Star Wars Comes Home… Marvel Comics

Star Wars #7In an earlier post, I discussed my early love affair with comic books.  They were are part of my regular reading diet along with classics from H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, C.S. Lewis and the like. One of the earliest monthly comic titles I regularly collected was Marvel’s Star Wars which was published back in the late 70s through the mid 80s.  The stories we very hit and miss, but they kept me satiated while I awaited the next big screen adventure.

Luke, Han, and the Princess, now called the Star Warriors in classic Marvel fashion, would travel to strange worlds, fighting the oppression of the evil Galactic Empire.  Looking back at the series for every dud there were a handful of excellent stories like the Shira Brie arc, or Luke’s frequent run ins with the Tagge family.  But like all good things, Marvel’s Star Wars title came to an end, and the further adventures of the Star Warriors would go dormant for a few years.

Tales of the JediFortunately the hiatus did not last long, and Dark Horse Comics took up the Star Wars mantle churning out a regular stream of stories over the span of 24 years.  Like Marvel, sometimes they missed the mark, but by and large Dark Horse’s run was brimming with outstanding Star Wars adventure.  From Dark Empire to Tales of the Jedi to Dark Times, Dark Horse always pushed boundries and explored many eras left untouched by the Saga.  Many Dark Horse stories centered on the early days of the Jedi Order and The Republic, while Star Wars Legacy took Star Wars some 100 years after the end of Return of the Jedi.

However, with the 2012 purchase of Lucasfilm and Star Wars by Disney, there now appeared to be rough weather ahead as Disney owned rival comics publisher, Marvel Comics.  For the next two years Dark Horse dutifully continued releasing new titles, but it was becoming increasingly apparent the Star Wars licensing would be moving again… Star Wars would be coming home.

Following the release of Dark Horse’s final titles, including the very interesting mini series, The Star Wars, which was based on an early draft of the Star Wars screenplay, Disney/Marvel announced their first slate of Star Wars comics.  Two of the titles, Star Wars, and Vader would focus on our heroes and villains in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the Death Star during the Battle of Yavin.  Princess Leia, would be a five issue mini series centered on Leia and her efforts to rescue refugees from her homeworld of Alderaan who escaped the planet’s destruction.  Finally, Kanan: The Last Padawan would be a tie in to the Disney XD show, Star Wars Rebels.  Kanan promised to explore our title character’s days as a Padawan in the Jedi Order, and chronicle just how he escaped Order 66, and took up with the Rebel Alliance.  All of these titles held a certain amount of promise, and appeal to me.

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So rather than do a full blown review for each issue, I’ll give a brief summary of the story so far and my likes and dislikes.  Two of the titles are top notch, one I’ve grown ambivalent about over the course of three issues, and one title I’ve grown very frustrated with and wonder if I will collect it beyond the first storyline.

Star Wars OngoingStar Wars –  The first title released under the new Marvel branding, Star Wars begins strong with a riveting story by Marvel scribe Jason Aaron.  Our heroes have been sent to wreak havoc on an Imperial weapons factory.  The action is fast and the dialog at times seems to channel the actors performances; there are a couple of glaring missteps along the way, but Aaron keeps the story moving.  There’s a great moment when Darth Vader arrives on the scene to thwart the Rebels and hopes to discover the identity of the pilot who destroyed the Death Star.  Suddenly he comes face to face with Luke, but he quickly dispatches the young would be Jedi; Luke realizes he has a long way to go in his training.

While the premiere issue started well enough the next two issue took a bit of a step backwards.  It becomes apparent there’s very little plot in the way of this story, and most of that was presented in Issue #1.  The subsequent two issues came across as nothing more than beautiful action panel after panel, lovingly drawn by John Cassaday.  It’s wonderful to look at, but there’s little in the way of substance.  Hopefully, the title can present a few more stories with some depth; the announcement of a flashback one-shot issue featuring Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi fills me with some hope.  Overall it’s a good title, I just hope there’s a little more meat on the bone down the road.

Vader ComicVader – Unfortunately Vader is a title in need of some direction. The story is part Vader as office lackey, part Vader as threatening Dark Lord, part soul searching, angst riddled former good guy. It would work if it could figure out which of these titles it wanted to be. As it stands the title is extremely confused and double minded. The series, penned by Kieron Gillan, tries desperately to walk this tightrope between these three versions of Vader, and what we are left with is an attempt at a post-modern deconstruction of the Dark Lord that leaves us felling neither sympathy or fear of Emperor Palpatine’s dark apprentice.

Part of the problem is this title really makes ample, and I mean ample use of call backs to episodes in the Star Wars Saga. There are so many winks to classic Star Wars moments that any investment you may have felt in the story is lost as your brains replays moments from the films. In one issue Vader is in Jabba’s palace negotiating with the vile Hutt. There’s a good three pages worth of pointless panels wasted on us looking at Vader’s feet as he drifts dangerously close to the trap door Luke fell through into the Rancor pit in Return of the Jedi. Of course this kind of assumes you are pretty familiar with all of the Star Wars films. There’s even one of the more bizarre reference to The Clone Wars animated series as we meet the Geonosian Queen. Vader is apparently needing an army to use against those who would conspire against him, and the Queen, now part cyborg is just the ticket as Vader proceeds to steal her cyborg/insect babies. It’s bizarre and feels completely out of place in Star Wars.

