Star Wars: The Original Marvel Years – Volumes 1 & 2

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Marvel Comics almost passed on Star Wars. They had history with adapting big sci-fi movies, having adapted both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Logan’s Run, but neither title ran for more than 12 months and both are now better remembered for other reasons (2001 for the creation of Mister Machine, later renamed Machine Man, and Logan’s Run for introducing Thanos in a back-up strip). The only one that really had legs was Planet of the Apes, but even that was more popular in the UK than in its native US, forcing the British weekly title to adapt Marvel’s Killraven into a strip with Apes instead of Martians when the US stories ran out. Understandably, Stan Lee wasn’t keen on investing in this new space film, but Editor-in-chief Roy Thomas saw potential in the idea and pushed for an adaptation of Star Wars until Stan the Man eventually caved. Fuelled by the phenomenal popularity of the movie, the Marvel Star Wars title went on to be their biggest seller by far, literally saving the floundering comics company from bankruptcy.

The Marvel Comics strips are often looked down on by fans of Star Wars, because they don’t exactly adhere to – and sometimes actively contradict – the accepted continuity that has built up around the franchise and its ‘extended universe’. That could hardly be said to be Marvel’s fault though; they were working with the information they had available to them and, even after the success of the first film, no-one had any idea that the franchise was going to enjoy the kind of longevity that it has. After their adaptation of the movie, Marvel carried on with adventures that were some of the strangest and most imaginative you might ever see in the Star Wars universe; their lack of direction from 20th Century Fox forced them to use their imaginations and come up with some extraordinary scenarios, many of which would go in to influence the future of the film series. To reject them because they contradict continuity that didn’t even exist at the time is just crazy.

I grew up in the UK reading these strips in Star Wars Weekly. Marvel UK published its comics in a very different style to the US; stripping the stories into smaller parts and adding lots of back-up strips. So, I read the continuing adventures of Luke Skywalker and Co. In weekly instalments alongside The Micronauts, Guardians of the Galaxy, Monark Starstalker and many others. For some reason I never kept my Star Wars comics until the advent of The Empire Strikes Back, so I’ve never read a most of these strips for many, many years. For a long time they were only available as a luxury hardbound edition that you’d have to take out a mortgage to buy, but the arrival of these Marvel Classics editions have put them (just about) in my price range again. I find reading these stories deeply nostalgic and they bring back all kinds of memories… and not just about Star Wars.

The actual movie adaptation feels very familiar, though it’s interesting to read the full version again and not the truncated version printed in the Star Wars Annual 1978. They were obviously working from early scripts because both Biggs Darklighter and Jabba the Hutt put in appearance; the latter, with his gibbon/walrus appearance taken from production sketches, will reappear in a later story. Howard Chaykin’s artwork on the first issue has a distinctive angular quality which is full of light and shadow that actually works better in black and white, but it’s still interesting for a UK fan to see it in colour for the first time. He’s joined by Steve Leialoha for issues 2-6 and an ever-changing roster of ‘embellishers’ up to issue 12, leading to a subtly altering look to the artwork throughout the first year. I’m not sure what the reason was for this set-up – possibly something to do with deadlines – but I have to be honest and say that I prefer the one issue that Chaykin did on his own.

After the adaptation is when things get creative. Getting little guidance from George Lucas and 20th Century Fox, the creative team weren’t sure where to go next, especially with the enmity between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. In the end, they played it safe and related the continuing adventures of Han Solo and Chewbacca, who were characters that lent themselves much more to the comic book format, placing them in adventures that were basically Westerns in Space. In the first of the post-adaptation issues, Han and Chewie help an alien priest escort the body of a cyborg past the objectionable locals to Space Boot Hill. This is then followed by a much more memorable story which is basically a take on The Magnificent Seven, in which our heroes join a group of mercenaries on the planet Aduba-3 hired by poor villagers to protect them from marauding banditos on flying motorbikes. The line-up of the ‘Seven’ got Marvel into trouble with Fox; they didn’t mind ersatz-Luke Skywalker Jimm and his robot FE-9Q, nor Amazonian gunslinger Amaiza or porcupine-like alien Hedji; not even deluded Jedi-wannabe Don Wan Quixote. It was Jaxxon, the giant green rabbit that they objected to. Well, that’s what you get if you don’t give more guidance!

