It’s fair to say: quite well, thank you very much. Marvel’s renewed take on Star Wars in the rebooted Expanded Universe continuity has been, so far, above average or better. This has been proven true both in sales (the main book hit over a million in sales, and is consistently a top 10 seller) and in critical acclaim. So far, the company is mostly hitting the right notes by giving the books a good marketing push, getting the right creators on the books, and most importantly, keeping them tonally consistent with the movies we know and love.
What’s interesting is that Star Wars has had an odd relationship with the comics industry. The license was originally “at home” with Marvel since the film’s inception in 1977, at a time when there wasn’t much of a Star Wars universe to work with yet since we only had one movie and three planets in play. Indeed, although fans over 40 have fond memories of Marvel’s original comics, they don’t hold up well today since they gave us giant green rabbits, bipedal Jabbas, and frequent return trips to Tatooine. Over time, it got better and made notable contributions to the license’s Expanded Universe…but by 1987, general interest in Star Wars had dried up and Marvel cancelled the two kiddie books (Droids and Ewoks) it was publishing at the time.
In the 1990s, Star Wars resurrected among hardcore fans who wanted to continue experiencing the story even with the films being long over. Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire novels revived the story among book readers, paving the way for Dark Horse Comics to grab the license in 1991. Honestly, I loved a lot of what Dark Horse did with Star Wars, particularly after 1999 when The Phantom Menace allowed the film’s story to expand into parts of the universe that were long cloaked in secrecy. One of its best moves was to continue the story of the Clone Wars following Attack of the Clones, so if you were reading the comics between 2002 and 2005, they seamlessly bridged the gulf between that movie and Revenge of the Sith.
Dark Horse offered a great deal of variety in its Star Wars titles in its final years; readers can judge for themselves whether this was too much or just right. At one point, readers could dip into the license’s distant past in books like Knights of the Old Republic (which moderately tied into the video game series of the same name), Dark Times (delving into the post-Episode III months), Empire and Rebellion (looking at the Episode IV era), and Legacy (exploring the galaxy 100 years after the films in a now very noncanonical story). Books like Agent of the Empire got intimate with single characters, while others like Dawn of the Jedi took the bold step of giving an ancient origin to the Jedi and the Sith.
Still, for all its creative diversity, Dark Horse’s big problem was that it just couldn’t captivate the market–likely a downside of not having the financial backing of a Marvel or Disney. After the infamous sale to Disney, Dark Horse took the bold step of launching a new Star Wars #1 set in the Episode IV era with a big-name writer and an Alex Ross cover (is this sounding familiar?), which some speculate was an effort to stave off switching the license to Marvel. It didn’t work, and the series was ultimately considered lackluster anyway, with writer Brian Wood seemingly without a clear idea where he wanted to take the title. Unlike Marvel’s new title, Dark Horse’s relaunched Star Wars never cracked the top 20 in sales rankings. By the end of 2014, the license went back to Marvel. All in all, it was a sad moment since Dark Horse had the license for 22 years and dozens of series.
However, Marvel’s renewed take on the license has proven successful enough that it’s made us forget all about Dark Horse’s 20-year run. In many ways, Marvel isn’t doing anything different from what Dark Horse did in its final days: getting back to basics with neo-classic stories about Luke, Leia, Han, and Vader. It’s also capitalizing on the anticipation for The Force Awakens, whetting our appetites for new Star Wars by taking us back to what we loved about the old.
The main Star Wars title (Jason Aaron, John Cassaday and Stuart Immonen) gets us back to the roots of the films with a relatively green team of rebels. Set not long after the events of A New Hope, the characters aren’t terribly different from where they left off. Luke is an overconfident young man who’s trying to figure out this whole “Jedi” thing, Han is still a brash smuggler with a few secrets that are coming back to bite him (Han has a wife?), and Leia is still a stuck-up Princess. This book ultimately seems like it will be Luke’s journey, as the films never really showed us how Luke grew in his force abilities between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. It’s already filling that gap by having Luke discover Obi-Wan’s journal and finding some old holocrons that gave him some wisdom from a few prequel-era characters.
