A long time ago, right in the galaxy that you and I babble and drool in every day, there were no prequels. There were no CGI animated cartoons. There was no J.J. Abrams (at least not one who made movies or possibly even had gotten his first zit yet). There was no Timothy Zahn, no “Ewok Adventures”, “Droids” cartoons, or even a Return of the Jedi, Empire Strikes Back, or Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. Way back in 1977, there were only two ways you were going to get “Star Wars” stories: by seeing the movie or by reading Marvel’s brand-new line of Star Wars comics.
It all started on April 12, 1977, with writer Roy Thomas and artist Howard Chaykin’s faithful six-issue adaptation of the first film. The successful comic was not going to end there, though, and since George Lucas’s proper sequel was still more than two years away, Marvel’s writers had to get a bit creative with the “Star Warriors,” as they christened Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, and C-3PO (interestingly, without any muscle to throw around or vocabulary, the ever-popular R2-D2 was very rarely given much to do in the comics’ ten-year run). Before Star Geeks debated endlessly and exasperatingly about what was and wasn’t “canon,” these illustrated adventures could get pretty daffy, but that was a big part of the fun. At times, Marvel’s Star Wars comics could even be genuinely thoughtful and dramatic. Fans who don’t take a trio of children’s films about wookiees and jawas too seriously will find plenty of reasons to agree that those old Marvel comics were the most. Here are ten of them.
1. Deleted Scenes
Right from the very beginning, Marvel’s version of Star Wars was offering fans things they couldn’t get from Lucas’s films. A more well-rounded picture of Luke’s life on Tatooine that reveals the friends with whom he loves to “waste time” at Tosche Station actually can’t stand him. Jabba the Hutt… err, I mean Hut… appears to tsk at Han Solo for frying poor Greedo. It is well known that George Lucas scripted and shot these scenes but ended up cutting them from his finished film. They can now be viewed in that sloppy “Special Edition” the director prefers, or as extras on the blu-ray of some movie called A New Hope, but the only way to see characters such as Fixer, Camie, and an unrecognizable Jabba in 1977 was on Marvel’s pages. When adapting The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, Archie Goodwin pulled a similar trick by reinserting deleted scenes of a Wampa rampage at Echo Base and Luke getting reconstructive surgery and intimate with Leia into the story.
When Luke blew up the Death Star in Star Wars #6, the Marvel staff could no longer lean on George Lucas’s script for ideas. So, instead, they decided to lean on a script co-written by Akira Kurosawa… a move very much in the Star Wars tradition, as the first movie owes so much to Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress. Thomas decided to pilfer Kurosawa’s most perennially popular tale, The Seven Samurai, with the most interesting SW hero, Han Solo, in the Takashi Shimura role (and one extra samurai to thwart legal action, of course). In Eight for Aduba-3, Solo agrees to recruit six other space rogues to defend a moisture farmer against a roving band of thugs. The crew is eccentric even by Star Wars standards: a delusional old man who thinks he’s a Jedi named Don-Wan Kihotay, a scantily clad superheroine named Amaiza Foxtrain, a callow youth and droid team named Jimm “The Starkiller Kid” (a nod to Skywalker’s original name) and FE-9Q, a quill-shooting porcupine man in cape and briefs named Hedji, and most contentiously, a wisecracking, carnivorous bunny man named Jaxxon (the Star Wars comics had a strange obsession with rabbits; for further proof, see the telepathic hoojibs introduced much later in the comics’ run). Chewbacca makes eight, and Solo’s band spent the next four issues battling thugs in a breezy adventure that launched the Star Wars comic with its own uniquely silly and frothily entertaining tone.