After issue 11, Roy Thomas stepped down as head writer, replaced by Archie Goodwin and the era of Marvel Star Wars began in earnest. Artists Carmine Infantino and Bob Wiacek came with him, bringing a whole new look to the series. Infantino’s rather arch style is something of an acquired taste, but it’s definitely the look that is most associated with these early Star Wars stories. Events kick off with the epic Dragon Lords saga, with Luke, Leia and the droids (at last!) joining Han and Chewie in a rollicking adventure on an ocean world. There’s no Darth Vader, but in his place we have Governor Quarg, the first in a series of guest-villains that pepper this series while Marvel await the go-ahead from Fox to include the Dark Lord of the Sith in the comics.  This story is visually stunning, with particular merit going to Quarg’s ocean-going headquarters, festooned with moss and seaweed, which looks as if it’s been at sea for decades. Like most UK readers, I associate it with the Star Wars Annual 1979, which reprinted a truncated version of the story.

Between the Dragon Lords and the next big saga set on board the galaxy’s biggest space-borne casino The Wheel, there were 2 space-filler stories, one of which is of particular significance. The Hunter introduces the concept of bounty hunters into the Star Wars universe, just over a month before Boba Fett debuted in the animated segment of the notorious Star Wars Holiday Special on TV. Valance is the comic series’ first truly great original creation; a bounty hunter who hates droids but harbours the secret that he himself is half-cybernetic. In The Hunter, he travels to Aduba-3 in search of bounty and mistakes Jimm (remember him?) for Luke Skywalker. It’s a bold move for the strip to devote an entire issue to original characters and feature not a single face from the movie, proving that the comic strip was already creating its own internal continuity. Valance will return later and arguably has a more satisfactory story arc than his big screen equivalent Boba Fett. The other space-filler story Crucible is also one of many that pre-empt the film series, with Luke’s reminiscence of life on Tatooine featuring a sequence not unlike The Phantom Menace’s pod race.

The story set aboard The Wheel is one that sticks firmly in my memory from childhood. Han and Chewie fighting in an arena that makes it look like they’re floating in space is inseparable in my mind from a memory of my Mother buying me that comic at a shop near my Grandparents’ house and of reading it in their living room. The cliff-hanger of Chewie seemingly shooting Han dead genuinely left me frantic to read the following issue. It’s a great story and they start to slowly introduce Darth Vader into the narrative, searching the galaxy for the name of the pilot that destroyed the Death Star. This is something that makes a lot of sense as it is dismissed with a Jedi-like wave of the hand in the movies; in The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader knows exactly who Luke Skywalker is and everything about him because of… y’know, Jedi stuff. The guest villain in this story is Senator Greyshade, who starts the trend of such temporary bad guys getting wiped out in the last reel upon the arrival of the real villain, Darth Vader.

Alongside the main Star Wars title in the US, Marvel also produced newspaper strips and a serialised strip for the Marvel Magazine Pizzazz. An experiment in Marvel producing a sort of multi-media magazine that also featured sport, music and humour, Pizzazz bit the dust after just 16 issues, leaving its second Star Wars story The Kingdom of Ice unfinished. I had no idea about that until I read this collection, because the two strips from the magazine were published in their entirety by Star Wars Weekly and I just assumed they were part of the regular run. The last instalment of The Kingdom of Ice must never have been coloured, so it is printed here in black and white, as it would have been in Star Wars Weekly. It’s quite a good story, but it’s probably just as well that it never appeared in the regular title, because with its snow planet setting, it does bear an unfortunate resemblance to the Hoth sequences at the start of The Empire Strikes Back.

Volume 2 starts with a brief foray into the history of Obi Wan Kenobi (who looks more like Charlton Heston than a young Alec Guiness), before launching into an extended sequence of stories featuring the House of Tagge. This wealthy family operates a love/hate relationship with the empire and is governed by 3 brothers: Baron Orman Tagge, a ruthless industrialist; Silas Tagge, an amoral scientist and Ulric Tagge, an Imperial Officer. The House of Tagge storyline is set up in the story Siege at Yavin / Doom Mission before being laid to rest for a while, so we can catch up on some old friends. Return of the Hunter brings back Valance, who locates Luke Skywalker but has a change of heart and decides not to turn him over to the Empire. Unfortunately, Darth Vader finds out that Valance knows the identity of the Rebel that he is seeking, leading to a breathtaking confrontation between the Dark Lord and the bounty hunter. I remember being really excited by this as a kid, but actually quite sad at the fate of Valance, because I really liked him.

