Licensed to Cash-In: Star Wars
Licensed comics were a backbone of the comics industry for decades. While less prevalent than they used to be, it was rare to find a movie, tv show, or toy line aimed at young men or women to not have some kind of a comic tie-in at some point. Unless it came from a comic itself, there was a good bet that some company would be looking for a quick buck to capitalize on the popularity of.
In these articles, we at YDRC will explore some of the best, worst, and just plain strangest comics to ever be released under a multimedia umbrella. This time, we look at a license that (if stories are true) saved Marvel from going out of business in the late-1970s and ushered in a massive wave of licensed comics that every publisher could get their hands on. The property?
Star Wars, of course.
According to Sean Howe’s work “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story,” almost no one at Marvel wanted to work with the Star Wars license. After all, the cast was almost entirely unknown, and the third issue would actually be on the newsstands before the movie was out in theaters. However, Marvel had been snatching up a few licenses to stay afloat, including the remarkably successful Conan and other science fiction movies like Logan’s Run and 2001: A Space Odyssey… the latter of which was done by Jack Kirby himself.
Luckily for Marvel, the movie and resulting comic took off like gangbusters. Even better? Marvel apparently didn’t need to even pay for the royalty rights at the time. Roy Thomas worked on the original six-issue treatment of the property, while legend Howard Chaykin worked on the basic art. Others like Marie Severin, Glynis Wein, and Steve Leialoha would duck in to provide colors on an issue by issue basis. Jim Novak and Tom Orzechowski would do the same on lettering. As the issues went on, Leialoha would wind up pitching in as a “tandem illustrator” with Chaykin, and the final issue had a whole bunch of hands coming in to help make sure the book looked fantastic.
The writing was based on an earlier script of the movie, with a few scenes left on the cutting room floor making it into the book. Things like Biggs Darklighter meeting Luke on Tatooine, or the original Jabba the Hutt sequence. It would, of course, become hilariously outdated by the time Return of the Jedi was released.
As you can see, close likenesses were either not included with the licensing deal, or Chaykin was allowed to improvise. Either way, it doesn’t stop the book for looking like Star Wars. Just… a different type of Star Wars. Chaykin and his army of artists also felt free to experiment with the book, like this shot of the Millennium Falcon jumping to hyperspace
Or Obi-Wan being destroyed by Vader in their dramatic lightsaber duel.
Thomas’ skills on working with motley crews of heroes like the Avengers works great here. While he obviously has a script to work with, Roy Thomas was able to adjust the dialogue to sound more natural and fill in with narration where a movie wouldn’t provide.
An entire issue wound up being dedicated to the final Death Star trench run, which winds up being just as thrilling as the motion picture’s version. Filled with narration to make sure the tension isn’t lost, Thomas and Chaykin (and their legion of assistants) were able to turn a few seconds of film into something memorable.
Ok, sure. It’s melodramatic like Claremont, but it really works. Thomas even made sure to include a caption for those fans in the years since who’ve realized someone was getting the short end of the reward stick.
But the best part about this adaptation? It didn’t stop with issue 6. The book sold so well that Marvel kept churning out issue after issue of new content for starving fans. In fact, the first issues were all about the runaway stars of the comic: Chewbacca and Han Solo. The story focused on them becoming recruited to try and save a small space village from the space mafia and their space monster. The crew included the last of the Jedi Knights, names Don-Wan Kihotay…
...and a giant green space rabbit. No. Seriously.
Oh. And Sergio Aragones. Again, I can’t make this up.
Han and Chewie would get stopped (eventually) by space pirates, who would steal the reward for helping the rebellion destroy the Death Star. They would eventually get back at said pirates, with Luke and Leia accidentally showing up on the same water planet that somehow looks like a 1970s version of Waterworld.
Han would also duel with the head of the pirates in space. Because Star Wars.
Honestly, this is some crazy stuff, and really worth hunting down. I had several of these early issues as a kid, and they made me more of a Star Wars fan than the movies ever did.
By issue 11, which began this storyline, Archie Goodwin had taken over as head writer, with the wonderful Carmine Infantino and Terry Austin working together on the art. Freed from a script and allowed to do whatever, the stories became a lot more adventurous. Luke began to use his lightsaber like Eryol Flynn despite a complete lack of official training, Han and Chewie became a duo like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and even Princess Leia wound up getting her fair share of beat em ups.
