It’s time once more for one of our trips in the Wayback Machine. This time? We’re headed to the summer of 1977, as L’il Scott, like every other kid on the planet at the time, had the formative cinematic experience of his young life upon seeing STAR WARS for the first time. Here’s a reality check for those of you younger readers who might be a little spoiled by your current media-heavy lifestyle. Not only was there no Internet on which to watch clips and trailers, there was no DVD released in a few short months, no home video, and not even any cable TV to watch it on later that year. Nothin’.
So how was L’il Scott supposed to get his Star Wars fix back in the prehistoric seventies? How else? Comics. Yes, in one of the cannier publishing decisions of the era, Marvel hit the ground running with an ongoing STAR WARS comic book in May of 1977, adapting the movie for the first six issues, then telling all-new stories after that.
Let’s take a look at a Marvel-produced vision of STAR WARS, exactly how Marvel adapted the movie, and where they went from there.
As the story goes, when George Lucas was making arrangements with Fox for merchandising his soon-to-be-released science-fiction feature, he came to them with certain specific requests for the kinds of merchandise he wanted to see. Novelization? Check. Soundtrack album? Check. Action figures? Check. (In an amusing sidenote, reportedly when Lucas saw the array of toys and games Kenner had developed for STAR WARS, he looked it over and said “Where are the guns?” The Kenner rep nervously explained that toy guns simply weren’t done any more, that parents wouldn’t buy them in the post-Vietnam atmosphere. Lucas took a beat, then asked again “Where are the guns?” Lucas got his guns, and they sold like hotcakes.
L’il Scott had one, his trusty “Han Solo Laser Pistol.” I always wanted the “Stormtrooper Blaster Rifle,” too…) Last on his must-have list was a comic book, and Fox licensing types ran off to Marvel in the hopes of making a comics deal. It’s said that Marvel publisher Stan Lee wasn’t all that interested in putting out a STAR WARS comic, but the company’s then-Editor-in-Chief Roy Thomas, a longtime fan of Saturday-morning adventure serials and old sci-fi comic strips like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, liked what he saw of the movie, and went ahead and made the deal.
Sci-fi buff that he was, Thomas wrote the new series himself, with illustrator Howard Chaykin providing the art. Thomas and Chaykin hadn’t seen the movie yet when they did the work, which accounts for some of the more curious coloring choices in the book’s early issues (for example, the green Darth Vader that appears on the cover of the book’s first issue), as well as a few of the scenes that don’t even appear in the movie. In fact, I think the comic book accounts for one of the most frequently heard rumors about STAR WARS, one that I heard all through high school and college: I don’t know how many people I’ve talked to over the years who are convinced they saw the long-lost missing scene between Luke Skywalker and his childhood friend Biggs on Tatooine at the beginning of the film, and that it was cut from later theatrical releases and home video. A mass hallucination? A Lucasfilm-induced conspiracy? Hardly. It’s my contention that what so many adult STAR WARS fans are misremembering from their childhood is actually this sequence from STAR WARS #1 (July 1977), in which Luke’s friend Biggs Darklighter returns from the Academy to inform Luke of his intentions to jump ship at the earliest opportunity and join the Rebel Alliance.
The fact that so many people remembered this scene even though it wasn’t in the movie can be chalked up to the astounding success Marvel enjoyed from the STAR WARS comics, with the first three or four issues seeing multiple print runs, a very unusual circumstance in the comics market of the 1970s. Marvel even had to go to the then-unusual step of marking the comics, usually on the front cover or the opening splash page, so as to protect fans attempting to buy the originals on the at–that-time still-new collector’s market.
Another fun moment from the comics that didn’t make it into the movie (at least, not for 20 years or so) is Han Solo’s encounter with Jabba the Hutt on Tatooine, just after shooting Greedo in the cantina (and shooting first, I might add). Upon his return to the Falcon, Solo is met by the awaiting Jabba, who resembles neither the sluglike fellow we would become familiar with from RETURN OF THE JEDI, nor the heavyset gent with the Irish accent who was actually filmed on set with Harrison Ford. Instead, the Marvel Comics Jabba is a pale yellowish walrus dude, who looks like he buys his clothes at “Bucky Barnes for Men.”
Howard Chaykin’s art in the first issue is much more harder-edged and scratchy, with Chaykin providing both pencils and inks. He does a good job of suggesting the likenesses of the actors without being slavish to them, especially considering he’s working only from stills and maybe a few clips, since neither he nor writer Thomas had seen the film when they were producing the comics. As of the second issue, Chaykin was joined by inker Steve Leialoha, who softened up the art considerably, tightening up some of the likenesses and generally providing a tighter, smoother line to the entire endeavor. The difference is made all the more apparent in the third issue, in which the Chaykin/Leialoha art is followed by a Howard Chaykin solo pinup, which is noticeably rougher and more “cartoony” than the story that preceded it.
As much as I love Steve Leialoha’s work, there’s something to be said for Chaykin’s rough approach as well – his puckish portrayal of a spunky Leia Organa is particularly appealing (although admittedly more buxom than she ever appeared in the movie).
The covers were also good, if occasionally a little bewildering. The first three are pretty straightforward, while the fourth veers into slightly more symbolic territory, with an ominous Darth Vader looming over the figures of Luke, Leia and Ben Kenobi.
This pales next to the unabashed false advertising of the cover to issue #6, which not only promised a lightsaber duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, but bewilderingly featured Darth Vader wearing what looks for all the world like a television screen over his genitals.
It’s also clear that Chaykin hadn’t quite gotten the chance to absorb any of the soon-to-be-famous special effects shots, as evidenced by these unusually snub-nosed X-Wing fighters:
Similarly, Obi-Wan’s sacrifice on the Death Star looks a lot grislier here than I remembered seeing in the theatre:
As for the writing, Roy Thomas is, well, Roy Thomas. No one’s better at pacing and storytelling, but he also loves the narrator’s voice. I’m as big a Rascally Roy fan as you’ll find, but he’ll never use five words if 15 will do. Just take a look at this page from the climactic explosion of the Death Star, a moment that should probably be able to stand on its own, if anything can. Take it away, Roy:
Like Chaykin, you can tell Thomas hadn’t been able to see the movie, as some familiar moments seem to take on a different tone. For example, take the rather blasé scene from early in the film when Uncle Owen asks where Luke and the droids have gotten off to:
Owen’s a lot more fired up about those vapor condensers here, isn’t he?