Sunday, November 29, 2015

"I have heard of it, and need to see it." Usagi Yojimbo #150 review

Having reached its 150th issue at Dark Horse Comics, you may well wonder if the recently-released Usagi Yojimbo #150 is a landmark issue. How fortunate that I'm here to address your wonderment!

"Death of a Tea Master" is a self-contained story wherein a European man named Rodriguez (Spanish?) is visiting the court of Lord Odo, testing his prowess with the saber against the katana styles of Odo's men. As part of the report Rodriguez is compiling, he wishes to observe the act of hara-kiri and demands Lord Odo order his subordinate Nobu the tea master to perform the deed. Unfortunately for Rodriguez, the tea master had a friend: the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi.

It wasn't that long ago that Stan Sakai celebrated 200 issues of Usagi Yojimbo (added up between thre publishers). Sakai's fidelity to his creation over the decades is matched only by the likes of Sim, Aragones or the Pinis. And yet, for all the many recurring characters and relationships within the book's cast, Sakai has always kept this series very easy to jump in on, with only a handful of particularly lengthy storyarcs. "Death of a Tea Master" features no previously-met characters - anyone can begin their exposure to Usagi Yojimbo with this issue and not be left out.

Sakai celebrated 200 Usagi Yojimbo comics with a tale featuring a determined sculptor crafting 200 Jizo statues. Issue #150 has nothing as obviously celebratory, yet it is a special event in a certain way; the character of Rodriguez is perhaps the first European character seen in this otherwise all-Japanese series. Although an animal-person like the rest of the cast, Rodriguez's manner of dress, wavy hair, saber and cross (a symbol seen only once previously in the series in a story which made the point of how deep underground Christianity was at the time in Japan), Rodriguez is the first time Sakai has brought in an outsider to Japanese culture to comment upon it.

In a sense, it's strange that it's taken Sakai this long - after all, Sakai has lived most of his life in the USA, not Japan (and precisely zero years in feudal Japan). As a Japanese man in the west he's qualified to look at Japan as either outsider or insider. Although Rodriguez may ultimately prove to be an usual blip in the Usagi Yojimbo experience - perhaps there will never be another European character - it feels good to think how little of the world Miyamoto Usagi inhabits has actually been glimpsed in the thousands of pages Sakai has devoted to it thus far. Clearly, there is much more for Sakai to draw upon for stories and he need not retire the series yet (unless he's exhausted, which doesn't seem to be the case).

And now that we have had a story where someone from the west comes to observe the east, we see in Rodriguez the worst of westerners. Rodriguez operates under the pretension of honor, plying Lord Odo to his bidding by questioning the lord's own honor; he's a hypccrite, but because Lord Odo is a true man of honor, he cannot call Rodriguez out. Rodriguez plays upon the idea of the west being more innately civilized than the east, calling them "heathen" to Lord Odo's face. Rodriguez treats the life of Nobu the tea master casually; for Rodriguez - and so many in the west of the real world - eastern lands are simply a sideshow where one is entertained by the oddities of humanity.

Usagi Yojimbo is being published by Dark Horse Comics nearly every month and is available digitally at Comixology.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Creator credits for Jessica Jones (season 1)

The usual caveats apply: it is difficult to know precisely who is responsible for many of the ideas which appear on comic book pages; although I attribute them to the original credited writer & artist, this does not mean the letterers, colorists, inkers, editors or people whose names didn't appear in the books did not have a significant degree of influence on the finished product. With that out of the way...

Brian Michael Bendis: co-creator of Jessica Jones, a cynical, alcoholic, superhumanly strong private detective who was briefly a costumed super hero, now runs Alias Investigations; Jessica Jones spying on a philandering wife then having an argument with the offended husband which causes him to knock him through her office door; Jessica meeting Luke Cage at a bar he runs then having sex with him; Luke Cage with shaved head and goatee (Alias #1, 2001); of Jessica having a past with Killgrave which left her with PTSD; Killgrave's victims meeting in a support group (Alias #24, 2003); of Killgrave as a rapist (Alias #25, 2003); of Malcolm, the nearest person Jessica has to a secretary; Jessica being stalked by an adoring teenager (Alias #6, 2002); Jessica calling herself Jewel; Jessica's power of flight (Alias #12, 2002); Jessica gaining her powers in a car accident which killed her parents and brother Phil (Alias #22, 2003); Killgrave commanding a crowd of people to inflict violence upon themselves and each other; Jessica discovering she's immune to Killgrave's powers (Alias #28, 2004); detective Angela Del Toro; the Night Nurse, a medic who treats superhumans (Daredevil #58, 2004)

Michael Gaydos: co-creator of Jessica Jones, a cynical, alcoholic, superhumanly strong private detective who was briefly a costumed super hero, now runs Alias Investigations; Jessica Jones spying on a philandering wife then having an argument with the offended husband which causes him to knock him through her office door; Jessica meeting Luke Cage at a bar he runs then having sex with him; Luke Cage with shaved head and goatee (Alias #1, 2001); of Jessica having a past with Killgrave which left her with PTSD; Killgrave's victims meeting in a support group (Alias #24, 2003); of Killgrave as a rapist (Alias #25, 2003); of Malcolm, the nearest person Jessica has to a secretary; Jessica being stalked by an adoring teenager (Alias #6, 2002); Jessica calling herself Jewel; Jessica's power of flight (Alias #12, 2002); Jessica gaining her powers in a car accident which killed her parents and brother Phil (Alias #22, 2003); Killgrave commanding a crowd of people to inflict violence upon themselves and each other; Jessica discovering she's immune to Killgrave's powers (Alias #28, 2004)

Stan Lee: co-creator of Killgrave, a man dressed in purple who can control the actions of others through the sound of his voice (Daredevil #4, 1964); the Hulk (Incredible Hulk #1, 1962); the Hulk colored green (Incredible Hulk #2, 1962); a team of heroes banded together including the Hulk in their number (Avengers #1, 1963); people with powers called "gifted" (X-Men #1, 1963)

Jack Kirby: co-creator of the Hulk (Incredible Hulk #1, 1962); the Hulk colored green (Incredible Hulk #2, 1962); a team of heroes banded together including the Hulk in their number (Avengers #1, 1963); people with powers called "gifted" (X-Men #1, 1963); the flag-wearing super hero Captain America (Captain America Comics #1, 1941)

George Tuska: co-creator of Luke Cage, a wanted man who received unbreakable skin from an experiment; Luke wearing a yellow shirt and blue pants; of Cage haunted by the death of Reva Connors (Hero for Hire #1, 1972); Claire Temple, a woman associated with Luke Cage (Hero for Hire #2, 1972); of Luke Cage exclaiming "Christmas" as an epithet (Hero for Hire #11, 1973)

Archie Goodwin: co-creator of Luke Cage, a wanted man who received unbreakable skin from an experiment; Luke wearing a yellow shirt and blue pants; of Cage haunted by the death of Reva Connors (Hero for Hire #1, 1972); Spider-Woman, heroine Jessica Jones is based upon (Marvel Spotlight #32, 1977); Claire Temple, a woman associated with Luke Cage (Hero for Hire #2, 1972)

Steve Englehart: co-creator of Patsy Walker being capable in a fight; of Patsy's mother Dorothy (Avengers #141, 1975); of Luke Cage exclaiming "Christmas" as an epithet (Hero for Hire #11, 1973); of Patsy Walker wanting to be a hero (Amazing Adventures #15, 1972)

David Mazzuchelli: co-creator of Nuke, a government-sponsored soldier who takes red, white and blue drugs to increase his adrenaline and reduce pain (Daredevil #232, 1986); of Nuke's real name Simpson (Daredevil #233, 1986)

