The Star Wars
Art: Mike Mayhew
Additional Art: Scott Kolins, Sean Cooke, Killian Plunkett, Stephane Roux, Ryan Kinnaird
Colors: Rain Beredo, Dan Jackson
Letters: Michael Heisler
Covers: Nick Runge, Jan Duursema, Douglas Wheatley, Ralph McQuarrie
Design: Jimmy Presler
Star Wars created by George Lucas.
(Mild spoiler alert for the entire Star Wars film series)
As with any successful franchise, Star Wars constantly tempts fans to speculate about the inner workings of its creative process prior to the reveal of the finished product. This is further exacerbated by George Lucas and his pronounced habit of constantly revising his own story. Did he always intend to produce six movies or nine? When did he decide to make Emperor Palpatine a Sith Lord? Or settle on the familial connection between Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa and Darth Vader? The franchise is maddeningly slippery to anyone who insists on the existence of eternal truths (e.g. Han Solo shot first!), which sets them in opposition to the equally obstinate Lucas. So it’s not surprising that some people would be curious to read the legendary rough draft to what would become the original Star Wars from 1977, if only just to understand what ideas were percolating within Lucas head at the time. But for those of us who can’t be bothered to track it down, Dark Horse published a graphic novel adaptation back in 2013 written by J.W. Rinzler and drawn mainly by Mike Mayhew.
Needless to say, this is not the story that would go on to conquer the world and change popular culture. The Star Wars is a very workmanlike effort that even more obviously owes a debt to Flash Gordon. Events unfold in a typically serialized manner, with the protagonists facing down one peril after another. It’s often been rumored that the rough draft contained elements for the original trilogy, but this adaptation implies that this is also true for the prequels as well. The setup of the New Galactic Empire conquering the rebellious planet Acquilae mirrors the Trade Federation’s aggression towards Naboo in The Phantom Menace. The attempts to protect a young Princess Leia from Imperial forces anticipate similar actions towards Queen Amidala. The Wookie uprising in the latter part of the comic foresees the participation of the Ewoks and the Gungans in the film series.
But the sprawling structure makes it too unwieldy to work as a feature film. The films would have to compress events and merge characters. No less than four separate people are combined to fashion the Darth Vader fans know and love. It’s not exactly clear how much of Lucas draft informs Rinzler’s script, but the narrative is all plot and zero characterization. Individuals act out not from some internal motive but because they need to do so to move things along. The dialogue is mainly expository with some technobabble intruding into the proceedings. No one possesses any personality of note. So it’s hard to care about what happens to anyone. The reader is only aware when someone is in love because they proclaim it. Some characters make the ultimate sacrifice and their deaths are barely mourned. Others just drop out altogether. The pacing allows no room for quiet introspection. At best, this is uninspired, mechanical storytelling.
None of this does any favors to Lucas half-baked critique of American imperialism. The New Empire, which is somehow different from the previous Empire, is now evil because it persecutes the Jedi and the worlds that harbor them. There are a few attempts to insert some realpolitik that go nowhere. And the portrayal of the Wookies as stereotypical primitives who can be duped into worshipping someone as a god, à la the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, only demonstrates how much a younger Lucas was a man of his time. For him, anyone who wasn't a droid or a funny-looking alien (Han happens to be big and green) was by default white.
Mayhew and colorist Rain Beredo attempt to insert into the proceedings some much needed vim and vigour, while letterer Michael Heisler employs fonts recalling the classic look of the film. But they can’t overcome the indifferent scripting. The photorealism can even sometimes hinder the flow of the comic due to the regular use of exaggerated but frozen facial expressions. No matter how hard the art team tries to make the characters look and act like actual human beings the reader can relate to, they remain inert and unengaging.
Because of the comic’s origins, the art becomes oddly metatextual. The designs are attempting to recreate the ideas of Lucas and original concept designer Ralph McQuarrie before they acquired their more recognizable onscreen forms. But Mayhew et al. is obviously drawing inspiration from the original trilogy. The end result is a world that gradually appears more familiar as the story progresses, though more retro in feel. It’s as if someone had wiped away all the dirt and grime from the Star Wars universe. Or maybe the dirt and grime had not yet enough time to settle in.
What ultimately distinguishes, or diminishes, The Star Wars in the eyes of fans are the ideas that don’t make it into this version of the story. The Jedi and Sith are ancient enemies, but their feud doesn’t play a central role in the war between the New Empire and the Rebellion. The Sith and the Empire might be allies for the sake of convenience, but the latter barely tolerates the former. Both warrior cults are viewed as moribund institutions being swept away by the modern state. This contempt for the old actually makes its way into the original film, only to vanish when the sequels would reveal that the Sith were actually running the show.
Also nonexistent is the quasi-spiritualism associated with the franchise. While Jedi and Sith are formidable in battle, neither possesses any supernatural abilities. The Force as understood by modern fandom has yet to be conceived by Lucas. There are no sermons about “an energy field created by all living things” binding the galaxy together. Or dire warnings about being tempted by the Dark Side by giving into anger, fear, and aggression. Without The Force, the comic lacks the pseudo-philosophical content that has become an essential part of the Star Wars universe.
Perhaps the most significant absence is of its hero Luke Skywalker. There's a character with that name in the comic, though that’s where the similarity ends. This Luke is a seasoned Jedi warrior. The last of a dying breed, somewhat akin to an aging samurai still in active service after the collapse of the shogunate. Luke's fighting for the status quo he remembers. Noble perhaps, but a doomed cause. He's really more the template for Obi-Wan Kenobi. Quite a a far cry from the Luke the world would come to know as a naive farmboy who desperately wants to leave the farm and his hick family. Who daydreams about adventures in space, and perhaps of a better tomorrow. That’s the aspirational character many fans would embrace.