Enter: Luke Skywalker!

In 1976 Roy Thomas was an 11 year veteran of Marvel Comics. He had been Stan Lee’s hand-picked successor to the position of editor-in-chief at the company when, in 1972, Lee began the long process of disentangling himself from the company’s day-to-day operations. Thomas held the position for two years before stepping down, but still retained some influence.

Thomas had met George Lucas and his right-hand man Charles Lippincott for dinner in 1975, soon after the release of American Graffiti. Lucas, a lifelong comic book and sci-fi fan, was excited to meet Thomas, and much of the dinner was spent describing the follow up to American Graffiti, then little more than a series of disparate ideas and concepts called “The Star Wars.” Thomas enjoyed the dinner but didn’t have much reason to linger on the discussion—until roughly a year later when he was contacted by Lippincott again. “The Star Wars” had become Star Wars, was filming in Tunisia for release the following year, and Lucas wanted Marvel to produce a comic book adaptation.

The Ralph McQuarrie illustration that changed the fate of Marvel Comics

Thomas, clearly simpatico with Lucas regarding their shared enthusiasm for vintage sci-fi and comics, was the obvious choice to be Lucas’ point man at Marvel. The problem was that Marvel—and Stan Lee himself—had already turned Star Wars down. So had Warren Magazines (now defunct, but then publisher of Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella), and even DC. Still, Thomas humored Lippincott with one more meeting, and was presented with a feast of production art, character design, storyboards, and script sequences. As Thomas explained earlier this year:

Charlie flipped over the next production sketch. “This,” he said as he did so, “is what we call ‘the cantina sequence.’”

It was a scene of two guys with rayguns—one an Earthman type, one a pointy-eared alien with a tail—about to “slap leather” in what looked like a saloon, but amid a cast of otherworldly aliens and armored soldiers Charlie had called “Stormtroopers.”

“I’ll do it!” I interjected.

What changed Thomas’ mind? Throughout previous discussions Lucas and Lippincott had referred to Star Wars as science fiction, and Thomas’ natural skepticism had come from the fact that by the mid-’70s sci-fi comics had become a hard sell. But these images were something else. This was more like space opera, a kind of adventure-oriented sci-fi that had grown out of the planetary romance of Edgar Rice Burroughs and had its full flowering in comics with the invention in 1934 of Flash Gordon by Alex Raymond, among others. Lucas had chosen Thomas wisely, because in Thomas he found a man who recognized the same source material from which Lucas had pulled the foundation of Star Wars, and whose enthusiasm for the genre matched his own.

Star Wars at the 1976 San Diego Comic-Con

Thomas returned to Marvel determined to reverse the company’s previous rejection. The company relented and gave Thomas the book, but remained skeptical. By coincidence, Thomas had been planning a move from New York to Los Angeles later that year, which allowed him to be with artist Howard Chaykin when Lippincott promoted the film at the 1976 San Diego Comic-Con. Chaykin was, like Thomas, handpicked by Lucas for the Star Wars assignment, based on the sci-fi and fantasy work he had produced up to then for both Marvel and DC; he also illustrated the first ever Star Wars promotional poster.

Chaykin’s 1976 promotional poster

Despite the movie industry’s skepticism, Lucas and Lippincott had done a good job building awareness of the film. The audiences who flocked to see Star Wars on its release in May 1977 were previously invisible to Hollywood, but Lucas had known where to find them. Over the second half of 1976 Lippincott had traveled to comic book and sci-fi conventions across the country, spreading word among the fans who would soon become the film’s core constituency. Accordingly, when the first official Star Wars item—the Star Wars novelization ghost-written by Alan Dean Foster—hit stands at the end of 1976, the book sold well. An audience was already beginning to coalesce. The first issue of Marvel’s Star Wars adaptation went on sale in April 1977, two months before the film’s premiere. As with the novelization, sales of the comic were strong even before the film’s release—but as soon as the movie arrived, the book became Marvel’s biggest hit of the decade.

In fairness, no one had seen the movie yet – Cover by Chaykin and Tom Palmer

Will he save the galaxy—or destroy it?

There was no such thing as the home video market in 1977. Cable and videotape existed, of course, but their ubiquity in American homes was still a few years off. Movies lived in theaters, and maybe later—much late—on broadcast TV.

Reprinting issues #4-6 – Cover by Chaykin

This absence created a marketplace for a specific kind of movie tie-in that is almost gone today. Things like novelizations and comic book adaptations were popular because there was simply no better way to hold on to movies once they passed out of first-run theaters. Marvel Comics devoted the first six issues of its Star Wars series to adapting the events of the film, and if you were a kid who loved Star Wars and wanted to relive the story on your own, it was really the only game in town. The idea of actually owning the film yourself, as a plastic disc or intangible data file to rewatch an infinite amount of times—that was science fiction.

