Monday 6 February 2017

Star Wars At 40 (part 2) - The Marvel Comics

Charles Lippincott, Lucasfilm’s publicity supervisor, approached Stan Lee at Marvel in 1975 with a view to publishing a Star Wars comic before the film’s release.  Initially reluctant, Lee was persuaded into it by Roy Thomas - who wanted to edit the series - and since movie tie-in comics didn’t tend to sell well then (how times have changed, eh?), he was able to negotiate a deal whereby no royalties would be paid to Lucasfilm until sales exceeded 100,000.

Marvel ran the Star Wars comic line until 1986 and the strong sales in 1977 and 1978 are credited with saving the company financially, the only downside being that Lee’s 100,000 sales quota was quickly surpassed, allowing Lippincott to renegotiate the royalty arrangements.

In the US, the comic was published monthly and began in July 1977 where, over six issues and in full colour, it told the story of the first film (which wasn’t called A New Hope then).  Over here we didn’t get anything until February 1978, when it was serialised in twelve parts (published weekly) and black & white (colour had to wait until the Grandreams annual which appeared that summer, publishing the whole adaption but missing out key sequences like Biggs on Tatooine and the Trash Compactor).  The weekly comic was supplemented by reprints of older Marvel science fiction stories as well as strips like The Micronauts, Star-Lord and Tales of the Watcher.
issues 1, 2 and 3 - February 1978
Issue 1 appeared on February 8th 1978, a week or so after the general release of the film.  The cover was based on Howard Chaykin’s 1976 promotional poster and it’s worth noting that neither he nor writer/editor Roy Thomas had seen the film when they produced the comic.  Consequently, there are some notable differences in the look between the two mediums (they didn’t know what the special effects would look like, for example, though they’d been provided with reference stills) which are sometimes annoying, sometimes amusing and sometimes inspired.  The first issue included a feature on the making of the film and came with a free gift of a cardboard X-wing fighter.
Princess Leia gets stunned - a scan from my annual which reprinted the strips in colour
Issue 2 was published on February 15th 1978 and included a two page feature on Mark Hamill.  The free gift for the week was a cardboard TIE Fighter.

