Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Star Wars Omnibus: A Long Time Ago.... Volume 1: A Comic Review

Star Wars Omnibus: A Long Time Ago.... Volume 1
Publisher: Dark Horse
Writers: Roy Thomas, Don Glut, Archie Goodwin, Mary Jo Duffy Artists: Howard Chaykin, Carmine Infantino, Alan Kupperberg, Herb Trimpe, Allen Milgrom, Walt Simonson, Steve Leialoha, Rick Hoberg, Bill Wray, Frank Springer, Tom Palmer, Bob Wiacek, Terry Austin and Gene Day

Despite being-- like most of my friends-- a complete freak about all things Star Wars in the late 1970s, I rarely bought the Marvel comic series unless they were doing an adaptation of one of the movies. I'm pretty sure the only complete storyline I owned from this title was a small black and white paperback of the first six movie-based issues from Ballantine, which I began coloring with Crayolas and markers. My impressions of the Marvel version of George Lucas's creation are strobe-like glimpses of random moments in any given plot. Who's this guy who wasn't in the movie? How did Luke get to this planet? Where's Darth Vader? Why is Han hanging out with a giant green bunny, who's something of an asshole to boot?

Face it, few of these early stories are classics. This volume showcases Roy Thomas's skills in adaptation and pastiche, but also his taste for the silly. He immediately casts Han Solo into the Takashi Shimura role in a comic book version Kurosawa’s classic film Shichinin no Samurai (That's The Seven Samurai to you and me, Russ), with Han and Chewie recruiting some fighters to help space-villagers fight space-bandits. Or maybe it's The Magnificent Seven, but with a porcupine guy instead of James Coburn's knife fighter. Considering how much Lucas borrowed from Kurosawa, Thomas has the right idea. But he can't resist introducing Bugs Bunny into the mix. Meet Jaxxon, the infamous green rabbit. Roughly as popular as the reviled Jar Jar Binks, but mercifully obscurer, Jaxxon never got any screen time in the prequels or any of the spin-off animated series, and neither Kenner nor Hasbro ever produced him as an action figure.

Other Thomas touches include Don-Wan Kihotay, a straight lift of Miguel de Cervantes’s famous creation and a villain named Serji-X Arrogantus, apparently an affectionate parody of artist Sergio Aragones, complete with Aragones's magnificent black mustache. What kind of name is Arrogantus? I know the various Darths often chose wicked-sounding surnames-- Sidious, Maul, Vader-- in order to frighten. But what else could someone named Arrogantus become other than a throwaway creep in a hastily written comic book? What kind of family could he have come from? Still, Thomas's script for the movie adaptation is filled with punchy descriptions and clever ideas like the explosion that destroyed the Death Star taking days to burn and providing a spectacular if temporary tombstone marker for Grand Moff Tarkin's great failure. If George S. Patton was right and fixed fortifications are monuments to the stupidity of man, so then are giant space stations with unshielded exhaust ports.

Plus I have to give him credit for another cool idea. At issue #6's conclusion, Thomas corrects one of George Lucas's most egregious mistakes (prior to conceiving and producing the prequel trilogy, that is) and prefigures MTV’s efforts by twenty years when he mentions in a caption that, yes, Chewbacca will also receive a medal. Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman, unfortunately, are beyond repair.

Second scripter Archie Goodwin's settings and situations owe more to Flash Gordon, with an appropriately swashbuckling feel. Goodwin has Luke visit an all-water planet to hang out with a young Kevin Costner (inspiring Costner's notorious 1995 flop Waterworld) and sends the whole gang to an orbiting satellite of casinos that would make Futurama's Bender drool if he were programmed for that sort of thing. And so it goes for the rest of this volume. Star Wars characters sort of cut and pasted into comic book plots lifted from all the familiar sources.

