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!

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