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Star Wars Graphic Novel and TPB Reviews - Page 1

"A Long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."

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Classic Star Wars Volume 1: In Deadly Pursuit 1995 (SC TPB) 196 pgs.

Written by Archie Goodwin. Illustrated by Al Williamson, with Allen Nunis.
Colours: Steve Buccellato. Letters: unbilled.

Reprinting: Classic Star Wars #1-7, with covers), which reprinted the newspaper strip.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by Dark Horse Comics

In the early '80s, Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson did a Star Wars newspaper strip that was structured to bridge the gap between the movies Star Wars and the Empire Strikes Back, chronicling the missing adventures of Luke, Leia and Han. A decade later, Dark Horse re-published them as a monthly series, re-configuring them to read more like a conventional comic. The repetitive panels of a daily strip were edited out somewhat by editor Anina Bennett, some new panels were added, others were expanded (by Williamson himself, or Nunis) to be more visually dramatic, and the whole thing elaborately colored (or re-colored in the case of the weekend pages).

The end result is a lot of fun.

Restricted by the three or four panels-a-day format, the stories and characterization aren't as elaborate as Goodwin brought to his work on Marvel's monthly Star Wars comics from around the same time. Sometimes there's a frustrating feeling that just as you're starting to get into a plot and the characters, the strip moves on to something new. At the same time, that could be said of the movies which often suffered from a certain breeziness and workmanlike dialogue. In fact, Classic Star Wars evokes the films better than almost any other spin-off, such as the recent Star Wars novels. Goodwin and Williamson remember that, for all the pontificating pundits preaching the "meaning" of Star Wars, first and foremost Star Wars was meant to be escapist adventure. The stories trundle along from one escapade to another, each sequence seguing into the next, and Goodwin surprisingly does manage to work in some character bits and amusing quips that keep the thing from being too light-weight.

Some of the character stuff seems anachronistic in light of what later came about in the third movie. Luke, for instance, is blatantly infatuated with Leia (unaware she will turn out to be his sister). Still, it's nice that Dark Horse resisted the urge to try and update or smooth over such things by changing dialogue or throwing in new references. Despite the editing, the stories are meant to remain faithful to the original strips.

Of course, a big appeal here is the truly stunning work by Al Williamson, perhaps one of the most overlooked artists in comics. It staggers the mind to imagine him churning out these panels on a daily basis. His elegantly rendered figures (sometimes genuinely evoking the actors), his meticulous ships and sets, his lush landscapes, all strewn with brooding shadows -- this isn't just art work, this is ART. His C-3P0 gleams, his Darth Vader is imposing. And it's all vividly embellished by Steve Buccellato's gorgeous colours. It would take a lot of money and a lot of f/x for a movie to duplicate the kind of mood and atmosphere Williamson (and Buccellato) conjure up in a single panel. Williamson also brings Star Wars full circle. Williamson was once an artist on the Flash Gordon comic strip...and George Lucas freely acknowledged Flash Gordon as an inspiration for Star Wars.

Of course, since the strip was written to be a single, on-going serial, this volume ends in mid-story, but there are still plenty of fun storylines to keep any fan satisfied, from Luke's infiltration of the Imperial dockyards, to being captured by serpent riding tyrants on a backworld (the sequence with the best structured plot and character stuff in this volume) to an obligatory story set in a space junkyard of derelict ships.

A collection that easily transports you back to the time when you first journeyed to a galaxy "far, far away".

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $16.95 USA. 

Classic Star Wars Volume 2: Rebel Storm 1995 (SC TPB) 208 pgs.

Written by Archie Goodwin. Illustrated by Al Williamson, with Allen Nunis.
Colours: Steve Buccellato. Letters: unbilled.

Reprinting: Classic Star Wars #8-14, with covers), which reprinted the newspaper strip.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by Dark Horse Comics

This continues the run of stories set between the movies Star Wars and the Empire Strikes Back that were orginally published as a newspaper comic strip in the early '80s. Dark Horse took the strips by Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson and re-coloured them, expanded some of the panels (with touch ups by artist Allen Nunis) to make it visually more like a regular comic (indulging in less regimented panel shapes and sizes) and occasionally editing out extraneous panels to make for a smoother read. The main shift is that Bob Cooper takes over the editorial chores from Anina Bennett.

This run is actually slightly better than the first volume -- and I liked the first, so that's saying something. The first collection of Classic Star Wars was a lot of fun thanks to the beautifully elegant, moody art by Al Williamson and the scripts by Archie Goodwin which captured the spirit of the big budget movies...including, admittedly, the simplicity. Here, though, the stories benefit from a little richer character stuff, with plots that are often a tad more developed. This also continues the theme of trying to make the stories seem like they fill in gaps between the movies, depicting Luke's discovery of the planet Hoth (later to be featured in The Empire Strikes Back) and the heroes first meeting with Admiral Ackbar.

