Laser canon! The ‘Star Wars’ newpaper comics

❉ Continuity be damned, these comics were among the best Star Wars adventures!

A page of the very first strip.

A long time ago, in a pop-culture galaxy far, far away, Star Wars stories were a rare thing. Before varying levels of canon and the “Expanded Universe”, not to mention the subsequent de-canonizing of that Expanded Universe, there wasn’t much beyond the movies. Outside of a few original novels and the excellent radio adaptations of the first two films, from 1977 through the mid-80s the further adventures of Luke Skywalker and company could only be found in the comics.

Marvel Comics’ regular series – released monthly in the US and weekly in the UK – was always worthwhile and enjoyable. Featuring stories by some of the medium’s leading writers and artists like Chris Claremont and Carmine Infantino, it was very much a lifeline during the wait between the Original Trilogy movies. The series deserves particular praise for how well it handled the absence of Han Solo as a regular between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. UK readers actually got the better end of the deal, because the weekly publication schedule meant they needed more material than the monthly issues contained, only a fraction of which was released in the US until recent years. One consolation for US fans – at least in certain cities – was the daily Star Wars comic strip that ran in newspapers across North America from 1979 to 1984.

Though not widely seen, even compared to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, the newspaper comics were among the best non-movie Star Wars stories even today. As with the Marvel series, these comics benefitted from the input of some of their medium’s most talented creators. The late Russ Manning, best known for the cult-classic Magnus Robot Fighter and his work on Tarzan, both wrote and drew the first few storylines and continued drawing the strip for the rest of its first year as Steve Gerber and others took over the writing.

Foremost among these other writers was Archie Goodwin, who also worked on the Marvel series. Goodwin’s first contribution was an adaptation of the novel Han Solo at Stars’ End. With Han Solo at Stars’ End being the first Star Wars prequel in any medium, adapting it for another spin-off series stands as one of the most meta events in the ongoing story of Star Wars. Good as that was, it was just one of several high points of the strip’s five year run. Others include The Return of Ben Kenobi, where Darth Vader recruits an actor to impersonate Luke’s former mentor, and The Bounty Hunter of Ord Mantell. From a continuity perspective, seeing the Wookiee home-world in The Kashyyyk Depths and Boba Fett in The Frozen World of Ota were also undeniably cool.

In the wake of Lucasfilm’s recent decision to restart the non-movie continuity to make way for The Force Awakens and the other new Star Wars movies, these stories are definitively not part of the official continuity. Somehow this seems fitting for adventures from a time when the lore or Star Wars was still an open book. The undeniable thrill of these stories – beyond the strong scripts and terrific artwork – is the sense of working out a vision of this universe that was informed by the movies but not circumscribed by fear of being contradicted by later developments in them.

After the strip ended in 1984, the stories were little seen until the late 1990s when Dark Horse Comics reprinted many of them with various alterations to make them flow as a continuous narrative. These versions have recently been re-issued in both physical and digital form by Marvel Comics, corporate synergy having returned the Star Wars saga to their care. While the reprints were a laudable effort, they were also a less than ideal presentation. The beauty of the daily comic strip format is being able to move a story along incrementally so that each installment feels worthwhile. Sanding off those edges took something away from the stories, even though they remained thoroughly entertaining.

Fortunately, IDW Publishing has started reissuing the strips in their original format. The first volume was released a couple months ago, and the second is scheduled for early next year. These are beautiful volumes, filled with both excellent reproductions of the strips and wonderful background pieces. In short, they’re tailor-made for Star Wars fans who appreciate that the important thing is not whether a story “counts” but rather how well it captures the spirit of the movies that inspired it.

❉ Don Klees has spent many years in the video business. This continues to enrich his life in many ways, chief among them being able to tell people he watches television for a living. An avid consumer of pop – and sometimes not-so-popular – culture,  Don is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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