Monday, September 28, 2015

The Rebellion Strikes Back!

There's been no dearth of Star Wars-based comics since Marvel produced its six-issue adaptation of the 1977 film, going on to extend the comic to a series of 107 issues which folded its tent in July of 1986. From there, the business side of the equation gets interesting. Coincidentally, that same month, a new comic book company--Dark Horse Comics, which specializes in its treatment of comics based on films--opened up shop and published its first comic book, Dark Horse Presents #1; three years later, the company began to work to acquire the rights to publish comics based on the Star Wars story and characters. Finally, in December of 1991, the company released its first Star Wars title, Star Wars: Dark Empire #1--a launch which began a very successful association with Star Wars for Dark Horse, producing roughly over 100 series and one-shots in a run that lasted over two decades. Clearly they must have been doing something right.

Meanwhile, in late 2009, Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment for a cool $4 billion--and, not stopping there, went on to acquire Lucasfilm in 2012 for the same amount. Practically in the same breath, Disney announced a new Star Wars film trilogy would be produced, with its first "episode" scheduled for release in December of 2015. If you were employed at Dark Horse Comics, you didn't exactly need the clairvoyant properties of the Force to realize what announcement was likely to come when Disney next stepped up to the podium mic in January of 2014: the Star Wars comics license would return to Marvel as of 2015, with three new Star Wars books being launched in March of that year.

While there's no doubt that Dark Horse would have published comparable Star Wars books of its own during 2015, Marvel has released some very nice product in its three series: Star Wars (its main title), Star Wars: Darth Vader, and Star Wars: Princess Leia, all set in the period of time directly following the destruction of the first Death Star, which of course was first attempted when new stories were published in 1978 following the adaptation of the '77 film. But unlike those earlier stories from Marvel, this "do-over" of sorts doesn't lose focus of its three main draws--or, rather, four, if you include Vader in the mix with Luke, Han, and Leia. There's a wealth of story material waiting to be mined following the Death Star's destruction, as the rebel alliance scrambles to capitalize on its momentum while the Empire increases its efforts to pursue and deal with them. The advantage could swing either way, at any time; but for now, the Empire's resources and power base give it the edge.

Since we've already looked at the first 1977 Star Wars adaptation in depth here at the PPC, I was very curious to see how Marvel would treat the product over 30 years later. As opposed to the first time around, with the '77 comics just riding the wave of the first film's popularity and success, obviously Marvel's 2015-2016 books will cash in on the anticipation (and hopefully good reception afterward) of the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in December; but unlike the Princess Leia book, the other two new offerings are reported to be continuing series, which will require quite a commitment on the part of their creative teams should they decide to remain with them. (For example, artist John Cassaday appears to have already left the main book after six issues.) That said, these early issues have proven to be very satisfying reads that address a number of points the late '70s series put on hold in favor of placing a greater emphasis on new characters and adventure. We immediately are reminded, for instance, that Luke--to quote Vader--is "not a Jedi yet"; that Leia, with the destruction of Alderaan and the ruling family, must assume a different role for herself as well as be mindful of how their loss affects those now under her command; that Vader, a thrall of the Empire, finds himself in the position of making up for the loss of the Empire's most powerful battle station and dealing with the repercussions; and that Han has pretty much burned his bridges as far as being an under-the-radar smuggler, having cast his lot with the rebellion.

All of these developments are logical follow-ups to the conclusion of the first film; and writers Jason Aaron, Kieron Gillen and Mark Waid sensibly pick things up just about where the film leaves off (in the Princess Leia book, virtually to the second). And in a nod to the opening moments of each Star Wars film, Marvel's practice of summarizing prior events of a story on the first page of each comic has been suitably adapted to a style that Star Wars fans will find familiar.

While the Vader and Leia books supplement the main Star Wars "flagship" book well, it's the main book that's likely to catch the attention of the reader first, since it provides a broader scope of the story and action and it's where all characters are more likely to interact. And so we find the rebellion infiltrating a moon base on the outer rim, hoping to cripple an important equipment and weapons depot of the Empire. Fortunately, the Empire continues to deal with its vast network of "black market" suppliers, including the infamous Jabba the Hutt--which inadvertently opens the door for one of his "associates" to take a meeting with the base's administrator.

At times it's difficult to take a step back and differentiate between the bigger picture of the rebellion and the various criminal elements which tend to survive no matter which way the winds of power shift. For instance, we know from The Empire Strikes Back that Han feels compelled to leave the rebellion in order to settle up with Jabba; but by all indications in this story, he's continuing to work with the rebellion, despite the bounty on his head. The reality, of course, is that he cannot have it both ways--though Leia appears to believe otherwise.

Yet for this particular group of rebels, things tend to get out of hand fairly quickly during an operation--and that moment arrives when their cover is blown by the arrival of Darth Vader, and an opportunity too tempting not to seize.