Maybe it's just that, having read the first volume, I've become acclimatized to the unavoidable limitations imposed on Goodwin by originally trying to tell a story in a few panels a day, and that's why I'm more receptive. I dunno.

There are genuinely memorable tales, such as moody one involving a mysterious creature being awakened from where it lurked in the ruins that the rebels occupy on the moon of Yavin, or a tale of Luke investigating a report that his mentor, Ben Kenobi, is still alive. That latter story develops kind of the way you expect it to -- but that's the point. It develops the way you want it to. If it hadn't, it probably wouldn't have had any emotional pull at all. Most of the stories tend to focus on Luke, though Han & Chewie have a solo outting. Princess Leia is the most short changed, neither getting a storyline devoted to her, nor even much of a supporting part in the other tales.

The weakest story is, ironically, the one used on the cover of this collection. As a "mythos" piece, it introduces Admiral Ackbar (the rebel fish man in The Return of the Jedi) but it's basically just an action piece with little character or emotional undercurrent. It doesn't even "introduce" Ackbar, since apparently he and his people were already rebelling against the empire.

The stories tended to overlap from comic to comic, which means this collection begins with the end of a story started in Volume 1 and ends with a story that is to be continued in Volume 3, but that still leaves 5 completed stories in this volume, jumping from one sumptuously depicted planetary environ to another -- deserts, ice, swamps, etc.

All in all, great fun.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $16.95 USA.

Classic Star Wars Volume 3: Escape to Hoth 1995 (SC TPB) 196 pgs.

Written by Archie Goodwin. Illustrated by Al Williamson, with Allen Nunis.
Colours: Matthew Hollingsworth, Ray Murtaugh. Letters: unbilled.

Reprinting: Classic Star Wars #15-20, with covers, which reprinted the newspaper strip.

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Dark Horse Comics

The third and final volume collecting Dark Horse comics representation of the early 1980s newspaper strip by Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson. I won't bother going over the how and why details of the process, since you can just scroll up and read my reviews of the first two books.

This third volume is, to my mind, the weakest of the three. Don't get me wrong, it's still an enjoyable series of adventures, nicely written by Goodwin to evoke the swashbuckling, "gee whiz" spirit of the original movies more than a lot of the "serious" (as opposed to necessarily sophisticated) Star Wars novels that have sprung up in recent years. And it's strikingly illustrated by old school Master, Williamson. But I just didn't find it as enjoyable as the first two books (the second volume was my favourite).

Perhaps it's because Goodwin set out to write a series of adventures that bridged the gap between the first and second movie. For the early adventures, such anchorings just added a nifty touch to otherwise interesting, original adventures, as we see the first appearance of Darth Vader's oversized star destroyer (volume 1) or Luke first discovers the planet Hoth (volume 2). But in these final stories, there's a feeling we lose the "anything goes" approach to plot, which allowed for introduction of strange worlds and original characters, as Goodwin must now slowly rein everything in so that it can neatly converge on an ending that can serve as a lead in to the movie "The Empire Strikes Back". There's a little too much of running from the empire, or the rebels establishing themselves at their new base on Hoth, or Goodwin reprieving characters he had first introduced in earlier stories. It gives the entire run of newspaper strips a nice sense of closure, of being a novel-in-newspaper form, but, as noted, it also means there are fewer surprises, or freshness to the plots.

Then again, maybe it was just my own moroseness. Knowing these stories, that so nicely cast me back to my youth, were coming to an end, maybe I just read them with a little more glumness.

The book is still a lot of fun, and there are some nice stories and interesting villains.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $16.95 USA 

Han Solo at Stars' End - cover by Al WilliamsonClassic Star Wars: Han Solo at Stars' End 1997 (SC TPB) 80 pgs.

Written by Archie Goodwin. Illustrated by Alfredo Alcala.
Colours: Perry McNamee.

Reprinting: Classic Star Wars: Han Solo at Stars' End (#1-3, with covers), which reprinted the newspaper strip which, in turn, was based on the novel by Brian Daley.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Dark Horse Comics

This is the fifth and final TPB collecting Dark Horse's comics that reprinted the late '70s/early '80s Star Wars newspaper strip in comicbook form. The first three volumes reprinted the classic Archie Goodwin/Al Williamson strips, and the fourth, Classic Star Wars: The Early Adventures, reprinted the Russ Manning strips. This reprints the storyline written by Archie Goodwin and drawn by Alfredo Alcala.

What distinguishes this from the other strips, other than the length of the continuity and that it's a story featuring Han Solo and Chewbacca without Luke and Leia from before the events in the movie Star Wars, is that it's adapted from a source material. Namely, the novel Han Solo at Stars' End by Brian Daley.

