It is a well-known fact that George Lucas had a lot of trouble convincing others that his strange science-fantasy epic movie Star Wars was worthwhile. This was a time before the success of Star Wars was a certainty and before it was the cultural phenomenon it is today. Back then, every little bit of marketing helped. Despite the overall reluctance of licensing companies to invest in the project, there were a few that did – one of which was Marvel Comics. Long before both were owned by Disney, the two entered into a mutually beneficial collaboration which would change the future for the galaxy far, far away. This is the story of Marvel’s Star Wars.
Luke Skywalker and Spider-Man
Fully knowing that he would have no time to personally deal with such matters, George Lucas had hired Charles Lippincott in 1975 to be Lucasfilm’s head of merchandising and publicity – a job he was very good at. Lippincott worked tirelessly to convince several licensing companies to take a chance on Star Wars, which was unusual in the 1970s. Science fiction movies were still seen as niche and largely unprofitable. Producing merchandise for one was even more outlandish. Still, Lippincott managed to get several companies on board and in 1976 he was hard at work to convince another collaborator to join the fray.
The year prior Lucas had tried his luck with several comic book publishers, among them Marvel Comics. They had all turned him down. Marvel had enjoyed limited success with comics based on the Planet of the Apes movies a few years earlier and Jack Kirby had created a mind-boggling sequel comic to Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey but, despite this, Stan Lee saw no future for a Star Wars comic book. Lippincott was not deterred and arranged for a meeting with Marvel editor and writer Roy Thomas, who had launched Conan the Barbarian for Marvel and who was a huge science fiction and fantasy buff himself. Lippincott gave Thomas a much more detailed description of the movie including concept art and storyboards, and slowly won Thomas over. Clearly there was something there that distinguished this movie from the sci-fi movies that had come before.
While Thomas was on board with the idea, Stan Lee proved harder to convince. Thomas agreed to write the comics adaptation himself and up-and-coming artist Howard Chaykin was tapped to draw it. Ever the savvy businessman, Lee managed to get Lucasfilm to agree that Marvel would not have to pay any licensing money unless the Star Wars comic sold over 100,000 issues per month meaning that any profit up until that point went straight into Marvel’s pocket. It should be noted that Marvel was a company in disarray in 1975-76, with sales on their monthly titles slumping and attempts to branch out into merchandising only meeting middling results. It is doubtful anyone at Marvel believed that the Star Wars comic would be anything but a short-lived flash in the pan, but at the very least it would bring in some quick money for the publisher.
Or so they thought.
A long time ago…
Marvel’s Star Wars #1 hit the stands in April of 1977, two months ahead of the movie’s premiere and sales were strong from the get-go. Despite Chaykin’s art of the characters, aliens, droids and ships of the Star Wars galaxy being very idiosyncratic or often off-model, the comic had a bombastic energy typical of Marvel of that era. Thomas adapted the words of the screenplay into narration as best as he could with some added Marvel flare. Sales were strong out of the gate and as the hype for the movie’s release exploded so did the sales figures. Due to the profit agreement, Marvel made a lot of money riding on the success of the movie as it became a worldwide hit and then a cultural phenomenon. Soon Star Wars was not only one of Marvel’s best-selling titles but one of the best sellers in the industry. Marvel covered the entire story of the movie in the first six issues but a potential sequel was years in the future. Marvel was authorized to create new adventures for the characters. The first was a storyline based on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai which featured Han Solo teaming up with a motley crew of freedom fighters including giant green space-rabbit Jaxxon.
Lucasfilm had little input on the content of the comic and thus the stories created by Marvel did not have any real consistent world-building or even tone. Stories could be about Han Solo trying to repay Jabba the Hutt, dragon-riding aliens and space pirates, or the corrupt Tagge corporation trying to eliminate Vader and the rebels alike. Thomas quickly left scripting of the title and was succeeded by Archie Goodwin, who together with artist Carmine Infantino handled most of the first few years. With the worldwide success of Star Wars, the Marvel comic was also published in many countries across the globe. Marvel UK published a weekly version of the comic beginning in 1978, which occasionally featured all-new backup stories to pad out the US reprints including some by future comics legends like Alan Moore.
However, despite the success of the comic and how it formed an important life line for more Star Wars content for kids and adults waiting desperately for the sequel, George Lucas was allegedly not a fan of many of Marvel’s early efforts. Roy Thomas noted that Lucas had expressed frustration with some of the choices of the comic such as the aforementioned green space-rabbit, and thus things would soon change.
From Empire to Jedi and beyond
With the build up to The Empire Strikes Back and new contract negotiations, Lucasfilm began exerting greater influence on the comic. The comic began exploring the post-sequel landscape and adapting a more serious tone after a well-crafted adaptation by Goodwin and artist Al Williamson. The rebels were now more desperate, and the overarching plot was about Luke, Leia and the others trying to find where Boba Fett had taken Han Solo. Due to strict rules imposed by Lucasfilm the comic could no longer explore certain topics (such as character backstory or Vader/Luke confrontations) and thus relied more on new characters and plots. The rebels founded a new base on a planet inhabited by the telepathic Hoojibs and Luke gained friends like the aquatic warrior Kiro and the Zeltron mercenary Dani. Another story involved uncovering a traitor in the rebel ranks, a woman whom Luke shared a brief romance with named Shira Brie. The main writer of this period was David Michelinie and many issues were illustrated by Walt Simonson.
Goodwin and Williamson returned for the adaptation of Return of the Jedi in 1983, closing out the era. However the comic was still not done. Following the uncertain future of the movie franchise, new writer Jo Duffy had to come up with all-new storylines without retreading those of the movies. Thus the new era of peace of the galaxy was threatened by Shira Brie, now the dark lady Lumiya. In the last few years the extragalactic species known as the Nagai and the Tof invaded, a storyline superficially similar to the Yuuzhan Vong invasion decades later. Despite future movie plans being very much up in the air, Duffy still had very strict regulations on what she could and could not feature in the comic. As a result, she was barely allowed to explore Luke and Leia’s relationship as brother and sister among many other things.
Beyond all expectation the Marvel Star Wars comic lasted into 1986, ending with issue #108.
Many aspects of the Marvel comic still survive in Star Wars to this day both in the form of alien species, planets and technology but also in characters like the bounty hunter Valance, who still appears in the current comics. Recently, the much-ridiculed Jaxxon appeared again in the new comics and received his own action figure for the first time ever. Beyond those details, the Marvel Star Wars comic formed a vital early building block in the future of the setting by presenting stories outside the scope of the movies. While waiting for any news of another movie a kid of that era could pick up one of these comics and see his favorite characters engaged in some new adventure.
Today the original Marvel run can be enjoyed both in digital form and in physical reprints and is worth a read for anyone interested in how the concept of a Star Wars expanded universe first took root and in how those wild early years shaped the future.