Friday, November 20, 2015

Lost Legends: Classic Star Wars- The Early Adventures

Welcome to Force Fridays here on The Matt Signal! For the next few weeks, we'll be featuring Star Wars related columns leading up to the release of The Force Awakens! It's an exciting time to be a Star Wars fan, and I'm hoping to spread some more excitement.

A long time ago (1979 to be exact) in a galaxy not at all that far away, there was very little Star Wars content out there. Just the original movie, a movie adaptation, the first Star Wars original novel, Splinter of the Mind's Eye, and very earliest of the Marvel comics. It seems strange now that, if you were a fast reader and dedicated, that you could get through all the Star Wars content in existence in a weekend, but it was possible,

The late 70s was still a time where comic strips were a vast media power, with numerous genres filling pages of daily and Sunday papers, and so having a strip was a big deal. And in 1979, Star Wars graduated to the big leagues with its own daily strip. Full of wild stories and fascinating new characters, as well as work form some big names in the strip and comic book world, the strips were lost for years, until ion the early 90s, Dark Horse started reprinting them, cutting up the panels to lay out on a comic book page, and coloring them all. They were released in a few different series, but the one we'll be talking about today were called The Early Adventures, which were released as a nine issue mini-series, and feature the work of comics legend Russ Manning.

Manning is a big and important name in comics, but isn't as big as a Stan Lee or Jack Kirby, so for those of you who are more casual fans, a little background. A master penciller, Manning is best known for his work on Tarzan, both for publisher Gold Key and for the Tarzan comic strip, as well as European original graphic novel about Tarzan. He was also the artist credited as creator of Magnus, Robot Fighter, a hero in the future who fights rogue robots (sort of like a bladerunner but he needs only his fists) for Gold Key, a character who, while not in constant publication, has seen numerous revivals over the years from such companies as Valiant, Dark Horse, and most recently Dynamite. Manning is important enough that an award has been named after him, the Russ Manning Most Promising Newcomer Award, given out at the Eisner Award ceremonies at San Diego Comic Con, whose recipients feature so many top talents it would be take far too much space here, but a couple with links to Star Wars include Star Wars: Republic, Legacy, and Dawn of the Jedi artist Jan Duursema and Edvin Biukovic, who pencilled the adaptation of Timothy Zahn's The Last Command and some of the early X-Wing: Rogue Squadron mini-series.

The nine issues of early adventures start with a three issue arc, and then continue with six single issue stories. The thing that impressed me about these stories is how well they hold up to modern Star Wars stories. There are some canonical glitches (the mining world of Kessel shown to be a lush paradise, for instance), but those are found all over early Expanded Universe (EU) stories. What's exciting is how Manning captures the spirit of Star Wars, the mix of action and humor, while introducing many concepts that feel very Star Wars. There are also some completely insane concepts, like the Empire encoding secret data in a virus that shows up in the infected person's eyes, but that's still less nuts than anything in the Lando Calrissian novels, which include the Silly Rabbit Constellation and Lando meeting an alien who looks suspiciously like Big Bird (both not terrible things, just completely insane), so I'll take it.

The opening three-parter really shows off what Manning is doing with the Star Wars universe (I'm going to continue to address Manning as sole creator on these stories, even though it has been revealed over the years that many were ghost written by either Archie Goodwin or Steve Gerber. I don't know who wrote what, and the comics are credited solely to Manning, so I'm sticking with that). Luke, Leia, C-3PO, and R2-D2 have been sent to Vorzyd-5, the Gambler's World, to contact a high ranking official who is sympathetic to the Rebellion. Sent to stop them is Blackhole, one of Darth Vader's operatives, who appears only as a shadowy figure with patterns of starts shifting on his body, and his black armored stormtroopers. On the planet, Luke and Leia make their way through a series of encounters with Blackhole and his men, while the droids are chased by a teen gang who for some reason really want a droid. The two stories intersect at the end in a pretty brutal confrontation between the stormtroopers and the gang.