So Marvel’s Star Wars sold… and sold… and sold. Marvel sent the original issues back to press, and then compiled them into giant treasury editions. It reprinted its adaptation dozens of times, all across the world, and it continued to sell. In a letters page during the series’ first year, Marvel confirmed that over 2 million copies of the story had been printed.

Art by Chaykin and Steve Leialoha

This could not have come at a more opportune time for Marvel. In the span of just 15 years it had grown from an upstart, almost defunct firm to an industry giant. By the mid ’70s the company was experiencing severe growing pains. Editorial and executive turmoil was echoed by a general downward trend in comic book sales. By common consent, Star Wars—and, by extension, Roy Thomas—saved Marvel. The film’s runaway success was a life raft at a time of insecurity.

There was a problem, however: As popular as Star Wars was, there was only one movie. After six issues the comics entered uncharted territory. Suddenly Marvel needed new stories. As strange as it may seem from the perspective of 2015—drowning in a sea of ancillary Star Wars material—in 1977 no one but George Lucas had ever written a Star Wars story before. (Although Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter Of The Mind’s Eye holds the distinction of being the first Expanded Universe Star Wars novel, it wasn’t released until February 1978.) But Star Wars was a monthly comic book, and Thomas had pages to fill, so by the end of 1977 Marvel had begun to publish brand new stories.

Jaxxon and some other guys. Cover by Gil Kane and Tony DeZuniga

At last! Beyond the movie! Beyond the galaxy!

Cover by Infantino and Terry Austin

From the beginning the creators were operating under a prohibitive number of constraints. While in theory, at least, there was a whole galaxy of stories to explore, in practice the comic was unable to tell the only stories readers really wanted. With no more insight into the future of the Star Wars saga than their readers, creators had to maintain a frozen status quo based on the final scenes of the first movie. Month after month fans clamored for stories about Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi, development of the romantic triangle between Han, Luke, and Leia, the history of the mysterious Clone Wars, and more Darth Vader—but Marvel couldn’t tell these stories. Marvel was reluctant even to have the characters change their clothes.

Given these restrictions, Thomas’ first impulse was to devote more space to exploring Han Solo’s adventures as a smuggler and part-time outlaw. The series’ first storyline was an extended riff on the Seven Samurai / Magnificent Seven template, with Solo leading a group of misfit bounty hunters and adventurers against a group of space pirates. One of these irregulars was a 6-foot-tall green rabbit named Jaxxon, essentially Bugs Bunny in space. After the issue had been published Lippincott contacted Thomas to register Lucas’ displeasure with the character. Thomas quit the book, not specifically in protest over Jaxxon, but with an awareness that the movie’s success meant the license would only continue to attract greater scrutiny. He returned to writing Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian, whose creator had been dead for decades and wasn’t around to complain. Jaxxon was quietly shuffled offstage.

Thomas was succeeded by Archie Goodwin, another former Marvel editor in chief, while Chaykin was replaced as artist by Carmine Infantino. This team remained more or less stable for the next two-and-a-half years, until a creative shuffle following the release of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. Goodwin proved more adept at navigating the franchise’s slowly coalescing rulebook. While still unable to move the characters forward, he figured out the trick of keeping the main cast (affectionately referred to as the “Star Warriors”) busy while staying far away from the franchise’s main storyline. They fought pirates (lots of pirates) and bounty hunters and crooked Imperial governors, all the while staying one step ahead of the sinister machinations of Darth Vader. Of course, Vader’s interactions with the main cast was kept to a minimum, but Goodwin made that work to the book’s advantage. When Vader did show up—to menace the gang from a distance, or eliminate some expendable non-canon supporting character—it was significant.

Cover by Infantino and Bob Wiacek

Infantino had spent most of his career working across town at DC. His distinctive style made for an endearingly off-model book, in a manner that modern fans would never tolerate. But Infantino was already an éminence grise, having spent decades in the industry co-creating such characters as the Barry Allen Flash, Black Canary, and the Barbara Gordon Batgirl, and was fresh off a five-year stint as DC’s publisher. He could draw Chewbacca however he wanted.

Owing to these considerations, the first few years of the book are unique in a way that few subsequent Star Wars projects could be. Everything was still shaking out, and even with Lucasfilm’s guidance, there were still massive gaps in the mythos. It’s pleasantly fast and loose—not a phrase often associated with Star Wars.

