Tuesday, September 7, 2010

More Star Wars Comic Memories

After yesterday's post, I went back and start rereading some of the Marvel Star Wars comics from the period between the original film and The Empire Strikes Back. I was frankly amazed at how much better they were than I expected them to be. No, they're not timeless literature; heck, they're not even timeless comics, but they're pretty good in evoking a pulpy, Saturday matinee space opera serial feel that, in retrospect, is what I actually most like about the 1977 movie.

That said, there are some excellent stories in those early issues. Just as excellent is the art. I had forgotten that Carmine Infantino, most famous for his work on The Flash during the Silver Age, penciled 40-odd issues of the comic, including all those during the time that I read the comic. His artwork is unique and, while I'm sure many will find fault with his portrayals of many iconic elements of the Star Wars universe, I found his artwork quite affecting as a child and, though I didn't realize it, many of his pieces stuck with me over the years and seeing them again was like being transported back to the late 1970s.

Here's one particular piece that really hit me hard:

One of the interesting things about the early Marvel series was that, although it was given a great deal of freedom by Lucasfilm, there were still some restrictions placed on it. Work on "Star Wars II" was under way and so Marvel had to tread lightly when dealing with certain characters and elements, one of which was Darth Vader. Even though he was a fan favorite character, Marvel didn't use him that often in those early days, which is why his appearance above in issue 21 (March 1978) was such a huge thrill. As a kid, seeing Vader personally leading stormtroopers, lightsaber in hand, through the burnt out shell of a rebel base on some idyllic, flower-covered planet sent chills of excitement down my spine. This was what I wanted out of Star Wars.

Another piece that really hit home was this one:

A lot of my friends didn't like Infantino's depiction of starships. They thought his stuff was too "blocky." Me, I loved it -- still do. These illustrations remind me a lot of the funky starship art that was rampant in the 1970s, which used all kinds of odd, asymmetric designs and didn't care one whit for aerodynamics (which, of course, would mean nothing in space). Art like this screams "space opera" to me and I got a huge kick out of seeing it again.

I'll probably have quite a few more Star Wars comics-related posts over the next few days. I had almost forgotten about these issues and now I'm glad to have the opportunity to revisit them. There's a lot of great stuff in here.

27 comments:

  1. The one thing I've always found fascinating with the earlier comics is that they still retain the lived in feel that George Lucas was striving for in his first movie. They were meant to look rustic, instead of the sleek and curved ships from Star Trek. Its a shame that lived in feel was never carried over to the prequel films.

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  2. Strangely enough, I don't actually mind the more sleek looks of the ships from the prequels. They have a "Flash Gordon" vibe that feels right to me. I mean, the Star Wars universe doesn't really seem to have any technological development, so the only way to show that something takes place in the past is to make it look "older" somehow and the use of very retro, almost Art Deco, designs in the prequels is one of the things I don't mind about the newer films.

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  3. Ha! Carmine Infantino is the greatest Star Wars artist ever, and I even wrote about this a few months ago over at BattleGrip:

    http://www.battlegrip.com/?p=14921

    Excellent choice of art, James. Infantino's art still sticks with me today, and those old storylines were better than pretty much everything Lucas gave us when he created the prequels.

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  4. Not for me.

    The blocky starships and atrocious his longhaired hippie Skywalker turned me off until the Empire adaptation came along.

    Al Williamson was the artist who had the skills and delivered the goods.

    Never mind The Flash, Al did Flash Gordon!

    Sadly, Mr. Williamson died this past June.

    Another star gone...

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  5. Williamson's art was also excellent, no argument there. And his Flash Gordon connection wasn't one I knew until many years later, which only makes me think even more well of his work.

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  6. I hadn't considered the "Flash Gordan" vibe until now, I'll keep that in mind when I watch them next.

    You are quite correct that the Star Wars Universe doesn't have ongoing technological development, comparing Knights of the Old Republic to the Rise of the Empire era sees little difference if any in tech level. :)

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  7. Well there is all that rapid development in technology over the course of the prequels and the gap between them and the original films; no wonder the Empire collapsed so quickly, as it must have spent all its funds on constant redesigns of everything!

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  8. "One of the interesting things about the early Marvel series was that, although it was given a great deal of freedom by Lucasfilm, there were still some restrictions placed on it."

    One of which was apparently developing a love affair between Luke and Leia, which puzzled many of the writers on the comic who had storylines including this nixed by Lucasfilm. Whether "they" knew Luke and Leia were brother and sister from the start, or just keeping their options open, thanks goodness they did put the kibosh on those storylines....might have been really awkward!!!