In contrast, Darth Vader (Kieron Gillen and Salvatore Larocca) tries to get us into the head of one of cinema’s greatest villains. This is no mean feat, since Vader is classically portrayed as a silent powerhouse of a monster. Prior to the reboot, Dark Horse had actually given us a series of miniseries about a young Episode III-era Vader, though it sometimes made the mistake of getting too much in Vader’s head and showing him as a scared young man who still regretted what he’d become. In contrast, Gillen is good at playing “show, don’t tell” with Vader by keeping us out of his inner monologue while still demonstrating his inner emotions. When Gillen’s Vader is confronted with 20 year-old information about Padme Amidala, for example, we get some lingering images of Vader that speak volumes without him saying a word.
The ongoing challenge of both Star Wars and Darth Vader will be to keep them exciting in what is a very low-risk story. Set in the Original Trilogy era, we ultimately know where these characters will end up. Luke, Han, Leia, and the others can’t die or suffer any major revelations, and Vader is fated to die a heroic sacrifice in Return of the Jedi. Aaron and Gillen have to keep the readers on their toes even though the audience knows that not much of consequence can happen to these characters.
So far, it’s proving successful. There’s palpable tension in these stories when Luke is confronted by Boba Fett or captured by a Hutt lord, even though we know he’s going to get out of it–the excitement concerns seeing how it happens. With the Darth Vader title, Gillen has the added fun of giving Vader a supporting cast who resemble ersatz doubles of Luke’s pals: a pair of evil droids and a female archaeologist who’s just as much Indiana Jones as she is Han Solo. Vader can’t die in this book, but his supporting cast can, and it’s fun speculating about where they’ll end up at the end of these books.
Elsewhere, Marvel has benefitted from publishing a “third” Original Trilogy era book in the form of a series of miniseries. Princess Leia, Lando, and Chewbacca have all seen varying degrees of acclaim, and they allow Marvel to explore these characters without having to commit a full ongoing book to them (with Leia and Chewie already regularly appearing in the Star Wars title). The Prequel-era miniseries Obi-Wan and Anakin is scheduled for early next year as well, marking Marvel’s first foray into the Phantom Menace era. My prediction is that this format of a series-of-miniseries will continue, and I’d put money on a Boba Fett title showing up in 2016 to capitalize on that character’s popularity.
I will say that Marvel’s had two slight misfires in the last year, and I say “misfire” to the extent that the projects aren’t as strong as they could be. One was Marvel’s contribution to the “Journey to the Force Awakens” project in its Shattered Empire miniseries. This book was a bit of an outlier in relation to its other titles: while most Star Wars titles have been firmly entrenched in the Episode IV era, Shattered Empire picked up with the final moments of Episode VI and followed into the Empire’s plans for a few weeks after. (It did very quickly make a nod to the Princess Leia series.) Despite a strong first issue, the series didn’t do much to obviously transition the story to the Force Awakens era. Although the story revolved around the parents of a major Force Awakens character, it often spun into additional adventures of Han, Leia and Luke. Shattered Empire‘s relevance in relation to The Force Awakens remains to be seen and appears to be minimal at the moment.
The other is the Kanan comic, Marvel’s actual third ongoing Star Wars series. Kanan centers around Kanan Jarrus, one of the lead characters from the Star Wars Rebels cartoon airing on Disney X.D. at present. Rebels is a weird animal: a spiritual successor to the Clone Wars cartoon (and featuring several characters from that show), it tells the story of a band of early members of the Rebel Alliance in a period about 5 years before A New Hope. Kanan himself is one of the surviving Padawans of the Jedi Purge in Revenge of the Sith, and the comic tells flashback tales of his days in the Prequel era, with some “present” day scenes in the Rebels era.
Unfortunately, Kanan feels highly disconnected from both the Rebels show and the other comics. In relation to the show, it’s drawn stylistically different from the animated style of the cartoon. Its plotline focuses on Kanan’s origins–which is fine, but largely leaves the book unconnected to the ongoing events of the cartoon. There are some sequences set in the Rebels period, but not enough to really link it in any meaningful way to the show. A casual Star Wars reader who isn’t watching Rebels has little incentive to pick it up.
Those two books aside, Star Wars has had a wonderful first year at Marvel. It’s proven itself fully capable of bringing us back into the classic era and reminding us that there are still stories to tell there. They’re going to have to wrap this up at some point, because in-universe, there was only three years between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. At some point, readers will realize that the books will be perpetually spinning their wheels on the way to Hoth, and they may lose interest. Perhaps at that point, Marvel may open the door to post-Force Awakens books and give us a regular title about Finn, Rey and BB-8. We’ll see what 2016 has in store, but the past year is indicative that it’ll be good.
Check out some of Pop Culture Uncovered’s prior Marvel Star Wars coverage: