Toys Off the Shelf: Marvel’s “Star Wars” Comics
By Daniel WordenJanuary 6, 2016
Since January 2015, Marvel has been publishing Star Wars comics again, and the line has once again proven to be a financial godsend for the company. In early 2015, the first issue of Star Wars sold over a million copies, making it the best-selling single-issue comic of the past 20 years. Marvel is publishing the flagship Star Wars comic alongside two other ongoing series, Darth Vader and Kanan: The Last Padawan. These ongoing titles are accompanied by a number of miniseries, which have thus far included Princess Leia, Lando, Chewbacca, and, most recently, the awkwardly titled Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Shattered Empire. The line’s first crossover event, titled “Vader Down,” which features a single story appearing in both the Star Wars and Darth Vader comics, began in November. A single-issue C-3P0 comic and an Obi-Wan and Anakin miniseries will follow in 2016. These comics are helmed by some of the best creators working in mainstream comics today, including writers Jason Aaron, Kieron Gillen, and Greg Rucka, and artists John Cassaday, Stuart Immonen, and Alex Maleev. Unsurprisingly given this roster of talent, they are good.
Yet they also, like a lot of popular culture, make clear the ways in which we are currently living the 1970s all over again. This goes beyond the 20-year nostalgia cycle that gave us the Brady Bunch movies in the 1990s (and that earlier gave George Lucas his first commercial hit with the 1973 American Graffiti). In some more thoroughgoing way time has folded in on itself, and those desperate days in which privatization was hatched and implanted as the solution to a flagging economy have returned as a sort of imagined golden age. This is evident across the cultural spectrum, in works ranging from Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers to David O. Russell’s American Hustle to many others. It is only fitting, then, that in these desperate times, Star Wars comics would return to their 1970s roots at Marvel, after being published consistently by Dark Horse Comics from 1991 to 2014.
There is also a concrete reason for Marvel’s homecoming. The license to publish Star Wars comics reverted to Marvel after both Star Wars and Marvel were acquired by Disney, consolidating and “synergizing” the line in preparation for the release of the predictably profitable Star Wars: The Force Awakens. “Licensed property” comics about toy, television, film, and other franchises are notoriously hit or miss for comics readers. Mostly they miss, plagued by lackluster writing and awkward art that relies on photo-references for characters and settings. Rare exceptions in recent years to bad licensed property comics include the inspired 2009 miniseries G.I. Joe: Cobra, an espionage story written by Christos Gage and Mike Costa, and the wonderful 2012 miniseries Betrayal of the Planet of the Apes, with Gabriel Hardman’s heavily inked art. But these are exceptions to the rule that licensed property comics are typically rather lifeless, privileging brand and franchise over craft and artistry. With these comics, and maybe everything today, corporate ownership determines both the conditions and the results of aesthetic and cultural life.
The Star Wars comics arose at a simpler time, when the relationship between intellectual property and the sorts of stories that could be told were less codified. In 1977, the first six issues of Marvel’s Star Wars series adapted what we now know as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. These first issues were drawn by Howard Chaykin, whose series American Flagg! would contribute to the 1980s comics revolution usually associated with more well-known works like The Dark Knight Returns, Maus, and Watchmen. The 1970s Star Wars comics crackle thanks to Chaykin’s line work and expressive figures. Due to the narrative conventions of 1970s comics, a lot more exposition is present in them than in the films themselves. Written by Marvel’s editor-in-chief Roy Thomas, the series contains a lot of information about the Star Wars universe that would later become valuable data for fans. For example, the comics’ introduction of Darth Vader describes him as a “Sith Lord,” a term not used in the film, and Luke is referred to by his Tatooine nickname, “Wormie.”
Later Star Wars comics, especially those published by Dark Horse beginning in 1991, would explore more niches of the Star Wars universe, in a manner similar to Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy of original Star Wars novels, which got underway the same year. These novels and comics moved into the future, past the events of Return of the Jedi, and also filled in the gaps between the Star Wars films. (How do the Rebels get to Hoth at the start of Empire Strikes Back? How does Luke become a badass Jedi in Return of the Jedi? Where does Chewbacca come from?) And then, following the release of the “prequels,” other novels, comics, and television shows would flesh out the Clone Wars world. While the films remain the marketing touchstone of the Star Wars franchise, Star Wars has never really been exclusively about the films. Famously marketed in every conceivable way, some more embarrassing (the Christmas special) than others (action figures everywhere), Star Wars is a universe. Especially in the comics, it is a universe where time stretches out indefinitely. The time and space before, during, and after the moments of all seven films becomes pliable, able to contain multiple stories.
It is of course a hallmark of serial comics, especially in their most prominent superhero mode, to stretch time out. Characters typically don’t age, nor do they celebrate or suffer other permanent events. Instead, even death is reversible, a ruse, because the permanent plasticity of the franchise is what serial comics ultimately rely on. As Umberto Eco noted in an essay about the temporality of Superman comics,
The stories develop in a kind of oneiric climate — of which the reader is not aware at all — where what has happened before and what has happened after appear extremely hazy. The narrator picks up the strand of the event again and again, as if he had forgotten to say something and wanted to add details to what had already been said.
That is, in mainstream serial comics, time is inherently fungible, capable of containing a potentially infinite number of adventures that only lead to further adventures. It’s not that the world in the comic doesn’t change with each adventure, but instead that the cumulative effect of the adventures is the production of more, not the arrival of some final conclusion. Or, to put a less philosophical and more practical spin on the idea, the stories don’t have to end as long as people keep buying them. The true conclusion to any serialized comic is financial, not aesthetic or exegetic.
The new Star Wars comics from Marvel engage in the same temporal stretching, finding and dwelling in pockets of time previously unrepresented in the films. Marvel’s new Star Wars comics are particularly interesting because they are written and drawn by comics creators who grew up with the movies. Mostly born in the mid-1970s, the writers and artists making these comics know the Star Wars universe in the intimate way those of us born during that time often do. For many of us, the films constituted a touchstone of our fantasy lives, and the action figures inhabited our play in a way that is probably unprecedented. One of the unique things about these Star Wars comics is how they often read as play. They put familiar characters in fantasy settings, making the interactions, battles, and spaceship rides that we imagined with our toys happen on the comics page.
The flagship Star Wars series is full of such playful moments. The series, so far, takes place between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, so after the first Death Star has been destroyed and before the Rebels have established their base on the ice planet Hoth. In the first issue alone, Han Solo cracks wise to an Imperial officer while pretending to be an emissary of Jabba the Hutt, Leia punches the same Imperial officer in the face after he gives up the location of a power core, and Chewbacca shoots at Darth Vader in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate him. The issue concludes with Luke Skywalker preparing to fight Darth Vader, lightsabers drawn, while Han and Leia seek to get away in an AT-AT walker. It is a well-crafted version of play, the kind of script many of us aspired to construct in our childhood bedrooms, surrounded by plastic figures.
All of this is drawn by prestigious comics artist John Cassaday, who avoids photorealism while rendering the characters familiar with his characteristic smooth lines and deep, expressive eyes. Perhaps the most telling aspect of the series’ first issue is its use of full-page illustrations to punctuate iconic moments. The first such full-page illustration is of Luke Skywalker standing with his lightsaber drawn while, behind him, a slavemaster whose hand has been severed lies on the floor. The only text on the page is Luke’s word balloon, “Follow me.” The second full-page illustration occurs at the very end of the issue, as Luke looks at Darth Vader. A blue word balloon, uttered by Obi-Wan Kenobi’s spirit, says only “Run.” Luke holds his blue lightsaber upward, while Vader directs his red lightsaber downward. The composition gives the reader a sense of Vader’s confidence, and Luke’s lack thereof. But, more importantly, it replicates with a difference the lightsaber battle between these two characters that will occur (in the future of this story) in The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke himself will lose a hand — an event gestured to in the preceding full-page illustration.
In another proleptic reference to The Empire Strikes Back, in the second issue of the series, Luke confronts Vader and says, “You killed my father.” Vader responds in the comic differently than he does in the film: “I’ve killed very many fathers. You’ll have to be more specific.” The comic plays with the dialogue and characters that we already know, and as Vader’s unexpected rejoinder to Luke makes clear, the point of these comics is to multiply narrative trajectories, to avoid the kind of permanent Oedipal resolution we know has already happened, is already coming, will have always been the case.
Indeed, Jason Aaron’s scripts for the series are punctuated both by moments that reference the closure that comes in the Star Wars films and others that emphasize the very different narrative design of the comic book. In Star Wars #6, the conclusion of the first narrative arc of the series, and the last issue drawn by Cassaday, Boba Fett and Luke Skywalker get into a fight at Obi-Wan Kenobi’s home on Tatooine. Again, this moment is a scene straight from childhood play, a confrontation that does not happen in the films, but one that was probably enacted numerous times with Kenner action figures. After the fight, Boba Fett reports back to Darth Vader, telling him that the rebel pilot who destroyed the Death Star is named “Skywalker.” The six-issue arc ends with a nearly full-page illustration of Vader standing at a window on a Star Destroyer. As Vader tenses his hands, the glass on the window cracks into a circular pattern clearly reminiscent of the window Luke and Vader fight in front of, and break through, in The Empire Strikes Back. The comic, then, seems to operate in the register of the literary, foreshadowing that Bespin window and Luke and Vader’s full-blown Oedipal confrontation. But, foreshadowing isn’t quite the right description of what’s going on here. Instead, the window is referenced as part of a more complicated design suggested by the crack itself. The father-son relationship between Luke and Vader isn’t something to be revealed through foreshadowing, but a future revelation that is background to this comic that takes place before that revelation is made. What we see here is not just the infinitely fungible present of serial comics, but also the layered, self-referential sense of time more familiar to us in literary comics like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.