3. More Females
Roughly half of the Earth’s population is female. George Lucas’s galaxy is another story. Women are notoriously poorly represented in the original trilogy. Princess Leia gets a good chunk of screen time, but characters such as Aunt Beru, Oola, and Mon Mothma, the frigging leader of the rebel alliance, are barely spared a few frames. In fact there is an absurd and rather depressing video on YouTube containing every line of dialogue spoken in the original trilogy by a female character who is not Princess Leia. It’s one minute and 14 seconds long. Yeesh. Marvel’s writers were much more open to females than George Lucas, and some of the comic series’ most memorable characters lacked penises. There’s the aforementioned Amaiza, who definitely feels like a forerunner of today’s “kick-ass women” becoming more common in action entertainments. There’s the considerably less heroic Jolli, who comes off a bit like the stereotypical man-hating feminist, but is still a pretty good character who has no trouble taking care of herself, and the more complex villain, Domina Tagge, a protégé of Darth Vader. Domina is also a sort of dry run for the single greatest character born in Marvel’s comics, and her story arc is so terrific that she gets her own entry a bit further down this list…
4. Major Time with Minor Characters
Mon Mothma gets short-changed in Return of the Jedi, but on Marvel’s pages, she gets a bit more time as she works with Princess Leia to unite worlds throughout the galaxy following the Empire’s defeat. The Marvel comic also presents plenty of opportunities to see other minor characters afforded more time to actually do things. Lobot goes berserk and starts wailing on Lando Calrissian in the classic “Coffin in the Clouds”. In the following issue, “Hello, Bespin, Good-Bye!”, the ugnauts get their very own storyline (and apparently speak with Scottish accents). Dengar becomes Princess Leia’s prisoner in “The Search Begins”. Bossk and IG-88 hook up to cause trouble for Luke and Lando in the “Quest for Han Solo”/“Fool’s Bounty” arc and reappear in “Hunter’s World”. There’s also more fun from such favorites as the Jawas, Boba Fett, Admiral Ackbar, Generals Rieekan and Dodonna, and Nien Nunb… as well as the Ewoks, if your tastes happen to run that way. These days every character lurking in the background of Star Wars’ cantina scene has its own back stories in the “extended universe” novels, but what seems like self-serious fan service in those books comes off as serious fun in Marvel’s comics.
5. Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson’s The Empire Strikes Back Adaptation
Adaptations of the three original films are the tent poles that hold up Marvel’s comic, but Chaykin’s version of Star Wars suffered from scratchy art that made no attempt to capture the likenesses of Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and the rest (and why does Chewbacca have the facial hair of a gorilla with a mustache?). Al Williamson illustrated Return of the Jedi beautifully, but Archie Goodwin’s adaptation is a mere CliffsNotes version of that film, clipping the longest movie in the original trilogy down to a 4-issue rush job. Williamson and Goodwin’s Empire Strikes Back, however, gets it all right. The best Star Wars film is also the best comic adaptation with faithful artwork that captures and often heightens Irvin Kershner’s moodier, more artistically lit and shot film. As mentioned back in entry #1, there are deleted scenes, and most intriguingly of all, it exists in two distinct versions. As he appears in the paperback book publication, Yoda is based on Ralph McQuarrie concept-sketch, and it’s a creepy purple-skinned, long-haired, peanut-sized creature that scared the shit out of me when I was a kid. In the standard comics version, Yoda appears as the cute, green Muppet we all know, love, and definitely do not fear. Because Goodwin based his adaptation on the original script, we miss out on some classic improvised lines (Han’s reply to “I love you”? Not “I know.”) and get some clunky ones cut from the film (Han and Leia’s painfully extended banter at Echo Base), but even these changes are interesting, making Marvel’s Empire Strikes Back a worth reading even if you already have the movie on which it is based memorized.
6.The Plot to Assassinate Vader
The best running joke in The Empire Strikes Back is the way Darth Vader casually murders every Imperial Officer who displeases him. He is actually directly responsible for killing more guys on his own team than rebels in the film. In the cinema world, the officers do nothing more than crap their pants as soon as they catch wind of Vader’s heavy breathing. In the comics, they take more decisive action, plotting to eliminate the murder-happy Sith Lord once and for all. The plot to assassinate Darth Vader doesn’t really go anywhere significant, but it’s a terrific idea, and one worth exploring further if Disney makes a movie that takes place between Empire and Jedi.
7. Barpotomous Drebbel
The Marvel comics really came into their own between Empire and Jedi with better artwork (Carmine Infantino, who illustrated most of the early SW comics, deserves respect for creating the “new look” Batman in 1964, but making Luke Skywalker look like He-Man is neigh unforgivable), better story arcs, and more enduring exclusive characters. One such character was the rotund, mohawked Barpotomous Drebbel, a rival of fellow shady businessman Lando Calrissian. The comical Drebbel is an entertaining enough presence in the memorable “Return to Stenos”/“Fool’s Bounty” arc, but he really earns his place on this list in a comic in which he doesn’t even appear. In “Tidal”, Lando Calrissian decides to adopt Drebbel’s name as an alias for the first time, pulling the wool over the one good eye of an Imperial Admiral. Calrissian’s impersonation of Drebbel becomes a running gag in the comics, culminating in “The Big Con” when Lando dons a white wig and eye patch that makes him look like a villain on “Days of Our Lives”. Lando’s ruse ends up backfiring when the heroics he commits while incognito end up being credited to the real Drebbel!
