Marvel’s takeover of the Star Wars comics license from Dark Horse is nearly halfway through its first year, having published a combined eighteen issues to date between three ongoing series and one miniseries thus far. In our household I’m the one with the lifelong comics habit, while my wife is the dedicated Star Wars fan. I have dozens of longboxes; she has a six-foot shelf overflowing with hundreds of Expanded Universe novels. Strictly speaking, Star Wars comics are among those few releases that hold potential interest for both of us. Her enjoyment of Dark Horse’s output outlasted mine by a wide margin, but we’re in a new era and a new universe now, with different creators, different priorities, and different results.
Fair warning for context: I’ve seen all six films multiple times (a couple of them way too many times), but Star Wars is not one of my primary geek specialties as it is for her. My perceptions of George Lucas’ favorite galaxy are skewed because I experienced the original film trilogy in the following order:
1. Heard about the original Star Wars from friends while my mom went to see it without me
2. Bought and read the Empire Strikes Back novelization from a school book fair
3. Saw Return of the Jedi twice in theaters, then read the Goodwin/Williamson comics adaptation
4. Years later, saw Star Wars
5. A decade or so after that, possibly after high school, saw ESB
Despite several attempts at reading random issues, I never got into Marvel’s original 114-issue Star Wars series, not even for Jax the giant green bunny. I read a smattering of Dark Horse works and liked a few things here and there, but I mostly bought them for my wife until and unless she told me to drop titles at her discretion. When I heard about Marvel’s acquisition and reboot using several of their top creators, I think I was more excited than she was. Then again, I’m not the one who just had thirty-odd years’ worth of treasured, memorized, extensively researched Expanded Universe history and intricacies tossed into a garbage chute by Lucasfilm Marketing. (Been there, done that, felt that pain. Welcome to my life as a fortysomething comics fan.)
In my skewed opinion as an old guy who likes comics more than Star Wars, Marvel’s current titles rank as follows from least best to definite best.
4. Star Wars
My wife says this one’s her favorite of the lot, and I think I understand why. Writer Jason Aaron has captured the voices of the Big Three characters and found exciting things for them to do that weren’t already done in the original trilogy. Or maybe I’m misinterpreting and I’ll hear all about it when she gets around to reading this. I can understand how a hardcore SW fan might be fine with stories focusing on Luke, Leia, and Han above all others. My problem is, in all my life from childhood onward, I have never ever ever ever cared about Luke. I get that Luke’s Force-fueled deeds and his glowy super-sword make him the obvious hero of the bunch, but since I never saw his initial whiny reluctance evolve into compassionate swashbuckler in chronological order, to me he’s always been the least interesting member of the ensemble.
So far the series has been mixing and matching pieces for varied effects — Han and Leia on a wild AT-AT ride, a Luke/Vader first meeting that predates ESB, C-3PO babysitting the Millennium Falcon, Boba Fett popping in ahead of schedule for his fan club, and so on. The art by John Cassaday has its energetic moments that work best whenever his facial expressions appear freehand and natural and not traced from photos or stills. But since the Big Three are immune to permanent consequence, it feels like they’re shuffling and reshuffling the same old deck without adding any new cards to it. Even the controversial surprise ending to #6 bounced right off me because I know there’ll be either a logical explanation or a swift elimination forthcoming. Such awareness tends to nullify dramatic effect, a common issue with “midquel” stories that are bookended by fixed points in time.
3. Princess Leia
Of all the Mark Waid comics I’ve ever read, this may be the least Mark Waid-iest. Usually the hero has first-person narrative captions and a clever sense of humor, but Waid is staying outside Leia’s head and faithfully portraying her in stately royalty mode as she pulls rank for the sake of rescuing the scattered remnants of Alderaanian civilization from death and obscurity. It’s kind of interesting to see her in an adventure interacting with other women for a change, but without Han to get under her skin, she lacks a sparring partner who’s anywhere near her equal. The action sequences in #3 livened things up thanks to a wild assist from R2-D2, her noble actions in #4 are the best evidence yet of why anyone still looks up to her, and I’m assuming #5’s finale will surprise me as much as any great issue of his Daredevil run.
Until then, I’ve felt like this miniseries ultimately hasn’t been aimed at me, which is fine and understandable. Oddly, though, it’s also my wife’s least favorite of the four. Neither of us is sure what to make of that.
2. Darth Vader
They had me at “Kieron Gillen”. In his quest for revenge upon the anonymous pilot who shot his TIE Fighter out from under him, Vader is regal and menacing and frustrated and conniving all at once. He’s also outnumbered by a supporting cast of malcontents that won’t stop growing. He’s assembled his own covert-ops team that includes an amoral female Indiana Jones and unrepentant evil-twin versions of Artoo and Threepio, nicknamed BT and Triple-Zero, who may be the most disturbing Star Wars characters I’ve ever seen. The last two issues threw yet another batch of players at us, summoned by Emperor Palpatine to bolster the Sith ranks, upend millennia of Sith standards, and probably annoy a lot of fans who are now being told the sacred “Rule of Two” is more of a guideline than a rule.
Gillen usually writes with a long game in mind, so I’m curious to see where this influx of personalities is eventually headed, as I expect it won’t be long before casualties start mounting due to backstabbing. While I appreciate that lots of new faces increase the odds of actual drama and tension occurring, Vader is in danger of becoming a second-stringer in his own title. I trust he won’t let that come to pass.
1. Kanan: the Last Padawan
In which Greg Weisman, one of the minds behind Disney’s Gargoyles and a onetime co-writer of DC’s Captain Atom during my teen years, creates an origin story for one of the main characters from the hit animated series that we quit watching after a handful of episodes. On Star Wars Rebels, Kanan is a former Jedi who still has his connection to the Force, a working lightsaber, a strange idea of what “former” means, and glowering postures that marked him as the strong, silent, bitter type. I never read the prequel-to-a-midquel novel A New Dawn that was supposed to make Rebels mean something to me, and so none of it never did, Kanan included.
His comic is the exact opposite. Commencing partway through Revenge of the Sith, Kanan’s tale follows the loyal trainee through the last days of the Jedi Order and watches helplessly as Order 66 immediately and irrevocably turns his entire world upside-down. Friends become enemies, order becomes chaos, and life becomes a nightmare as the lonely young survivor finds himself on the run from Clonetroopers who were secretly, genetically bred to end him and his kind. The first issue established such a strong connection between our hero and his master, Depa Billaba (with some of her previous history retconned away), that the ending of #1 was rather suspenseful even though it technically wasn’t a surprise. #2 sees Kanan on the run, torn between warm memories and imminent threats, navigating military traps and survival ethics alike.
Kanan the frightened teen fugitive is in such a different place from Kanan the older, disenfranchised sourpuss that beyond this point we truly have no idea what’ll happen next. In this seemingly narrow time frame between Revenge of the Sith and ESB, Kanan’s future is wider open than the futures of the Big Three. More to the point, the groundwork laid in #1 gave us a proper emotional underpinning so we have reason to care about his circumstances and fear for his fate. That’s what drama feels like, and for my money that’s why Kanan: the Last Padawan is the best Star Wars series of the moment.
(Opinion subject to change after the first issue of the Charles Soule/Alex Maleev Lando miniseries hits stores in July. Updates as they occur.)