    BTW, in case you didn't know, the abrupt end of one of the more interesting characters in the Marvel Comics saga---Valance the cyborg bounty hunter---was ordered by Lucasfilm because of his similarity to a character proposed for future movies...

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  9. I love the old Marvel Star Wars comics. I've picked up a couple of the reprint TPBs and it's a breath of fresh air. So many modern SW stories have an air of "Wow, we are writing a Star Wars story, This Is Important". But these were written back when the stew was still bubbling and home-made.

    It's also fun to see the influences of Star Wars from the comics writers themselves - from the Magnificent Seven starring a Giant Alien Green Bugs Bunny to the self-hating half-breed Indian…er, half-breed droid bounty hunter Valance.

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  10. I didn't mean to come off as dismissive of Carmine Infantino's art in my previous comment.

    If I remember correctly, Marvel's artists were only working from a few photos of the models of ships, with little to none of them showing any sense of scale or proportion. So it was no small feat to pull their likenesses off like he did!

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  11. I loved Infantino's work on the series, and I also appreciated Roy Thomas's expansion of the cantina owner's rejection of the droids into a full-fledged galactic prejudice against AI lifeforms. That became a major issue in my own WEG Star Wars campaign setting. (I also shamelessly stole the Tagge clan for my villains.)

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  12. Whether "they" knew Luke and Leia were brother and sister from the start
    I doubt it, as there's a very awkward sequence near the beginning of Splinter of the Mind's Eye in which Luke lusts after Leia, and I can't imagine that the comic writers were under stricter guidelines than the writer of the then-official then-sequel.

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  13. @ Rob - I could be wrong but I seem to remember that their was some type of Droid uprising in the past which lead to them having their memory constantly erased. This also was meant to be the reason for the prejudice in the beginning.

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  14. Man, I didn't like Carmine Infantino's nothin'. Not faces, not ships, not...I dunno, hot dogs.

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  15. @Damien, re: "They were meant to look rustic, instead of the sleek and curved ships from Star Trek. Its a shame that lived in feel was never carried over to the prequel films."

    I apologize in advance if you're already aware of this, however there's a reason the prequels have sleeker designs, they're supposed to hearken back to a more "civilized age"--like the kind Kenobi recalls in ANH. The vehicles, ships, costumes, settings were meant to evoke a rounded/rosier time in the Republic's history. I recall this being brought up by Lucas and several designers when the prequels came out. The march to rustic/angularity is part of the Empire's aesthetic.

    @James, I'm loving these posts, more please!

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  16. Hey @Jay - I always thought the same thing you did about the ship designs (that basically, things were more "civilized" back in the day, and also that the Rebels are stuck having to use hand-me-downs and stolen technology, rather than getting bright new fancy ships).

    But, I had always imagined that stuff (the "more civilized age") happened a LONG time in the past. I was frankly very surprised to find that the prequels took place only about 20-30 years before ANH. It seems like a short period of time for things to have gone to pot quite so quickly.

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  17. It seems like a short period of time for things to have gone to pot quite so quickly.
    This is the main thing that annoys me about the new films. The Empire rises, spreads across the galaxy, and falls, all in the space of twentyish years?

    Yeah, no.

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  18. "This is the main thing that annoys me about the new films. The Empire rises, spreads across the galaxy, and falls, all in the space of twentyish years?"

    Exactly! Again, as a kid, I always imagined that somehow, this little rag-tag group of Rebels had someone held onto this secret knowledge of the "by-gone age" and were basically just passing that information along to each new generation, in the hopes that one day, they'd be strong enough to try to reclaim the glory days of the past.

    I never in my wildest dreams imagined that there would still be people alive who were alive during the time of the Republic and would then live to see the rise and fall of the Empire. It makes the Empire seem like just a footnote to history, rather than what I thought was supposed to be a huge part of it.

    I did catch references to things like how Leia says that Ben Kenobi served her father in the Clone Wars, but for some reason I just assumed that was somehow a special case - Ben is a Jedi so I thought he maybe had special anti-aging powers or something.

    Oh, well. :)

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  19. big "me too" to the last couple posters. I understood the Empire as something that had become progressively more corrupt over centuries. and I imagined Kenobi's fighting during the clone wars to have been in service of the empire *against* some weird alien force of clones.