Issue 3 sees Steve Leialoha onboard doing some of the artwork, though he’s credited as embellisher (he gets a co-artist credit in the annual).  The cover is wonderfully misleading, in a kind of 50s exploitation film fashion as Luke blasts aliens in the cantina and shouts “Swing that lightsabre Ben...or we’re finished!” Luke’s discovery of the burned out remains of the Lars homestead is dealt with briskly (and Uncle Owen becomes Uncle Ben for some reason) and after a well drawn sequence in the cantina, the story ends with Chewbacca being introduced.  There was no free gift this week, though a plan of the Death Star trench was provided on a two-page spread for the previous weeks spaceships to fly down.  There was, however, a competition to win a Darth Vader helmet or soundtrack double LP.
The Death Star Trench
issues 4, 5 and 6 - February and March 1978
Issue 4 was dated February 29 1978 (which is odd, since 1976 was the Leap year) and in a sign of how big the film had already become, there are ads and competitions from familiar British brands, such as Waddingtons jigsaws and a Star Wars fighter kite from KP Outer Spacers.  This also saw the introduction of Han Solo and includes his meeting with Jabba The Hut, who doesn’t look at all like you’d expect.
Han Solo - coolest space captain in the galaxy (and one presumes Chaykin had a reference photo for the far right pic)
Han meets Jabba and his cronies - scanned from my annual
Issue 5 included, on the cover, the tag “Win the cast of Star Wars – great contest inside!” referring to the action figures, which were arriving in the UK.  Famously, Kenner hadn’t been able to get the figures into shops in time for Christmas 1977 and we were even further behind though, as the ad showed, Palitoy were on the case (with some toys listed as coming soon)
Issue 6 saw our heroes at large in the Death Star and ended as they reached the detention block.  There was also a short profile on Harrison Ford and a competition to win a copy of the film on Super 8 (it didn’t matter what I said, my Dad never succumbed to pressure to buy a projector (or camera, even) for me).  There was also an ad for the UK Star Wars Fan Club which I never joined either, though I imagine that had something to do with the £2.95 fee.
Ah, that staple of a 70s childhood, the postal order!  Do they even still do them?
issues 7, 8 and 9 - March to April 1978
Issue 7 saw the introduction of a letters page, a staple of the comics of my boyhood and the action centred on our heroes in the garbage masher, which is well captured (though, as mentioned, this entire sequence is missing from the annual).  There was also a competition to win the “Star Wars: Escape From The Death Star” board game from Kenner (which cost £4.25).
The walking carpet gag...
Issue 8 saw our heroes escape from the Death Star as Ben Kenobi sacrificed himself in a frame that proves, indisputably, the artists never saw the effects before they drew them - poor old Obi-Wan looks like some kind of funky amoeba.  There was also an interview with Kenny Baker (who marvels that one phone interview from the US ran for nearly an hour - “must have cost them a fortune”) and an ad for the Star Wars Collectors edition.  I have a copy of this and it’s quite rare these days - it was apparently published over here and then exported back to the US.
Zzrakk - Obi-Wan gets zapped!
Issue 9 trod water somewhat, covering the Falcon’s escape from the Death Star, as Marvel tried to fill space (the UK edition being weekly, it was zipping through the story at a rate of knots).  There were no behind-the-scenes features, interviews, or letters, though we did get a one page ‘foto feature’ (one of the iconic Stormtrooper shots) and a poster.  There was also a competition to win a Star Wars Letraset Action Set.
Filler you say?  A Stormtrooper you say?  Okay, that's fine...
issues 10, 11 and 12 - April 1978
Issue 10 included a nice little nod on the front cover - “At last, Luke enters the hidden fortress” - with the Kurosawa film “The Hidden Fortress” being one of George Lucas’ inspirations (not that I got this at the time).  It also had Steve Leialoha sharing the artwork credit with Howard Chaykin and included a compeition to win a Star Wars watch!
I never won it
Issue 11, featuring another sensational cover, begins the assault on the Death Star (the first page panel is superb).  As with the novelisation, Luke is part of Blue Squadron, rather than Red and although some dialogue is added to make the action clearer, this part of the adaption moves quickly.  The comic also includes a poster trailing issue 12 whilst exhorting the reader “wherever you go, whatever you do, you must not miss this!”.  As if we would!
Assault on the Death Star
Issue 12 was published on April 26th 1978 and drew the adaption of the film to a close with a well-realised battle above the Death Star.  During the conflict, Ben is heard and Biggs is killed (and that’s handled well, bearing in mind his death didn’t make much sense in the film as we hadn’t seen him before that point - his conversation with Luke on Yavin 4 only cropped up in the Special Edition in 1997) before Han turns up and Luke blows the Empire’s stronghold to kingdom come (in a fantastic full-frame page).  This issue also had a letters page and a behind the scenes feature on “The Model Makers”, though it mentions Doug Trumbull who didn’t work on the film at all.  There was also a teaser for issue 13 which promised “galaxy-hopping story” going “beyond the film, and beyond the universe”.
Biggs is vaporised
The Trench Run!
The comic became The Empire Strikes Back Weekly from issue 118 in May 1980 and a monthly title from issue 140 in November before reverting back to Star Wars with issue 159 in July 1982.  This format ran until issue 171 in July 1983 when the numbering was reset to 1 for Return Of The Jedi Weekly, which printed the strips in full colour.  This title and format saw out the series which ended with issue 155 in June 1986.

for more information and images, I wrote about the Boxtree compilation in this blog post, from February 2014

with thanks to the episodenothing blog

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, which was released in the US on 25th May though it didn't hit the UK until 29th January 1978 (following a 27th December release in London).  I was lucky enough to see it in early 1978 and it remains my favourite film to this day.

To mark the anniversary, I'll be running a year-long blog thread about the film with new entries posted on the first Monday of each month.

May The Force Be With You!

Find all the entries in the thread here

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