Frank Miller: co-creator of Nuke, a government-sponsored soldier who takes red, white and blue drugs to increase his adrenaline and reduce pain (Daredevil #232, 1986); of Nuke's real name Simpson (Daredevil #233, 1986)

George Perez: co-creator of Patsy Walker being capable in a fight; of Patsy's mother Dorothy (Avengers #141, 1975); of the Wasp costume Jessica's own costume was derived from (Avengers #194, 1982)

Sal Buscema: co-creator of Spider-Woman, heroine Jessica Jones is based upon (Marvel Spotlight #32, 1977); Luke Cage exclaiming "Sweet Christmas" as an epithet (Defenders #24, 1975)

John Romita: co-creator of Luke Cage, a wanted man who received unbreakable skin from an experiment; Luke wearing a yellow shirt and blue pants; of Cage haunted by the death of Reva Connors (Hero for Hire #1, 1972)

Roy Thomas: co-creator of Luke Cage, a wanted man who received unbreakable skin from an experiment; Luke wearing a yellow shirt and blue pants; of Cage haunted by the death of Reva Connors (Hero for Hire #1, 1972)

Joe Orlando: co-creator of Killgrave, a man dressed in purple who can control the actions of others through the sound of his voice (Daredevil #4, 1964)

David Anthony Kraft: co-creator of Patsy Walker having comics books based on her life as created by her mother (Defenders #89, 1980)

Mark Gruenwald: co-creator of Patsy Walker having comics books based on her life as created by her mother (Defenders #89, 1980)

Alex Maleev: co-creator of detective Angela Del Toro; the Night Nurse, a medic who treats superhumans (Daredevil #58, 2004)

Steven Grant: co-creator of Patsy Walker having comics books based on her life as created by her mother (Defenders #89, 1980)

Ed Hannigan: co-creator of Patsy Walker having comics books based on her life as created by her mother (Defenders #89, 1980)

Don Perlin: co-creator of Patsy Walker having comics books based on her life as created by her mother (Defenders #89, 1980)

David Michelinie: co-creator of the Wasp costume Jessica's own costume was derived from (Avengers #194, 1982)

Steve Gerber: co-creator of Luke Cage exclaiming "Sweet Christmas" as an epithet (Defenders #24, 1975)

Joe Simon: co-creator of the flag-wearing super hero Captain America (Captain America Comics #1, 1941)

Michael Fleisher: co-creator of Jessica Drew's occupation as detective (Spider-Woman #21, 1979)

Carmine Infantino: co-creator of Spider-Woman's Jessica Drew identity (Spider-Woman #1, 1978)

Frank Springer: co-creator of Jessica Drew's occupation as detective (Spider-Woman #21, 1979)

Marco Checchetto: co-creator of Oscar Clemons, an aged police detective (Punisher #1, 2011)

Ruth Atkinson: co-creator of Patsy Walker, a red-headed young woman (Miss America #2, 1944)

Tom Sutton: co-creator of Patsy Walker wanting to be a hero (Amazing Adventures #15, 1972)

Otto Binder: co-creator of Patsy Walker, a red-headed young woman (Miss America #2, 1944)

Marv Wolfman: co-creator of Spider-Woman's Jessica Drew identity (Spider-Woman #1, 1978)

Greg Rucka: co-creator of Oscar Clemons, an aged police detective (Punisher #1, 2011)

Chris Claremont: co-creator of Jeryn Hogarth, a lawyer (Marvel Premiere #24, 1975)

Terry Kavanagh: co-creator of Killgrave surviving certain death (X-Men #34, 1998)

Pat Broderick: co-creator of Jeryn Hogarth, a lawyer (Marvel Premiere #24, 1975)

Roger Cruz: co-creator of Killgrave surviving certain death (X-Men #34, 1998)

Mark Bagley: co-creator of Killgrave as a rapist (Alias #25, 2003)

Win Mortimer: co-creator of the Night Nurse (Night Nurse #1, 1972)

Jean Thomas: co-creator of the Night Nurse (Night Nurse #1, 1972)

...And from there, I welcome your corrections/additions!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Across My Desk: Sacred Hope

When books intended for disposal cross my desk I try to be attentive to the foreign language editions, always wondering if I might find a Portuguese-language title. True, it seldom happens as the University does not have a great focus on that language, but occasionally something appears and I quickly offer a donation to rescue it from neglect. These books are eventually sent to my relations in Angola to help populate the ISTEL library. Obviously, simply because a book is printed in Portuguese it doesn't mean it's useful to them, but they have so many English-language donations in their library (despite many students there not knowing the language) that I assume giving them any book in Portuguese may have a benefit to someone at some point down the road. After all, among a million-person local population, they have the largest library (and that's still not saying much).

One day I was casually preparing a book for disposal when my eye glanced over the back cover. "Um aniversario," it said. I paused. "A birthday?" I wondered. I quickly flipped through the book; English. I checked the title; English. I checked the author; ...vaguely Portuguese. I checked the country of publication; Tanzania. "Tanzania? Pretty sure they don't speak Portuguese there!" My hand wavered on whether to dispose of the book.

Finally I discovered a neat trick - one you can use in your own home - I read an extract from the book. Suddenly it became clear - this was a collection of poetry by an Angolan author which had been translated into English. Angolan poetry! I came that close to getting rid of it! Happily, I rescued it for my own collection.

The book is Sacred Hope by Agostinho Neto, who ultimately became the leader of the MPLA and president of Angola. I had never actually tried to read books written by Angolans (books dealing with Angola are uncommon in this part of the world) so here was an opportunity for insight into Angolan culture (at least, culture circa 1974).

I can't say that these poems have done much to expand my knowledge of the culture. They are primarily a litany of frustration, expressions of sorrow and outrage at the Portuguese who were then in charge of the country. Neto's thoughts seemed consumed by the struggle he was in (the poems were written from the 50s to the 70s and are very much in a singular tone). Perhaps post-independence Angolan poets had something else to say about their nation but at this time - mostly anger. Perhaps the most surprising thing to note were the many references to slavery, despite it having been abolished well before then. Neto wrote of slavery as something which was, to him, still alive. That holds up with other accounts I've read about life in African colonials - that the colonizers behaved like slave-masters.

The poetry is interesting primarily in an academic fashion and the book - well, it will stand on a shelf with my all-too-few other tomes on Angola.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Deadpool Corps: Rank & Foul reprinted again!

It doesn't matter that I stopped working for Marvel in 2012 - with eight years of work, they were bound to keep reprinting some of it - and with a Deadpool movie on the way, naturally it's time for:



It's the latest and greatest volume in the increasingly flexibly named Deadpool Classic series! The ever-sociable Wade Wilson is back — rubbing shoulders with his bro Cable, laughing it up with his other bro Wolverine and forging an all-new bromance during FEAR ITSELF with...the Walrus? The "Identity Wars" take Deadpool, Spider-Man and the Hulk on a long strange cross-dimensional trip, but what twisted reflections of themselves will they see? And in the wake of Steve Rogers' return, will Wade Wilson become the new Captain America? (Spoiler: no.) Learn all there is to know about Deadpool and friends, right here! Collecting CAPTAIN AMERICA: WHO WON'T WIELD THE SHIELD #1, CABLE (2008) #25, DEADPOOL & CABLE #26, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL #38, DEADPOOL ANNUAL (2011) #1, INCREDIBLE HULKS ANNUAL #1, WOLVERINE/DEADPOOL: THE DECOY #1, FEAR ITSELF: DEADPOOL #1-3 and DEADPOOL CORPS: RANK AND FOUL #1. 360 PGS./Parental Advisory ...$34.99 ISBN: 978-0-7851-9690-7

Besides the profiles I wrote for Rank & Foul, I was also the one who named the book. I'm still kinda proud of that pun.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Unearthed: Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #117

Today being Remembrance Day, I want to look at one of my personal favourite military comic books. The subject for today is Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #117, from 1974. Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos was, of course, the comic book which introduced the world to Nick Fury, who is better-known today for being the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. Stan Lee famously claimed he titled the book "Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos" to settle a bet that he could publish anything and make it a success, but that's probably a tall tale he came up with after the fact to "apologize" for coming up with that title.

