Yesterday we learned that Marvel will begin publishing Star Wars comics and graphic novels in 2015, taking over the license that belonged to Dark Horse for more than two decades.
As announcements go, this wasn’t exactly a surprise: Marvel, like Lucasfilm, is a Disney property while Dark Horse is not. Once Disney acquired Lucasfilm, it was only a matter of time before this move got made.
I never got a chance to work for Dark Horse, so I can only react to this as a Star Wars fan. And so my reaction is a little complicated.
Marvel was the original home of Star Wars comics. It was part of the team before Star Wars was Star Wars, when George Lucas was a renegade Bay Area filmmaker hoping his deeply felt, everything-but-the-raygun homage to Flash Gordon, World War II flying movies, westerns and samurai films would get enough traction with sci-fi fans to earn back its production budget.
Star Wars did far more than that, of course, but compared to modern times it wasn’t a media juggernaut — things didn’t work that way then, and it’s hard for fans who aren’t old dudes like me to understand just how important Marvel was to that first era of Star Wars fandom. Back then, you had a three-year wait between movies, broken by a) the proto-EU of Alan Dean Foster’s alternate-reality sequel novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye and Brian Daley’s Han Solo tales; b) the Holiday Special, which even then we knew was some kind of mistake that you were supposed to pretend didn’t exist; and c) the newspaper strips, if your parents subscribed to the right paper and got it seven days a week. (My parents read the New York Times, so now and then I’d get to look over the shoulder of my friend Doug’s dad and read a day’s worth of out-of-context Star Wars in Newsday.)
But then there was d) Marvel’s monthly Star Wars comic.
It took me a while to discover that Marvel was writing new Star Wars adventures. I traded a neighbor some baseballs and other kid stuff for his collection, which consisted of Marvels 7 through 18. I devoured those comics, then rushed to the local stationery store with my mother, desperate to find Star Wars #19 and see if the stormtroopers killed Luke and vaporized the droids (as they planned at the end of Star Wars #18, entitled “The Empire Strikes”) or if they somehow got away.
The stationery store had the latest Star Wars … but to my horror it was Star Wars #27. I’d missed nearly a year’s worth of issues. It was a couple more years before I discovered that there were stores that sold back issues, allowing me to find out just what had happened on the Wheel.
Yeah, I thought Jaxxon the green bunny was ridiculous, and wondered why Carmine Infantino’s characters all had T-square cheekbones, and lamented that Marvel constantly referred to “Artoo-Deetoo” and made Han’s eyes blue. (I was a continuity dork even then.) But I also loved the Flash Gordon quality of those adventures (without knowing that’s what it was), and the flashes of humor and strong characterization (Luke finding faith in himself in “Doom-Mission,” or Leia and Han overhearing his soliloquy about the princess’s affections in “Red Queen Rising.”
And there were some stone-cold classic tales in there by any era’s standards — Valance’s noble sacrifice in “Dark Encounter,” the Shakespearean climax of “Thunder in the Stars,” the breathless travelogue of “The Long Hunt,” and the masquerade turned hard lesson of “The Last Jedi.”
I loved those tales as a kid; when I became an adult lucky enough to get to add to the Star Wars galaxy, I never missed a chance to better cement them in modern Expanded Universe lore. (If current plans hold, we’ll revisit the Marvel characters Valance, Kligson and Bey in future “Author’s Cuts” from The Essential Guide to Warfare.)
So on that level, hearing Marvel and Star Wars will be reunited makes me smile. It makes me feel like I’m 10 years old again and trying to convince my mom that she does too have an errand to run in Port Jefferson, because it’s the fourth of the month and the pharmacy there will have the new Star Wars on the spinning rack by the window at the front and I have to know what happens because last time I checked Luke had stolen a TIE fighter but it had no fuel or weapons and Han was aboard the Millennium Falcon leading the rebel fleet into the Tagge family’s trap and PLEASE MOM THEY’LL SELL OUT AND I’LL NEVER FIND OUT THE END OF THE STORY.
But there’s another level to this, and that’s Dark Horse.
In 1991 I was just out of college, graduated into a horrible recession and adrift in personal and professional aimlessness. Star Wars had been largely fallow for a half-decade or so, but that summer it sprang back to life with Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, which I stumbled across in a California bookstore in the same way I’d once encountered Foster and Daley’s books.
But there was a year-long wait between each of Zahn’s tales, with not much else to fill the gap. (Take the Glove of Darth Vader books, please.) Except, as with Marvel back in the day, there were comics.
Every other month Dark Horse published an issue of Dark Empire, which was dense and atmospheric and strange at first, but in the end struck me as a moving and worthy continuation of the Skywalker family saga: Luke grapples with his father’s legacy, loses himself in the struggle, and is saved by his sister’s commitment to that legacy.
That was the start of a run that will wind up lasting nearly 25 years, and that made Star Wars a welcome presence on comic racks — not just monthly, but often weekly. Dark Horse would make heroes and villains of X-wing pilots and Jedi Knights and lesser-known Tatooine moisture farmers and Skywalker descendants and Imperial secret agents and Hutts and bounty hunters and Royal Guardsmen.
Dark Horse’s talented writers and artists and editors filled in gaps in Star Wars lore, retold the movies from other certain points of view, gave us fanciful (and sobering, and moving) what-if stories, and explored eras of the galaxy far far away’s distant past and far future. They gave us the sweep of galactic war, the power struggle between Jedi and Sith, and wry tales of smugglers and crime bosses and even Ewoks.
Those hundreds of tales would be enough to make Dark Horse an essential part of Star Wars. But Dark Horse did far more than that: It was also a dedicated, caring and responsible custodian and curator of the comics history that had come before it.
It was Dark Horse that republished the old newspaper strips, giving me a chance to finally read them. It was Dark Horse that republished the Marvel run. It was Dark Horse that collected the impossible-to-find Ewoks and Droids kids’ comics. It was Dark Horse that gathered up U.K.-only releases and 3-D tales and stories from the long-forgotten Pizzazz and comics that ran on the back of cereal boxes and came rubber-banded around toys. Because of Dark Horse, you can read those tales today in comfort and ease, without scouring flea markets and Scribd and eBay.
And so here we are. I’m looking forward to Marvel’s first Star Wars tales, and to putting new Star Wars graphic novels on my shelf next to the ones I loved so much as a kid. But Marvel has an enormous legacy to live up to: Its new efforts will be interspersed among the many adventures told with passion or restored with loving care by Dark Horse, for which I am and will remain grateful.
In case you made it down this far, hey, follow this link and let me tell you about The Jupiter Pirates! And I’ll have a post on “The Seven Samurai” and storytelling coming up later this weekend, unless derailed by football and/or beer. (Update: SUCCESS!)