A Long Time Ago: The Strange History Of Marvel’s Original ‘Star Wars’ Universe
Star Wars is more popular than ever. Sure, the series has never truly left the American popular consciousness — the first film was designed as modern myth, and became one almost as soon as 1977 audiences first heard that iconic theme — but the franchise probably has more good will now than it ever has.
We’re three years into the Disney era of the franchise. Since 2012, when Disney purchased Lucasfilm for $4 billion and change, we’ve seen a new canon take the place of the old Expanded Universe, with two seasons of the animated Star Wars: Rebels; the release of the most successful movie in the franchise, Star Wars: The Force Awakens; multiple new novels and short stories; and the launch of a new line of Star Wars comics from Marvel. But Jedi and Sith have tangled in the Mighty Marvel Manner before. Marvel was the original publisher of Star Wars comics.
Starting in April 1977 --- a month before the original film’s release --- and running until June 1986 for 107 issues and three annuals, the original Star Wars comic book was many things: zany comedy, thrilling adventure and, in its final years, a meditation on soldiers in peace time, all written and drawn by some of the greatest writers and artists in the industry. But before all that, it was a logistical problem.
Marvel’s contract specified they couldn’t do anything big with the characters until George Lucas had worked out what to do next and told them. So after the six-issue adaptation of the original movie had wrapped, writer Roy Thomas and artist Howard Chaykin decided to take things in a new direction by going with one-off stories or simple, short arcs.
They began by taking the basic story of Seven Samurai, (the most famous film of Lucas’ idol Akira Kurasowa) and making it a Han Solo & Chewbacca story that spread over issues #7 and #8, “New Planets, New Perils!” and “Eight for Aduba-3.” For you nerf herders in the audience, yes, this is the story that introduced Jaxxon, a giant green rabbit who explains repeatedly and insistently that he’s a carnivore, along with Don-Wan Kihotay, a crazy old man who thinks he’s a Jedi. (Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.)
Thomas and Chaykin departed after ten issues, having saved Marvel from bankruptcy — in a 2011 blog post, Jim Shooter, an associate editor at the time, wrote that in no uncertain terms, Thomas kept Marvel alive by licensing Star Wars. They were replaced by Archie Goodwin, who would later take over the syndicated Star Wars newspaper strip, and Carmine Infantino, who stayed for three years and a six-issue adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back.
Goodwin and Infantino built off of the foundations they’d been given by introducing locations like the Wheel — Las Vegas, but a space station — and introduced a non-Vader antagonist in the House of Tagge, a noble family with evil schemes aplenty, led by Baron Orman, who tried to displace Vader as the Emperor’s hand and was blinded by lightsaber for his trouble.
Over time, the “Star Warriors” (the in-comic name for Luke, Leia and company) clashed with Orman, his fussy scientist brother Silas — who openly wonders why his brother insists on eating meat when “science has given us nutritious food paste” — and younger sister Domina, sent by her family to the Sacred Order of the Circle on the planet of Monastery (really) so as not to turn evil like her brothers, but who has a grand scheme of her own.
Goodwin stayed as regular writer until issue #50, “The Crimson Forever,” a double-sized issue featuring a killer virus and a tale from Han Solo’s past, which provided a showcase for Goodwin’s swift, fun writing, but also the dynamic pencils of Walt Simonson, who got to draw larger than life characters and machines a few years before his iconic Thor run.
Simonson took over as regular penciller the next issue, alongside new writer David Michelinie. Taking advantage of the massive upheaval Empire provided, they made Lando Calrissian the new copilot on the Millennium Falcon and relocated the Rebel Alliance to Arbra, a forest planet full of energy-emitting geothermal rods in caves and Hoojibs, a race of Muppet bunnies who only communicate telepathically and wind up becoming important to the Alliance as spies. There’s also a great story arc involving Luke and a fellow pilot named Shira Brie, who turns out to be more than she seems.
