The parallels between screen and printed page are uncanny: DC may have thought they had the nostalgia and the goodwill in place to make DKIII: THE MASTER RACE the sure-fire hit of 2015 but when it comes to pop culture both on-screen and off, there’s simply no stopping the juggernaut that is STAR WARS, announced last week as the best-selling comic of the last 12 months.
People queued up around the block, mirroring the queues outside cinemas this December. It was almost a year ago, 14th January, when the first issue of MARVEL’S STAR WARS hit the shelves, along with the ubiquitous racks upon racks of variant covers and special editions. Forget ‘Force Friday’: THIS was when the ramp-up towards the release of J.J. Abrams effort truly began.
When Marvel Comics announced that they would be launching a range of titles, leading up to the release of THE FORCE AWAKENS, critical reception was very mixed. Of course, everyone was excited by the talent roster that had been gathered and these books, now that the SW franchise was fully under the Disney umbrella, teased the possibility to influence on what we would later see on the big screen as these new books became official canon (the previous Expanded Universe, now referred to as Star Wars Legends, conveniently swept under the carpet).
But many – this writer included – were unsure exactly how much f an impact a bunch of monthly comics titles could make on stories, over thirty years old, and how hollow the whole enterprise could eventually be: it was what made the Dark Horse run, however beloved, ultimately disposable. It wasn’t from Lucasfilm, you knew that it wasn’t from the writers of the films, you’d never see these characters anywhere else but on the screen… It wasn’t really STAR WARS, not really really. Right?
Well, these books are!
In much the same way that you watched TFA and found yourself sitting back into your seat, comforted that this is indeed the STAR WARS you loved and remembered from your youth, the Marvel books strive for that same comforting chemistry of familiar characters and cinematic depth, whilst still presenting something new and fresh – and they do so with varying degrees of success. All the books, bar one, take place immediately after the events of A NEW HOPE and before THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK – let’s present the titles published so far, in chronological release order…
Set directly after the events of EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE and the destruction of the Death Star above Yavin, the Rebels are keen to press the offensive against an Empire that has lost its most feared space station. While Han and Leia strike at forces across the galaxy, Luke is drawn to the path to becoming a Jedi in the wake of losing his mentor, Obi-Wan, putting him directly in the line of sight of the man determined to seek revenge for the blow dealt to the Empire: Darth Vader, himself.
The first page is the ‘Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…’ in that pale blue font, the splash page that follows is the STAR WARS logo writ large and the next page is a crawl in yellow – if you can read these first pages without hearing John Williams’ score blasting in your head, you’re a colder hearted reader than I! It is a statement of intent: this isn’t some cheap tie-in, these books aren’t disposable works that are going to be shelved in a couple of years time when someone in a scriptwriting room decides to jettison it in preference to what happens in a screenplay. This is truly STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE IV.1, if you will.
Over the course of the last twelve months, this book has gone from a thundering start, bursting out of the gate, to stagnant holding pattern, to breaking free from its restraints and finding its feet. Reading the book has felt very much like watching the first season of MARVEL’S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. series, which suffered initially from the same situation: shackled by the timelines the other titles in the franchise – with AOS, it was having to juggle with the Marvel Cinematic Universe; here the other side of the coin was the DARTH VADER title – STAR WARS struggled to properly warm up its engines.
However, when they did, Aaron and Cassaday were truly off into hyperspace, with bold and controversial characters being introduced which, for sure, may have been written in primarily to shake up the status quo of our established cast and grab headlines beyond the page but under the nicely controlled pen of Jason Aaron, actually redefine the relationships we know so well, especially those of Han and Leia. We also get a better sense of Luke’s faltering first steps as a Jedi, as a young man who has only repelled a couple of training droid blaster shots and heard a voice in his head at one critical point – he’s determined to find out where these first steps can ultimately lead him and this book begins to connect the naive farmboy in ANH and the proto-Jedi, able to summon lightsabers from across a Wampa’s cave, in EMPIRE.
It has also helped that Cassaday (issues #1-#6 ‘Skywalker Strikes’), and later Stuart Immonen (#8-#12 ‘Showdown On The Smuggler’s Moon’), have rendered our cast with such faithful representations of the live action actors, that you can almost picture Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford on the page, delivering dialogue that flows in the tempo and cadence of our beloved characters.