Manning really gets the look of Star Wars right throughout the story. Vorzyd-5 feels like a planet you would have seen on the big screen of the Prequels, when technology could keep up with the mind of an artist. It's full of billboards, big lights, and all kinds of crazy creatures. And the shifting stars on Blackhole are a very cool visual that I would love see someone try to capture in Star Wars: Rebels, say casting him as one of Vader's Inquisitors. Storywise, we see that Luke is still new to using the Force and the galaxy at large, as he draws a little too much attention in one of the casinos by his "luck" which is a subconsious manifestation of the Force. There's a well drawn and exceptionally silly sequence where Threepio and Artoo stop at a a weapons store to get upgrades to protect themselves if they ever run into that gang again, and basically in an almost Pink Panther sequence, wind up doing exactly that through a series of mishaps with the weapons they're testing; it's a bit over the top for Star Wars, but is well choreographed and pretty funny,

Missing from this first story are two of Star Wars most famous characters: Han Solo and Chewbacca. These very early EU stories often omitted Han and Chewis since Harrison Ford's contract did not include sequels, and it was in doubt if he would be appearing in any future Star Wars films. This story replaces them with two local rebels, Paxin and Falud, who are a dark haired human and his big shaggy sidekick, although the sidekick more resembles a large bipedal badger than a big apeman. Fortunately, Han and Chewie would start appearing after this story, and with goof effect.

The highlight of the series for me is issue five, "Princess Leia, Imperial Servant." After narrowly escaping an Imperial attack on her ship, where a Rebel pilot sacrificed himself to save her, showing Lei'a import to the Rebellion, she crash lands on a world that is controlled by the Empire, and has slave mines pulling the highly explosive megonite from the ground to be used as a weapon. To make matters worse, when she hides among the workers, she is picked to be the servant of the woman who runs the mines, the wife of Grand Moff Tarkin, the man who commanded the Death Star, who has a deep hatred for Rebels and who believes they are out to get her. Lady Tarkin is holding an Imperial Diplomatic Conclave, gathering high ranking Imperials from around the galaxy, including Darth Vader himself. Leia must use her wits, and the help of two disreputable miners trying to escape with some megonite themselves, to contact the Rebellion and escape before Lady Tarkin or Vader discover her.

This story is important as it is one of the first Leia solo stories, if not the very first. Leia isn't a damsel in distress anywhere in the story. Sure, she has to contact Han Solo to get her off Lady Tarkin's world, but that's classic spy thriller stuff, waiting for the exfil, something spies both male and female have to go through. And sue, the serving girl outfit is a bit slinky, but it's way more covered than the Slave Leia outfit. Even when being menaced by the two crooked miners, Leia doesn't quaver, says one has no brains, and gets them to help her get to the communications device. Leia is also completely combat competent, blowing up one guard with some megonite to hide her contacting of the Rebellion, and wielding a blaster better than any other character as she escapes. Also, I love the design for Lady Tarkin, with the black and white Cruella DeVille hair and these wide eyes that absolutely scream paranoia.

The final issue of the series features an early appearance by Boba Fett, and is actually one of my favorite Fett stories. It doesn't have the years of baggage that often way Fett down, and instead sees Fett and Luke teaming up, Luke having crashed on an ice planet fleeing Imperials and Fett on a bounty run for Darth Vader. There are wild natives, an Imperial spy on the run, and the entire classic Star Wars cast on a big adventure together. It again spotlights Manning's art, mixing his great handle on high tech backgrounds and more natural backgrounds, as we see both the ice world and the high tech the natives have claimed as their own.

The other four stories are also enjoyable, including a story of a weather machine controlled by the Empire, a lizard man kidnapping children to lure out the Rebels, the first of innumerable stories about Luke returning to Tatooine, and a diplomatic mission to convince weapons makers to stop selling to the Empire. These weren't the only Star Wars strips drawn by Manning, but often finding these old strips and the original art and proofs is not easy, and so they were the only ones Dark Horse published from the Manning era.

For those of you newer to the blog, this column is a Lost Legends, which means the comics I'm talking about are currently out of print in singles and trades (digital is harder to tell, and so I'm talking print exclusively). The nine issues aren't hard to track down, and can usually be found in dollar bins at conventions and stores. There are also twenty issues of Classic Star Wars from the Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson era strips, and a mini-series that was the strips that adapted one of the best early Star Wars novels, Han Solo at Star's End. I'm hoping Marvel gets around to reprinting these sometime in the future, or better if Lucasfilm publishing contacts one of the publishers who of high end strip reprints, and gets the complete series represented in the original form. If you're a Star Wars fan who's curious to see what the early days of Star Wars publishing were like, I can think of few better examples then these Russ Manning strips.

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