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AphraTo make matters even worse we are introduced to one of the most annoying, ill fitting character concepts in the entire Star Wars universe…. the rogue archaeologist, Doctor Aphra. My hatred of this character has only grown over the course of the two issues since her arrival. Imagine the most loathsome, computer savvy, whiney, depressed, emo, know-it-all teenager you could find in a coffee shop… that’s Aphra. Constantly juggling between moments of really wanting to help Vader, and depression over her suspicion that he will kill her when her service for him is finished; there is little to recommend about her. She comes across as a character taken from the pages of Tank Girl, or a contemporary angst teen superhero comic. She’s really a poor fit for a galaxy far, far away, and for a brief instant when she demanded Vader kill her and be done with it, I really wished Vader would have choked her out (she deserved this fate… not Padme).

If it sounds like I’m being overly harsh… well I am. I had extremely high hopes for this title and it has been nothing but a let down. The art is fantastic, and there are individual moments that click, but I could not recommend this title to anyone but a total fanatic, or a Star Wars comic completist. The book simply doesn’t warrant the investment, and while it tries desperately to please everyone, it fails to do so in so many regards.

Princess Leia Issue 1Princess Leia (mini series) – Fortunately the bad taste in my mouth that was left after issue 1 of Vader was washed away by this fantastic series. Princess Leia quickly became my favorite of the new batch of Marvel comics. Sure, the art was a little different than either Star Wars or Vader, but it had a neat kind of retro vibe which looked like some of the early materials released by Wizards of the Coast for their Battle for Theed Introductory RPG game. What really made the title stand out though was the story and the characterization of Leia. This is the Leia hinted at in the early scenes of A New Hope, before the arrival of Luke and Han. This is the Princess of the Royal House of Organa who has to exude confident leadership, but is racked with pain over the destruction of her home and the death of her family.

Defying orders from the hierarchy of Rebel Alliance leadership, Leia Organa, along with Rebel pilot, and fellow Alderaanian, Evaan, escape from the Rebel Base on Yavin 4 looking for survivors and expatriates from Alderaan. Realizing her citizens may be in peril, Leia begins to take her role as the head of House Organa seriously. This eventually leads them to Naboo where a large contingent of Alderaan’s artists and thinkers live. Of course all is not what it seems and there’s political intrigue afoot. There’s even a wonderful moment in Theed City when Leia sees an artistic rendering of her mother that ties both trilogies together. It’s a fascinating moment because when we see the portrait of the Queen in her full makeup we realize that Leia shares the same duality as her mother. There’s the proper Princess of the Royal House of Alderaan, and the feisty, blaster wielding, fast talking Rebel resistance fighter. Series writer Mark Waid handles this moment with care and it is much more effective than the ham fisted Saga references in Vader.

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So far, Leia has been an enormous success, and sales figures have been very brisk. Hopefully this will lead Marvel to revisit the character in another mini-series. I’m not sure Leia needs her own regular monthly title, but she’s a central character to the Saga and deserves a lot more attention.

Kanan Star WarsKanan: The Last Palawan –  Finally, we come to my favorite Marvel Star Wars series to date. Only one issue old, Kanan was released a few weeks after Princess Leia’s debut, but the book quickly became my favorite of the new stories set in the new canon Star Wars universe. The series follows the adventures of Kanan, Jedi teacher and Rebel leader on the Disney animated series, Star Wars Rebels. Kanan Jarrus is a former Padawan named Caleb Dume who escaped the horrors of Order 66 with the help of his Jedi Master, Depa Billaba. However, the first issue of Kanan begins with the closing moments of the Clone Wars, as Billaba and her young Padawan lead their Clone Troops into a final battle against the force of the Trade Federation.

What makes this series work so well is the writing. The first two arcs of the series will be penned by Rebels producer/screenwriter (for the 1st Season), Greg Weisman. He has a firm grasp of these characters, and more importantly, imbues them with a reality. Although this is a fantasy series the characters feel like people you might know. There’s a wonderful moment toward the end of the first issue when Kanan is talking with some Clone Troopers about duty, and following orders. The clones relish in ribbing the young Padawan, and the writing just feels right. What really makes this scene work is that we know what’s coming in only a few pages… betrayal. The reader is left with confused emotions; we feel genuine sympathy for these clone soldiers, but we know that they will ultimately turn on their friends. It’s heart wrenching, and only a master storyteller like Weisman could pull off a scene like this.

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In addition to Weisman’s outstanding script, Kanan: The Last Padawan is graced with the top notch artistry of Pepe Larraz. From top to bottom this is the best of Marvel’s new Star Wars series, and will hopefully fill in some gaps of what happened during the early days of the newly formed Galactic Empire. It’s a very wide open part of the timeline now filled with new dangers and enemies for our young Padawan hero.

 

May the Force Be With You… and “Make mine Marvel!”

Kanan: The Last Padawan

In an exciting announcement for Prequel era and Star Wars Rebels fans, Marvel has announced plans to release a new ongoing series, Kanan: The Last Padawan.  The series is being penned by Star Wars Rebels 1st season writer and producer Greg Weisman.

The series will chronicle the adventures of Caleb Dume (Kanan’s real name) and his Jedi master Depa Billaba, in the days leading up to Order 66, and explain how Caleb survives the massacre.

The title debuts April 2015.

You can read the official announcement from Marvel and an interview with series writer, Greg Weisman, here.

May the Force Be With You

Make Mine Marvel… Star Wars???

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!!!  Star Wars #7

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.

JaxxonFortunately 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.borg-star-wars-valance

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.

Star Wars #24Unfortunately 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.Star Wars #49

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.

MissionAccomplishedUnfortunately 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!!!

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