Monday, December 07, 2015

12

There, still, we have magic adventures, more wonderful than any I have told you about; but now, when we wake up in the morning, they are gone before we can catch hold of them.
The House at Pooh Corner


A barely recognizable Han Solo and Chewie in a fire-fight in some ruins. The ground is yellow with some scrubs growing on it; suggesting that we are back on Tatooine. The sky is black and studied with stars, and about a quarter of the page is taken up with a small moon -- suggesting that, on the contrary, we’re far out in space, maybe on some asteroid. [*] Chewbacca is holding the body of a green humanoid with red eyes; behind them is a guy in a red uniform and vaguely fishy features. (Forty years of staring at the page gives me no clue as to what he is holding.) Someone is firing at Han and Chewie from out of shot. Han is crying “Grab a laser gun, Chewie!” to his partner.

This is the cover of Star Wars # 7 (Star Wars Weekly #14 in the UK): the first glimpse we'd had of the Star Wars universe since the lights went up at the end of what was definitely not called A New Hope. It was reproduced on the final page of the Star Wars Treasury Edition, and I longed for it as much as I longed for Star Wars 2 and a lightsaber of my very own.

Roy Thomas evidently doesn't care too much about Star Wars lore: even at this early date, he ought to have known that Han would have said blaster rather than laser gun. We could have been looking at the cover of any sci-fi comic of the previous 50 years: good guys fighting bad guys on a faraway planet. But one detail screamed “Star Wars” at me, and still does. “WANTED: Dead or Alive Han Solo and Chewbacca the Wookie” pinned to one of the walls.

There was nothing remotely original about setting a wild west story in space; and George Lucas would never have allowed something as unsubtle as a Wanted poster in the movie. (For one thing, there is no paper in the Star Wars universe.) [*]  But this, the very first image of the very first post-Star Wars Star Wars story, six months before Splinter of the Minds Eye, a year and a half before the Infamous Christmas Special, correctly identified the unique selling point. 

Star Wars is kinda like a cowboy movie in space.

Well, it is. One of the small flaws of Empire Strikes Back and the big flaws of Revenge of the Sith is that it all takes place far too close to the center of government. Not a low-life scumbag to be seen. 

Nowadays we’d call this comic a jumping on point: if you hadn’t seen what was still a relatively new movie and hadn’t read the comic book you’d have no difficulty working out what was going on. Indeed Thomas has a fairly good stab at capturing the multi-generic atmosphere of Star Wars. It's not done perfectly, but if you honestly hadn't seen the film, this comic would give you some good hints of what all the shouting was about.

So: straight after the destruction of the Death Star, Han and Chewie leave Yavin and head back to Tatooine to pay off Jabba the Hutt. Before they even made it to hyperspace, they are attacked by pirates, and only escape with their lives by handing over their reward money. 

Some bits jar. The Pirates are flying one of the Big Pointy Ships from the opening scene of Star Wars, but no-one knows to call it an Imperial Star Destroyer. When Han meets an alien priest, he momentarily forgets he is in a Galaxy Far Far Away and says that he regrets skipping Sunday School. And poor Chewbacca is still envisaged as a berserker ("as soon as he smells first blood his wookie nature manifests itself in its usual manner"). But there are also lots of quotes and call backs to the canon, all 120 minutes of it. The pirate ship positions itself about the Millennium Falcon and swallows it up, just like it swallowed the Small Square Ship at the beginning of the movie. A mob of pirates board the Falcon like the Stormtroopers boarded the rebels; their leader ("a man in black") confronts Han, who instantly recognizes him as the pirate Crimson Jack. Han has hidden his treasure in the same smuggling compartments that he and his passengers hid in on the Death Star. If there had been Space Pirates in the movie, they wouldn’t have had actual cutlasses and literal eye patches, but “pirates in space” is very much the kind of thing you ought to bump into on the way to pay off a gangster the morning after you saved the universe.

They end up on Aduba-3, a planet in all respects indistinguishable form Tatooine — sand, domed buildings, banthas (identifiable only by their curly horns); a cantina (not a saloon or a pub -- definitely a cantina) with alien customers and a curved bar. People on Tatooine were prejudiced against droids - round here it's "borgs" that they don't serve. Han helps a local priest bury a half-man half-robot spacer in the local boot hill; and then local peasants ask him to protect them from a gang of hover bike riding thugs led by a Dick Dastardly look alike called, and I promise I am not making this up, Serji X Arrogantus. In the first issue, it seems as if the peasants are going to be honolable lacial stelleyotypes, but that idea mercifully goes away by the beginning of issue #8. Han takes the mission, and assembles (stop me if you've heard this before) a group of seven mismatched heroes to help him. It could just be that Roy Thomas is taking the "space western" brief a little too literally.

It's all very perfunctory and half-hearted. But the more closely I look, the convinced I am that the fantasy world I inhabited from the afternoon I saw A New Hope to the evening three years later when Empire Strikes Back burst all my bubbles, owes more to these comics than to the movie itself. Thomas deconstructs the movie. He breaks it down into it's component parts. He doesn't care about the background or the story ark, but he is tried to work out what made Star Wars so special, and feed some of that back into his Magnificent Seven parody. And after all this time, his half-memory of the flavour reminds us what that flavour was and why we got addicted to it.

