Holy crap people! This year marks the 40thanniversary of the release of Star Wars. Forty years of films, television shows, books, comics and video games. Forty years of “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….” Forty years of “May the Force Be With You”. The longevity and cultural impact that this franchise has had on our society is awe-inspiring and many of us probably wouldn’t have become the nerds that we are today had it not been for that cheap space opera that Fox bewilderingly decided to fund. And yet the 1977 film that we all know and love was not the original version of the story that George Lucas and company wanted to tell.
In 1974 Lucas completed his first draft of the script that would eventually become A New Hope. After reading over it, however, Lucas and company realized that it was far too big to turn into a film and ended up cutting out large portions of it and combining many of the characters into single roles. The original version of the script then went relatively forgotten outside of an occasional mention from Lucas when talking about the film’s early development. That was until 2013 when it was adapted into an 8-issue miniseries by writer J.W. Rinzler and artist Mike Mayhew for Dark Horse Comics. And seeing how today is May the 4th, I decided that it might be fun to take a look at this particular series and see how the film may have turned out and why they decided not to go with this version. This is Comic Book Spotlight shining a light on The Star Wars.
Now before I go any further you should know that this is going to be more of an analysis of the book as a whole as opposed to a straight forward review and as such will contain significant spoilers for it. This is mainly because most of the things that are worth talking about, good and ill, are series long arcs and individual moments that are scattered throughout the book and cannot be properly talked about without spoiling significant portions of it. But like some of my other articles I do realize that some people haven’t read the book and are looking for a simple recommendation one way or the other. To those people I will say this; the book is a mess. It often feels like we missed entire issues worth of development for several of the characters and they sometimes do things that make no sense. It has a ton of pacing problems and feels very much like The Hidden Fortress rip-off that Star Wars critics often accuse A New Hopeof being. But at the same time it is a very fascinating read and feels very much like you’re reading another version of a story that you know well with a few legitimately amazing moments that you will wish made it into the final film. I would recommend it if you’re a big Star Wars fan but to everyone else it’s only worth reading if you can find it cheap and have nothing else better to do.
The plot of the book is expectantly similar yet surprisingly different then the film the story would eventually become. In this universe, the Jedi were once the bodyguards of the Emperors and helped them spread their empire across the galaxy. But then something happened that is not disclosed in the story and the Jedi lost favor with the emperor and were replaced by the Sith Knights and hunted down to near extinction. At the book’s start,the few surviving Jedi led by General Luke Skywalker are attempting to keep one of the last remaining independent systems free of the Empire’s control. When they ultimately fail Luke forms and leads a rebellion against the Empire with the help of his new apprentice Annikin Starkiller and the new queen Leia.
As you can tell, the set up between this series and the film is very similar but vastly different at the same time. However, as you read the book it becomes abundantly clear that this was indeed based on the first draft of the screenplay. The first noticeable problem with the book is pacing and scope. The artwork is, for the most part, decent but it doesn’t really portray the epic scope that the writers clearly intended. We often get action sequences that are clearly supposed to be big, planet-wide events but we only ever see small glimpses of said battle in single panels with the writers and artists focusing on single ships or characters. As a result what we see ends up looking like the occasional skirmish between the Rebel and Empire forces as opposed to being the full-scale war that the writing insists that it is.
The biggest problem with this and the pacing, however, is that it often feels like we missed something; as if the artist forgot to draw in a panel or a page was somehow torn out of the book. At one point, for example, the heroes are attacked by the same mounted troop patrol despite being separated by an apparently wide distance. We see Luke completely destroy the patrol but then it immediately cuts to Luke coming to Annikin’s aid after he has been injured in his own fight against said troops. And this is the main problem. We never see the troops attack Annikin. We never see the fight. We never get any indication that they were heading his way. We see Luke hack through the patrol and a panel later he is with Annikin and Leia despite, again, their being a noticeable distance between the two. There weren’t any transitional panels. No establishing ones to indicate that he was moving or any cuts back and forth between Luke’s and Annikin’s battles to let us know that the latter was even in a battle. You just get this one very jarring transition that makes you feel as if you’ve missed something.
What’s really frustrating however, is that this happens all the time throughout the book. Sometimes a character gets captured and you don’t see how. You are told that the Empire takes out a rebel base or something but you never see this happen. Sometimes a character makes his or her escape and you are just told that it happened later on. It’s stuff like this that ruins the pacing of the book and makes you feel as if you read some kind of rushed project that frequently violates the show don’t tell rule.