The sole survivor of the Battle Of Yavin, the Dark Lord Of The Sith is in the bad books of the Emperor who feels that Vader has not only responsible for the destruction of the Death Star but also become a liability to be replaced. Vader, however, doesn’t just have the machinations of the Emperor to contend with: he is also driven to hunt down the Rebel pilot that has landed him in disgrace, the one which was so strong with the Force. To carry out his hunt, he must manoeuvre behind and beyond the influence of his own Master – and that’s going to take some unusual alliances…
When I’ve interviewed Gillen about this book, I’ve expressed my admiration that, when you read the dialogue of his take of Vader, you hear the deep, rumbling baritone of James Earl Jones, the actor that vocally portrayed him on screen. Gillan responded by saying that he never hears Jones when he writes Vader – he hears VADER himself, a fully-fledged character with desires and schemes which fully marry up with what we see of him on-screen.
Indeed, you read this book and it instantly makes you want to go back and watch EMPIRE and JEDI again, seeing how the comic retroactively re-writes the films: you want to run down the streets, grabbing fellow SW fans by the lapels and scream at them, “…do you understand why Vader says what he says to his Master? Do you get why he did what he did on the platform at Bespin, on Endor? Do you really?? Well, I do! Read this!!” The portrayal of a more devious, more wily Vader, sliding around the dastardly plans of the Emperor, is a revelation and, while not entirely lining up with the lapdog representation of Anakin Skywalker from the Prequel Trilogy, certainly gives you a sense that there’s a being of thought and will underneath the mask, a man of his own.
And the supporting cast are great, too – Dr. Aphra starts off as a straight-forward gender-bent amalgam of Indiana Jones and Han Solo but is subsequently developing into somebody that could be placed in the cast list of any of the STAR WARS STORIES movies with relative ease. Not as easily as ‘mirror universe’ C-3PO / R2-D2 dopplegangers, psychotic droids Triple Zero and Beetee, which are the standout new characters of the book and who I would LOVE to see transplanted to the big screen, but it’s damn close. Along with Imperial weasels, Bounty Hunter baddies and a whole panoply of schemers and players, all out to further their own gains, this is the best collection of new SW characters around.
DARTH VADER is easily the strongest of the Marvel titles to date – the story is fluid and supple, the artwork from Larroca is simply gorgeous and you get the sense that Gillen is having the most fun, painting in the depths of the shadows of the Star Wars Universe, and not merely joining dot A to to dot B.
Witnessing the decimation of Alderaan at the hands of the Empire before her very eyes: Leia Organa is a princess without a throne and a woman without a home. Leaving the safety of the Rebel Base and setting off on a mission to track down and find as many refugees of Alderaan as possible, this means becoming a very exposed target. Thank goodness she has a fellow Alderaanian who has her back… but only after she has earned her trust, in the most dangerous of circumstances.
A five issue mini-series, this is a book which began with such bold promise: taking something that is writ very slim on the screen – however brusque and strong Carrie Fisher may have presented her, you don’t get a sense of a fully-fledged character until RETURN OF THE JEDI – and rounding out the missing pieces, especially in the wake of the traumatic events of A NEW HOPE. There are ideas of a woman, of how she would behave, of the frustration, anger and humility she would feel in her position which could springboard the whole notion of who Leia is into something truly special.
However, you get the sense that those couple of ideas are spent very much in the first issues of this mini-series, falling straight back into the default mode of ‘princess with a blaster’ pretty quickly – even the character of Evaan, co-pilot and sidekick on Leia’s missionary expedition, could have been a fantastic tool to draw story from but we end up being bounced from pillar to post, encountering a treadmill of either unpleasant or unmemorable characters which is not what you’d expect from master storyteller Mark Waid at all. What on earth happened?? I hate to say this but, but the time the final issue rolls around, the book feels phoned in.
Taking nothing away from Terry and Rachel Dodson’s artwork, mind – the vaguely Manga vibe to the pages gives the book a sense of impetus and urgency but from where the ride starts to where it ends up becomes ultimately not worth jumping on board. Such a shame – PRINCESS LEIA could have informed us so much about a character we still know nothing about. Except she likes scoundrels, of course… But we knew that already.
STAR WARS: SHATTERED EMPIRE (JOURNEY TO THE FORCE AWAKENS): Greg Rucka (w) / Marco Chetthetto & Angel Unzueta (a) / Andreas Mossa (c)
It’s the events of the end of RETURN OF THE JEDI: another Death Star, another explosion in the sky… This time, the Rebels have also seen the end of the Emperor and now have the chance to end the tyrannical rule of the Empire. Regrouping on the planet of Endor, two veteran rebels join the heroes of the Rebellion as they strike out to finish the job – and in doing so, Shara Bey and Kes Dameron discover one of the biggest secrets of the Jedis…
The one that got everyone talking… and then going, “…meh.” It became very apparent, very quickly that this was going to be the series that had our new additions going on ‘an adventure pre issue’ and, in doing so, happen to have them rather conveniently crossing the paths of established characters. Oh look, this is the Lando issue! And, hey, here’s the one with Leia – ooh, and we’ve gone back to Naboo for this one. What a stroke of luck – we can have some callbacks to other stuff that you should know about. Yes, the Prequels exist, dammit.