Now, putting my cards on the table, I'll state outright that I consider the novel by Brian Daley to be a truly great read. I read it as a kid (three or four times over a few years) and read it again as an adult just a couple of years ago. It's still a great read. Daley evokes the kind of old-fashioned, swashbuckling pulp-style science fiction that the Star Wars movies were going for, but better written than a lot of pulp-era stories. In fact, Daley's Han Solo books (he wrote three between 1979 and 1980 of descending quality, though the final book is still a decent read) capture the spirit of the Star Wars movies better than a lot of the modern Star Wars spin-offs -- this despite the fact that, other than Han and Chewie, there's little to connect it to the films.

As well, I seem to recall seeing the Han Solo newspaper strip when I was a kid, so there's a nostalgic appeal for me reading it here.

Regardless, the comicbook version of Han Solo at Stars' End is an entertaining adventure.

The story has Han, ever the reluctant hero, being coerced into helping some would-be rebels in their search for loved ones who've been taken by the local representative of the Empire's power, the Corporate Authority. The quest eventually leads to a daring infiltration of a prison facility at the fringes of the system...Stars' End.

The strip is necessarily a truncated version of the book. It follows the plot pretty faithfully, but in a much more perfunctory way, pruning characterization and such -- the colourful 'droids Bullox and Blue Max are rather under-developed here. A noteworthy change from the novel is a scene in the book where Han essentially cold-bloodedly executes a he kills him in self defense. Overall it's a colourful, clever adventure with genuinely imaginative plot twists and it clips along briskly. Archie Goodwin, a long time writer of Marvel's Star Wars comic and previous newspaper strips, and here liberally helping himself to Daley's dialogue, knows the feel of Star Wars and scripts well.

This collection features an introduction by Heidi MacDonald profiling artist Alcala and praising the detail of his previous work -- ironic, since this maybe isn't his best stuff. It's a little too workmanlike in spots, with spartan backgrounds and rather thinly populated crowd scenes, and the catwoman, Atuarre, is poorly handled. It's not on the same breathtaking, eye-popping level as Al Williamson's Star Wars strip. But it's still good work, with Alcala's soft, shadowy inking which has made him a welcome inker over any artist's pencils lending the thing an organic, cozy feel. There's a definite moodiness at work, helped by the restrained, unobtrusive, earth-tone colours.

Scenes of the lush open fields of an agricultural world or the eerie lonesomeness of Stars' End, and the physical appearance of Bullox, or the character Rekkon, all come vividly alive from the novel.

The formating Dark Horse used in translating the newspaper strip to comics was to do some occasional editing out of extraneous panels, or sometimes expanding a panel so the thing doesn't have quite the rigid look of a comic strip. There's still repetition, reiterating information, as is unavoidable in a story that was originally being told in three or four panels a day, but it's fairly smooth overall, and the tempo is sprightly.

The novel is, frankly, better -- but this is an enjoyable romp in its own right that captures the spirit of the movies. In fact, reading this has some of the fun as if you were watching some hitherto un-released Star Wars movie (well, maybe a TV movie).

Cover price: $9.95 CDN./$6.95 USA.

Pocket Book Reprint / Marvel Illustrated Book
Star Wars - cover by Bob Larkin Star Wars
Published in 1982 by Marvel Comics in Colour

Written by Archie Goodwin. Drawn by Carmine Infantino (and Dave Cockrum). Inked by Pablo Marcos, Gene Day, Steve Mitchell.
Colours: Marie Severin. Letters: various. Editor: Archie Goodwin. 

Reprinting the Star Wars strips serialized in the British Star Wars Weekly magazine #60, 94-99, 104-106

Rating: * * * * 

This reprints four more-or-less comic book length stories, reformatted for the pocket book size with about two panels per page: "The Way of the Wookiee", which features Han Solo and Chewbacca in a story set prior to the events in the movie Star Wars; "The Day After the Death Star", in which Luke has an eye-opening adventure the morning after the destruction of the Death Star; and "The Weapons Master", in which Leia reflects back on how she was first taught to fight -- and the unhappy resolution to that adventure. The final story, "War on Ice" (drawn by Dave Cockrum), is an action piece and seems more like the end of a longer adventure, complete with a recap explaining what led up to it. 

For a long time, I was confused about the origin of these stories. Similiar "Marvel Illustrated Books" (Marvel and DC both used this format in the late 1970s/early 1980s) featured reprints, and Goodwin and Infantino were the regular creative team on the monthly Star Wars comic for a while. But the cover advertised this as "new" adventures, and the chronology-breaking nature of the stories made it hard to figure how they would've been fitted into Marvel's regular Star Wars comic. Eventually I learned these were "new" only to the North American market, and in fact were reprints of stories first serialized (in short chapters) for Marvel's U.K. branch. These pocket book collections might have appreciated a bit in the collector's market -- given it was a limited use format.

