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.

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