Friday, January 17, 2014


Art by Al Williamson
I have this peculiar interest in early fiction based on licensed properties, before all the mythos have been properly defined and sorted out. The original MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE mini-comics, for example, produced by DC Comics for Mattel, were a far cry from what that property would eventually become. And the early years of the STAR WARS newspaper strip definitely fall into that category as well.

Working with little more than the original 1977 film and probably some production notes as his only reference, Russ Manning was tasked with creating some of the very first "Expanded Universe" material for STAR WARS, and he did a mostly admirable job of it. Manning's starships and interiors are derived from those seen in the movie, helping to make his version of the STAR WARS universe resemble its on-screen counterpart. His characters may not be photo-realistic likenesses of the actors they represent, but the wardrobes and certain details like hairstyles work well enough to convey a sense of who is who.

But at the same time, there is a very bouncy, cartoony feel to the characters, which fits the pace and style of a comic strip quite nicely. Lines are kept to a minimum, and the work almost looks like it was meant to be a storyboard for animation. Nothing appears unfinished, but neither is any of it over-rendered. It's a perfectly struck balance, and it works great for the stories Manning chooses to tell.

Darth Vader and Blackhole
As for those stories -- well, some are good and some... not so much. The strip starts off with an extra long adventure (it originally ran for six months of daily installments), featuring Luke, Leia, C-3PO, and R2-D2 traveling to a casino planet to recruit its leadership into the rebellion. Imperial intelligence agent Blackhole dogs them at every turn, but they manage to carry out their goal and escape with the unwilling aid of a gang of street children. Though the story is not the strongest way to start his run, Manning creates a memorable villain in Blackhole -- a phantom hologram with a distinctive silouhette. It's unfortunate that he never returns in any of the following tales.

(Side note: My first exposure to Blackhole was in Wizards of the Coast's REBELLION ERA SOURCEBOOK for their STAR WARS roleplaying game. The character had full stats there, for use as a villain, and I thought he was pretty neat then, too. I'd had no idea that they pulled him from such an old source as the 1979 newspaper dailies!)

Subsequent stories each run a more standard two months or so, and feature: Luke's return to Tatooine for a rendezvous with a rebel sympathizer; Leia working as a servant to Grand Moff Tarkin's widow; Han and Luke saving the planet Kessel from a new Imperial super-weapon; the entire gang rescuing kidnapped schoolchildren from Darth Vader (like I said, they aren't all winners); the investigation of a plot to sell rebel X-Wing parts to the Empire; and the introduction of Boba Fett as he crosses paths with Luke, then Han and Leia, on an ice planet.

The strongest stories here, in my estimation, are the return to Tatooine, the Leia solo spotlight, and the Boba Fett encounter. "Tatooine Sojourn", as it is officially titled, hinges on a nonsensical plot involving the Empire releasing a plague that turns the affected's eyes into reflective starfields which somehow reveal the location of hidden rebel bases. But the familiar trappings of Tatooine -- we get a trip to Mos Eisley, a stop at Ben Kenobi's hut, a Sand People attack, and plenty of Jawas -- really help sell the tale as a STAR WARS story. Plus the rebel agent Luke meets, a slinky alien named Anduvil, is a visually interesting character.

Leia and Lady Tarkin
"Princess Leia, Imperial Servant" gives Leia her moment to shine, exercising both her ingenuity and her combat skills as she finds herself, following an escape pod trip from her destroyed starship, in the employ of Tarkin's widow, who is unaware of her new serving girl's true identity. It is only when Darth Vader arrives for a diplomatic dinner that Leia's cover is blown. It's a fun, fast-paced story, and the intrigue, light though it is, is not something one would expect from a STAR WARS adventure of this vintage. I wouldn't have minded if this tale had been a bit longer, in fact, allowing more room for set-up.

Speaking of Vader, Manning wisely plays him down in these adventures. He is definitely a presence, lurking at the edges of almost every story -- but he is never the main antagonist. Instead, various colorful henchmen pursue the rebels, which helps to expand the breadth of the Imperial forces while also keeping Vader in reserve, and therefore more threatening, as the villain behind the scenes -- the one Big Bad our heroes hope never to encounter.

The last story, published from June to August of 1980 (beginning roughly a month after the theatrical release of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK), turns the spotlight onto Boba Fett, working as a sort of prequel for the film. Luke and Fett crash on an icy planet and are forced to work together when a group of primitive aliens capture them. The story of these two characters joining forces on an isolated world is not a new one -- Boba Fett's appearance in the animated cartoon segment of the infamous STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL uses the same premise.

Boba Fett gets the drop on Luke
Some of those "early canon discrepancies" I mentioned earlier are in full effect in these stories: for one thing, the characters are all dressed in their A NEW HOPE wardrobe throughout nearly every single chapter. Only Leia gets to wear some alternate dresses once in a while, and only in the final story -- again, published after the theatrical release of the second film -- do we see things such as Han's jacket in place of his vest, or a new hairstyle for Leia.

But more notably, there are certain continuity issues in the stories which can't really be easily explained -- but that's part of the fun. Kessel, known to us today as a barren planet of spice mines, is here a verdant, green world. Spice itself, for that matter, is not identified as contraband (it was basically a stand-in for illegal narcotics in the films). It's a commodity that somehow helps a bunch of refugees after the Empire destroys their world's climate. Oh, and Han is transporting spice here for Jabba the Hutt as if there were no bad blood between them -- however by the final story, Boba Fett mentions that Jabba once more has a price on Solo's head. The last major discrepancy is the presence of alien officers in the Empire, which is later established to treat aliens as second-class citizens.

But even considering any failings and imperfections they have, these stories are fun, in a quaint sort of way. Manning (and his ghost writers, as he eventually became too ill to both write and draw the strip) captures the characters' voices fairly well -- even if everyone has a habit of using the word "Empire" instead of "Imperial" for some reason ("All Empire forces attack!"; "We're picking up several Empire ships on our sensors," etc.) -- and his plots are mostly able to hold a reader's interest. The only real, absolute stinker of the bunch is that one with the kidnapped schoolchildren.

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