If that's the case, that's too bad (for the casual reader), because this is a very strong collection. "The Way of the Wookiee" is probably the best, with a story that unfolds nicely with some clever twists. But "The Day After the Death Star" and "The Weapons Master" are also highly memorable. Archie Goodwin was a particularly good choice to pen many of Marvel's early Star Wars comics, adopting dialogue that easily evokes the movies, and a nice sense of swashbuckling adventure, while marrying the thing with (dare I say it?) stronger comic book-style characterization, plotting, introspection and moralising than Star Wars creator George Lucas ever really achieved in the movies. Goodwin's Star Wars was Star Wars with brains. I'm ambivalent about Carmine Infantino's art on the series, but it certainly got the job done -- and, as he was the main artist for a long run, these stories certainly evoke the flavour of Marvel's Star Wars comics for me.

Only the shortest, final story is weak, largely because it seems like only half a story. And I discovered, much later -- that's 'cause that's what it was. Marvel had also run a Star Wars strip in a U.S. magazine called Pizzazz. When Pizzazz was cancelled, this story was left unfinished. Eventually the complete story was serialized in the U.K., and finally the concluding instalment made its North American debut here.

Unusual for these pocket books is that it was printed in colour (most of these Marvel Illustrated Books were black & white). The colours by Marie Severin are vibrant and add nicely to the overall enjoyment.

Pocket Book Reprint / Marvel Illustrated Book
Star Wars - cover by Bob Larkin Star Wars 2: World of Fire
Published in 1982 by Marvel Comics in Black & White

Written by Chris Claremont. Drawn by Carmine Infantino. Inked by Gene Day.
Letters: Watanabe, Simek. Editor: Archie Goodwin.  

Reprinting the Star Wars strips originally serialized in the British Star Wars Weekly< #107-115

Rating: * * * * 

In the early 1980s (long before the glut of TPB collections) a reprint collection format that was experimented with was pocket book sized collections, which usually reprinted three comics per book, re-formatted to average about two panels per page. This was the second of two Star Wars Illustrated Books and, like the first, boasted material that was new to a North American audience by reprinting stories originally made for Marvel's U.K. wing, and serialized in short instalments in the U.K. released Star Wars Weekly magazine.

Printed in black & white (the previous Star Wars book was colour) and featuring a single story (that's the equivalent of a three issue trilogy), this has Luke, Leia, C-3PO and R2-D2 -- as well as another rebel girl, Mici (not seen before or since in Star Wars comics, as far as I know) -- stealing a prototype Imperial space ship, but ending up crashing on a planet where a rebel archaeological team had been exploring old ruins. The archaeologists are dead, killed by some mysterious force, and Luke and Leia reluctantly ally themselves with the remnants of an Imperial scouting party, also trapped on the planet.

And it's a pretty good, self-contained little Star Wars thriller. Sure, it's a pretty familiar scenario...but part of the appeal is, of course, that it's familiar for a sci-fi/horror story, but a bit more atypical for a Star Wars adventure. Scripter Chris Claremont takes the familiar heroes and the Star Wars milieu...and then marries it with ideas borrowed from Forbidden Planet, Star Trek, The Thing, and the Alien movies (based on a lot of his stories in the 1980s, Claremont was a BIG fan of Alien!). But in mixing the familiar ideas together...the combination can take on a certain freshness. That was the appeal of Marvel's 1980s Star Wars comics...that they didn't mind reaching beyond the limited formula of the movies, without losing the fundamental feel of the movies. So there are still rebels and stormtroopers, and light sabers and reverberations in the "Force"...but with a plot that isn't just another battle with Darth Vader.

Claremont writes a good script. Yeah, he can be a bit verbose at times, and heavy handed in his character introspection...but it's nice that he gives the characters motivation and nuance, and in ways that stays fairly true to the movie versions (for the characters from the movies) and gives shading to those created new for this story. And, truth be told, Claremont is actually positively minimalist compared to some of his more talky scripts. And given that the Star Wars movies themselves weren't exactly known for their deft and subtle dialogue, one could argue Claremont sometimes writes better lines than the actors sometimes had to say.

The Carmine Infantino/Gene Day combo was a mainstay of early Marvel Star Wars comics. I can't say I was a huge fan of Infantino's squat, angular figures, but his storytelling is energetic, his composition both clear and, at times, dramatic -- and with Day's inks, even occasionally spooky, which suits the story.

Admittedly, these Illustrated Books are probably pretty hard to come by, but this is an enjoyable, even thrilling, little "lost" tale of the star warriors if you can find it.

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