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  20. Yeah, the first set of movies never out and said it, but it implied that the Empire had been going for decades, if not a century or more. "A more civilized age" was an incredibly evocative and atmospheric phrase, and its impact is totally sabotaged by being reduced to "twenty years ago." Ben Kenobi's brief description of Darth Vader's cyborg replacement parts- "he's more machine than man, now" also conjured up a picture of an evil warlord who had suffered those injuries over decades of war and battle. An eye lost here, a hand there, until over time and slow accretion he became mostly machine. Not a guy who had one bad run-in with Ben himself on a lava-covered battlefield one time. So much implied grandeur and epic scope so tragically reduced when the mystery behind the curtain was finally revealed.

    There's a parallel ready to be drawn there about mysteries in running D&D. How it's often better to keep the players in the dark about what's really going on, in some cases, and let their imaginations run wild.

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  21. @Jay - No need to apologize ahead of time I was aware of their attentions. You see the Republic had stood for a thousand years, according to the films, I would have liked to have seen a decline in the state of the republic, sort of giving more fuel for Palpatine as he took over.

    I had always imagined that the clone wars had been a very scary time, a paranoid fueled war, who was a clone who wasn't that sort of thing. But in the prequels it became quite comical and that just didn't sit right with me.

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  22. I wonder what I would have happened if I discovered Traveller in 1978 rather than 1982. Many of my Traveller adventures were certainly taken from Marvel's Star Wars & Battlestar Galactica comics but they were also modeled upon my ever growing library of SF. In which, books and films even horrible films of the decade were duly played out.

    I think the mythological tropes that Lucas tapped into were already present in the culture. Similarly, Traveller was able to tap into that vibe or shadow, as I said in earlier post. But, the Marvel comics did the same thing...they took much of what was suggested and used it in play. The Rabbit and some other creations were as much a stealing from other comics, as it was stealing from Star Wars itself...for was there not even an Action Figure called Walrus Man...you know the guy who did not like Luke's face.

    Lucas claims that the whole Star Wars story was in his head all the time. I believe perhaps the outline was there but as they say the devil is in the details. For what saved Star Wars was his brilliant strategy to target the kids. The whole toy line gave him the revenue to hire a serious Director which made some incremental changes to George's vision but made a better film than the first...a rare thing in Hollywood...then the third film partially was able to coast on the dovetails of the second by retelling the first.

    When it came to the new Trilogy...George, probably did not really have a good idea rather a smattering of good ideas and that is what was projected on screen. A pity, but, what he did not do at any time was listen to the fans. For which he was right to do for wrong reasons...

    As he rightly predicted that a new generation of fans (indeed my son prefers the newer one) would replace the old. And, there would always be a crop of the old fans, who would follow anything emblazoned with Star Wars on it. Plus, as an artist, he has to remain true to HIS vision...even if they are dictated by cheap theatrical tricks and flash bang effects. Many of a GM has done the same thing. So I can hardly fault Lucas.

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  24. But, I had always imagined that stuff (the "more civilized age") happened a LONG time in the past. I was frankly very surprised to find that the prequels took place only about 20-30 years before ANH. It seems like a short period of time for things to have gone to pot quite so quickly.

    Compare how decorative and gaudy things were in the big cities during the Roaring Twenties to the plainer, more austere look of the Great Depression and World War Two. That's only a span of 10-20 years.

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  25. Flash Gordon had a huge influence on Star Wars in general and the prequels in particular. For example, the Televisor in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (8:18)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_c67i0RWt-E

    is just like the video screen Queen Amidala uses in The Phantom Menace (7:56)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=591nGBp9jMY

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  26. big "me too" to the last couple posters. I understood the Empire as something that had become progressively more corrupt over centuries. and I imagined Kenobi's fighting during the clone wars to have been in service of the empire *against* some weird alien force of clones.

    Palpatine's rise to power was described in the Star Wars novel in 1976:

    Aided and abetted by restless, power-hungry individuals within the government, and the massive organs of commerce, the ambitious Senator Palpatine caused himself to be elected President of the Republic. He promised to reunite the disaffected among the people and to restore the remembered glory of the Republic. Once secure in office he declared himself Emperor, shutting himself away from the populace. Soon he was controlled by the very assistants and boot-lickers he had appointed to high office, and the cries of the people for justice did not reach his ears.

    The only thing changed was the last bit about the Emperor being a puppet -in the movies he's the one pulling the strings.

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  27. P.S. If they'd made a toy or model of that ship crossing over the Star Destroyer in that picture post up above, I'd have traded my Huffy and a month's allowance to possess it!

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