Marvel, Star Wars, and No Surprises

Marvel's Star Wars #1 may be very good, but it's a symptom of the larger problem with the new Star Wars Expanded Universe.

Almost exactly one year after announcing that the license to publish Star Wars comics was returning to the company that first published them, Marvel released Star Wars #1. With this comic, set in the days between the first film and Empire Strikes Back, Jason Aaron and John Cassady have delivered a sterling Star Wars tale that manages to include every crucial character and image from A New Hope, with a few visual cues from Empire Strikes Back and Return of The Jedi thrown in to keep things interesting. Crank up your Episode IV soundtrack, dim the lights, and any Star Wars fan will be right where they want to be.

But no matter how good Star Wars #1 is, there are no surprises to be found. I’m not picking on Marvel, nor is this an indictment of the top-notch talent they have working on every single one of these books. Future titles, for example, include Darth Vader by Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larocca and Princess Leia by Mark Waid and Terry Dodson. You can’t argue with talent like that. But when you’re dealing with characters whose fate is already known, telling stories set in between two of the most famous films of all time, how much can be done beyond hitting expected character beats and giving fans the visual cues and jokes that they already expect?

Once Disney made their intentions clear to not just make a new trilogy of Star Wars films, but expand it with movies that exist outside what will ultimately be the core nine film saga, it was clear that the established Expanded Universe had outlived its usefulness to the folks in charge. Who could blame them? I wouldn’t want to have to deal with it, either. Despite the fact that earlier novels and comics kept the Star Wars flame alive during the fifteen year drought of Star Wars movies (longer if you choose to ignore the prequels), it will always be films that define and drive the Star Wars universe.

And so, the comparison with previous Star Wars licensees becomes inevitable. Until last year, virtually the entire Star Wars timeline was open for business, from events thousands of years before The Phantom Menace to hundreds of years after Return of the Jedi. But for the sake of simplicity and clarity, the Star Wars Expanded Universe that fans knew was wiped out in 2014, replaced with the official word that only the events depicted in six films (soon to be many more), The Clone Wars animated series, and Star Wars: Rebels, were canon, and future novels (beginning with A New Dawn) and comics would fill in the blanks accordingly. 

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I’m not one to complain too loudly about matters of continuity. A lifetime of dedicated comic book fandom has taught me not to get too attached to the particulars. 1991 was the unofficial birth of the old expanded universe as we came to know it. Nearly a decade after the release of Return of the Jedi, and with promises of the prequel trilogy little more than remote promises and pre-internet whispers, Timothy Zahn’s trilogy of novels and Dark Horse Comics’ Dark Empire series were as close to episodes 7, 8, and 9 as most fans ever expected to see. Sure, there had been earlier novels, and Marvel’s original comic series outlasted Return of the Jedi by several years, but they all kind of existed on the outskirts of the canon, and with the exception of some of Marvel’s post-RoTJ comics work, couldn’t stake out much of their own real estate in terms of actually moving the universe forward.   

It was inevitable that over the course of nearly twenty-five years that the Star Wars mythology that was fleshed out by thousands of comics and hundreds of novels ultimately became as big and unwieldy as any superhero comic. For Disney’s new slate of films to have the maximum amount of creative freedom necessary to tell relatively self-contained stories, then something was gonna have to go. Worries about contradicting previously established storylines about the Skywalker or Solo bloodlines simply aren’t on the menu anymore.

But here’s the problem: at least until Star Wars: The Force Awakens is released, the post Return of the Jedi timeline is completely off-limits to the folks in charge of Star Wars comics and novels. One only has to look at the solicitations for Marvel’s upcoming projects, or the characters being showcased in the new “official” prose novels to see what you’re in store for: stories primarily dealing with characters whose fate was already determined, in another medium no less. In the case of Marvel’s upcoming comics those all take place in the space between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, probably the single most explored period in all of Star Wars history (to be fair, Rebels is focusing elsewhere), and the one that allows the safest playground for writers and artists to let Han, Luke, and Leia be their most recognizable selves. 

Perhaps its fitting, then, that Star Wars’ final comic book home is at Marvel, who arguably do open-ended storytelling better than anyone. Characters like Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Han Solo worked best in the closed circle of the epic cinematic trilogy, and their very best print adventures dealt with their greater destiny or that of their descendants, two things which are strictly off limits for at least the next five years. The kind of open ended, status quo preserving storytelling that is a hallmark of superhero comics leaves little room on the page when dealing with characters whose final fate can only be determined on celluloid. Unless Marvel get the go-ahead to go beyond the most recognizable core of the franchise, all you can expect is an entertaining, but thoroughly safe, Star Wars fix.