Friday, September 11, 2015

When Duty Calls

"The story of 'Star Wars' could be written on the head of a pin and still leave room for the Bible. It is, rather, a breathless succession of escapes, pursuits, dangerous missions, unexpected encounters, with each one ending in some kind of defeat until the final one." - Vincent Canby, The New York Times

Taken out of context, this excerpt from the Times' review of "Star Wars" from May, 1977 might make it sound as if the film was found wanting in some way. But Canby practically gushed over this film, as would other reviewers, and most definitely audiences en masse. "Star Wars" was, by any measure, a hit. A mega-hit. To cliché-bomb you, this ambitious film by George Lucas exploded onto the movie scene and took audiences by storm. You'd even be hard-pressed to find a disparaging comment in the Times review, and its film critics can generally find something to belittle in even the most stellar film.

The only conspicuous thing that Canby would do in terms of not making his review a clean sweep of praise for the film was to back off from complimenting the cast individually, actors who certainly deserved praise for their interpretations of their characters but who only received general props from Canby for "treat[ing the] material with the proper combination of solemnity and good humor that avoids condescension." Yet the review makes it perfectly clear that Canby would be one of the many who would re-enter the movie theater and give "Star Wars" a few more viewings just for fun's sake.

With "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" scheduled for December release, I found myself thumbing through and looking over my back issues of the Star Wars movie adaptation that Marvel published in mid-1977, and which I had the good cents--er, $en$e--I mean, sense to pick up off the rack and bag and board for a rainy day. If that sounds unenthusiastic from a reader's perspective, perhaps so. After all, I'd already seen the film, so reading these six issues for the next six months was like reading the Star Wars adventure in slow installments and knowing what I'd find in each issue. But, while the experience couldn't hold a candle to what I'd seen playing before my eyes on the big screen, the comic series in a way was like a souvenir to take home with me.

The Star Wars comic adaptation was written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Howard Chaykin, with Thomas already busy with a full plate of other projects such as Conan the Barbarian, Marvel Premiere, What If, Red Sonja, and editing Kull the Destroyer, while having to drop his run on Fantastic Four to make room for this six-month series. On the other hand, the plotting for this project would be a no-brainer, while the characterizations and scripting would practically take care of themselves. Thomas and Chaykin would presumably only need to plan how to *ahem* space out the story into six segments--with Thomas only adding scenes here and there which weren't present in the film, perhaps to avoid the feeling of strict repetition.

You may find that the story and the spectacle of this film lose something in their adaptation to illustrated print, which would be a fair observation perhaps due to the reasons I've already mentioned. We should also keep in mind that this is a mid-'70s comic, which presents its material far less slickly and polished than what we would find in today's production standards and artistry--nor does it have the luxury of straying too far from its set-in-stone story (and when it does, the result can come across as awkward and forced). Star Wars was really an experience best taken in by seeing it with wide eyes in live action, sweeping you up in its hallway firefights, narrow escapes, and desperate assaults on an ultimate weapon.

That said, a comic adaptation, like any memorabilia at the time that had the words "Star Wars" on it, could only fly off the shelves at speeds even an imperial fighter would be unable to match. And consumers who still had Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker running through their heads from seeing the film were now turning the cover to the first page of an encore series that would replay this story in a new light.

All the scenes you'd expect are present and accounted for, with the story's beginning focusing on Leia and the droids attempting to avoid capture. But Thomas also uses that impressive first battle to introduce Luke to us in a different way than we remember, as he hangs out with his friends and has obvious hankerings to be where the action is instead of tending to his farming duties.

As far as Luke knows, Biggs is going into service aboard an Empire ship, but it's still off-world and he can't help but be envious. It's only when Biggs confides in him that Luke seems to consider his future in terms other than a desire to join the Academy--and his desire to break away from his life on Tatooine only grows stronger.

As was the case with the film, this first issue does a good job of laying the groundwork for what's to come and providing a general sense of intrigue, as well as introducing us to the various characters and the sides they take in this conflict. And since Lucas was savvy enough not to linger too long on a desert planet when the title of your film is "Star Wars," the comic doesn't take long to return us to space and the evildoers who are relishing in their power. And one evildoer in particular has already gained our attention and interest almost immediately.