And take the shot Chewbacca does, though Vader senses the Wookiee taking aim and narrowly evades death--which is when things erupt spectacularly out of control for the rebel group, right on schedule, as Vader realizes why the rebels are here and takes swift charge to mobilize his forces against them in order to prevent the destruction of the facility.

As for Luke, he becomes separated from the others when he senses the plight of the facility's slave labor, imprisoned and helpless, and decides to liberate them in order to have them accompany his group during their escape. Vader, however, has sensed the presence of the rebel pilot who destroyed the Death Star, and means to have a reckoning with him--a decision shared by Luke, who knows of Vader's arrival through Han's communication with Chewbacca. But despite Luke's resolve to face this enemy, Obi-Wan Kenobi, who has been in contact with Luke, urges another course of action:

It's here we must keep in mind that Luke is still at the point of wanting to avenge the deaths of both Obi-Wan and "his father" by Vader's light saber, though as yet he's had no formal training in the ways of a Jedi and only realizes an awareness of the Force--while Vader is a more formidable opponent by far. Luke, of course, does not run, and stands his ground; but if we expect a match on the same level as when Vader faced Obi-Wan on the Death Star, Vader quickly and unsurprisingly brings us back to reality.

The only thing that saves Luke's life here is the recklessness of Han, who has commandeered an Imperial walker and crashes into this scene with all the grace of a bull in a china shop. Yet moments before, Vader realizes that Luke's light saber is the same weapon that Obi-Wan once gave to him. It's a seed that's meant to take root here and grow in Vader's own title when he's called before the Emperor.

Against all odds--and mostly thanks to Luke's successful destruction of the facility's power core--the rebellion's mission succeeds, and the Falcon makes its escape. But as the dust settles, Vader remains undaunted by whatever plan Obi-Wan has put in motion in regard to Luke.

Elsewhere, in Vader's title, two fascinating confrontations take place--the first, an unexpected meeting between Vader and Jabba the Hutt, in a story scripted by Gillen and beautifully pencilled and inked by Salvadore Larocca. You might think that even Jabba would show deference to Vader, since they've obviously had dealings before and Jabba presumably knows the kind of man he faces. On the other hand, if there's anyone who's arrogant enough to push his boundaries, it would be Jabba.

In a vicious wave of light saber swipes and blood, Vader ruthlessly disposes of Jabba's heavily armed guard. And from that point, Vader makes crystal clear on whose terms this meeting will be conducted.

The other confrontation we've waited to see is Vader's reckoning with the Emperor following the Death Star's destruction. The dressing-down that Vader receives is considerable--and, in its way, humiliating, relegating him to be a subordinate of an officer the Emperor promotes in Tarkin's stead, while also making it clear that in the Emperor's eyes, Vader is no longer being groomed to rise to a more exalted position at his side.

The Emperor's point concerning Vader's gambit with the Falcon is well-taken, as it was reckless to allow the plans to the Death Star to be absconded with so that the Falcon might lead Tarkin's forces to the hidden rebel base. In effect, the Death Star was delivered to its own destruction. You might imagine the Emperor to deal with Vader far more harshly than he has here; but it seems clear that he yet values Vader's power as useful in the field, as long as (as he puts it) it's wielded by others rather than at Vader's initiative.

Both of these books are impressive contributions to the continuing story of Star Wars as it might have taken shape before the rebel alliance found its way to the ice world of Hoth. It seems the Leia book was only meant to explore the shifting of Leia to a fighting/command profile in the field as opposed to a person of prominence in guiding the rebellion's course, given that in the film we've seen others stand in for her in what appeared to be mission briefings following meetings that presumably have taken place without her. In any case, it's far more more interesting to see herself, Luke, Han, and the others operating as an ensemble, since we've already seen in the previous Star Wars series the result of what happened when each was singled out in separate stories with separate characters. Vader's title, in contrast, aside from his own intriguing presence, also provides a tie-in with the Empire, which played a crucial part in the film and which so far has balanced the main title nicely. All in all, you're likely to find this second round of new Star Wars material from Marvel worth your reading time.


Erik J Kreffel said...

Great post. I've been extremely impressed with Marvel's creators on these titles, and the leeway the Lucasfilm creative team has given them to chart these series. It's actually gotten me to buying Marvels on a monthly basis—now if they could only do that with their mutant titles...

Comicsfan said...

Erik, in looking over these issues I must admit it took a fair amount of will power to resist the tug to drop in at my local comics shop and begin collecting both of these series. As you note, it's a pity that kind of fire can't ignite across the board.

Erik J Kreffel said...

Fortunately Marvel's putting them all out in TPB pretty soon. And frankly I like the Squadron Sinister and Guardians Secret War issues better than X-Men '92 or AoA (shudder) or whatever X-Men-derivative dreck Marvel's put out recently—at least those Secret War series actually have mostly the original characters and not the Marvel Cinematic U ones. Looking forward to the new Squadron Supreme series, strangely enough.