Most aliens in the Star Wars universe are handily identifiable because of one or two basic traits. Jawas are shifty scavengers. Wookiees are giant, excitable dogs. Walrus man is a walrus man. More provocatively, the Zeltrons of Marvel’s comics are identifiable because of their bright crimson skin and their tendency to be really, really horny. We’re introduced to the randy devils in issue #70, “The Stenax Shuffle”, by way of Dani, another of the comics’ very memorable female characters. Dani is the member of a small gang of con artists led by beardo pirate Rik Duel, but it’s she who breaks out as a new Star Wars star as she lusts after Luke Skywalker, joins the rebel alliance, and strikes up a more serious relationship with heroic merman, Kiro. We also meet a trio of Zeltron dudes who dress like extras in a Paula Abdul video, give Princess Leia a fabulous makeover, and are coded gay while bucking the usual homophobic stereotypes by proving to be formidable fighters for justice. Interestingly, the Zeltrons meet prejudice in an unlikely form: Leia emphatically refuses to work with them, a bigoted revelation that manages to shock Mon Mothma! By the end of the comics’ run, Leia learns to get over her prejudices and becomes good buddies with the Zeltrons, even embracing their daring fashion sense, so I guess there’s a lesson about tolerance in there, too.
9. Shira’s Story
Dani is a great character, but she was not the one I was referring to back in this list’s third entry. No, the single best character to emerge from the minds at Marvel was a rebel alliance pilot named Shira Brie. Introduced in “Coffin in the Clouds”, she’s Luke’s good buddy, and there’s enough of a spark between the two characters to seriously rub Princess Leia the wrong way (before Lucas decided Luke and Leia were siblings, of course). Leia has more than romantic jealousy to hold against Brie: the pilot is secretly an Imperial spy and Darth Vader’s personal protégé. Before that fact comes to light, Luke accidentally shoots down Brie’s X-Wing and is ostracized from the rebellion for killing one of his fellow soldiers. However, Brie is not actually dead, but she is damaged enough to have to become a cyborg in the mode of her dark master. After Vader dies at the end of the Return of the Jedi series, Shira Brie reemerges as Lumiya, a new and terrifying Sith enforcer for the Empire’s remnant forces. Wielding a laser cat-o-nine-tails, Lumiya faces down Luke in the comics’ best bid to recapture the drama of the films’ confrontations between Luke and Vader. As a character, Shira/Lumiya is the comics’ best bid to recapture the complexity of Darth Vader. She was such a great character that she was rightfully resurrected in later-day extended universe novels and games.
10. The Holiday Special Enters the Canon
As we’ve seen, Marvel’s Star Wars comics did some radical things, introducing memorable characters who took on lives of their own, balancing the galaxy’s genders better than the films did, giving minor characters more to do, giving Darth Vader’s underlings some gumption, and making horniness a defining alien personality trait. Without question the most radical, daring, universe-exploding move the comics made was canonizing the most reviled chapter in the Star Wars saga. No, I’m not talking about The Phantom Menace; I’m talking about the infamous “Star Wars Holiday Special”. Airing on CBS in November 1978, the disastrous television special reunited the original cast for the first time since Star Wars only to sideline them while Chewbacca’s son wanders around his room grunting for five hours while the kid’s grandpa watches space porn. Six years after the holiday special’s one and only airing, issue #91, “Wookiee World” returned to Chewbacca’s home planet of Kashyyyk to reunite him with the wacky wookiees introduced in the special. Chewbacca’s wife Mala and son Lumpy are present, though his father is only mentioned, and not by name, probably because Itchy is too idiotic a name for even Mary Jo Duffy, the author of “Wookiee World”. The fact that the holiday special was basically a hazy, “did I just dream that?” memory for most Star Wars fans in 1984 makes the reappearance of these characters particularly outrageous, especially considering George Lucas’s extreme embarrassment regarding the institutionally suppressed special. There was no reason to bring back the wookiee clan except as a way of jeering, “Ha! Ha! Ha! We’re the cuckoo, crazy Marvel Star Wars universe, motherfuckers! And we’re gonna do anything we wanna do! Suck that, Lucas!” That really is the most.