The story in #117 is titled "Taps for a Drummer!" and is written by Gerry Conway with artist Dick Ayers and inker Vince Colletta. Although Ayers had been a part of nearly all of the series run, Conway wrote only a handful of issues. Indeed, while the series would trudge on to 1981's #167, issue #120 would be the last all-new story. Even at this time, the series was frequently pre-empted by reprints.

As the story opens, Nick is running the Howlers through an obstacle course and heaps more abuse on them than usual, even performing a barracks inspection. The squad thinks this is related to his recent capture and torture at the hands of Baron Strucker but that piece of continuity will have to be forgotten as Fury and Gabe Jones are summoned to see Captain Sam Sawyer. Sawyer tells the duo about a soldier who was recently captured by the Nazis and prepared to serve as a test subject for a new viral weapon. However, that soldier escaped with a sample of the virus when Allied bombing hit the Nazi base.

Sawyer then reveals the reason Gabe is part of this briefing: the soldier in question is Danny "Drummer" Belllaman, an old friend of Gabe's who used to perform with him in a Harlem nightclub (Gabe on trumpet, Drummer on drums, natch). Sawyer wants to ensure Drummer and the vial are returned safely to Allied hands and is counting on Gabe to use his connection to Drummer to help guess where he's headed. Intelligence has already pinpointed Drummer as being in London - but he hasn't approached the Allies because he's afraid if he gives them the vial, they'll use it as a weapon themselves. Thus, Gabe's friendship will also help convince Drummer to trust them.

Drummer wanders the cold streets of London and begins to reminisce about his past, but ends his introspection by musing: "Can't worry about the past. It's today that means something... and it's tomorrow that counts! That's what they taught you, Drummer. That's what they made you learn." Nick and Gabe ask around for Drummer and eventually learn he was in a club playing the drums. Unfortunately, there are two Nazi agents also in pursuit and they reach Drummer first, opening fire at him in an alleyway. Fortunately, Nick & Gabe aren't too far behind and they battle the agents while Drummer hides amongst some ruined buildings. Drummer is surprised to see childern playing amidst the rubble, life carrying on normally in spite of the war.

Gabe finally reaches Drummer to help him, but Drummer replies, "It's time I did something for number one... and brother, that's me." The fight with the Nazis causes some of the rubble to collapse but Drummer leaps into action to save the children's lives. The collapse separates both Nick & Gabe and the Nazis from Drummer. Gabe explains to Nick that Drummer is someone who was beaten down by failure all his life, which is why his priorities have suddenly shifted. Drummer brings the children he saved back to their parents and muses over the event. "Maybe that's what it's all about... helpin' a pair'a kids... helpin' a lot of kids... If something like this virus ever belonged to either side, some kids would have to die... and the way I feel right now... I can't let that happen... and there's only one way I can stop it-- by getting rid of this junk for good!" So saying, he drinks the vial's contents.

Drummer is soon found by the Nazis, but when they demand the vial he tells them he drank it. Unfazed, they declare they'll haul his corpse back to Berlin with them and recreate the virus from his remains. Nick & Gabe arrive again and Gabe uses the blare of his trumpet to temporarily rattle the Nazis. As they scuffle, even Drummer helps out, shooting one of the agents before he can kill Nick. However, Drummer informs them what he did. "Maybe I haven't proved anything, Gabe... 'cept this: all my life people've been forcing choices on me-- but this was one choice... I made myself! Gabe-- buddy-- the pain's getting bad. Will you help me--- this one last time?" With a tear in his eye, Gabe delivers a mercy kill to Drummer.

Thoughts: This issue was my introduction to the Sgt. Fury series and it made quite a favorable impression. Although Ayers' art looks very crude (not helped in the least by Colletta's sparse inks), Conway delivered a very strong script, one which examined perhaps the most interesting of the Howlers - Gabe. Gabe, of course, is more fictional than most of the Howlers - segregation still existed in the US armed forces of World War II; in some ways, World War II helped encourage segregation in that soldiers in all US states had to lower themselves to the racist laws of the south, rather than challenge the hegemony.

Regardless, Gabe provided a means for Sgt. Fury's writers to comment on race. Few of them took the challenge, but by 1974 there were so many new African-American heroes bursting into comics that it was less provocative than it would have been before. And, race aside, it's ultimately the story of one soldier sacrificing his life for his ideals and his best friend being confronted with that tragedy. All of the moving moments in this story play out on the last page, but that last page makes the entire experience worthwhile.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Not So Long Ago 6: Aftermath

In Star Wars #8 a fan letter was printed in which a Star Wars fan - someone in love with a film which had only come out exactly two months prior - raked writer Roy Thomas over the coals for everything he felt Thomas had done wrong in his adaptation of the film. "Roy's adaptation is, to say the least, horrendous," he remarks. "Why he can't spell 'Wookie' right is beyond me." Not content with this display of his superior knowledge the fan continued with personal insults: "I think fame has gone to the Thomas head so that he thinks he can do whatever he wants." He also took aim at Chaykin because his art "seemed as if it were just hacked out and not given the time he could have given it." Editorial responded to the letter by pointing to the close collaboration between Thomas, Chaykin & LucasFilm and that, in fact, "Wookiee" was the correct spelling.

In a way, this letter explains some of the reactions to the character of Jaxxon - that is, it explains fandom's reaction. Speaking as someone who spent eight years toiling on projects such as The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, obsessed fans like to identify what the boundaries of a fictional universe are; not only are they bothered by what they thought were continuity errors in Thomas' adaptation of Star Wars, they expect additions to the fictional realm to fit in and not unduly upset what came before. To pluck a figure from the later Star Wars "Expanded Universe" (more on that below), Dash Rendar* "fits in" with the Star Wars cast, so far as the fans are concerned; Jaxxon** does not.

Although Star Wars' letters page disappeared for a few months after Thomas left, robbing us of most contemporary reactions to the story, there are few traces to be found in letters from later in the series run, as in this excerpt from a letter in issue #19:

"Separate our gang of Star Warriors and show their separate adventures. After those horrible issues with Han Solo and Chewbacca, I can understand why you might not want to do that..."

In his Alter Ego interview, Thomas delved into why he quit Star Wars so abruptly; in fact, Jaxxon played a major part:

And then one day I got this phone call from Charlie Lippincott [Lucas' right-hand man]. He informed me that George was unhappy with the way the storyline was going. I reminded Charlie that I'd cleared it in advance, but Charlie said that George thought that it was too close to The Magnificent Seven (who knows, maybe it was). What's more, George particularly disliked one of the Seven being a six-foot alien who resembled a green Bugs Bunny in space gear. In the latter instance, I had been "inspired" in part by seeing a Porky Pig-looking alien in the Cantina sequence, either in the rough cut or on some production sketches at some early point. (I don't remember if that alien appears in the finished movie, since that part of the film contained several 11th-hour inserts of other, more colorful aliens sitting in dark corners, and something may have been cut to make room for them.) I had figured my "green rabbit" Jaxxon wasn't really much weirder than a Wookiee, but obviously Geroge, as the creator of the Star Wars mythos, felt differently. I respected George and Charlie, but this line of conversation was beginning to annoy me.