The comic was oddly predictive in some ways, too, nailing that Chewie was much older than we realize:
Or mentioning a prominent Star Trek villain species by coincidence. Later issues would feature some early work by Walter Simonson…
...and even Chris Claremont would get in on the fun with the first Star Wars Annual.
Issue 39 brought the adaptation for Empire Strikes Back, another six issues that would change how the comic worked. Gone was the happy go lucky adventure, gone was Han Solo! Now the rebels were almost continually on the run from the empire, and Luke was an apprentice Jedi. Lando Calrissian became a main character as well, filling in for Han on the Falcon. Plot lines became much more serious, but the fans kept eating it up hand over fist.
Still, under the watchful quill of Archie Goodwin and the pen of Carmine Infantino, the comic was no longer afraid to kill off minor characters or show death in general.
And also wound up predicting an amazing scene from The Last Jedi.
At the same time, the book did try to go more in-depth into the conflict and the mixed feelings a person might have over the war. Especially one sensitive to the life forces of others.
With David Michelinie taking over for Archie Goodwin as the writer, storylines became more fluid and fewer one-shot tales appeared. As one story ended, a page or two would be dedicated to the next issue’s story, or it would just be a multi-parter. It didn’t hurt that Walt Simonson would make more artist appearances either.
That still didn’t mean that we wouldn’t have some increasingly bizarre or silly things. Predicting the Ewok a few years early, we have the psychic space rabbit Plif.
Yeah, Star Wars has always been a little weird.
Michelinie would also work in another love triangle, one featuring Luke, Leia, and original rebel pilot Shira Brie. Essentially a prototype of Mara Jade, Shira was an Imperial spy with high levels of force sensitivity infiltrating the rebellion as a pilot. She would become seriously injured in an accident, recovered by Darth Vader, and eventually became the longest-running original subplot in the books. And, of course, she was also a Sith in training.
This would be used to have some great character growth for Luke, one of the few characters to continually grow outside the movies in some respects.
Finally, Return of the Jedi would actually receive its own mini-series around issue 80. This sadly would also mark the death knell for the Star Wars comics from Marvel. Sales were finally starting to flag after a remarkable run, and while Star Wars would be one of the few licensed comics to ever surpass 100 issues of original content, it would end unceremoniously with issue 107.
The final run on the book was helmed by the excellent Jo Duffy. Cynthia Martin would join on the book as the head artist as well. While the plot lines were still decidedly more mature than they had originally been, Duffy would take some time to explore the Ewoks and their planet, as well as let Luke become more of a traditional action hero.
Freed from the movies once and for all, the art did actually change in tone from serious space opera to something more fantasy oriented.
Still, it looks like the canon of Star Wars would still crib from the comics, like when Luke decided to use twin lightsabers.
However, Jo’s final run did seem to resolve just about all the major plot threads introduced, and end with a hopeful message despite being canceled entirely. Few comics can ever ask for that, much less a licensed one.
Luckily, the entire 107 issue run can be found both digitally and in a veritable ton of collections thanks to Dark Horse and Marvel working out a ton of licensing issues to keep them in print. The best release currently is the Legends-labeled one, which keeps the standard coloring from the original releases, but the comics that covered the movies themselves have been released in collections with more… accurate coloring. Marvel also put out a 108th issue just this year to celebrate 80 years of itself, and the success Star Wars had in Marvel’s past. It draws heavily from some of the better stories in the run and works as a cool epilogue for one of the original characters.
Marvel would put out a few more comics under their Star Comics sub-label, focusing on the younger audience aimed Ewoks and Droids. Droids, of course, focused on C-3PO and R2-D2 and their misadventures pre-Star Wars. The comic ended with a re-telling of Star Wars to make C-3PO a focal character, with some questionable art.
Droids would be canceled at issue 8, and Ewoks at issue 14. At that point, Marvel’s license would lapse on Star Wars and they chose not to renew the license. With no new movies or novels coming out, Star Wars seemed fated to fade into the pop culture memory that spawned it.
Of course, Dark Horse would help change that in the 1990s when the movie re-releases in theaters helped bring the movies back to the forefront of pop culture. And, of course, the subsequent media blitz of Star Wars in general. But that’s a story for another day.