the space-opera derring-do they clearly wanted to see, the structure of those stories themselves (more multi-issue arcs, more big stakes, more “big bads” threatening Everything There Is on a regular schedule) also changed in a way that suggested more than one comic writer was influenced by the type of storytelling that Lucas’s films made popular.
7. The comic itself was pretty good.
Sure, there were a few bumps at the start because the artists working on the first couple of issues had to work from production stills and unfinished scripts. You bet, there were obvious challenges in producing a licensed series for a film franchise that clearly didn’t want the comic stories to deviate too far from the films. And yes, the whole thing kind of petered out at the end, when events in Return of the Jedi meant the rebels had no one left to fight and dealt with the not-quite-exciting task of forming a new government. But try, if you can, to imagine what life was like for us poor souls back in those primitive pre-internet days. In 1977, when the first film came out, cable channels and home video were only just hitting the market. The only places fans could experience the film were movie theaters and on network channels (which aired films months or years after their theatre run, and even then with missing/altered scenes to fit their time slots), or in novelizations or comic adaptations. As I noted in another list, Marvel had to be sold on the idea of adapting Star Wars as a comic, and it was a decision that paid off for them in the end. It also turned out to be a sweet deal for the fans, because the comic stories added depth to the characters and introduced new settings to the rapidly expanding Star Wars universe, all while delivering decent stories that whetted their appetite for more Star Wars.