No doubt a large part of Thomas' annoyance is that despite he & Chaykin being the creative team Lucas had personally headhunted to adapt his film, they received only the faintest of praise for their tireless efforts. Thomas was eager to be rewarded but received only complaints.

With Thomas gone his consulting editor Archie Goodwin stepped up as the new writer, with artist Howard Victor Chaykin replaced by Carmine Infantino. Unlike Thomas, Goodwin had serious chops in the realm of "space fantasy," having penned a few Flash Gordon tales in his day. Infantino was also a sci-fi veteran and while his unique style didn't quite gel with some fans (his Chewbacca was particularly off-model), he brought a consistency which the perpetually-frantic Chaykin had been unable to deliver. The Goodwin-Infantino team created most of the Marvel Star Wars comics 'til a few months after Empire Strikes Back, with Goodwin teaming up with his frequent collaborator (and fellow Flash Gordon fanatic) Al Williamson to adapt The Empire Strikes Back itself.

And yet, Goodwin did not sweep away that which came before. His first story arc picked up Thomas' Luke/Leia plot, sending the cast to a water world straight out of Alex Raymond. At the same time, he brought back Han's enemy Crimson Jack and sealed off that loose thread. Most surprisingly, however, is that in issue #16 he brought back Jaxxon, Amaiza, Don-Wan Kihotay and the Starkiller Kid! Goodwin did give the band a quick appearance in his first issue, #11 as they parted ways with Solo, but these characters took center stage in #16; there's almost nothing to be had of the series' regular cast, with Jaxxon and Amaiza serving as the main protagonists.

And you know what? #16 is mighty good! While #7-10 had its weaknesses, I have no reservations in recommending #16. Paired with guest artist Walter Simonson, Goodwin introduced a great new villain named Valance (who would go on to make two other appearances under Goodwin's pen, ultimately perishing in a fight to the death with Vader himself) who is after the bounty on Luke Skywalker's head. Unfortunately, the Starkiller Kid is so much like Luke that Valance's lead brings him after Han's former allies, which is a clever meta-commentary on the "wrong man" plot. Not only did Goodwin & Simonson give Jaxxon his own ship - "Rabbit's Foot" - which vaguely resembled the Millennium Falcon (continuing Jaxxon's status as something of a Han Solo parody) but they delved deeper into the Bugs Bunny references with Jaxxon menaced by men named "Fud" and "Dafi."

Thomas wrote a fan letter to Goodwin in issue #20, praising issue #16 and especially for using Jaxxon in a way which vindicated his beliefs:

When a writer (or artist, or wrieter/editor, or whatever) quits a particular magazine for whatever reason, he usually looks back in not inconsiderable horror at what "others" do to it later. ... Not so with STAR WARS, however. ... Not only has the Infantino/Austin art (and the Simonson/Wiacek art in #16) been fabulous, and probably just what the mag needed; but instead of simply ignoring or overturning the developments Howie and I had added in our necessarily interim issues #7-10, you added them to your own intriguing plotlines (such as the Water World) to come up with a series of issues after my own heart - and doubtless those of many others, as well."

... Naturally, since Jaxx the "Rocket Rabbit" was an even more beloved creation of mine, and since Amaiza was and is a great foil for him, I'm even happier with #16's story. ... Jaxx was developed almost exactly the way I wanted to see him turn out - complete to baddies with names (Fud and Dafi) that even I, the most cornball of space-opera scripters, would not have dared attempt. But you did - and you pulled it off! For some reason, I've always had an affinity for green things (as long as they were in comicbooks, not in a garden): the Incredible Hulk, the Impossible Man, and now Jaxx. My only request is that, if there's ever to be a series of Jaxx stories you don't write yourself, I get a crack at it. I was really quite fond of the fellow... and I'm even fonder of what you've done with him.

Thomas closed his letter by remarking on Goodwin's use of the correct spelling of "Wookiee" - evidently a criticism which continually vexed Thomas, as even 30 years after leaving the series he would still bring up the matter in Star Wars interviews. At the same time, another person wrote in about #16 to say (their letter in full): "Let's have no more of this."

This would be Jaxxon's last appearance in the series but he did at least go out in style. The Marvel series which continued under the pens of Goodwin & Infantino (and later, David Michelinie & Jo Duffy with artists Walter Simonson, Al Williamson, Ron Frenz & Cynthia Martin) laboured under different restrictions than the Thomas-Chaykin team; notably, Goodwin secured permission to use Darth Vader in his stories and was simply prevented from having Vader and Luke duel. Goodwin turned this into a clever plot where Vader sought the identity of the pilot he'd briefly faced at the Death Star, learning Luke's identity mere months before The Empire Strikes Back - which, whether Goodwin planned it or not, actually fit the continuity of the film perfectly.

Creators post-Empire Strikes Back had yet different restrictions placed on them with several stories being altered by LucasFilm's whims. I once mentioned to Walter Simonson how I thought his story with the Tarkin super weapon (#51-52) predicted Return of the Jedi; Simonson replied that he & Michelinie had originally meant for the Tarkin to be 2nd Death Star, but LucasFilm refused; when he asked why, they refused to say. Later, in #55, the rabbit-like Hoojibs let the Rebels make their planet their new base. Simonson told me the Hoojibs were originally supposed to be bear-like, but LucasFilm shot that down; when Michelinie & Simonson asked why, they refused to say. Simonson remarked that they began to have a pretty good idea of what would happen in Return of the Jedi simply based on what they weren't allowed to do.

Of course, the (ahem) dark side of LucasFilm came out in issue #46 when J.M. DeMatteis' pro-pacifism story was altered by LucasFilm, who demanded the story end on a coda which rejected pacifism, lest Star Wars fans think too much about the effects of violence; DeMatteis took his name off the story in protest and never wrote another Star Wars comic.

The comic book ended in 1986 and for a few years, very little was seen or heard of Star Wars. Gradually, it began to pick up steam in the early 1990s as new novels were published and as Dark Horse picked up the comic book license. This led to the Expanded Universe, a new construct worked on by everyone involved in licensed Star Wars stories which attempted to keep a consistent continuity between all Star Wars products. Some concepts from these new novels, comics and video games would even become part of the film canon as the late 90s brought about the Star Wars Special Edition films and prequels.

During the years of anticipation leading to the first prequel, a major cross-media event appeared called Shadows of the Empire, considered so important that there was even a book called Secrets of the Shadows of the Empire which delved into the project's development. In discussing the Expanded Universe and Star Wars' history with licensed projects, references were made to the Marvel Comics - and yet, of that 107 issue run, the only mention made of the series were disparaging comments about the first 10 issues: the Thomas/Chaykin run.

A notable source for early continuity glitches was the Marvel Comics series, which enjoyed a 107-issue run from 1977 through 1986. In those fledgling licensing days there was less creative control or direction for what often resembled an "alternative universe" to Lucas's saga. Campy creations emerged from the pages of those comics, such as Jaxxon, a pistol-packing six-foot green rabbit who teamed with Han Solo. The comics adventures generally had the Rebels on the run from Imperial forces, with stories revolving around the strange worlds and alien creatures encountered by the Alliance in its never-ending search for a safe haven. Sometimes even the main heroes seemed out of character. On the cover of issue 2, a rather vigorous Ben Kenobi and a husky Luke Skywalker are alternately slicing and blowing away some mean-looking aliens in some dead-end cantina. "Swing that lightsabre [sic], Ben," Luke shouts, "or we're finished!"

