In 1977, a little know comic company named Marvel was, not for the first time in its history, in financial dire straits. The company had produced a number of successful titles, but sells had been in declining steadily over the last few years. Enter: George Lucas. Legend has it that Stan Lee wasn’t to enthused about putting a lot of resources into licenced series, but was convinced otherwise by industry legend, Roy Thomas. Marvel brokered a deal that allowed them to use the licence without paying royalties to Lucas. The catch was the deal was only valid if the series sold under 100,000 copies, which was considered low for the time. For context, if a comic were to sell over 100,000 today it would be topping the charts in today’s market. Marvel’s initial Star Wars‘ run would go onto become one of the industry’s top selling titles. It forced the company to re-assess its approach to licensed materials which later saw in invest in popular titles such as G.I. Joe, ROM: Space-knight and Transformers. Jim Shooter, former editor-in-chief, has gone on record saying that were it not for Star Wars, Marvel would have gone out of business. As such the house that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby built owes a debt of gratitude to Lucas and friends. The company or its characters may have survived in some shape or form, but it may not have endured to bring us the comic renaissances of the early 1980s and late 1990s. It certainly wouldn’t have become the media powerhouse that is it today. Those of you still searching for the darkest timeline need look no further.
When it was announced in 2014 that Marvel would once again be publishing Star Wars titles after a break of nearly three decades , it was as if the prodigal son had returned home. With over 1,000,000 copies pre-ordered, the inaugural issue of Marvel’s relaunched Star Wars the highest-grossing single issue of a comic since Batman’s post-Knightfall return back in the 1990s. Innumerable variant covers aligned store shelves. Commercially speaking, this was a huge success for all involved, but why? It’s not as if Star Wars comics were a rare commodity. Since 1991, there has scarcely been a time where Star Wars wasn’t available in comic form. Indeed, one could argue that the market was flooded with Star Wars comics from the Knights of the Old Republic to Dawn of the Jedi. While Marvel was busy re-establishing The Avengers as the premier super-hero team, Dark Horse did an amazing job at keeping the expanded universe alive. Yet as soon as the license reverted to Marvel, everyone lost their minds.
Some have suggested it was the creative talent behind the book that got readers interested. Marvel put Jason Aaron, one of their top writers, on the book and partnered him with sublime John Cassaday, but it wasn’t as if Dark Horse was lacking in the talent department. Indeed, series such as Legacy and Knights of the Old Republic were met with both critical and commercial acclaim upon release. One could argue that its setting distinguishes it from its Dark Hose peers, but again, this is not the case. Both the current Marvel series and the Brian Wood’s Star Wars series are set between Episodes IV and V. The inclusion of these new comics in the official Star Wars canon may be part of it, but it was only in the last few months that canonicity became a key issue within Star Wars fandom. The announcement of new movies helped, but all the evidence points to one inescapable fact; Marvel holds a place within the cultural zeitgeist that Dark Horse can only ever aspire to. Combining the trust and respect they’ve built up as a brand with the enduring legacy of Star Wars was always going to be a winner.
What of the quality of Marvel’s latest contributions to the galaxy far, far away? Two core ongoings form the backbone of the Marvel Star Wars offerings; the eponymous main title and the Darth Vader solo series. If Phantom Menace taught us anything, it was that hype has always been the bane (if you’ll pardon the pun) of the franchise and this self-titled series is no exception. To say it plays by the books is an understatement. The serie’s last incarnation; Brian Wood’s Star Wars distinguished itself by focusing more so on Princess Leia and her role within the Rebellion. It added a new layer of depth to the character and showed that us how she had earned her place within the Rebellion’s political structure. Marvel plays it safe by returning to the Luke Skywalker show, sometimes featuring Leia and Han. Other critics have pointed out that the characters feel like their movie counterparts, but in doing so suggest that this was something new to Star Wars comics which is again simply not true. For the most part, the original trilogy characters have always been written well and there were no shortage of stories exploring the time between films. Marvel would have been better served in building their own universe, expanding as opposed to shrinking the scope of their storytelling. There is an entire universe of possibilities to explore, but Marvel chooses to follow characters who can have no meaningful development within their pages because their character arcs were completed elsewhere over 30 years ago. The series has improved greatly following a bumpy opening arc, but it still amounts to little more than incidental stuff that has little impact on the universe as a whole.
Darth Vader is leagues ahead of its parent series in both writing and art. It also doesn’t fall into the same trap in that Vader’s side of the story is one that is rarely explored in the original trilogy itself. While he has a clear character arc, the subtle nuances of how he goes from uncaring, imposing Dark Lord of Sith to a father trying to reach out to his son in the only way he knows how (the Dark Side) is one that has a wealth of story potential. Until this series, we had never seen that “eureka” moment where Vader finally learns the truth; that Luke is his son. When your entire life for the last 19 years has been built on separating yourself from the Skywalker persona, how do you react to that? How do you react knowing that the one person you thought you could trust, the man who is the closet thing you have to a father, has been lying to you? Under the guidance of writer Kieron Gillan and artist Salvador Larroca we find out and the result is nothing short of glorious. Indeed, the same scene is portrayed in both the main book and Vader’s own series, but it is done vastly better here.