This was so frustrating – a storyteller of Greg Rucka’s capabilities and the truly outstanding work of artists Marco Checchetto and Angel Unzueta and colourist Andreas Mossa (very possibly the best art in the entire Marvel STAR WARS output – sorry, Stuart!) is squandered on a book of sheer lip service. It’s a testament to just how good Rucka is that the framing that he’s shackled to doesn’t mean we get some human moments, especially between the Damerons – she’s pregnant, you say? Why, there’s a Dameron in the new movie! That must mean… Ooooh!
That doesn’t excuse what we’re left with, a bad taste of commercial enterprise rather than organic storytelling – in much the same way that a video game progresses through the boss levels, we finally have our newbies reaching the last OT character of the franchise in the final issue: Luke Skywalker! Double points! And, seeing as this is all supposed to tie in to the new films, then we have the MacGuffin of SHATTERED EMPIRE revealed, something which I fully expected to have referenced in THE FORCE AWAKENS. There’s still time, of course. If the first shot of EPISODE VIII is Luke doing some very specific garden maintenance, I wouldn’t be at all shocked or surprised.
He’s a shark, he’s a swindler, he’s a ladies man… It’s that ol’ smoothie Lando Calrissian! And with best buddy and co-conspirator Lobot in tow, he’s off to make the perfect score. This time, however, he may have bitten off more than he can chew…
LANDO is the book that defies the convention of the other standalone books in the series: it starts off underwhelming but grows into a really fine piece of work. It’s not helped by Soule’s insistence to write Lando as the ‘black dude from every 1970’s exploitation movie ever made’ in the first issue – ghetto slang and Shaft-isms abound, left, right and centre, because that’s how black people talk, of course – but gradually everyone settles the hell down and gets into a more comfortable groove as the book progresses.
And thank goodness because this story, incredibly slight as it is, hangs on character and personality and I don’t think I could’ve taken a full run of a book where the writer was channelling Lando as a mixture of the Fonz and Huggy Bear from STARSKY & HUTCH. Instead, Soule eventually delivers something a little more real and delicate against a background that feels like an Ocean’s Eleven movie in space. As Lando finds himself cornered on the hunted ship he has stolen, you find him acting exactly how you’d expect the man who double-crossed Vader in EMPIRE to behave – reacting to pressure but keeping himself composed with an easy charm.
Maleev’s art is the most abstract out of the STAR WARS titles and can be a little jarring in places but it strikes out as individual, just as Lando himself is, so it suits the book well. And any book that has a character who is so markedly mute on screen become the most verbose and sensitive element to this whole run gets some extra chips in the bank from me.
CHEWBACCA: Gerry Duggan (w) / Phil Noto (a)
Chewbacca is on a personal mission but finds himself marooned on a planet when his ship malfunctions. All he wants to do is be on his way. It’s a shame, then, that he is swept along on an adventure by a young girl, determined to liberate her family and people from the gangster element that has them under their sway. What’s a Wookie to do but pull off peoples arms first and ask questions later?
The most successful of the standalone mini-series, partially because it keeps up with the conceit of the original movies: that our favourite fuzz-ball is bellowing in Shyriiwook and no-one is understanding what he’s saying… But actions always speak louder than words, of course.
And it helps that we are introduced to a young heroine who, if Rey hadn’t made such an impression in THE FORCE AWAKENS, could easily be the poster child for young female STAR WARS fans, eager for a female character to run and kick and talk and talk and talk her way from scrape to scrape. Zarro is a brilliant creation and it’s a shame that she’ll probably never show up in a STAR WARS adventure, on page or on screen, ever again – y’know who she reminds me of? Short Round from INDIANA JONES & THE TEMPLE OF DOOM! She’s that fiesty and I love her.
Gerry Duggan does what he’s best at here, snappy dialogue and great personal relationships but the superstar of this book Phil Noto who delivers career best art in this book – it looks incredible. And the vibe is very much that first time we meet Anakin Skywalker at Tatooine: an alien world, populated with a real civilization, with smells and texture in the air and a strong sense of atmosphere. It’s lush and rich, very much recalling Fiona Staples work on Saga. Yup, it’s that good.