Well, history makes fools of us all. At the time those words were written, the architects of the Expanded Universe believed themselves to be participating in the canon of Star Wars, just as Thomas, Goodwin, Michelinie, Duffy, Chaykin, Infantino, Williamson, Simonson, Frenz and Martin had before them. However, in 2012 Walt Disney bought out LucasFim and the entire Star Wars franchise; overnight, the Expanded Universe (which, despite seeing some of its material reflected in the prequels also found the prequels in conflict with other matters) became kaput, its veritable head chopped off on the block as Disney planned to fashion its own Star Wars films with no heed for whatever the novels & comics might have said.

And thus, Disney brought the Star Wars license back to Marvel where the series relaunched in 2015 with a new #1. And sure enough, one of the variants (drawn by John Tyler Christopher) featured Jaxxon, depicting him eavesdropping on the Star Wars cast as they try desperately to hide from him. Star Wars' "old shame" had finally come home to Marvel!

Yet another variant cover appearance by Jaxxon followed, this time with Chip Zdarsky pitting everyone's favourite Lepus Carnivorous against Darth Vader himself! It seems now to be merely a question of when Jaxxon will return to the interior pages, not if.

In his Alter Ego interview, Thomas had these final words on Jaxxon, shaped in part by what he had seen the Star Wars franchise become in the 30+ years since George Lucas first chatted to him about his film idea:

I must admit that I felt somewhat vindicated years later about the specific reasons for my leaving when I heard about Jar Jar Binks in the fourth Star Wars film, The Phantom Menace. The negative reaction to that character by just about everybody in the audience over age eight dwarfed anything that George could've felt about Jaxxon the alien green rabbit. In fact, I'll bet Jaxxon would've been received far more favorably!

Thomas doesn't have any kind words for the Ewoks either. Heh-heh.

Thank you Thomas; thank you Chaykin; and thank you, forgiving reader, for journeying with me to the end of this series! May you find a Rocket-Rabbit in your happy hutch!

*= He's Han Solo with a constipated scowl.

**= He's Han Solo with green fur and rabbit ears.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Not So Long Ago 5: Star Wars #10

Today I'm wrapping up my recap of Roy Thomas & Howard Victor Chaykin's only post-Star Wars story with Star Wars #10!

This time the cover is by Rick Hoberg, one of the many artists who stepped in to help Chaykin meet the blistering deadlines while adapting the film into comics form. Here, he depicts Han & Chewbacca in combat with the Behemoth (I can't say I recall there being a giant monster in The Magnificent Seven).

The story is titled "Behemoth from the World Below" (which sounds like a recycled Conan title) and the credits do bear some comment. The dissatisfaction both Thomas and Chaykin were feeling can be seen as the script is by Don Glut, who received a fair amount of mentoring by Thomas in the 70s; this indicates Thomas had lost interest in finishing his story. Likewise, Chaykin had brought in his good friend Alan Kupperberg to "ghost" for him. It probably helped that Tom Palmer was still inking the comic as his heavy inks brought a uniformity to the art. This proved to be a turning point in Kupperberg's career at Marvel as it led to him receiving more offers of work, but as this was also the final issue by Thomas & Chaykin, there would be no more Glut or Kupperberg found in the series' pages.

In the chaos surrounding Han's team, Serji-X's Cloud-Riders and the Behemoth all fighting, Don-Wan Kihotay even turns up hale and hearty (Thomas may not have intended for him to die in the previous issue, but he did forget to depict his recovery). Not only is the Behemoth a massive lizard but its forehead fires energy blasts; it is, essentially, Godzilla. Serji-X simply ignores Han's team and tries to destroy the Behemoth; he gets the idea that the old shaman is controlling the monster and makes a power dive to get him, but Serji-X's observations seem somewhat incorrect as the Behemoth steps on both men, killing them.

As Han's forces try to take stock, Amaiza simply wants to leave as she signed up to fight Serji-X, who's no longer an issue. Han insists they fight on, which Jaxxon ascribes certain motivations to (I really need to reproduce all of the following as it's vintage Jaxxon):

Jaxxon: "Awwright, awwright already! So we know you're a little soft on that Merri female. So you two can stand around arguin' about it! But y'know how us Rocket-Rabbit types are: We just can't stand still!"
Amaiza: "Jaxxon!!"
Jaxxon: "And since I alway say, 'Never send a man out to do a rabbit's job--'"
Amazia: "No, wait, Jaxxon--!"
Jaxxon: "Heavenly hutches! Rocks knocked the gun out'a my hand!! Got to reach the crummy thing before--"
Amaiza: "Leave the blaster, Jax! And take cover between the rocks! You'll never--"
Jaxxon: "Already have, Amaiza! But did these floppy ears'a mine detect a little affection in your voice? Hmmmmmm?! Nawww! Like my mother told all eighty of us kids-- it'd never work out! Marry a nice girl from a nice burrow, an'-- Whooooeeee!! Almost didn't see that one! Maybe I ought'a get my eyes checked if we ever get out'a this mess!"

Take note of the dialogue above as it contains many things fans complain about when talking about Jaxxon: "Rocket-Rabbit," "hutches," "all eighty of us kids," "burrow." But also note this isn't necessarily from Thomas, it's from Don Glut. Jaxxon & Amaiza evade the Behemoth while the team tries to figure out a plan to fight it, but Don-Wan goes off on his own to face the beast. Meanwhile in the subplot, Princess Leia flies in pursuit of Luke Skywalker, a plot which finally takes center stage in the next issue.

On Aduba-3, Don-Wan faces the Behemoth with his lightsaber, believing he's using the Force to combat the creature; in fact, the Behemoth seems to be thrown off-kilter by Don-Wan presence. Hedji springs into action to help Don-Wan, but for his trouble he's obliterated by the Behemoth's energy blasts. Han figures out what's going on: Don-Wan's lightsaber is "acting like an old-fashioned lightning rod-- interfering with that energy beam the creature shoots from its fin!" Han runs to Don-Wan, takes the lightsaber and charges the Behemoth, thinking ot himself, "Seems I remember hearing once about a Jedi killing a monster something like this with a lightsabre." Han thrusts the lightsabre into the monster's chest and it causes a massive disruption of the energy inside the creature, causing it to disintegrate. "The Force is with us, Han Solo!" Don-Wan proudly beams.

With the fighting finished, Han's team receive their rewards but the Starkiller Kid (following in the pattern of The Magnificent Seven's Horst Buccholz) decides to remain with the villagers when he realizes Merri was impressed with his heroics and is, in fact, in love with him - much to the chagrin of Han who saved her life twice. At any rate, Han has earned enough to get the Millennium Falcon spaceworthy again and "If only for a minute, I got a little feeling of what it's like-- to be a Jedi knight!"

Tomorrow: The aftermath of Star Wars #7-10. The triumph! The tragedy! The snark! The bold! The bitter! Come back to find out how fandom, LucasFilm and the industry reacted to this tale!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Not So Long Ago 4: Star Wars #9

We continue our look at Roy Thomas & Howard Victor Chaykin's Magnificent Seven by way of Star Wars homage with Star Wars #9!

The cover (once more by Gil Kane) depicts Han, Chewbacca, Amaiza and - the Lepus of the hour - Jaxxon, the foursome in deadly combat with the Cloud-Riders. Strangely, Jaxxon doesn't seem to be wearing his shirt on the cover. Also, he's drawn rather more realistically than we've seen him in the interiors so far.

The story, "Showdown on a Wasteland World!" was again inked by Tom Palmer. The tale opens with Han and Chewie leading their six hired guns astride Banthas (when you absolutely, guaranteed have to be there in six to eight months) to the village they're to protect. En route it becomes clear Jaxxon has as much a gift for the gab as Solo himself:

"Yeah, I know, Chewie... I know! It's too quiet for me, too; I just didn't want to say anything."
"So now I guess yer gonna talk all day about how ya didn't wanna talk!?"
"You can be replaced on this mission, y'know, Jax."
"Yeah? Who by, Solo? Looks ta me like yer already scrappin' the bottom of a low barrel just to dig up this group!"