The relationship between Vader and the Emperor is brilliantly explored in this series. The Prequels show Palpatine slowly seducing Vader over the course of three films and allow the audience to understand why Anakin would trust this man over all others. He was the father that Vader never had, but it becomes quite clear in Return of the Jedi, that this fatherly figure Palpatine painted himself as is more of the abusive than caring kind. It is immediately apparent that Palpatine is at the height of his dissatisfaction with his apprentice. To him Vader is little more than a glorified henchman.
Darth Vader also introduces a fascinating bunch of side-characters as the Dark Lord of the Sith plots against his master. We have a Triple-Zero; a charmingly psychopathic rouge protocol that would HK-47 to shame, BT-1; the homicide “blastomech” prototype that’s a wolf in R2-D2 clothing and Doctor Aphra; an unscrupulous archaeologist and relic hunter straight out of the Lara Croft playbook. For a series that features no inner monologue, Vader’s interactions with them help to inform the character further. It’s also interesting to see that even as Vader, the man who was Anakin Skywalker seeks to surround himself with droids that remind him of his past.
This is also the first series that I’ve seen to really tackle the political and foreign policy implications of the destruction of the Death Star. It highlights the importance as a tool of enforcing the Empire’s will and a keep reason for why the Imperial Senate was dissolved when it was. I understand that in the past some fans have questioned the extent to which politics should be discussed in Star Wars, but given that war is merely a tool to achieve a political end such a discussion is welcome. Wars are only interesting when the context behind them is truly understood. Or maybe it’s just me.
Marvel is currently in the middle of publishing its first Star Wars crossover; Vader Down which features the Dark Lord being shot down and pursued by the Rebel Alliance. It shows how fearsome Vader can truly be that he single handily takes out an entire battalion of troops and starfighters with only his Lightsaber and the Force at his side. It’s the perfect jumping on point for new readers and may indeed help to redeem the otherwise underwhelming parent series.
Marvel has also published a number of complementary mini-series focusing on a number of side-characters. The first such series; Princess Leia is yet another example that Mark Waid can do no wrong. Audiences may have found it strange that after her initial shock, Leia doesn’t seem to be negatively impacted by Alderaan’s destruction, but in this mini-series it appears that other characters have noticed this too. Her quest to reunite what’s left of her people is an fine tribute to the original female action hero. Frankly, the fact that this wasn’t an ongoing is shameful. Star Wars could do with more stories centered on its few female protagonists. One of the more interesting mini-series has been Shattered Empire, the first entry in the Journey to the Force Awakens project. The series explored the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Endor and provided a touching back-story for Poe Dameron; one of new characters set to be introduced in The Force Awakens.
2015 hasn’t been a great year for Marvel when it comes to the quality of their published works. Secret Wars has deteriorated into a parody of itself. Delays have seen to it that the re-launched All-New, All-Different Marvel Universe has come into being before the story which serves as its reason d’etre concludes. Secret Wars is the epitome of poor planning and a failure to adequately manage their creative resources. In the end, it matters not that the story has been poorly handled. It matters not, that despite some noted exceptions (Old Man Logan, Deadpool’s Secret Wars,-Men ’92 etc), the majority of the tie-ins have been lacklustre. Commercially the series has been a success; but the various tie-ins alone would have assured that. There was never any doubt in that regard, but it is unfortunate that Marvel is being rewarded for a series that carries itself solely on brand recognition. Secret Wars has been one of the poorer event comics that the comic giant has published in a long-time. The market may be the ultimate determiner of quality, but it appears to be having an off-year.The Star Wars titles have served as a balm, in this climate of mediocrity. It is unfortunate, however, that the rest of the Marvel line has taken such a dip in quality when its Star Wars titles are proof-positive that the company hasn’t lost its touch. For those looking for great story-telling, interesting characters and fantastic art, all the things that make a Marvel comic, you need only look to a galaxy far, far away because these are the comics you are looking for.
If you are interested in taking a look at some of the current Marvel Star Wars series or any of the franchise’s past forays into the world of sequential art and story-telling then you are in for a treat. Marvel is offering a free month of its Marvel Unlimited service which gives costumers access to over 17,000 comics from their extensive back-issue library. Use the promo code “FORCE” while at the check-out screen to get your first month free. Marvel Unlimited allows comics to be read on your PC, Android or IOS device and is an excellent resource for comic fans. If you were looking for the comics equivalent of Netflix, this is it.
Join us tomorrow as we take a look at Star Wars:Battlefront. In the meantime, why not check out yesterday’s article on Star Wars: Legacy.