When time came to adapt The Empire Strikes Back, Goodwin reached out to Al Williamson. Williamson had made his name as an artist on EC Comics’ Weird Science and Weird Fantasy books in the 1950s, and later in the 1960s drew a memorable run of Flash Gordon comics for the short-lived King comics. Williamson’s work for the adaptation, and the Return Of The Jedi adaptation three years later, marks a visual high point for Star Wars comics. In a way it was also full circle, with Williamson producing artwork specifically reminiscent of Alex Raymond’s original Flash Gordon Sunday pages.

Cover by Simonson

Soon after Empire, the book welcomed the new regular creative team of David Michelinie and Walt Simonson (soon to be famous for his historic run on The Mighty Thor). While they were hampered by Han Solo’s sudden absence, they found a game replacement in Lando Calrissian. The series was now more comfortable devoting energy to the inner workings of the Rebel Alliance, with the main Star Warriors foiling an attempt to create a new modified Death Star weapon two years in advance of Jedi, as well as dealing with Imperial infiltration and sabotage. Michelinie and Simonson’s Shira Brie sequence—featuring the introduction of a new love interest for Luke as well as his subsequent frame-up in the wake of a “friendly fire” incident—stands as perhaps the series’ best extended storyline.

Cynthia Martin’s manga influenced art was a highlight of the series’ last year

All Together Now!

The challenges following the release of Return Of The Jedi were significantly greater than anything the series had previously faced. Whereas the book had spent the previous six years working around the films, the third movie brought the story to a close. Without another on the horizon, what was there left for the comic book to do?

The series’ main writer for most of its last three years was Jo Duffy. Interestingly, the series’ existential quandary was echoed in the stories themselves: with the Empire defeated, the main cast was left purposeless. One of the recurring themes through this period was the question of what became of warriors during the transition to peacetime. Forced to switch roles from generals to diplomats, Han and Leia bristled against new responsibilities. Luke, meanwhile, agonized over whether to take an apprentice (the word “Padawan” was still 15 years away), and how to avoid following in his father’s footsteps.

An example of Duffy and Martin’s lighter touch—and a warning never to trust Zeltrons

The final months of Star Wars are also notable for being one of the first—if not the first—examples of a female-led creative team at a mainstream publisher. For the last year and a half of the book, Duffy was joined by Cynthia Martin as penciler, with Glynis Wein as colorist and Ann Nocenti as editor. While the series had always worked to maintain an equal focus between the three leads, the star of the last year is unquestionably Leia, with her internal conflicts over the peacetime shift taking center stage. The letters pages from the book’s final years reflected enthusiasm at the turn toward quieter character-based stories, with female fans taking an increasingly prominent role in discussing the book.

Meet the Nagai

The main enemy for the book’s final years was a race of extra-galactic invaders called the Nagai. Duffy spent months foreshadowing the Nagai, a new type of threat designed to take advantage of the power vacuum left in the wake of the Empire’s demise and exploit the inability of the Rebel Alliance to form a stable new government. But by this point sales were in freefall. The few new Star Wars projects Lucas launched in the mid 80s—the Droids and Ewoks cartoons (along with their respective short-lived comic book adaptations), and two family-friendly Ewok TV movies—met with a muted response. Marvel’s Star Wars ended 1986. Duffy’s plotlines were hastily wrapped up to reflect the eventual direction of her stories, with Rebel and Imperial remnants united to repel the new threat against the galaxy.

Star Wars was gone. Now, of course, cynical fans know that nothing ever really goes away, but in 1986 this was as definite a conclusion as could be imagined for the franchise. It appeared to be the end of the road.

Cover by Dave Dorman

Soon after that, however, Dark Horse Comics published the first Dark Empire series, by Tom Veitch and Cam Kennedy. Oddly, Dark Empire began life at Marvel. Veitch and Kennedy had approached Lucasfilm independently to inquire about producing new Star Wars comics. With Lucas’ blessing they brought the project to Goodwin, still at Marvel. Marvel was reluctant to publish more Star Wars, but Goodwin’s status at the company prevailed. Unexpectedly, Goodwin left the company soon after. Marvel had little interest in more Star Wars without Goodwin, so it abandoned the project. Veitch and Kennedy then pointed Lucasfilm in the direction of Dark Horse, fresh off early successes with the Aliens and Predator licenses. Dark Horse went on to publish new Star Wars comics for another two decades.

Dark Empire hit shelves in 1991, the same year as Timothy Zahn’s novel Heir To The Empire. Both were immensely successful. The drought was over, and from that point on there would never again be any shortage of new Star Wars material, be it in comics, prose, video games, or even—eventually—new movies. However, it would be another 23 years before Marvel regained the Star Wars license, and then only because by 2014 Disney owned both companies. It was an historic reversal for Marvel, who had for the previous 15 years largely eschewed third-party licenses. Ironically, they were no longer considered to be worth the trouble.