After a flashback sequence where Han recalls the events leading up to him becoming the leader of these rag-tag characters the group sees a flock of High-Hounds, giant feathery scavengers with semi-humanoid features. The team begins blasting the creatures out of the sky, granting them an opportunity to demonstrate their abilities to Solo and practice for the eventual fight with Serji-X. In the midst of the fight, Jaxxon begins putting the moves on Amaiza:

"Y'know Amaiza-- when this baby-sittin' mission's over, howzabout you an' me teamin' up? I got a hunch we could make beautiful blaster-music together."

Amaiza isn't interested: "No offense, but if I hung around with a guy who looks like a big green rabbit, folks might start to talk." Solo sees one of the High-Hounds diving at a local and springs into action in time to save her. The beauteous babe (on loan from one of Thomas' Conan plots) proves to be Merri, the daughter of the village's chief, Oncho. Han begins gathering up the locals to prepare defenses against Serji-X's inevitable assault.

Meanwhile in the subplot, Luke, C-3PO & R2-D2 find a planet in the Drexel system which seems appropriate to serve as the Rebels' new base, but mid-broadcast back to Leia, his message mysteriously cuts out. Leia decides she'll pursue Luke's trail to Drexel and discover what happened to him. Back on Aduba-3, Merri's grandfather, a shaman, tries to tell Solo about his mystical resources and some monster he believes has the power to defend the village, but Solo takes him for yet another senile old man and ignores him.

Jaxxon alerts the others to Serji-X's approach: "If what they say about us rabbits havin' good eyes is true-- then I suggest we get up off our fannies an' cotton tails-- 'cause I got a hunch trouble's on the way... big trouble-- an' it's comin' at us hard an' fast!" Serji-X demands the villagers turn over their tribute, and includes Merri amongst what he wants, enraging Solo. The fight begins and Effie the droid helps out by extending its arms to grab one of the Cloud-Riders' skyspeeder, bringing its rider directly into Chewbacca's fists. However, Effie then notices the Starkiller Kid is about to be shot in the back; despite asserting the Kid is not its master, Effie serves as a shield, being completely destroyed by the ensuing blaster fire.

Don-Wan also gets into the fray to defend Amaiza from one of the bandits, which he does quite well, striking him in the back with his lightsaber (proof that he's a real Jedi: he doesn't fight fair). However, another bandit shoots Don-Wan in the back; Solo believes him dead (he's not, likely because of his armour). Solo and Jaxxon share another exchange:

"Hey, Jaxxon! How's our ammunition holding out?!"
"Ain't complainin', Solo! An' if I run outta power, I can always kick those riders outa the clouds!"

However, the chaos of the fight takes a sudden turn as the old shaman summons forth the slumbering monster he alluded to - the Behemoth! It's now a three-way battle for the village!

Tomorrow: the conclusion in Star Wars #10!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Not So Long Ago 3: Star Wars #8

To recap: Previously, Han Solo & Chewbacca journeyed to Aduba-3 and adopted the roles of Yul Brynner & Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven as they helped a priest bury a cyborg against the wishes of townsfolk. Following this, some locals approached Han with a job offer.

For decades it has been common for comic book covers to be generated before the interior contents. Thus, the cover below (again by Gil Kane) can truly be considered the first appearance of Jaxxon!

Although Kane doesn't draw the cast of characters entirely like Chaykin does inside, the blurb proclaiming "Eight Against a World!" which indicates this Magnificent Seven homage won't be holding to the same number of mercenaries. Jaxxon's costume is actually rather appropriate to the Star Wars universe - that is, he's clearly wearing a flight suit not unlike those the X-Wing pilots wore in the film. But then, it's not the clothes people complained about - it's that he's a big green rabbit.

I suppose this is as good a place as any to discuss Bucky O'Hare. It's curious to note how alike he and Jaxxon are; both wear red; both are space-faring adventurers; both have green fur; both are rabbit-men. Visually, they are somewhat different in that Jaxxon has a human-shaped body with rabbit head while Bucky has a quasi-human quasi-rabbit shaped body. Larry Hama and Michael Golden debuted Bucky in 1984 some seven years after this comic book so it's possible Hama & Golden were on some level inspired by Jaxxon.

Of course, the fact that Bucky O'Hare wouldn't exist for years to come points to why Jaxxon was such a hard sell. Although at the time Marvel had been making Howard the Duck into a hit character (and Star*Reach had begun publishing Quack! largely to tap into that market) and Cerebus was about to conquer the realm of independent comics, the funny animal adventure book wasn't yet a thing. There was no Bucky O'Hare; no Rocket Raccoon; no Usagi Yojimbo. Even then, comic book fans despised seeing funny animal characters interact with human heroes in anything other than parody; note how fans reviled the Green Lantern character Ch'p. Rocket Raccoon himself would not truly win over the hearts and minds of comics fans until the 2007 Annihilation: Conquest event when the character was already over 25 years old.

But enough about the cover; let's peer inside...

The story is titled "Eight for Aduba-3" and Chaykin is now joined by inker Tom Palmer, who would embellish the rest of Chaykin's issues. Following The Empire Strikes Back, Palmer would return to ink many, many more issues for several artists. Palmer was (and is) a heavy inker whose style tends to engulf whomever he renders, but he's quite well-suited to Star Wars as he lends the amount of shadows and depth to the world which it sorely needs; he is, in general, a very good choice to ink comics which are adapted from live action material.

From the first page Palmer's inks are noticeable; not only does the cantina look different from when Frank Springer helped render it in the previous issue, but the villagers are now depicted as young men wearing garb similar to what Luke wore on Tatooine in Star Wars. However, before Han can proceed with the discussion a lizard man named Warto picks a fight with Han because the woman he'd been putting the moves on at the end of the last issue was Warto's girlfriend. Han is badly outmatched, at one pointing being thrown into a table occupied by a furry ape-like person and an armoured guy whose brain shows through his helmet; the ape person turns out to be the armoured fella's girlfriend, causing him to pick a fight with Han as well. Finally, Chewbacca enters the fray; he doesn't even feel Warto's punches, but belts him out of the front window with a single punch; between this and having two women on his arm in the previous issue, Chewie seems to be the series' Conan!

With the requisite barfight out of the way, Han finally gets to speak with the villagers and their leader Ramiz, who explains they're being plundered by a band of Cloud-Riders (bandits on vehicles like flying snowmobiles) led by Sergi-X Arrogantus "the Arrogant One." I suppose if you were named "Arrogantus," people are bound to call you arrogant. Sergi-X has a fantastic Chaykin design from his big Mexican bandit-style mustache (again pointing to the Magnificent Seven), the spurs on his cowboy boots and his double-brested jacket. Sergi-X's bandits have been not only extorting money and destroying the villagers' crops but abducting their women - again, much like The Seven Samurai & The Magnificent Seven. Han decides to take the job and sends out for for other "space-hoppers" to visit he & Chewie's hotel room for auditions to join the operation.

The first recruit is Hedji, a "spiner" who can eject porcupine-like quills from his body. Despite being as much of an animal person as Jaxxon, he's a very solemn figure - somewhat like James Coburn's character in The Magnificent Seven and refers to joining Han for "reasons I'd rather not go into."

Next up is Amazia, "den mother of the Black Hole Gang," a bikini-clad woman sharpshooter (in case you forgot Howard Victor Chaykin was drawing this). She has a past history with Han & Chewie which isn't delved into and has, like Han, made herself an enemy of the Empire, referring to a recent attempt on her life.