Issue 70, “The Stenax Shuffle,” saw Jo Duffy of Fallen Angels fame take over as regular writer, a position she held until the book’s cancellation. Duffy took the groundwork she’d been given and really dug in with character work and introspection, providing psychological depth to our heroes and villains as well as providing some much-needed insight into Princess Leia and a different perspective.
In her first issue, Duffy and artists Kerry Gammill and Tom Palmer introduced bumbling thieves Rik Duel (reportedly based on legendary makeup artist Rick Baker), Chihdo (the cousin of Greedo AKA the dude Han shot first) and Dani, a member of the fun-loving race known as the Zeltrons.
Dani’s evolution over the course of Duffy’s run really encapsulates what makes this comic stand out, both in the big field of Star Wars comics and sci-fi comics as a whole. As introduced, Dani and the Zeltron race are basically pink space teenagers: horny, wide-eyed, and devoted to having a good time. But after facing the reality and brutality of the Galactic Civil War — and, in Dani’s case, being captured and tortured by Den Siva of the villainous Nagai (more about them in a second) — they wise up and become seasoned warriors.
While the trajectory of “abused and tortured woman becomes tough badass” is stereotypical and reductive, Dani’s story is especially tragic the way Duffy presents it. Dani is initially attracted to Luke, but she later falls in love with Kiro, a native of the aquatic planet Iskalon that was firebombed by the Empire and who left to join the Alliance. When Kiro is killed, it has a profound effect on Dani, rendering her catatonic and, eventually, more ruthless than any other Rebel.
Duffy also reintroduced and developd Shira Brie. Seemingly killed at the end of Michelinie’s run by Luke (who was guided by the Force to kill someone strong with the Dark Side) and later revealed to have been an Imperial plant, Brie survived and was reintroduced as mysterious cyborg ninja Lumiya; her real identity was revealed in issue #96, “Duel With A Dark Lady,” in an astonishing wordless battle sequence with Luke that, as illustrated by penciller Cynthia Martin, inker Bob Wiacek and colorist Glynis Oliver, invokes the thrilling fights of the original Star Wars trilogy and samurai films in its eloquent sweep.
Martin made her debut with issue #93, “Catspaw,” and stayed on with Duffy until the end of the series. Their work together marks them as one of the great unsung teams of ‘80s Marvel, a duo that just as in sync as Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli, or Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz. Astonishingly, Star Wars was Martin’s second-ever comics gig.
Speaking of Claremont, he was one of the many distinguished Bullpen members to contribute fill-in issues during the run. Other contributors included Larry Hama, Ann Nocenti, Randy Stradley (who later oversaw the Star Wars line at Dark Horse), Louise Simonson, and Mike W. Barr.
The cornerstone of Duffy & Martin’s run was not only the underlying current of the restlessness of soldiers in peacetime, but the introduction of a new threat: the Nagai. A species from outside the galaxy who all look like Dream from The Sandman, the Nagai, like Den Siva and the charismatically cruel Knife, partner with deposed Stormtroopers to conquer the galaxy. It’s later revealed that the Nagai are fleeing their own enemies, the Tof: a race of huge, yellow people who brutalize everything they see.
Like a lot of intricately plotted comics, the realities of the market brought this new, cerebral Star Wars to an unexpected end. After Return of the Jedi’s 1983 release, Star Wars fever cooled. Faced with declining sales, Marvel quietly cancelled Star Wars in June 1986 with issue #107, “All Together Now.”
As endings go, it’s a mixed bag. While the immediate threat of the Nagai-Tof War is dealt with, a huge time jump leaves more questions than it answers. Why is Luke suddenly ripped and holding a huge gun, years before Cable? Why does Leia have short, red hair? Why is Dani cooperating with Den Siva, a dude who tortured her? It’s become known since then that the abrupt cancellation forced Duffy & Martin to scuttle their ambitions.
The original Marvel Star Wars — which has been reprinted multiple times, most recently in two huge omnibuses — is full of great adventure and bursting with ideas. It’s not only notable for its place in comics history, but for how it demonstrates that just because a comic is a tie-in doesn’t mean it can’t carve out its own unique place.
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