Monday, September 14, 2015

In The Shadow Of The Death Star!

"We had been losing money for several years in the publishing. And y'know, actually a lot of credit [for turning things around] should go to Roy Thomas, who -- kicking and screaming -- had dragged Marvel into doing Star Wars. If we hadn't done Star Wars -- well, we would have gone out of business. Star Wars single-handedly saved Marvel... And that kept us alive." -- from an interview with Jim Shooter by Michael Thomas of Comic Book Resources, October, 2000

The publication of a six-issue adaptation of Star Wars in the last half of 1977, coming on the heels of the successful film release, appeared to be a much-needed shot in the arm for Marvel which allowed it to regroup and ride out the turbulence the 1970s brought to the company, in both the financial sense as well as presenting a more clear picture of a direction for itself. Resolving its distribution problems would help with the former; but internally, Marvel often didn't seem to be on the same page with itself, as it went through one sales experiment after another (such as its format/pricing shift, or its giant-sized line of books). You had only to look in its letters pages or "Bullpen Bulletins" promotional-information pages during this time to get an idea of the company's difficulties, with one apologia after another to readers on the subject of price change or the failure to meet a deadline. In its trial-and-error attempts at growth, it appeared that Marvel was overextending itself in regard to its talent.

To say nothing of the shufflings of staff to various overseer/editorial positions, which the pages kept us apprised of regularly. Though I don't know of many comic book readers who rifled through an issue to find out what staff position changes had taken place recently at the company.

The Star Wars adaptation proved to be a welcome diversion from trying times, and certainly an influx of capital for a company trying to stabilize itself. And a good thing, too--because at the point we left this story, it appeared our heroes could certainly use some stability themselves, since they were fighting for their lives against a deadly rain of blaster fire with nowhere to run! We've taken a look at this series' first three issues--and with Darth Vader still on the loose, and the Death Star a clear and present threat to the efforts of the rebellion, Luke, Han and the others had better find some way to salvage this situation, because it looks like the Empire's striking back!

In prior issues, we've seen that Princess Leia of Alderaan is hardly a demure, soft-spoken woman who stands by and lets others do her thinking for her. Assertive and quick-thinking, she'll stand toe-to-toe with anyone, whether it's the cruel Governor Tarkin, Stormtroopers, or, when need be, certain cocky smugglers who need to be apprised of who's in charge here.

But as the group makes its way through the corridors of the Death Star, there is another, equally desperate struggle about to take place, as Ben Kenobi seeks out the mechanism which controls the station's tractor beam, in order to disable it so that Solo's ship can escape. We've learned of Ben's ties to the Jedi Knights of old, and that he also knew Luke's father. But he also knew one other: a disciple he trained in the ways of the Force, but who turned to the "dark side" of evil. And now both men confront each other, in a deadly duel which will have repercussions that even Darth Vader hasn't foreseen.

The scene is a tragic one, with Luke determined to avenge Ben but eventually convinced to depart with the others. But as issue #5 opens, they find that they haven't yet escaped Tarkin's clutches--and this time, it seems Leia has the good sense to let another take the lead, one who seems hard-wired to be able to extricate himself from even the tightest of scrapes.

It's here, both in the film and in the comic, that the members of this band build on their shared risk from the firefights on board the Death Star and cement their informal bond as a "core group" of this story, as Luke and Han take stations on the Millennium Falcon's gun ports while Chewbacca attempts to position the Falcon strategically amongst the enemy tie fighters that pursue them (or, translated: keep the Falcon from getting hit). It's also one of several opportunities this series offers to see how well (or not) the comic compensates for the more vivid and exciting action scenes which the medium of cinema offers, where the pacing of the scenes and the editing process often take the place of narrative or inner thoughts of the characters and rendering each unnecessary. In sequences such as the tie fighter fight, however, writer Roy Thomas doesn't have the luxury of "sitting it out"; though I must say, as he pans over the thoughts of Han, Luke, and Leia, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief that he avoided giving Chewbacca similar treatment.

Once the battle's done and the Falcon is in the clear, it's gratifying to see this group come together in self-congratulations, though tensions still exist and there are still some rough edges they have to work out. Some of those tensions involve Han still (and quite justifiably) angry and on edge at finding himself involved in a situation that he wants no part of; while on another front, a rivalry has developed between Han and Luke over Leia.

From what we later learn of Leia and Luke, we can only wince at these earlier scenes of romantic feelings between them. Lucas' later development of their familial ties is one of the few problems I had with the original trilogy. The triangle between Han, Luke, and Leia could have been resolved in very creative and entertaining ways, which would have fit the relevant scenes in the first film like a glove; instead, these scenes now stick out like a sore (and, in a word, "eww") thumb, and Luke is taken out of the picture by a plot development you could have found on any soap opera. The drama between Luke and Vader would have still existed, regardless; what was the point of dealing Leia into it?

In the here and now, though, Leia's observation concerning the apparent ease of their escape from the pursuing tie fighters leaves little time for romance, as Tarkin and Vader are leaving them with very little of a window of opportunity to exploit the station's stolen plans.