Everyone remembers the giant carnivorous Rabbit, Jaxxon.  Unlike, say, Rocket Raccoon, he’s mainly memorable for being a giant carnivorous Rabbit. There is also a giant cat like porcupine which can shoot spines at baddies. Not very much comes of him, either. But you can see what Thomas was trying to do. Star Wars is a universe where aliens are all over the place and perfectly normal. Chebacca is a giant, growling, furry creature, but he's not an alien or a monster; he's just a character. (I don’t think those of us who have seen the film 50 times and more always remember just how weird this is.)  "How can we possibly top a space ship with a furry monster as first mate?" you can hear him saying "I know: how about teaming Han up with a big green talking rabbit?"

The curious thing is that Marvel, spotting that aliens were another selling point of Star Wars, decided to create two half-arsed creatures of their own. You might have expected them to have plucked a couple of beings from the canonical Catina -- Hammerhead Guy and one of the Guys With Big Bald Heads and flesh them out. 

More interesting is “Jimm”, a local teenager who calls himself, er, The Starkiller Kid. He wears Luke's hat with Luke's goggles, and  Luke's "judo" robes; he strikes Luke-like poses, wants to get off this crummy planet, and has freckles. In one way, it's embarrassingly poorly done: more like something out of Star Wars sketch on Crackerjack than an adaptation of a high profile movie by a major publishing company. But what it's aiming for is exactly what it should be aiming for. We want more Luke Skywalker. But we don't want Luke Skywalker as he ended up; well behaved, uniformed, decorated, in a military uniform. We want farm boy Luke, Luke the dreamy teenager, Luke sulking in his garage, Luke looking out to the binary sunset. The Starkiller Kid is Luke frozen at the moment we first met him. He's a kid playing at being Luke Skywalker. Just like me.

Luke-lite has Threepio-lite, why wouldn't he. A robot who speaks (I am quite sure) with an Anthony Daniels voice and says things like “I, sir, am FE-9Q, familiarly known as Effie” and “I’m just a tractor robot, and not really programmed for this sort of thing.” A robot called 3P0 who is known as Threepio is kind of funny. A robot called FE but known as Effie is merely cute: the kind of cute you want to thump. It wouldn't be long before Lucas was creating cute characters who everyone wanted to thump of his very own. 

Most interestingly of all we have, and once again I have to reassure readers that I am not making this up, Don Wan Kihotay, an older man with a beard who believes himself to be a Jedi. Again, you can see Thomas’ working pretty clearly. One of the crucial flavour notes of Star Wars is the presence (pretty far in the background) of the Jedi Knights; one of the coolest pieces of hardware is the lightsaber, even if it only appears in two or three scenes. If the Jedi existed, they'd be nothing more than dull warriors mind-powers (Lucas spent three whole movies demonstrating this point): they are only romantic because they lived a long time ago and are all dead. Since Ben-Obi-Want-Kenobi has gone to be more powerful than we can possibly imagine, the best Thomas can offer us is someone who thinks he is a Jedi. Someone who has heard about the Jedi, and wants to be one. Like, once again, me.

For this character to work properly, we have to have known a lot of stories of the Olden Days. If we wrote him now, we could have him referencing half-remembered events from the Clone Wars with the same pedantic enthusiasm as the real Don Quixote quoted Spanish chivalric romances, but Roy Thomas didn't have that kind of information at his disposal. So he fixed on the word "Knight" and envisaged quests and honour and archaic language and round tables and dubbing ceremonies. That's how I imagined Jedi; that's how I wanted Jedi to be; and that, indeed, is how Jedi were until we actually met Yoda and discovered they were an uneasy mix between the dullest kind of Sunday School teachers and the nastiest kind of P.E coach. [***] Again, the "knights" thing is arguably taken a bit too literally. In the final episode, the Magnificent Seven storyline takes a peculiar right turn specifically so that Don Kihotay can go up against a huge reptilian beast with his lightsaber, and the audience can all think “That’s kinda like a knight fighting a dragon.”

The comics are most notable for what they do not contain. No Darth Vader. Virtually no Luke Skywalker. No Empire. No Rebellion. No Force, really: when a mystical character is called for, he’s a non-specific priest worshiping a non-specific God. But I think Thomas got something right which Lucas got wrong. Star Wars isn’t a story; it’s an ethos. We don't want to know what happens next; we want to go back there. A comic doesn't become Star Wars by having Darth Vader in it: it becomes Star Wars by tasting like Star Wars. Thomas may not have got the flavour exactly right, but he knew what flavour he was aiming at.

That's what that cover is saying, isn't it? "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away...they all went off and had even more adventures, for ever and ever..."



[*] I think that the artists feel they need to show actual Stars to justify the “Star Wars” title. Five out of the first six post-movie issues have starry starry night skies on the cover. 

[**] On Tatooine, they wipe their bottoms with sand. On spaceships, there is an efficient decontamination ray built into the toilet itself.