The third to join is Don-Wan Kihotay who is, let's face it, a blatant reference to Don Quixote. Even Han quickly realizes Don-Wan is not what he claims to be - he purports to be a Jedi knight and brandishes a lightsaber, but Han surmises he's a crazy old man. Now, he thought the same about Obi-Wan in the film, but this time he's right - after all, he's Don Quixote in space! But I think this is kind of brilliant, a satirical version of Obi-Wan reaching the comics mere months after the film hit theaters. Don-Wan's presence allows Han room to mock someone as he did Obi-Wan, albeit this time his victim isn't quite sharp enough to know when he's being mocked.

The next would-be member is Warto, but he tries to shove his way past a giant green person with giant ears, calling him a "rodent." Yes, this is Jaxxon! And he't not happy with Warto: "I ain't no rodent, Cap'n..." he begins and when Warto knocks him aside he returns, "'Scuse me, junior... but I really gotta insist that you haul your wart-covered carcass back to the end'a the line, y'know?" And when Warto refuses, Jaxxon kicks him down the stairs.

"But, like I said before... I ain't no rodent! I'm more what ya call yer basic Lepus Carnivorous --- a meat-eatin' rocket-ridin' rabbit ta you, junior! Oh yeah -- an' give my regards ta the boys in the bar!"

It should be clear from the nickname "junior" that Jaxxon has a little bit of Bugs Bunny in his DNA. Of course, unlike Bugs he's not vegetarian: "You must'a been eatin' your space-carrots... never could stand 'em myself!" he says to Han. He gives his moniker as: "Jaxxon. You can call me Jax for short... which I ain't." The final two members are Jimm, alias the Starkiller Kid and his robot FE-9Q, alias "Effie." Once again, Thomas takes this as an opportunity to poke fun at the Star Wars mythos; he gave Jimm the moniker "Starkiller" after the early scripts where it served as Luke's surname and Jimm is dressed as Luke was in the first film (including the same hat Luke wore in scenes which were missing from the first theatrical cut). FE-9Q, however, is an extremely stuck-up & sarcastic droid who resents being treated as property, unlike the subservient C-3P0. "I don't belong to anyone... most especially not to anyone who calls himself the Starkiller Kid!"

Jimm is a farmer who dreams of becoming a hero, despite his utter lack of combat experience (his youthfulness and hotheadness are, of course, in refernece to Horst Buccholz's character in The Magnificent Seven). He reminds Han of Luke so much that the scene shifts back to Yavin, where Luke is being sent on a scouting mission to find the Rebels a suitable new base. Luke says his farewells to Leia and brings C-3PO & R2-D2 with him aboard a ship which looks like a miniature Corellian Corvette. En route, Luke begins thinking about Obi-Wan & Darth Vader (giving Chaykin an excuse to draw them) and then about Han - so the scene returns to Aduba-3.

Just as Han has assembled his six followers ("six stalwarts" Han calls them), they're directly approached by Sergi-X, who has added Warto to his Cloud-Riders. Sergi-X offers to pay Han more than the villagers to look the other way, but Han refuses (probably because it offends Han's pride). The Starkiller Kid tries to pick a fight but Amazia knocks him down, lest he start a gun battle which would be certain to leave more of Han's team dead than those of Sergi-X's. Han warns Sergi-X to leave the village alone, but he refuses: "If you persist, you will soon be nothing... just one more lifeless corpse, twisting in the desert wind!" Despite this proclamation, Han sends out his team to the village.

Tomorrow: Star Wars #9!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Not So Long Ago 2: Star Wars #7

Now we begin my look at #7-10 proper:

The cover of #7 states in blurbs both "At last! Beyond the movie! Beyond the galaxy!" and "All new!" to get across the notion that this would serve as the first post-film Star Wars story. The cover (drawn by Chaykin's mentor Gil Kane) features a dynamic view of Han Solo & Chewbacca under fire with a wanted poster visible in the background, which establishes their statuses pretty nicely. Han's gun doesn't look like anything from the films but they were still getting a handle on these details at the time.

The story is titled "New Planet, New Perils!" and Thomas & Chaykin were joined by Frank Springer as embellisher; Chaykin had only been able to draw the first issue of the series on his own and from then on had relied on a series of embellishers and - eventually - ghost artists to get through the series, some of this because of his own dwindling interest in the property. Notably, Archie Goodwin was at this time "consulting editor," but would soon replace Thomas as the series' scribe.

The story opens with the film's main cast (Han, Chewbacca, Luke, Leia, C-3PO & R2-D2) together on Yavin as Han & Chewie prepare to depart in the Millennium Falcon. Han is quick to promise he'll return, noting he's simply off to pay his debt to Jabba the Hutt (called "Hut" here) using the money the Rebels paid him. Enjoy that fleeting glimpse of all the characters together, because after page 1 it's only Han & Chewie and it will be several issues before all of them share another scene.

Han & Chewie don't get very far from Yavin before running across a band of space pirates, led by one Crimson Jack. Jack has a small fleet made up of TIE Fighters and X-Wings and commanded from his own Star Destroyer, all of them vehicles he'd commandeered. Jack's crew even includes a someone wearing Stormtrooper armour (having apparently appropriated it as well). Jack's right-hand woman by the name of Jolli wants to kill Han, but Jack and Han proved to have had previous dealings. Rather than kill him, Jack simply takes all of Han's money then lets him go, figuring one day he'll able to rob Han again. In all, Crimson Jack looked like a Flash Gordon character, not a Star Wars creation, but the use of TIE Fighter, Stormtrooper & Star Destroyer visuals were a clever way of keeping familiar elements from the films without repeating what had already been done or introducing something against the grain of Lucas' unrevealed plans.

Now desperate to make some money, Han decides to visit a secluded "outer rim" planet called Aduba-3 (which shall be the primary setting for this tale) and find work there. As I noted in the preamble, this tale was inspired by The Magnificent Seven and the next scene is the first direct reference. Just like the scene in the film where two cowboys face the wrath of townspeople for helping to bury a dead Indian in a supposed "white" town's cemetery, Han & Chewie discover an insectoid priest trying to bury a cyborg, much to the townsfolk's disgust (instead of a horse-drawn wagon, this version has the coffin borne by a Bantha). Thus, Han & Chewie take over the Yul Brynner & Steve McQueen roles from the film as they agree to help the priest bury the cyborg, even if it means fighting off the entire town!

Naturally, Han & Chewie are almost as cool as Brynner & McQueen so they win a lengthy gun battle against the citizens. The Bantha is slain by errant gunfire, but Chewie carries the coffin the rest of the way on his back. The cyborg is buried on "Spacers' Hill" and the priest pays off Han & Chewie. The duo quickly head to the local cantina to enjoy some drinks and pick up women (Chewie attracts two women! I never took Chewbacca to be a philanderer). However, they're soon approached by a trio of men with another offer of work. Interestingly, these men look much more Japanese than Mexican, suggesting that Thomas was indeed thinking of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai when he came up with this tale (or perhaps Chaykin was?).

So far this story is a pretty good translation of The Magnificent Seven into Star Wars' trappings; of course, tomorrow we'll reach the material people complained about!

TOMORROW: Star Wars #8 and the introduction of Jaxxon! See you then everybunny!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Not So Long Ago 1: Preamble

Some people are excited that Star Wars is coming back. Many would ask, "how could I miss it when it never went away?" And yet I too find myself experiencing nostalgia. Nostalgia, of course, is a Greek word meaning "the pain of returning to the past." In that spirit, let's revisit a painful moment in the past of Star Wars.

