How Marvel Comics kept me sane every three years…
I’m going to dedicate this post to my grade school buddy, John Coe. John had read my blog and then hit me up on Facebook and asked me if I was going to do a blog about the old Marvel Star Wars comic?” As it turns out we both shared a passion for it back in the day. I told him that was certainly in my plans and I would be getting to it soon since the Marvel comic was a very important part of early fandom. A flood of great memories filled my head of the new Star Wars adventures I would read each month as I anxiously waited for the next movie. I eventually decided to lay aside the piece I was finishing (cryptically titled “I Hate You Donald”) and dive straight into some Mighty Marvel goodness!
Comic books were a pretty important part of my childhood. I was certainly not an avid collector, but I usually kept up on a couple of series like Superman (my favorite superhero) and Marvel’s Invaders, but my main comic book passion was World War II comics. I would usually walk with my grandmother to the local A.J. Bayless Grocery Store on 56th Street and Thomas. While she would shop I would make my way to the drugstore next door, and sit in front of the comic book racks and read. Whenever I had saved up enough pennies or nickels I would pick up an issue or two of my favorite series. But what I really looked forward to was that one week of the month when the owner of the store would take all of the old comics that were two or three months old and had not sold and discount them. He would take those issues, tear off the covers and put ten of them in a bag and sell them for a quarter. I could usually persuade my grandmother to give me the extra money I needed if I was a little short. So I would scoop up my treasures, quickly walk back to my grandparents’ house and sit down in their den and escape.
Now I knew Star Wars was coming; I had already read the novelization and had picked up a poster magazine featuring a big picture of Darth Vader that I had pinned up on my wall. But I wasn’t expecting to walk into the drugstore one afternoon in April and see the first issue of Star Wars sitting in a rack on the comic book carousel. I gently pulled the book from the rack and paid for it at the counter. I walked back to the grocery store and met my grandmother and promptly displayed my new prize to her. Even though I was giddy with excitement, I waited patiently until we got back to her house to devour the first issue. Over the course of six issues I followed Luke along in his adventures from a New Hope. But what happened next? Was that it? Fortunately I had my answer on the final page of issue #6. Next Issue: A New Adventure of the Star Warriors!!!
You have to understand, during the Summer of 1977, there wasn’t much in the way of Star Wars merchandise to tide fans over until Luke’s next cinematic adventure. There were no cartoons, no novels other than the movie adaptation; there weren’t even any toys. What a young nine year old boy didn’t realize at the time was that no one in Hollywood expected this movie to be a hit. So when George Lucas and his team at Lucasfilm looked for merchandizing partners they were few and far between in the months leading up to the movie’s release. All we had were posters, The Star Wars Scrapbook (a making of book), the soundtrack, and these comics. The enormous wave of Star Wars merchandise was months away.
The first few adventures were a mixed bag with Han Solo teaming up with a band of smuggler misfits to protect a town against what could best be described as an intergalactic biker gang. Oh, then add Godzilla to the mix and you essentially have the plot for the Eight From Aduba-3 arc. The one positive to this story is that we were introduced to Jaxxon, a green furred version of Bugs Bunny who hails from Coachelle Prime (no I’m not making that up). In truth, I actually love Jaxxon; he brash, sarcastic, and packs a mean kick.
Fortunately the series started to find its footing and introduced us to some new villains who were worthy adversaries for the Star Warriors (Marvel coined the term for Han, Luke, and Leia). Crimson Jack was a space pirate who had managed to salvage an old Star Destroyer and used it for his piratical ends. There was also the menacing cyborg bounty hunter, Valance, and the Tagge family was introduced as a regular threat to our heroes. Both the writing and the art finally stabilized with Archie Manning taking on writing duties, and old-school comic artist Carmine Infantino along with newcomers Terry Austin, then later, Bob Wiacek taking on inking duties. The Star Warriors had hit their stride and over the next two years would keep me satiated while I waited for The Empire Strikes Back.
It was around issue #26 when I realized, much to my horror, that I was missing two issues (#22 and #24). I simply could not find them at the usual places like the drugstore of my nearby 7-11. I had no idea where to start, so I asked my dad. He told me I should try the Yellow Pages and said there had to be some place where you could buy old comic books. I finally found a comic book store (something I had never heard of before) on 3rd Avenue and Indian School road.
The nondescript shop was tucked away in the back of an old strip mall; it didn’t look like much from the outside. When I walked in I was greeted by a grumpy older gentleman who looked like he had better things to do that morning than sell comics to the group of loud, bratty kids that filled his store. I ignored all of the commotion because I was on a mission, and sure enough I found the issues I was looking for. But something inside me paused, I had never been in a shop like this before. There were classic comic books everywhere, old movie paraphernalia and used books lined the walls. Even my normally gruff father was taken in by a Lone Ranger lunch pail on a shelf. This wasn’t a comic book store… this was a store of wonders, but for an 11 year old boy it wasn’t really close to my home so it may as well have been on the other side of the world. I bought my comics with money from mowing the lawn, and vowed never to miss another issue of Star Wars again.
Unfortunately that was a promise I couldn’t keep as once again stores in my are did not seem to be stocking issue #29 of Star Wars. So once more I made the trek to the comic book shop, only this time it had a new name, “All About Books and Comics” and was under new management; a young couple, Alan and Marsha Giroux. Alan would introduce me to a world of comic books that I knew existed, but had never paid much attention to. Alan explained how the comic distribution system work, and encouraged me to either get a direct subscription to Star Wars from Marvel, or he would be happy to hold a copy for me each month. My dad agreed to take the monthly trek as long as I paid for my own books. While I was there I asked Alan to hold me new issues of Superman, Captain America and Spiderman. I had taken my first steps into the world of comic collecting.
I eventually managed to find creative ways to get to All About Books and Comics every week or so, usually when my mom would make a shopping trip to Park Central Mall. I would hang out at the store and listen to talk about upcoming comics, or new Star Wars merchandise Alan was getting in the story. This was also the first place I heard “water cooler” type talk about Star Wars. People would shoot the breeze about Star Wars, and others hinted that they knew people working on the new film. I absorbed the discussion about the latest rumors they had heard… my anticipation for Empire grew.
Meanwhile, the Marvel train kept rolling with exciting adventures about Han Solo rescuing and negotiating away his debt to Jabba the Hutt (whoops… that got retconned in a later issue), and Luke Skywalker returning to Tatooine to fight the Empire and dismantle a new superweapon being developed by the evil Baron Tagge. By now Marvel was turning out a solid title with very few misses, but soon the creative powers at Marvel would find themselves in a bind following the release of The Empire Strikes Back.
I’m sure the fols running the Star Wars title had to be metaphorically banging their heads on the brick wall. You are coming off a successful comic adaptation of one of the most successful movie sequels of all time, and one of its most popular characters (Han Solo) in that series is now unavailable to you. To make matters worse you have to at least have the other primary leads continue to look for him, and you have to drag this out for three years. But somehow the folks at Marvel managed to make this work. Star Wars stumbled for a couple of issues following Empire, but then found its rhythm again with a classic Star Wars tale in issue #49 The Last Jedi. This streak continued for some time with new writer David Michelinie and artist Walter Simonson aboard.
The new creative team found some inventive stories to tell including a story surrounding the Empire’s efforts to build a new superweapon, the Tarkin, which was capable of destroying entire planets (originally the crew wanted to use another Death Star but were politely told “No” by Lucasfilm). In this story we are introduced to a potential love interest for Luke, Shira Brie, who, unbeknownst to Luke, is an Imperial agent under direct orders from Vader. The stories were epic and exciting, and definitely helped get fans through the three year wait for Jedi.
Unfortunately in the years following the release of Return of the Jedi the series took a turn for the worse. Although the creative staff had a little more freedom as far as storytelling, they were even more hamstrung by the lack of a clear future for the film franchise. That’s certainly not to say there were not some good stories here or there, but the consistency of the series was simply lacking, and the series mercifully ended almost two years after the release of Jedi.
Years later, Dark Horse Comics would acquire the comic book rights for Star Wars. Over the next 13 years the numerous comic book series released under the Dark Horse banner would become an integral component of the Expanded Universe telling stories about the early days of the Jedi Knights, The Clone Wars, and the further adventures of Luke Skywalker following Return of the Jedi.
But Marvel Comics was where it all began. For nearly nine years, the adventures of the Star Warriors was one of the few authorized outlets for Star Wars stories that fan had. We could follow the continuing adventures of Luke, Han, Chewie, and Leia as they battled the forces of the Empire, escaping the clutches of Darth Vader and his minions. But fear not fans, for the Mighty Star Warriors will be returning shortly… to Marvel. Disney’s purchase of the Star Wars license has now put the comic book rights under the guidance of Marvel once more. Marvel already has plans for two new books debuting in early 2015, and a Princess Leia mini-series coming in Spring. As Darth Vader said in A New Hope, “The circle is now complete…”
May the Force Be With You… EXCELSIOR!!!