Call the continuity police – Jabba the Hutt is back in Whatever Happened to Jabba the Hutt? Old gibbon/walrus face finally caught up with Han and Chewie, forcing them to land the Falcon in a dank cave full of spaceship-eating critters. Hang on, isn’t that a bit like… no, never mind. Anyway, they escape unharmed and Jabba lives to slime another day – only not exactly in this particular form. The Tagge saga continues with a solo adventure for Princess Leia (about time, everyone else has had one) and a return to Tatooine for Luke, Han and Chewie (isn’t that a bit unwise considering that’s the home of… never mind, forget I mentioned it) in The Jawa Express. The attention to detail for Tatooine is quite extraordinary, with Jawas, Dewbacks and Moisture Vaporators; but most impressively of all, the story picks up on some ‘lost’ continuity with the return of Fixer and Camie, two of Luke’s childhood friends who were cut from the original film.

The 1979 Star Wars annual (that’s the US comic style annual, not the hardback Christmas book familiar in the UK) featured a story called The Long Hunt, illustrated by guest artist Mike Vosburg and Steve Leialoha. This sticks in my mind because it was the story that Star Wars Weekly started to run in their 100th issue and it features a city in the sky that presages Bespin Cloud City, except that this one is populated by colourful winged aliens. Back at the regular title, the Tagge saga is drawing to a close with the Red Queen stories, in which Darth Vader plays a significant role. In these, he’s cast as the arch-manipulator, tricking the peaceful Tagge sister Domina into betraying Luke by telling her that the young rebel murdered her brother; but Baron Orman Tagge is still alive and when he turns up looking for revenge, Vader tricks Luke into actually killing him. Vader is rarely political in the movies, but his Machiavellian scheming in the comics works really well.

Bridging the gap between the climax of the Tagge saga and the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back is my favourite of all the Marvel Star Wars comic strips, Riders in the Void, written and illustrated by guest contributor Michael Golden. As a regular reader of Star Wars Weekly, I was familiar with Golden from his amazing work on The Micronauts, one of the Weekly’s first back-up strips, and I’ve always adored his style. A simple strip about Luke and Leia encountering a strange organic vessel in a mysterious void after a hyperspace accident, Riders in the Void is visually stunning and, unlike a lot of the stories in these collections, works just as well in colour as it did in the black and white that I was used to. It stands out as one of the absolute masterpieces of these early Star Wars strips and we almost didn’t get it, because issue 38 was when The Empire Strikes Back was due to start but, for reasons too complex to explain here, did not. It’s just a damn shame Michael Golden never drew for the series again.

Six other issues were not so lucky and timing issues with starting Empire to coincide with the release of the movie meant that they were never printed in the US comic. We in the UK were much more fortunate. The British format gobbles up material at a rate of knots (one issue of the Empire Strikes Back Monthly was forced to reprint The Hunter because there simply wasn’t anything else available to print that month), so Star Wars Weekly was always slightly ahead of the American release, leading to the printing of the Pizzazz strips and these strips that were never published in the US. They’re reprinted here in glorious monochrome along with the Star Wars Weekly covers that accompanied them. It’s clear that they were winding down the ongoing storylines in anticipation of The Empire Strikes Back, as The Way of the Wookiee, The Day After the Death Star and Weapons Master are flashbacks from Han, Luke and Leia respectively.

The Way of the Wookiee is interesting because it picks up continuity from the ghastly Star Wars Holiday Special in naming Chewbacca’s home world as Kashyyyk, but apart from that it’s pretty unspectacular, as are the other two ‘flashback’ episodes. The series ends well though, with the World of Fire sequence, which plays out a bit like a Star Wars take on Forbidden Planet, with Luke, Leia and the droids reluctantly joining forces with a rogue Imperial Major and his squadron in a deserted alien city. The story also features Mici Shandabar, a black female Rebel fighter who quite definitely feels like she was being squared up to be a recurring original character, but sadly never appears again after this. Although the art is credited to Carmine Infantino and Gene Day, I can’t help thinking that someone else has had a hand in it (and I don’t just mean the ‘last issue’ bits from Star Wars Weekly, which were often assembled by in-house artists at Marvel UK) because the whole thing feels different and odd frames just don’t look like Infantino’s style at all. This is a good story to end on and it’s a shame that it never got to be published in the original print of the US title.

I love stuff from the early years of Star Wars, before the series began to struggle under the weight of its own continuity. Die-hard fans will almost certainly disagree – probably very vocally – but I think that era produced some of the most imaginative spin-off books, toys and comic strips in the entire history of Star Wars. That’s why I love these comic books so much; they remind me of a simpler time when our first reaction at seeing any new Star Wars was “WOW!”, rather than to look for ways to criticise. I think I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I have a distinct memory of running home from the local newsagents with the first issue of Star Wars Weekly in my teeth, desperate to read it. When I think about Star Wars, those are the memories that I cherish. I don’t care about continuity or canon, just the child-like joy that the films have brought me over the years – and if you feel the same way, you’ll love these collections as much as I do.

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