As a fan of Marvel Comics (and a retired Marvel Comics professional at that), I'm fascinated by the original Marvel Comics Star Wars series. Although many Marvel Comics came into my possession as gifts during my childhood, for years the only Marvel comic I bought with my own money was Star Wars. In the 1980s there was very little Star Wars content outside of the feature films and, obsessed fan that I was, those comic books were my favourite glimpse into the world beyond the primary source.

At this time I'd like to go back to the beginning of the Marvel books - specifically, to issues #7-10 of the Marvel comic series as brought to life by writer-editor Roy Thomas and illustrator Howard Victor Chaykin. These two men were the first people to craft original Star Wars tales beyond the confines of the original feature film, and yet their tenure was very brief; issues #1-6 of the series adapted the first film, they told a four-part story in #7-10, then they left.

As he is what TV Tropes terms a "fallen creator," some fans may not realize how much of a fanboy George Lucas was himself - not only to the adventure serials which inspired the stunts and pacing of Star Wars, but to comic books. He'd been the part-owner of a comic shop, he not only enjoyed the Flash Gordon serials but the comic strips as well and he loved the works of artists such as Hal Foster and Frank Frazetta. Similarly, he specifically sought out Roy Thomas and Howard Chaykin to fashion the monthly Star Wars comic - although at first, the only goal of the comic book was to adapt his film. Lucas wanted Thomas because he had had cajoled Marvel into licensing Conan the Barbarian, a decision which paid dividends and opened up the sword & sorcery genre to comics; Thomas had likewise spent his time as Marvel's editor trying to expand the company's portfolio into books beyond super heroes (many were unfortunately unsuccessful). Chaykin, at the time, was still an up-and-comer, one of the survivors of Martin Goodman's ill-fated Atlas Comics, but his DC series Ironwolf had caught Lucas' eye and convinced him Chaykin would be the right person to draw the series.

From the outset, there were snags: Stan Lee refused to publish Star Wars. Thomas had not enjoyed dealing with 20th Century Fox while publishing Planet of the Apes comics and was not in a rush to get back into bed with Fox specifically, nor licensed comics as a whole. Further, Lucas had sought the creators out so far in advance (first speaking to Thomas in late '74!) that the film was unfinished - and Lucas wanted the comic book to begin publication two months before the movie opened (while the film would be edited up to the official premiere).

And yet, Thomas was won over. In an article he wrote for his magazine Alter Ego, Thomas recalled that when Lucas' representative showed him a conceptual image of the "Cantina showdown," he broke off the sales pitch and informed the rep he would get Star Wars published. That one image convinced Thomas Star Wars had a quality which was unique from other science fiction films. Just as he once talked Marvel into printing Conan Thomas proved able to convince Lee to reverse his decision, although other people in the company were convinced printing Star Wars would lose them money, especially launching it two months before the film. Instead, Star Wars became such a hit and sold so consistently well that it would later be credited with saving the company from the late 70s comic book sales slump (an affliction which hit Marvel's rival DC hardest of all).

Although Thomas & Chaykin were Lucas' first picks, perhaps neither man was right for the job. Both liked the film (they attended the first screening when the visual effects were still absent) and did their best to adapt the script into comics (although as the final cut remained elusive they wound up dramatizing several scenes which Lucas ultimately edited out, notably the Biggs Darklighter subplot). Still, while Thomas was a great fan of the "space fantasy" Lucas created, he hadn't much experience in that genre. Having honed his skills writing Conan he could at least write in the fantasy adventure genre, but it wasn't a perfect fit. Further, Lucas had very little communication with the comic book team and while it was clear both he and Marvel wanted the comic book to continue, there was no particular guidance on content.

Marvel & Lucas' relationship would alter over time, but at first Thomas received only these few post-film guidelines: don't use Darth Vader; don't develop Luke's Jedi powers beyond where he was in first movie; don't develop the Luke-Leia-Han triangle beyond where it was in the first film. Largely, he was expected to keep the characters in a "holding pattern." For instance, Thomas began a subplot about the Rebels looking for a new headquarters; that made sense to Thomas since the Empire learned of the Rebels' Yavin base during the movie. And yet, Lucas had nothing to say about where the Rebels would be based in his 2nd film so Yavin had to remain on the table; consequently, Yavin remained in the series almost all the way up until The Empire Strikes Back arrived. In another instance, Lucas told Thomas they wouldn't necessarily use Han Solo in the 2nd film. Thus, Thomas had to keep Han around (in case he returned) but make it seem as though the character would exit at any moment (in case he didn't return). The lack of direction seemed to embitter both Thomas & Chaykin.

And that's where a big green rabbit hops in.

Jaxxon has become not only a symbol of the Thomas-Chaykin run but - despite appearing in only 4 out of 107 issues - a symbol of the Marvel Comics Star Wars comics. He is a frequently-maligned character in the history of Star Wars; in the days before The Empire Strikes Back, he was perhaps the second-least liked thing wearing the Star Wars brand (after the Star Wars Holiday Special). Even now in our post-Jar Jar Binks world he could easily land high on any fan's top 100 list. It's really because of Jaxxon that I've put together "Not So Long Ago."

In his interviews about issues #7-10, Thomas mentions he was inspired to adapt the film The Magnificent Seven to the Star Wars universe. The Magnificent Seven was, of course, itself an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa's samurai film The Seven Samurai. Likewise, many are aware that Lucas lifted some of the plot structure of Star Wars from another Kurosawa samurai film, The Hidden Fortress (he also adopted Kurosawa's wipe transitions). Thomas had been exposed to reams of Lucas' notes and early drafts of Star Wars so it's possible he deliberately chose The Magnificent Seven as a spiritual brother to The Hidden Fortress. If not, it's a fairly impressive coincidence.

What might have happened had Thomas chosen a different Kurosawa film? Perhaps in the Star Wars version of The Lower Depths we would have witnessed the torturous existence of Jawas living among garbage; or in an adaptation of Ikiru, C-3PO falls victim to an inoperable droid tumor! (Okay, I'll stop there.)

Thomas' experiences writing Conan no doubt influenced his efforts to bridge the undefined-span between Star Wars and Working Title Sequel. In his Conan days he would frequently expand upon the canon of Robert E. Howard's own Conan short stories by taking other tales Howard had penned and adapting them into the adventures of everyone's favourite Cimmerian. If Thomas knew about the Star Wars connection to The Hidden Fortress then he made the right call by looking to other Kurosawa-influenced tales. And yet, again, I'm referring to one of the most despised stories to ever claim participation in the Star Wars canon.

Over the next four days I'll examine Star Wars #7-10. Following that, I'll run a follow-up which examines the impact of the story and how it's been regarded since then. Thus, if the recap doesn't interest you, come back in five days for all the juicy details.

May the four-parter be with you!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Across my desk: Bar the Doors

Now here's a feature I haven't utilized in a while.

Some time ago I blogged about the H.G. Wells short story "Pollock and the Porroh Man," a jungle tale set in Sierra Leone on the subject of native witchcraft and revenge - perhaps the first story of its type? It's certainly a story of its time but made for a good radio adaptation on Escape.

Recently a copy of the Alfred Hitchcock short fiction collection Bar the Doors crossed my desk. Not only did the book republish the Wells story but on the back cover for some reason it depicts a map of the story's location:

Now, the map is pretty much useless - there is no point in the story where you are benefited from knowing how one location relates to another. It's enough to know that Sierra Leone is in Africa, frankly. And yet, simplistic as the image is, it was such an unexpected discovery that I find I kind of like it. Shows me for a sucker, eh? You've just got to slap 'Sierra Leone' on something and there I am...