But this emphasis on temporal complexity and depth is offset by other moments in the Star Wars series. In the self-contained Star Wars #7, Luke reads a story from the recently recovered Journals of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Drawn by Simone Bianchi, Obi-Wan becomes an even more overt Christ figure, bearded and robed, meditating in the desert, and torn about whether or not to use violence to help the oppressed. The issue concludes in the present, with Luke Skywalker reading Obi-Wan’s journal in his X-wing fighter. At the end of the story contained in the issue, Luke says to R2-D2, “Mind steering for a little longer, Artoo? I don’t know where we’re headed, buddy … but I’m working on it.” This conclusion makes clear what is pleasurable and ingenious about serial comics. The next arc, beginning with Star Wars #8 and drawn by Stuart Immonen, an artist whose representation of space battles and smuggler chases can only be described as kinetic and jaw-dropping, takes us not to a point of closure, but to even more complications. Over the next few issues, a woman appears who announces herself as Han Solo’s wife, disrupting his romantic tension with Leia; Luke is sent into a Gladiator-style fight with a spiky alien named “Kongo the Disemboweler”; and C-3P0 and Chewbacca intrude upon a smuggler’s bar that doesn’t admit droids or Wookies. The fragmented team-ups all have their own complications, and all ultimately angle toward the reunion of all the characters. Indeed, that is exactly what these comics promise and deliver: the suspension of those characters, relationships, and environments beloved in childhood, removed from any permanent developments that would harm their endless recombination.
More narrowly focused and more rounded in its characterization, the series Darth Vader also takes place after A New Hope and the destruction of the first Death Star, and before The Empire Strikes Back. Accordingly, it is the story of a man out of favor with his boss, and facing a demotion. As written by Kieron Gillen, the story generates not sympathy for Darth Vader so much as the familiar tug of understanding that one feels for that cutthroat office-mate always eager to please the boss no matter what. Like Star Wars, Darth Vader is filled with references to the future and past: Vader force-chokes Jabba the Hutt, referencing Jabba’s death in Return of the Jedi; he remembers the slaughter of Tusken Raiders on Tatooine that led him to the Dark Side; and he teams up with a swashbuckling robot anthropologist, Doctor Aphra, whose relationship with Vader mimics Han Solo’s relationship with the other Skywalker.
The major achievement of Darth Vader, however, is the expressivity of Vader’s character, rendered by artist Salvador Larroca through the use of slight head-tilts and subtle body language. Using long, rectangular panels, Larroca captures expressivity, anger, curiosity, vulnerability, and confidence in minor shifts in Vader’s black mask and the tensing of his gloved hands. In Issue #1, Vader is demoted and assigned a companion officer by Emperor Palpatine, who then dismisses him from the office. In a five-panel sequence, mostly silent, Vader walks away, head down, hesitates by looking back, and then walks onto an elevator, facing the wall, head raised in reflected light. This sequence is not necessary to the plot, but it does much to generate the representation of Vader as a complex being. To the comic’s credit, though, Vader does not come off as the angsty, whiny Anakin Skywalker familiar from Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Instead, Vader is demoralized but reserved, alternating between rage at his demotion and utter confidence in his abilities. A true antihero, Vader rages at the system, but only insofar as he does not yet fully control it.
Star Wars and Darth Vader are both ongoing, monthly series that occupy the same world and timeline, for now. Other Marvel Star Wars comics venture further abroad, narrating side missions, origin stories, and adventure tales that do not necessarily link up with the main titles. The first miniseries, Princess Leia, was written by Mark Waid, whose talent for levity and empathetic characterization rings throughout, and drawn by Terry Dodson, whose clean lines make Leia and the other characters look as if they are gliding on the page. The narrative itself deals with Leia’s attempt to track down and rescue other survivors of Alderaan, her destroyed home planet, and concludes with her full transition from “Princess” to Rebel adventurer. The title of Princess Leia, then, is something of an irony, since the miniseries is an origin story about how a royal scion rejects monarchy, and embraces grassroots democracy.