Since there were no “Expanded Universe” tales or overall continuity to these adventures back in 1977, the Marvel writers were free to make up all kinds of wild characters, planets and situations. Besides the ridiculous Jaxxon and the amusing Serji-X, there's a cool and conflicted bounty hunter named Valance with a hideous secret, bald Yul Brynner impersonator Commander Strom (an evil Imperial officer), roguish Senator Greyshade and his pal, the chunky droid Master-Com. My favorites are Crimson Jack, the pirate king who commands a stolen Star Destroyer, and his first mate Jolli, the tragic, man-hating ass-kicker with a purple pageboy haircut and a cute green beret. These two repeatedly bedevil Han Solo.

Howard Chaykin’s art in the first issue is shaky and rushed, but things improve rapidly with fine ink work from Steve Liealoha and Tom Palmer. As a kid, my favorite was the issue featuring the Death Star attack. Assisting Chaykin are Rick Hoberg and a pre-Ren and Stimpy/fine art Bill Wray-- as the X-Wings and TIE fighters zip and zing (and explode), the ink team goes nuts with the feathering and cross hatching. They also fix Chaykin’s likenesses so Han looks more like Harrison Ford and Luke looks less like a middle-aged Kirk Douglas with a California surfer cut. I used to love the artists' depictions of the reflections in the rebel pilots’ goggles and the final panel of all the heroes together at the awards ceremony.

Most of the art in this volume is by the legendary Carmine Infantino, inked with an almost mechanical cleanness by Terry Austin and then more organically by Gene Day and Bob Wiacek. I did not dig Mr. Infantino’s angular, stylized faces and heroically proportioned figures (Han and Luke put Arnold Schwarzeneggar to shame) when I was a 10 year old, but his art has aged much better than most of the stories it supports. If you can get past such bizarre scenes as Han and Chewie floating around in space and Chewie’s orange monkey face, you’ll find page after page of vigorous storytelling. While his facial expressions and body poses aren't subtle, Infantino excels at putting figures into motion and depicting action, and both Thomas and Goodwin make sure he has plenty of that to draw. Fisticuffs and light sabre battles abound, plus giant sea monters and space dogfights. All those spaceships must have been real bastards to draw, too, but Infantino and the rest don't scrimp on the machinery and planetary vistas. Like Chaykin before him, Infantino goes “off-model” quite often, but his art here is dynamic and fun. That's what matters most. I’d rather see artists like Chaykin and Infantino adapting a property to their strengths rather than relying on tons of photo reference and ending up with a lot of static tableaux. Al Williamson (who apparently did use a lot of photo reference and even traced them at times) and Michael Golden were more natural fits for Star Wars, but I’ve really come to appreciate Infantino’s Marvel-ized approach as well.

While this reprint volume’s dimensions are smaller than the original comics, it’s attractively designed, impressively fat and reproduces the original colors by Marie Severin, among others. I paid less than 17 dollars for my copy via Amazon.com, which means with 27 issues, more than 500 pages-- and considering just how enjoyable these wacky, more than likely out-of-continuity stories are-- this Omnibus book is a bargain. I’d love it if Dark Horse got the rights to publish some of Marvel’s other licensed properties if they did them exactly like this. Come to think of it, Dark Horse is an amazing source of classy reprints—they’ve got old Gold Key titles, Nexus, Creepy and Eerie coming out in expensive hardcover formats as well as fat black and white collections of Savage Sword of Conan. And these chunky little Star Wars books that will make you want to pull out your vintage Kenner toys and head to the backyard.

Or create a custom Jaxxon action figure.


Richard Bensam said...

Until I saw those custom action figures, I had forgotten just how bad those Roy Thomas issues were. I dropped the book right then...and imagine my dismay later at learning I missed the team of Goodwin, Infantino, and Austin, three of my favorite creators!

(That said, bless that guy for making those custom figures; this is what being a fan is all about.

Excellent review -- it brought back many memories!

Joel Bryan said...

Thanks! And yeah, you're right about the custom figure guy!