The period following the release of George Lucas’ original Star Wars movie was a fascinating one for the franchise. The success of the movie seemed to take everyone by surprise, including Lucas himself; fans were sold empty boxes in lieu of action figures, John Williams’ iconic theme became a disco hit, and the hunger for more stories from a galaxy far, far away led to the creation of a TV show so bad that Lucasfilm continues to suppress it as much as possible. (Poor Ackmena, destined to remain a strange footnote in Bea Arthur’s otherwise impressive resume.)
For the majority of fans, however, there was one place they could turn for regularly scheduled updates on the battle between the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire: Marvel Comics’ monthly Star Wars series, which launched in April 1977 — a month before the movie’s release — and quickly went, as the tagline on each cover briefly read, “beyond the movie! Beyond the galaxy!”
To describe the first three years of Marvel’s title as unexpected would be a compliment. With only the first movie to use as a model, creators like Archie Goodwin, Carmine Infantino, Roy Thomas, and Howard Chaykin, filled the space between the first two movies in the series with a galaxy that reads today like an alternate reality using that shares some DNA with the Star Wars audiences know and love. It is, by turns, pulpier, sillier, and arguably more fun than the “real thing,” with everyone involved reading different things into the template that Lucas had created based on their own experiences on the source material that inspired the original movie.
Take, for example, the first comic book storyline following the completion of the movie adaptation. Roy Thomas, perhaps understandably, looked at the Kurosawa influence on Lucas’ space opera and decided to take a leaf from that book; the storyline that followed, “Eight Against A World!” (alternately, “Eight For Aduba-3”; in the days, storylines rarely had set overall titles), lifted broadly from The Seven Samurai, with Han Solo abandoning the fight against the Empire to lead an uprising on an alien planet against an alien warlord, with his crew including a giant green humanoid rabbit called Jaxxon and a potentially delusional old man claiming to be a Jedi Knight calling himself “Don-Wan Kihotay.” It wasn’t subtle — but it was ridiculously fun.
It wasn’t an accident that the series avoided the Empire in its first all-new story; as near-unthinkable as it may be today, Marvel’s Star Wars more or less abandoned the conflict that is at the center of the entire “Skywalker Saga” (as the movie series has since become known) for almost a year after adapting the movie. Instead, Luke Skywalker and friends dealt with space pirates with names like Crimson Jack or corrupt bureaucrats like Governor Quarg in tales filled with appropriate levels of derring-do and swashbuckling, translated into space and given blasters and lightsabers instead of the swords and pistols characters would have used in olden days.
Indeed, Darth Vader doesn’t make his reappearance into proceedings until its 21st issue — and even then, “Shadow of a Dark Lord!” lives up to its title by keeping Vader in the background, ranting in such a way that seems at once in keeping with his roots in the movie serial villain tradition and at odds with the brooding Dark Lord of the Sith that he’d become in the years to come.
It wasn’t just the writing that felt off-model — although Archie Goodwin, who wrote the majority of the comics released between the first two movies, understood the material better than most; it should be noted that he used the title “The Empire Strikes!” two years before the second movie followed suit, appending “Back!” for good measure. Former Flash artist Carmine Infantino worked on the series for two years, and his take on the property has far more in common with the shiny, sterile late 1970s era in which it was created than the Star Wars seen on screen; gone is the grime and the broken-down machinery surrounding our plucky heroes, in its place are parades of flat panels and a Luke Skywalker sporting shoulder-length hair, standing alongside a curiously angular Princess Leia. It’s not unattractive art by any means, but is it Star Wars by today’s standards…? That’s open to question.
That, really, is at the heart of the first three years of Marvel’s Star Wars comics. In being amongst the first to truly explore the wild space beyond the destruction of the Death Star, everything that appeared in Star Wars #s 7-38 feels like an experiment in guesswork that, bluntly, gets things wrong — in the eyes of those obsessed with the property’s official canon, at least — more often than it gets things right. (The less said about “Silent Drifting,” a flashback story that features an Obi-Wan Kenobi unlike any seen before or since, the better.)
But each guess, each attempt at how the saga continues, feels additive and filled with potential in a way that the increasingly incestual real thing rarely does anymore. Whether it’s the addition of characters like cyborg bounty hunter Valance or the introduction of space casino The Wheel, there’s a feeling of invention and untold stories that suggests that the far, far away galaxy is even bigger than anyone had imagined, even today.
For all the awkwardness — “Don-Wan Kihotay,” I mean, oh my god — and the ridiculousness, those first three years of the Marvel Comics title are filled with a joy and creativity that Star Wars has been missing for years, and something that it desperately needs more than ever today, after eleven live-action movies (more if you add the Ewok TV spin-offs), multiple animated series, and more novels and comic books than you can shake a stick at. After all, there are only so many Baby Yodas out there to be found. Maybe it’s time for Star Wars to get weird again.