It’s a shame that the story itself doesn’t have too much going for it at the end of the day, and the baddie himself joins the ranks of Marvel no-marks whose impact is fleeting and unmemorable, but that doesn’t matter too much because what you want to see is a tall, hairy Wookie becoming the Pale Rider of the Galaxy, charging in, Bowcaster in hand, and saving the day. And that’s exactly what you get!
VADER DOWN: Jason Aaron & Kieron Gillen (w/story) / Mike Deodato & Salvador Larocca (a) / Frank Martin Jr. & Edgar Delgado (c)
On the barren desert world of Vrogas Vas, Luke has discovered the location of an abandoned Jedi Temple, what he hopes could possibly be where he can truly begin his journey to becoming a Jedi Knight. But Vader is right behind him and coming in hard. And, after a collision that leaves them both stranded on the surface, Vader finds himself fighting on all fronts: against the masses of Rebel forces determined to take down the Dark Lord Of The Sith… Against a Princess, driven by revenge and responsibility… Against those scheming within the Empire that want to take Vader’s place… And against the young man who may very well be Vader’s last connection to the Skywalker legacy. LET THEM FIGHT!
Remember when I said that the MARVEL STAR WARS book were initially very much like AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. when they had to go into some kind of holding pattern when CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER came out? That it felt like one hand was waiting to see what the other hand was going to do before reaching forward? Well, that’s almost exactly what you get here, except this crossover event isn’t being held up by the film but by the two series involved themselves. Thank the Maker that this only went on for six issues!
There’s also another cinematic reference I can call on: when plotting out the events of Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS, writer Jon Spaihts would have a number of hand-drawn location maps laid side by side, with nametags on stands being moved around as the action progresses. That’s pretty much how you feel, reading this book… No, wait. I’ve got it, I know EXACTLY what VADER DOWN feels like. It’s a bloody Warhammer campaign! Kieron Gillen has taken his love of boardgames and, dragging Jason Aaron along for the ride, has translated a turn-by-turn gaming session to the comic page!
It’s okay to see nametags… sorry, characters… cross each others paths and roll for their particular outcome but, like most boardgames, it’s more fun for the people playing that for those watching from the sidelines. There are some standout moments, sure: early on, Vader faces down the might of the Rebel battalion sent to subdue or destroy him and takes them out in a manner that demands the splash pages the slight series plot allows in six issues. Leia meets Vader, face to face, for the first time since being dragged to watch her planet being destroyed and you feel the rage that crackles under her skin (an even more potent confrontation once you stop to consider their family linage). We get some Wookie-on-Wookie action as bounty hunter Black Krrsantan takes on Chewbacca in a knockdown brawl. And the Shakespearian mistaken identity routine of C-3PO and R2-D2 / Triple Zero and BeeTee-One was something that readers had been looking forward to since the murderous droid counterparts were first introduced.
However, when everything is said and done, when all the pieces have been played and the last die has been rolled, nothing has truly changed from when the crossover had started – a couple of pieces may have been captured and a couple left to lie in the sand but Luke is no closer to finding out the true nature of his potential, Vader is back to square one when it comes to tracking down the Skywalker kid and everyone is left singing a chorus of ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’ It was a fun distraction while it lasted – I long for the books to get back to the real business at hand and continue to deliver the potential of a new Expanded Universe. Time for MARVEL STAR WARS: EPISODE II, I feel.
Ahh, yes: the next series of books. Well, we now have to wait to see what the aftermath of VADER DOWN will bring us – where Vader will sit in the Emperor’s good graces now that his own plans have been left in the lurch? What is Luke’s next move in becoming a better, more fully-rounded Jedi (without getting that Dagobah memo from Ben first, of course, let’s not get ahead of ourselves…)? And whatever happened to Triple Zero and Bee-Tee, did they ever get off Vargas Vos without killing anyone? And, if not, what’s the fun in that??
The next books to hit shelves will be the next mini-series and the first to look back beyond A NEW HOPE: OBI-WAN AND ANAKIN from Charles Soule, Marco Checchetto and Andreas Mossa follows the adventures of Padawan and Learner, after THE PHANTOM MENACE and prior to the events of ATTACK OF THE CLONES. Hey, we may even get to see that skermish in the nest of gandarks after all.
And, delayed from back in November, there’s the one-shot that everyone’s been waiting for, answering the question we ALL were asking from THE FORCE AWAKENS: why on Earth has C-3PO got a red arm in the movie?! The C-3PO one-shot should put that matter to rest and finally let everyone sleep easier at night, when it makes its appearance in March.
Thanks to Joel Meadows of Tripwire Magazine for commissioning me to write this piece in the first place – you can find their version of the post, here – and, of course, for his editing advice and criticism. Thanks, Joel.