The rebel base, located on one of the moons of the planet Yavin, is a hub of activity--particularly once the Falcon lands, the plans are extracted from R2, and fighter pilots are assembled to be briefed on an assault that must take place before the base is within range of the Death Star's ultimate weapon. It's also a point where Solo concludes his involvement with these people, in favor of the recompense that marks the end of a business deal, nothing more.

Following a fond farewell to Luke from Leia, we also see more of Thomas's effort to make the character of Biggs a more prominent figure to Luke in this story than we found him to be in the final cut of the film. As these scenes with Biggs stack up, it's easy to presume that Lucas could have felt that establishing deeper ties between Luke and Biggs might have overshadowed the chemistry and relationship he wished to establish between Luke and Solo, especially once Leia was added into the mix.

Biggs and Luke are of course flying where Solo isn't following (at least not yet)--and in the sixth and final issue of this series, it's there that the action is to be found.

The action, but not inker Steve Leialoha (get it? Leialoha?), who was brought aboard with the second issue but in this final issue of the arc has been replaced with Rick Hoberg and Bill Wray, who appear to add significantly more detail to penciller Howard Chaykin's panels. The issue's splash page is indeed an impressive beginning to a battle which will conclude this Star Wars "episode" and either deal a crippling blow to the Empire or effectively decide the fate of the rebellion. Yet it's also hard to overlook the issue's cover, which is an attention-grabber as well but for different reasons:

The cover image is purely symbolic, since Luke and Vader "battle" only in the sense of Luke getting off the fatal shot from his ship just as Vader had finally maneuvered into a position to lock onto him. Their confrontation (if you want to call it that) didn't involve light sabres, or face-to-face combat, or Leia, though the scene certainly conjures an image of scenes to come.

The issue is mostly full of battle scenes, as the rebel ships are cut down one by one--which was to be expected, since the goal was not to defeat the Imperial forces but to target the station's vulnerable point. Throughout, Thomas offers what characterization he can in heated moments, though at times he can lay on the drama a bit thick:

The fighters' first run paints enough of a picture of the fighters' effectiveness for Vader to realize the importance of engaging them ship-to-ship--and soon enough, Blue Team no longer has the leeway of dealing only with the Death Star's turret defenses in making its attempts to hit its real target. They also get first-hand exposure to Vader's abilities as a tactical flight leader.

Inside, Tarkin remains arrogantly confident that the rebel fighters will be eliminated; while, outside, the rebel forces are being severely whittled down with brutal efficiency. But amidst the chaos, Luke experiences contact with the voice of Ben Kenobi, who urges him to set the technology of his ship aside in his efforts to hit his target--and Luke finds the resolve to summon the remaining fighters to him and make one all-or-nothing attempt to take his best shot at the target point. Tragically, his friend Biggs won't survive to witness the result.

With Luke's remaining cover forced to disengage and Vader closing in for the kill, all seems lost--both for Luke and for the remaining forces of the rebellion. But Vader's aim is spoiled by the intervention of one last fighter, which no one was expecting to show up--least of all its pilots.

Solo's strikes provide Luke with the time he needs--not just to make his run, but to make a leap of faith as far as firing on his target, thanks to his trust in Ben. And the climactic end to the battle arrives, with only moments to spare.

This time the core group has everything to celebrate, including an unspoken bond between them that will resonate with fans of the film well after its release. There's little to be improved on in those final scenes of the story that play out on the big screen with such fanfare, and Thomas sensibly gives them their due.

The Star Wars comic would go on for another nine years, eventually ending after 107 issues and spanning all three films of the original trilogy while supplementing the comics run with stories that reportedly aligned with Lucas' own suggestions for future directions for the book. The series ended with more of a shrug than with a bang, having exhausted the concept for the time being; but as we've already seen, Marvel has launched new Star Wars comics to coincide with the December film's release, stories which pick up after the destruction of the first Death Star and essentially look to be a "do-over" of the '78-'86 series. And frankly, the work is stunning. A look at the new Star Wars comic, coming up.

The Bullpen Bulletins announcement of the 6-issue Star Wars comic adaptation.


Colin Jones said...

I can't remember but I assume Marvel's adaptation included the infamous scene of Luke and Leia kissing long before anybody (including George Lucas) knew they were siblings ? If Darth Vader was Luke and Leia's father wouldn't he have "sensed it" in The Force or something ? He was standing right next to Leia when Alderaan was blown up - perhaps the Force isn't all that great after all :)

Colin Jones said...

And another thing that bugs me about Star Wars - since The Phantom Menace in 1999 the name "Darth" has become a title - Darth Maul, Darth Sidious etc but in the original film "Darth" was VADER'S NAME !!! His title was LORD Vader - ggrrrr.

Comicsfan said...

Colin, I'd be tempted myself to bring the shortcomings of the Force to Vader's attention--but I remember the last person who tried that, and he literally almost choked on his own words. I think I'll let sleeping dogs lie.

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