Star Wars comic book adaptations have gone through two major phases with two different publishers: Marvel from 1977 to 1986 and Dark Horse from 1991 to the present. The Dark Horse adaptation looks likely to influence the new movies, so I thought it would be a good time to cover the topic.
Marvel picked up the rights to adapt the original Star Wars film because Roy Thomas thought the movie would be a hit. Stan Lee was less enthusiastic, but Thomas’ vision won the day, to Marvel’s benefit. The series proved to be one of Marvel’s best sellers in the late 1970s, along with Conan, at a time when superhero comics sales were slumping.
The six-issue adaptation of the original film was dialogued by Thomas and drawn by Howard Chaykin, who had a background drawing science fiction and fantasy comics. Marvel worked from the film’s script without the benefit of rights to the visuals, so there are some discrepancies between the comic and the film. For instance, the scenes with Luke and Biggs on Tatooine that got cut from the final film are in the comic.
Per the practice of the time, the first issue was released a few months ahead of the July 1977 cover date and slightly ahead of the film, hitting newsstands just ahead of the movie’s Memorial Day premiere. Due to the popularity of the franchise, the early issues were reprinted many times in numerous formats, including a two-issue oversized Special Edition as well as reprints of the normal-sized comic. Both originals and reprints were often combined in three-issue packages for distribution through retail chains. Reprints from these packages can be spotted by peculiarities such as a blank box where the bar code would normally go. Marvel raised its cover prices from 30 to 35 cents while reprints were being issued, so there is a rare 35-cent edition of #1 with the cover price set in a square (rather than a diamond).
The issues sold so well that Marvel followed up the movie adaptation with new original material. In July 1978, issue #10 of Marvel’s pop-culture-themed magazine Pizzazz featured the first new Star Wars material to appear anywhere, predating Alan Dean Foster’s 1978 novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, with stories written by Archie Goodwin and drawn by Walt Simonson with inker Klaus Janson. Marvel also produced a Star Wars newspaper strip, which ran concurrently with a Spider-Man strip Marvel introduced about the same time.
Meanwhile the Star Wars comic book began featuring new material beginning with issue #7. Roy Thomas found Luke Skywalker uninspiring and decided to focus instead on the adventures of Han Solo. He soon found an excuse to turn writing duties over to Archie Goodwin. Chaykin likewise left the strip for what he deemed greener pastures, explaining to me at a Chicago comic book convention that he felt “the Silver Surfer could really kick Han Solo around the room.” Veteran science fiction artist Carmine Infantino took over drawing duties and remained on the strip for years, continuing well past the adaptation of Empire Strikes Back.
Marvel released a Super Special edition of Empire Strikes back, which I eagerly skimmed in the theater lobby while waiting for the premiere of the movie. The same material was published in issues #39-44.
Marvel continued adapting the franchise through the end of the original trilogy and enjoyed a strong relationship with Lucasfilm. Marvel adapted the Indiana Jones and Willow movies as well and collaborated with Lucas to produce a 1986 Howard the Duck movie (which prompted William Shatner to say during an AFI Life Achievement Award tribute to Lucas, “Regrets. . .you’ve had a few. . .Anyone seen Howard the Duck?”).
Despite Howard the Duck, Marvel and Lucasfilm announced plans for another Star Wars series in the late 1980s, but this never panned out, and the light saber passed to Dark Horse Comics in 1991. That year Timothy Zahn published the bestselling Heir to the Empire, first installment in the Thrawn trilogy, which breathed new life into the Star Wars Expanded Universe with events set five years after Return of the Jedi. Dark Horse spun off Zahn’s story into its well-received Dark Empire series of miniseries, written by Tom Veitch with art from Cam Kennedy for the first two series and Jim Baikie for the third. The new stories dealt with the return of the Emperor and Boba Fett and the turning of Luke to the Dark Side (picking up a plot idea that was dropped from the final script of Return of the Jedi) and introduced Han and Leia’s son Anakin Solo. From the sound of it, the new films will pick up in this vein, focusing on Han and Leia’s children. Dark Horse’s continued development of the Star Wars universe should give future filmmakers plenty of material to draw from.
(Thanks to Barry Pearl for supplying research into Roy Thomas interviews.)