Star Wars: The Classic Newspaper Comics Vol. 2 – Book Review

As winter drags determinedly on and the arrival of Solo is still some little way off, what better way to pass the cold evenings than snuggling up with a hefty 300-page book and warming beverage of your choice? Our tome for this particular cold-snap is IDW Publishing’s Star Wars: The Classic Newspaper Comics, Vol 2, following on from May 2017’s establishing entry.

The book collects the Star Wars daily comic strips which ran in the Los Angeles Times (and in syndication across the US) from October 1980 to July 1982, written and drawn for the most part by Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson, respectively. A five-page introduction from Rich Handley gives the reader an overview of the title’s production history and background on the creatives involved. This is followed by twelve strips created by Goodwin and Williamson for a proposed (but never published) daily serialisation of A New Hope, being able to tell the tale with a little more depth and detail than Marvel’s original 6-issue version.

After these fascinating glimpses, the book-proper begins with a visual retelling of Han Solo At Stars End, adapted by Goodwin from Brian Daley’s 1979 novel of the same name, and with art by Alfredo Acala. The story takes place before the events of A New Hope, with Solo and Chewbacca’s smuggling activities in The Corporate Sector getting them intro all manner of trouble. Looking to repair the Millennium Falcon, the duo seek out an old contact sympathetic to their cause, Doc, and his daughter Jessa to lie-low for a while. But with The Corporate Sector being in the same level of general unrest as the galaxy at large, it’s not long until our heroes are drawn begrudgingly into an adventure, meeting with their droid cohort-to-be, BLX-5 (referred to here by his original name of course, Bollux. Not even joking).

From a timeline point of view, ‘Stars End’ is described as ‘in the days just before the Rebellion’, hence Han, Chewie and the Falcon being the iterations with which readers were already familiar. After this, the run continues with ‘The Bounty Hunter of Ord Mantell’, taking place between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back (the title of the story being a reference to a line of Solo’s dialogue from the latter).

By this point in the series, Al Williamson had taken over art-duties and his pairing with writer Archie Goodwin makes for a consistent tone throughout the rest of the book. Although classed as separate adventures, ‘The Bounty Hunter of Ord Mantell’ leads seamlessly into ‘Darth Vader Strikes’, and on into ‘The Serpent Masters’, ‘Deadly Reunion’, ‘Traitor’s Gambit’, ‘The Night Beast’ and ‘The Return of Ben Kenobi’.

Each story-arc centres around our familiar heroes (including R2-D2 and C-3PO, naturally) searching for a suitable location to relocate the Rebellion. General Jan Dodonna and the existing base on Yavin IV appear periodically, as does Darth Vader in pursuit of the gang, still smarting from his defeat in the Death Star battle. While there’s obviously no sign of Grand Moff Tarkin, the higher echelons of Imperial rule make appearances, but the Emperor himself is absent.

1980 was, it should be noted, a tricky time to create Star Wars comics. With only two movies in the public consciousness, the ongoing Marvel comics series, Brian Daley’s Han Solo trilogy and Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye novel, the concept of the Expanded Universe as we know it was still in its infancy. There’s a tendency throughout this book for the visuals to revert to ‘generic 1960s sci-fi’ where no style-guide for the Galaxy Far, Far Away really existed. Things never reach crisis point, but only because the panels are near-constantly populated by at least one leading character to remind us this is still Star Wars.

What’s more, while there were certainly plenty of springboard ideas to be plucked from the minimal timeline, the as then upcoming third film was threatening to derail any tie-in material published before it. The largest case in point here would be the amount of time in the newspaper strips that Luke spends pining over Leia and bemoaning her burgeoning relationship with Han (remember the stories are set before Hoth and Cloud City, even though they were published afterward). More than likely taking the lead from similar moments in Foster’s 1978 book, it’s easy to raise an eyebrow at Luke’s feelings now, of course. It’s widely accepted that the twins-reveal was a product of Return of the Jedi‘s screenplay development rather than any long-seeded plan by George Lucas. And that’s fine, but it still feels a little odd observing these moments years down the line.

This recurring theme is probably among the reasons why the newspaper strips, like much of Marvel’s comic-run, have been quietly laid to one side in the ever expanding canon of Star Wars. That said, the events of this collection, while not referenced too often in what is now classed as Legends-continuity, technically remained a part of the timeline throughout the Marvel and Dark Horse years.

Entries for locations and characters such as BLX-5, Jessa, Silver Fyre and Tanith Shire (naming conventions left something to be desired) appeared in reference-works such as Bill Slavicsek’s A Guide To The Star Wars Universe (1994), Andy Mangel’s Essential Guide to Characters (1995), Steve Sansweet’s Star Wars Encyclopedia (1998), the 3-volume The Complete Star Wars Encyclopedia (2008) and Daniel Wallace & Jason Fry’s The Essential Atlas (2009) (it should also not surprise you to learn that your humble correspondent has something of a library at home). While these incidental players may not have been recurring fixtures in the ongoing fiction, they were nonetheless considered a part of the family.

In this collected volume, the ‘daily’ newspaper strips, usually comprising three panels, are in stark black-and-white inks (with no half-toning), presented three to a page covering the Monday to Saturday editions of the newspaper, with the title bars removed for a smoother reading experience. Every third page reproduces the Sunday, ‘full page’ colour edition. In book form particularly, this is a great way of breaking up the visual repetition of the format. It quickly becomes apparent however, that the Sunday strip was seen as somewhat supplemental to the story. The first couple of frames tend to re-tell the events of the Friday and Saturday entries, while Monday’s edition would re-hash the new events of Sunday’s.

It would be entirely possible (albeit probably less enjoyable) to read the comic without referencing the colour strips at all. Yet by the same token, the ‘Sundays’ couldn’t be compiled separately into a flowing narrative. While these entries are welcome (essential, even) for a book of this archival nature, they do tend to affect the pacing of each story, as does the occasional exposition-burst for the benefit of readers who may have missed the day’s paper in which a key event took place.

Speaking of pacing, the respective publishing dates for each strip are noted on each page of the book, a lasting reminder of how incrementally these comics played out. While the format of a monthly 22-page comic still holds fast in the modern age, the idea of reading just two-to-three panels of an ongoing story each day is almost unthinkable. It was an idea the official Star Wars website brought back briefly for their webstrips-series in 2005, but was viewed as more of a novelty than a resurgence.

The artwork, for the most part, is fantastic given the time of production. Character likenesses for the main players are consistently on-par, although the frames referenced from production stills and publicity photographs stand out as being almost suspiciously accurate. But even at its loosest, Al Williamson’s illustration is easier on the eye than the more dynamic style favoured by Howard Chaykin in the original Marvel film-adaptation. The limited real-estate of the daily newspaper comic means that ongoing plots are mostly dialogue-driven, but even accounting for this it’s far from heavy-handed and the series is still primarily visual-storytelling.

Overall, Star Wars: The Classic Newspaper Comics, Vol 2 is both an arcane oddity and a welcome slab of genuine nostalgia from a time we’ll never see again, aimed at long-term fans of the saga and broader comic aficionados alike. It’s great to have the stories collected in one place and with so much care, but they also serve as an indication of how styles change and why Marvel never quite had the same impact as their successors at Dark Horse.

But never mind the Bollux, just enjoy the DL-44 blaster pistols…

Star Wars: The Classic Newspaper Comics Vol. 2 is available now from your preferred bookseller. Once you’ve delved in, don’t forget to come back and let us know your thoughts!

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