Red-Headed Stepchild: The Star Wars #1 Review

the_star_wars_cover_1_2013989091429Reading Dark Horse Comics’ The Star Wars, the adaptation of George Lucas’s first draft of the Star Wars screenplay from back in 1974, is, if nothing else, a strange experience.

And it is strange on a couple of levels; first, there’s the simple cognitive dissonance that occurs seeing an old dude with a white beard named Luke Skywalker, a dude with a greasy Guy Gardner haircut named Darth Vader, and small two-man fighter ships called Star Destroyers. Second, it is strange because this comic is coming out about 18 years into the Internet age, and any movie fan worth a damn has already long ago downloaded one of the early drafts of the Star Wars script from Drew’s Script-O-Rama (at one time or another, the first four drafts were out there for the taking), and already knows at least some of what’s coming in this comic.

And third, having glanced at those early drafts, we know that what is coming really isn’t all that great, at least compared to the real Star Wars. After all, this is a story originally written by George Lucas, who based on the prequels, clearly caught lightning in a bottle with that final revision of the shooting draft for Star Wars, and if this was a just universe, he then would have immediately had the language center of his brain scraped away in a lobotomy-like procedure.

And you will see a lot of elements of the prequels in this comic book, with some of Lucas’s worst instincts in Star Wars storytelling on display… including a little blond moppet shouting, “Yippee!”

But on the positive side, unlike in the prequels, you will also see that little blond moppet die like a pig in a chute.

We open in a universe where the Jedi-Bendu, the former personal bodyguards to the Emperor have been all but annihilated by the New Empire. Forner Jedi-Bendu Kane Starkiller, and his sons Annikin and Deak (a.k.a., The Yippie Yeller), are in hiding on some obscure moon when a ship lands. As the three go out to see who has found them, a Sith Knight attacks Annikin and Deak, killing Deak before Kane cuts him in half with his laser sword. The now duo takes off for their former homeworld of Aquilae – also the final holdout against the New Empire. Meanwhile, the new Emperor announces that he intends to attack Aquilae, under the leadership of Governor Hoedaack and Hoedaack’s right hand man, Darth Vader. Aquilae has a spy, Whitsun, on the galactic capital of Alderaan, who is stranded when the Emperor grounds all ships, forcing Whitsun to look for a pirate to take him home to spread the news. Back on Aquilae, General Luke Skywalker attempts to convince the king to attack the Empire, while King Kayos is more concerned about seeing his daughter, Leia, off to her first semester at college. Starkiller then lands on Aquilae and tries to convince Skywalker to train Annikin in the ways of the Jedi-Bendu, revealing that years of battle have caused nearly his entire body to be replaced with bionics. And then I gazed at heaven and shouted, “Do Not Want!” but at that point the comic was over.

Half the fun of writing that plot summary was using those old familiar names in new contexts, and that’s half the fun of reading the comic as well. You can see the real Star Wars peeking out from under almost every panel of this book, from the laser sword fight with the Sith Knight, to the concept of a nearly-extinct line of Jedi(-Bendu) warriors, to Whitsun hunting up a pirate for passage (that you just know will end in a meeting with some version of Han Solo), what this story will become by 1977 is struggling under the covers, like a ferret in a burlap sack, or rotten ideas in George Lucas’s frontal lobe.

And a lot of those bad Lucas ideas are front and center in this story. Much of the stuff from the prequels that made them seem more long-winded,  incomprehensible and irritating than the original trilogy are here: political negotiations? Check! Big political speeches and rhetoric in an example of tell-don’t-show? Yup! Dudes in a room talking? Oh yeah! Trade restrictions? Jesus God help me, there sure are! A little kid shouting “Yippee!” like he’s a refugee from a Bazooka Joe comic strip? Christ Almighty, take me now!

And granted, scripter J. W. Rinzler gave me some hope by having Deak, who is drawn by artist Mike Mayhew as the spitting image of the unholy spawn of Jake Lloyd and Mark Hamill, slaughtered within two pages of making that unholy exclamation… but in the same panel where Deak sucks the laser pipe, Rinzler has Annikin give us an end-of-Episode-3 cry of, “Nooooo!” that brings it all back to the greatest sins of George Lucas.

And therein lies the overriding problem with the comic book, that none of Rinzler’s good intentions can overcome: he is working from an early script by George Lucas, and George Lucas is just not that good a writer. I don’t care if you’re J. W. Rinzler, Alan Moore or Elmore Leonard, you can’t take political speeches, trade embargoes, negotiations and exposition and turn it into a rollicking space opera. And once upon a time, Lucas knew this. How do I know? Because this is a version of the story that Lucas discarded. Sure, he recycled pieces and used them in the prequels, but there is a reason that those movies are not referred to as “a rollicking space opera” nearly as often as they are called “a rape of Generation X’s childhood.”

The best thing about this comic book (other than the entertainment factor of seeing the seeds of a story we all love) is Mayhew’s art. He has made the choice to show the Star Wars part of The Star Wars; there are spaceships that look a bit like Tie Fighters with the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, and even though in The Star Wars, “Stardestroyers” are two-man fighters, they look just like shrunk-down versions of the big ones we know and love. And when Kane Starkiller exposes his bionics, there’s no mistaking his chest plate as anything but Darth Vader’s. Mayhew also draws in a photorealistic style that looks just on this side of lightboxed photographs. So there is a realistic look to all the people that is reminiscent of Alex Ross… but some of the closeups are so realistic that they almost become static (there’s a closeup of Princess Leia that is so pristine that it popped me out of the story). And while a lot of people really like that style, I can sometimes find it distracting. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t on the level of a Greg Land, whose art I can’t follow without wondering what issue of Penthouse he was lightboxing for reference, but it’s not my favorite.

But one choice Mayhew made that I wholeheartedly agree with is that, in general, none of the characters here look like the actors who played them in the movie. Yeah, we have a Princess Leia (who even has the cinnamon bun haircut), but it isn’t Carrie Fisher. Annikin Starkiller looks more like Kenny Wayne Shepard than Mark Hamill, and Kane Starkiller looks like Sam Waterston from Law & Order, only with a beard and a silly headband (yeah, I know that no one named Starkiller was in Star Wars, but he was the one character whose photo references I think I recognized). And by making the characters obviously look different from the movie, it helps to remind the reader that they are reading a very different story.

The problem is that the story, up until now, just isn’t that compelling. Look: this is a 22-page comic that is ostensibly a space adventure story that features five pages of space adventure and 17 pages of dudes talking politics, trade policies, sending kids off to college. And none of this is Rinzler’s fault; the man is just doing an adaptation… but it’s an adaptation of a discarded version of a story by the guy who gave us Jar Jar Binks and shitty child actors screeching, “Yippee!”

Look: if you’re a Star Wars completist, or if you’re just curious to see how a story like Star Wars evolved from its original idea, The Star Wars is worth a look. But keep in mind that this version of the story was put aside as a bad idea by the man who thought that the line, “I hate sand. It’s coarse, and it gets everywhere,” was a good idea.