Monday, March 5, 2018

Review: 'Star Wars: The Classic Newspaper Comics Volume 2'

Russ Manning had been illustrating the Star Wars comic strip since it started running in newspapers in 1979, but terminal health issues forced him out of the job in mid-1980. After a seven-month period in which Alfredo Alcala took over, the project officially fell onto Al Williamson’s drafting table. With all due respect to Manning, who’d done a more than capable job, Williamson was the best person for the job. While Manning’s artwork was less cartoony than the work illustrators such as Howard Chaykin and Carmine Infantino had been doing in Marvel’s comic books, Manning didn’t make much effort to really capture the likenesses of the likes of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford or the costumes of Darth Vader and Chewbacca. When Williamson delivered an adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back for Marvel, comic book readers received the closest experience to watching the movie at home in the days before its VHS release. With an illustrious background that included work on E.C.’s sci-fi titles and Flash Gordon, Williamson was not surprisingly George Lucas’s first choice for the job even before Manning got it.

The first half of the Al Williamson era is collected in IDW’s new deluxe hardcover collection Star Wars: The Classic Newspaper Comics Volume 2. This is where things really get good as Archie Goodwin also steps in as full-time writer starting with an adaptation of Brian Daley’s novel Han Solo at Star’s End. After that somewhat dry start, Goodwin was no longer fettered by inferior source material and could let his imagination go a little wilder. Most fans will be happy he did not go as wild as the writers of the Marvel comics, who often had a tendency toward camp. Goodwin did as fab a job of recreating the characters’ voices as Williamson did with recreating their mugs, and in keeping with the deepening of the story that began with The Empire Strikes Back, Goodwin also composed much more engaging ongoing plots than Manning and the other preceding writers had.

The key is that Goodwin tended to tie his tales directly to the cinematic source material, and though he wrote his stories in the space between Han Solo’s freezing in The Empire Strikes Back and his thawing in Return of the Jedi, they are set between the first two films so we’re never deprived of time with the series’ most charming scoundrel. Goodwin’s first original story depicts that run in with a bounty hunter on Ord Mantell Solo mentions in Empire. In the next one, Darth Vader’s obsession with finding Luke Skywalker begins when Luke stumbles into a trap while trying to interfere with the construction of Vader’s Super Star Destroyer. Another shows the Rebels dealing with the aftermath of the Death Star battle at their base on Yavin. Even when Goodwin strays further from the films, he figures out ways to evoke the specifics of Lucas’s world, as when Luke encounters a planet of dragon-riding slavers who also happen to wear recycled stormtrooper armor.

As a bonus, there are eight pages from Williamson’s proposal for an adaptation of Star Wars. His incredible verisimilitude and fine details make me wish he’d gotten the job to illustrate Marvel’s adaptation of the film instead of the vastly inferior Chaykin. Oh well, at least we have a whole volume of Williamson’s newspaper strips, which are likely the best illustrated of all Star Wars comics... and the fact that there’s still another volume on the way is another reason to rejoice.
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