Written by one of Marvel’s rising stars, Charles Soule, and drawn by Alex Maleev, who is well known for his photorealistic style, Lando was a five-issue heist narrative that also served as an origin story for Lando’s silent companion Lobot, a bald man fitted with a cyborg headband. Lobot is one of many characters who appear only briefly in the films — in this case The Empire Strikes Back — but who are familiar to many of us as action figures in our childhood toy boxes. The Lando miniseries takes place before Empire, and before Lando makes his home on Cloud City on the planet Bespin. In the miniseries, Lando and his team of criminals end up stealing Emperor Palpatine’s private ship, which is filled with invaluable Sith artifacts. This is the second appearance of Jedi collections in the comics — in Star Wars #9, Luke is enslaved by Grakkus the Hutt, who has amassed a collection of Jedi material as well. In a moment that possibly serves as an allegory for the comics or toy collector, Lando’s big haul of priceless Sith material ends up not delivering the monetary value Lando hoped it would have. In a melodramatic conclusion, after the heist has gone wrong, Lando is enjoined by his companion Lobot to “use that power you have … that luck, that charm, and do something good with it.” Lobot says this to Lando after being injured, and because Lobot cannot continue to fight his cyborg headband’s attempts to rewire his brain, he is slowly and irreversibly becoming more of a computer than a human. The scene takes places as the two are making their getaway in an escape pod, so it resembles C-3P0 and R2-D2’s escape pod journey in A New Hope. But there are also shades of Leia and Han facing one another before Han is frozen in carbonite at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. The heist story coupled with Lobot’s backstory offers an entertaining genre mashup featuring minor yet beloved figures from the franchise.
Like Darth Vader, the Chewbacca miniseries solves a representational problem through smart page composition and elegant art. The problem, of course, is how one writes a comic in which the main character can’t speak, but only makes long, guttural noises. The problem is tackled head on by seasoned superhero comics writer Gerry Duggan and artist Phil Noto, who brings his work’s iconic, cartoonish fluidity to the series. In the miniseries, Chewbacca is convinced to help free slaves from a mine. His decision comes after he engages in a long, excited conversation, in which Nodo’s art captures the Wookie’s thought process, moral sense, and reluctant practicality. Mixing Chewbacca’s growled dialogue with facial and body expressions, the comic captures a sense of character, deliberation, and humor. Chewbacca is an example of how comics can work as a medium, in that the images are just as, if not more, important than the text. The art in Chewbacca does not serve as mere illustration but tells us things that the words do not.
Two other Star Wars comics take place in periods not related to the original trilogy. Kanan: The Last Padawan takes place immediately after Revenge of the Sith, and focuses on a character from the Star Wars Rebels animated television series. It is a well-paced, entertaining read, and I imagine it exerts its own nostalgic pull on readers born into the prequels, rather than the original trilogy. The other Star Wars comic is a movie tie-in, the already mentioned Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Shattered Empire. This comic takes place immediately after The Return of the Jedi, as the Rebels clean up the vestiges of the defeated Empire. An engaging war story written by celebrated crime writer Greg Rucka, the comic sets up plot elements that figure into the new Star Wars movie.
As it happens, these new Star Wars comics are good comics precisely because they are restricted by the Star Wars franchise. Rather than engage in the default marketing narratives of mainstream superhero comics — killing off a character, or staging a world-changing event, or redesigning costumes, all ways of fooling readers who know better into thinking that things will actually change in significant ways — these comics tell serial stories aimed at no specific resolution. They promise nothing but play. What they offer, that is, is the well-executed representation of fanboy fantasy: Darth Vader humiliated in front of his co-workers by his boss Emperor Palpatine; Lando Calrissian organizing a heist; two of my favorite childhood action figures, Chewbacca and Dengar, punching each other. These pleasures are suited not to films, trilogies, and closure, but to the open-ended temporality of serial comics. And perhaps because Star Wars has been so thoroughly monetized as a franchise, and because Marvel’s Star Wars comics exhibit corporate comics craft at its most refined, these comics crystallize what is unique and enthralling about serial comics storytelling and fanboy play.
Daniel Worden is the author of Masculine Style: The American West and Literary Modernism (Palgrave, 2011) and the editor of The Comics of Joe Sacco: Journalism in a Visual World (Mississippi, 2015). He lives in Rochester, New York.
Daniel Worden is the author of Masculine Style: The American West and Literary Modernism (Palgrave, 2011), the editor of The Comics of Joe Sacco: Journalism in a Visual World (Mississippi, 2015), and the coeditor of Oil Culture (Minnesota, 2014) and Postmodern/Postwar — & After (Iowa, 2016). He lives in Rochester, New York.
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