Star Wars (Marvel Comics)

I've been watching a lot of Star Wars recently. My nearly-5-year-old daughter had massive thing for the Clone Wars, and now watches the films themselves repetitively, though she favours three strongly: Star Wars (A New Hope), Return of the Jedi, and The Phantom Menace. After reading Will Brooker's excellent BFI Classic essay on Star Wars, which made the prequel trilogy seem a lot more interesting and thoughtfully constructed, I've been thinking about the films as well as enjoying the elements of spectacle and world-creation again (and again and again).

I was also sent, by a good friend (thankyou Andy), an omnibus edition of the Marvel Star Wars comics that were produced from 1977 to 1986, in monthly format in the USA and in weekly editions in the UK. The early episodes, including a multi-part comic book adaptation of Star Wars itself, was drawn by Howard Chaykin, who would have a notable later career as a writer/artist on titles such as American Flagg!.

What primarily struck me about the comic, after the initial adapted episodes, was the fairly universal failure to adequately convey the worldness that Lucas was able to construct in Star Wars, and which is probably the lasting achievement of the original trilogy: a used world, full of detritus, people wearing working clothes in grubby environments, ships held together with fuse-wire and retrofitted parts. ('Futurologist' Syd Mead, who designed the 'retrofitted' world of Blade Runner, must surely have taken notes from the world(s) of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back.)

The Marvel comics largely abandon this aesthetic, and it is in the absence of Lucas's highly-wrought detail that the texture of the Star Wars films truly becomes apparent. In the first story that follows the conclusion of the Star Wars film narrative, the comic takes Han and Chewbacca off to transport their 'reward' to Tatooine, to pay off Jabba's bounty. On the way, they meet a 'space pirate', one Crimson Jack, who sports a red beard and a kind of all-in-one wrestler's leotard that shows off his bare legs to great advantage. He is a red-headed, before-the-fact version of Brian Blessed's Prince Vultan in the 1980 Flash Gordon. The references to pirate narratives and to the cliches of Golden Age sf indicate that the writers and artists don't really know where to take the narrative in terms of a consistent universe; a later story has Luke marooned on an oceanic world where another crew of pirates or 'wreckers' cruise the seas in nothing less than a three-masted wooden man o'war.

Perhaps here we can see the influence of the Star Trek tv series, where Kirk and the crew would end up in alien worlds that resembled Nazi Germany, or the Wild West. The Western influence can be seen again in a story where Han and Chewie, forced to land on the backwater world of Aduba-3. There, in an overt recapitulation of The Magnificent Seven, Han is enlisted to help out a community who are menaced by one 'Sergi-X', a local bandit shown in a large splash-panel as a two-fisted Mexican outlaw, complete with scar, unshaven chin and nasty leer.

Even more curious is the group of fighters Han recruits. One, called Don-Wan Kihotay (nudge-nudge), lives a waking fantasy of being a Jedi Knight; another is a man-size green carnivorous rabbit with outsize ears called Jaxxon. Clearly here we're in the space of parody, but it's jarring nonetheless. Not only because this rabbit is a hard-boiled, ass-kicking, wise-cracking street rabbit, but through the absurdly cavalier way with world-creation. How can Star Wars have a rabbit in it, that Han Solo calls a rabbit? Star Wars itself is marked with an extremely careful mapping out of alien biologies and ecologies. Banthas might look a bit like shaggy elephants, but they're never called elephants. How would Luke know what an elephant was? He knows a swamp-rat, and can bulls-eye it, but whatever the creature is it surely isn't like a Terran rat.

So, not only do the comics reveal the density of texture in the films through absence, but also the very careful way Lucas imagines his alien world (Tatooine) in Star Wars. Lucas's conceptualisation of politics may be revealed in the prequel trilogy as niave in the extreme, but he does have a good eye for social, biological and spatial ecologies.

A final note: the Marvel Star Wars is much more heroic even than A New Hope. Luke is a jut-jawed, fist-clenched action hero; Obi-Wan a grizzled warrior, still very mcuh the Jedi Knight; Chewbacca is about twice the breadth of Peter Mayhew and is much disposed to violence; Threepio is lantern-jawed; and even Leia, swannning about in her white dress, wields a blaster with aggressive gusto. The key word, in terms of characterisation and the style of artwork, is aggression, with strong inking, garish colour and a regular six-panel page with plenty of white gutter. This is definitely Star Wars Drawn The Marvel Way, and the oddness of having Luke in his Tatooine white wrapped-around jacket, or Leia in her white dress whatever the narrative or place indicates that dress is conceptualised as a kind of uniform or costume in the comics, as much as it is for Iron Man, or Thor, or Spider-Man.

It's a retro-kick for me, reading these comics now. I was definitely a 2000AD kid, but bought Star Wars alongside it for quite a few years - I remember a story called 'Pariah' that wasn't published until 1982 (thanks Wookieepedia), after Empire was released and serialised, for instance. And thinking about it, one thing that is definitely missing from most of the stories in the first Omnibus is the Empire itself: Stormtroopers, TIE fighters, Imperial destroyers, Darth Vader. No wonder the worlds of the comic feel like generic Golden Age sf: the recognisable icons are largely left unused. The reason? A desire to keep clear of politics? The need not to interfere too much with the film continuity (though all stories were cleared pre-publication by Lucasfilm)? Whatever it is, it does leave the book feeling very far, far away from what we know now as the Star Wars universe.

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