The actual plot itself, however, is okay. As mentioned earlier, people with a disdain for the franchise often accuse the first film of being a rip-off of the Akira Kurosawa film, The Hidden Fortress. While there are undoubtedly a few similarities between the two this is an accusation that I’ve never found to be true but that’s a discussion for another day. Now if you were to lob that accusation against this story it would hold a lot more merit. You have a grizzled old general who isn’t particularly likable and keeps the rest of the characters going through sheer force of will. Alongside him is a stubborn princess who has lost her kingdom and most of her family but still soldiers on despite her loss. Not long after said loss they are joined two bumbling, comedic relief sidekicks who don’t know everything that’s going on but should be able to guess. You have the majority of the plot involving a flight through enemy territory, the princesses captured during the final act with a rescue that is only made possible by an apparently morally upright character on the opposing side helping them. The amount of material that it lifts from The Hidden Fortress is nothing short of incredible. It is to The Hidden Fortress what Skyfall was to The Dark Knight. And yet as far as rip-offs go it’s not bad. At times the similarities are so blatant that you may as well call it a remake but it’s probably the best kind of rip-off that you can get. It still manages to be entertaining and is full of fun little action bits with legitimate suspense whenever they run into the Empire. That is until you take the characters into account.
This is the one area where the story is at times irredeemably bad and has a lot to do with some of the pacing problems mentioned earlier. The main problem is that most of these characters fail to develop much of a personality beyond their roles in the plot. Luke never develops beyond being the grouchy old mentor to the rest of the party. Captain Whitsun has the distinct role of being that extra character in the group who is only memorable because he dies to save the others. Governor Hoedaack and his general Darth Vader never go beyond being the bad guys who want to rule the Aquilaean System because reasons. Strangely enough, however, the characters are always at their worst when they actually get a story arc. It’s not because said arc is offensive in some way but because the arc in question is completely unbelievable.
The first main example of this comes with Annikin. In the book he is described by others as a brash and rambunctious youth but beyond hitting on a few women we never really see that from the character. If anything, his action seem to indicate that he is a capable commander and fighter from the get-go. As a result his supposed arc of maturing into a more disciplined warrior throughout the series comes off as something that we were told happened as opposed to actually seeing it unfold. Likewise there is a romantic subplot between Annikin and Leia that literally comes out of nowhere. One issue she is threatening to have his eyeballs cut out and the next she is professing her love for him. And yes it is as random as that. There are quite literally no indications up until this point that the two even liked each other much less wanted to engage in any kind of romantic relationship.
Stranger still is the bizarre heal turn by Sith Knight Valorum who betrays the empire for apparently no reason. Throughout the series we see very little of the character but then in the last issue he decides that he wants to help Annikin and Leia escape from this universe’s version of the Death Star. Why does he do this? Because apparently the Empire has no honor. It’s something that was not built up in any way and until this final issue we hadn’t seen any form of dissatisfaction come from him regarding his peers or the way the Empire conducted its business. If anything his previous actions seemed to indicate that he was all for the Empire’s methods having tortured and burned several prisoners alive earlier in the series, making this heal turn all the more strange.
Now despite all of this, there is quite a bit that the book does right and makes the rest of it worth the effort. The banter between this version of R2 and C-3PO is fantastic and actually a lot better than A New Hope’s version if we’re being honest. The heal turn by Valorum makes absolutely no sense but it does lead to a pretty awesome sequence where he and Annikin fight their way through halls of troopers while hurling insults at one another. And of course you have the big finale where you get to see a fleet of ships piloted by Wookiees take down this version of the Death Star. You don’t get more awesome then that. And if nothing else all of this makes the miniseries worth wile provided you can get through the painful bits.
In the end this is a very flawed comic based on a very flawed draft of what would eventually become a great film. As mentioned earlier, many things about it are bad. It sometimes seems like we missed entire issues worth of development for several of the characters and what development we do see doesn’t exactly make sense. It has a ton of pacing problems and feels very much like The Hidden Fortress rip-off that Star Wars critics often accuse A New Hope of being. But once again it is a very fascinating read and feels very much like you’re reading another version of a story that you know well with a few legitimately amazing moments that you will wish made it into the final film. It’s not a great book and is by no means the best Star Wars comic that has been released. But it does have some great moments that make the rest of the slog worth it and for a 40th anniversary read you can certainly do worse.
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