Despite Vader's appearance of autonomy, he leaves no doubt that it's the Empire he serves--as well as, by all appearances, Governor Tarkin, a regional figure who holds authority over the deployment of the dreaded Death Star. Knowing Vader's ties to the Emperor (as we would later discover), it's interesting to look back on this first installment of the story and observe how firmly Vader appears to be in the Governor's pocket, with Tarkin as well having no doubt whatsoever that Vader will follow his orders. It's one of the things that makes Tarkin such a fascinating character, aside from his ruthlessness and air of authority. It would only be with Tarkin's death that Vader would segue to taking more firm control of the Empire's forces, this time reporting directly to the Emperor. For now, it's Tarkin who, as Leia puts it, holds Vader's leash--as well as a firm grip over his officers in this region.

Back on Tatooine, it's delightful to again see the beginnings of the adventure that awaits Luke, as the droids--captured and tagged for sale by the Jawas--are lined up at his uncle's farm, and he becomes joined at the hip (though he doesn't yet realize it) with C-3PO and R2-D2, the latter appearing to have more of the mannerisms of a courier than a droid.  And the message it bears is one that Luke would find irresistible.

As we know, Luke's pursuit of R2 into the canyon will lead to his near-fatal encounter with the Sand People, as well as to the catalyst for the turning point of his young life--his meeting with recluse Ben Kenobi, who would give Luke certain information about his past and go on to tempt him with becoming one of the legendary Jedi knights. You would think Thomas would end this first issue with Ben's first appearance to Luke, which for a comics story would be a dramatic prelude to issue #2; instead, Thomas chooses to go with the less pivotal skirmish between Luke and one of the Sand People, which might carry some level of tension for the reader not familiar with the story but would be an anticlimax to those who realize it carries very little meaning in the scheme of things, and no real danger to Luke.

It's in issue 2 that Luke, through Ben, begins to find his own path to the rebellion, as well as his ties to those of the Jedi.

It's all a bit overwhelming to Luke, and at first he declines to accompany Ben in response to Princess Leia's cry for help in favor of his responsibilities at home. It's only when he returns to find his family slaughtered by Stormtroopers (who actually can hit the broad side of a barn, when it comes to unarmed civilians) that Luke finds his resolve to follow Ben and become tutored by him in the ways of "the Force."

Which leads to more familiar scenes--this time at Tatooine's Mos Eisley Spaceport, and building to the introduction of one of the most well-known figures in all of fiction.

Solo drives a hard bargain, at least up front--but he accepts Ben's terms of the bulk of his payment being delivered at their destination. And speaking of payment, Solo finds the shoe on the other foot when he's interrupted by an agent of his smuggling associate, Jabba the Hutt, who's had enough of Solo's stalling tactics and demands satisfaction--one way or another.

Again, the touches that the film delivers don't easily translate to the printed page, sometimes not at all. We don't have the benefit of actors here, who can enhance the words of a script by adding gesture, intonation, and expression, things that Chaykin and Thomas seem only able to convey in the general sense when confined to a script and plot not their own.

Yet Thomas continues to add a scene here and there which will hopefully give a little more substance to what is, after all, a comics story and not a film--which, with presumably the blessing of Lucas, can supplement the less entertaining scenes with those that are brand new to us. In this case, we actually meet Jabba the Hutt, well before his unforgettable and repulsive introduction in Return Of The Jedi, but in a form that belies the imposing figure that is yet to come.

We can only guess at what Solo is meaning to convey with his final words in this scene--perhaps an implied threat that doesn't register with Jabba? Whatever the case, the scene virtually falls flat, and adds nothing to enhance the real danger that's imminent--Vader's troopers closing in and dispersing to take the Falcon and all aboard by force.  We already know that Solo is dodging Jabba, and we know that Solo owes him money and that he doesn't have enough to cover his debt--and that Jabba is at the point where he's ready to cut his losses with Solo if his promises of forthcoming payment don't materialize.  What does this scene accomplish that Solo's encounter with the mercenary in the cantina hasn't already made clear?

As for getting past Vader's men, the Falcon, as is typically the case, makes a narrow escape from both the planet and the enemy ships in orbit by a little luck and a lot of desperate maneuvering--and the closing scene of the issue finds them on their way.

But to what?

Issue #3 gives us a fair idea, as it opens with a chilling scene, and a deadly ultimatum.

Tarkin has been impressive up to this point, and he shows no signs of giving ground this close to his goal of wiping out the rebel base. Leia is also a realist--she knows that Tarkin absolutely means what he says, and this is her home planet facing destruction. Her capitulation, while not exactly expected from a woman of her pluck, is understandable. There is more than meets the eye to both of these individuals, in terms of the hand they show to each other here; but in this scene, it's Tarkin who's in a position to take advantage of it.

"And you call yourselves humans!" While Thomas seems to feel that's the case, I can't imagine any of these people doing so, even the Jedi. Isn't this story supposed to occur long ago--and far away? Leia's reaction was part of an alternate scene that was dropped from the film--perhaps with good reason, since it would call for Lucas to explain how Tarkin, Vader, Luke, Solo, and even the Stormtroopers wound up being humans.  As for Thomas, he could simply be working from script copy that he either failed to verify, or decided to use to enhance the tragic aspect of Alderaan's destruction.

Meanwhile, on the Falcon, Luke uses the time in transit to Alderaan to begin familiarizing himself with the Force, as Ben instructs him on trusting his feelings rather than what he sees. Soon enough, however, the ship encounters the debris that used to be Alderaan--as well as something just as massive in its own right.

The ship is captured on Vader's orders, suspected of housing the crew who now possess the stolen technical plans to the Death Star. Their arrival is timely, as Tarkin has discovered that Leia's information on the location of the rebel base was a lie to mislead them, and the station's data that Leia stole has become all the more valuable. Solo, Chewbacca, and Luke (with the assistance of C-3PO and R2) use their own, ah, unique skills to further infiltrate the station in order to clear a path for Ben to deactivate the tractor beam that prevents their escape. In the process, they learn through R2 that Princess Leia is being held in the station--and while Luke is adamant about rescuing her, Solo is reluctant to (as he might put it) stick his neck out on this plan more than he already has. Luke, however, is able to secure his cooperation with the promise of more monetary reward that will come his way upon rescuing someone of the Princess's stature.

Naturally, trouble ensues, as these comrades-in-arms--now with Leia among them--differ in their approaches on stealth.

Now that the Princess has been broken out of her cell, the Imperial forces descend on the group like hornets, and they find themselves trapped in the detention center with no apparent way out. Thomas chooses to make the moment a cliffhanger to the issue, which is a better fit for the story than the attempt involving the Sand People since there are greater forces and firepower in play, and Solo and his group have only their grit and hopefully a lot more luck coming their way to help them make it out alive.

The approach of the Death Star--
as Marvel's hit series (with no small thanks to its inspiration) concludes!

From issue #1, inserts galore--
The evolution of Star Wars, and how Roy Thomas came to helm its comic book adaptation.


Rick said...

Is Vader levitating himself a cup of coffee while he's choking Motti? Or is that for Tarkin? If not, is he going to drink it? And if so, how? So many unresolved questions.

Colin Jones said...

In Britain Star Wars didn't open till late December 1977 and that was only in London - the rest of us had to wait as the film trudged slowly around the country. I finally saw it on May 30th 1978, slightly over a year since its' U.S. debut (the same thing had happened with 'Jaws' two years earlier - how different from now,'Thor,The Dark World' opened in the UK first). So I'd read the Marvel adaptation before seeing the film - I didn't think much of the artwork, still don't. Thankfully the movie was terrific though. Looking at the panels shown here featuring Han and Greedo - there's absolutely no doubt who shot first !!!

Comicsfan said...

Rick, maybe that's another scene that didn't make it to the final cut. Vader may have found Motti's lack of faith disturbing--but I'm betting he found the lack of cream and sugar on the table even more so.

Good lord, Colin, that must have been a long time to drum your fingers on the table. It must have seemed like 20th Century Fox was shipping the release to the UK by way of one of the Jawas' sand-crawlers.

B Smith said...

Well, that's just the way films were distributed back then - I think Jaws was the first one to be released simultaneously on many screens across the country - otherwise the prints seemed to go from city to city.

I saw it on its first day here, November 17th 1977...had no idea there was a comic tie-in, and only knew about it from seeing a very brief clip on a TV variety show, and the cover story in Rolling Stone magazine a couple of months before (which didn't really give any idea what to expect - try to tell the youngsters these days about the effect of that first shot of the Imperial Cruiser flying overhead (you just knew this was rewriting the book on sci-fi film) and they won't believe you).

Anonymous said...

That opening scene with Luke, and other cut scenes, can be viewed at:


Comicsfan said...

Alan, thanks!

Colin Jones said...

CF - "a long time to drum your fingers" is right, it was a frustrating wait for that epic event to arrive. But in the meantime we had "Spider-Man: The Movie" - the Spidey TV show wasn't broadcast in the UK but instead we got the pilot released as a film in cinemas. It was a thrill to see Spider-Man on the big screen even though the average Spidey cosplayer has a better costume nowadays :)

Iain said...

I had to wait three long years to see what happened to Han Solo frozen in carbonite 1980=1983 seemed like an eternity. Not like you kids today that just pop the Return of Jedi dvd in once Empire finishes. ^^

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