“A LONG TIME AGO, in a galaxy far, far away…”
Today, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t hum the Star Wars theme song when they see those words. A landmark in movie-making history, Star Wars is the perfect example of the right idea hitting our culture at the right time… and comic readers should be grateful that it did.
The mid-1970s was not a good time for American comic-book publishers. The superheroes, after a brief flirtation with relevance, was losing steam. Romance was dying, the funny animals’ days were numbered, and Westerns were heading into the last sunset. Horror and science fiction showed some promise, but old rules and older habits discouraged any true innovation. A brief explosion of new titles at Marvel and DC turned into a bust; between 1975 and 1978, DC alone launched 50 new titles, but only six of them were popular enough to last until 1979.
In desperation, the industry turned to Hollywood for help. It seemed like a natural fit; the Super Friends cartoons were a Saturday morning smash, Wonder Woman and the Incredible Hulk were doing all right as live-action shows, and Spider-Man was entertaining the kids on The Electric Company. There were even rumors of an upcoming Superman movie, and comic fans eagerly lapped up every bit of pre-production gossip they could get.
Like its Distinguished Competition, Marvel was forming Hollywood connections. While it didn’t have any big-budget movie starring its characters in the works, it did seek out projects that would work well on the comic page, the reasoning being those popular movies would translate into surefire sellers. Early experiments didn’t look promising; the heavily promoted sci-fi flick Logan’s Run bombed as both a movie and a comic-book tie-in.
Not surprisingly, then, the heads at Marvel were cool to the idea of producing a comic tie-in to a new sci-fi movie made by a director whose biggest feat to date was directing American Graffiti. But Roy Thomas was excited by what he saw on the set, and George Lucas wanted a comic book tie-in to get the fans excited about his movie. Both convinced their bosses it could work, and Star Wars #1, a book released just before the movie’s premiere, was the result.
Written by Thomas and drawn by Howard Chaykin, the first issue was a faithful adaptation of a movie that would set box office records and generate an explosion in related merchandise. Because of the Star Wars mania, the comic book sold out, and more printings were ordered — an almost unheard of the decision at the time. Before it was over, Star Wars #1 would become the first comic book since Batman in 1966 (the height of Batmania, thanks to the popular TV show) to sell more than a million copies.
The phenomenal success of both the movie and its “official” comic book would have a significant impact on the industry. First, Star Wars made sci-fi cool again; after years of science-fiction movies dealing with serious topics and dreary futures (Soylent Green, Rollerball, etc.), the public seemed ready for a story that combined adventure and humor with aliens and spaceships. The comics responded with a new appreciation for space-age soap operas, putting such teams as the X-Men and the Legion of Super-Heroes in the middle of interstellar sagas.
Second, the success of the partnership inspired comic-book publishers to seek out other TV shows, toys, and movies for similar treatment. Hollywood stars have always been a part of the comic business — even Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope each had their own long-running series — but now, in the wake of Star Wars, it was practically a requirement for every “hot” new movie or toy to have its own comic book. Toy lines such as the Micronauts, Rom, and the Transformers were transferred to the comic page. The new series of Star Trek movies, along with the Indiana Jones trilogy, the Star Wars sequels, and countless others were reproduced for comic-book readers. In an age where “synergy” became the new marketing buzzword, comic publishers and Hollywood producers cooked up plenty to their mutual benefit.
Then there was the Star Wars comic itself, which continued to print the adventures of Luke, Leia, and Han long after it finished re-creating the movie’s plot. With a sequel in the works, Lucas wanted to stoke interest in the upcoming movie as long as possible, and in those pre-Internet days that meant a steady presence on the comic rack. Marvel’s Star Wars series would last until 1986, producing more than 100 issues of original stories based on the Star Wars characters. In the 1990s, Lucasfilm would grant Dark Horse Comics license to create a new line of original Star Wars comics — a decision that would cost Marvel dearly and gave industry clout to an upstart company that would become known for its movie adaptations.
For better or worse, Star Wars and the money it made influenced popular culture for years to come, challenging screenwriters and publishers to come up with the next “big thing,” as opposed to steering a steady course. The enthusiasm for “blockbuster” events that Star Wars brought to movie screens seeped over into comics as well, as readers in the late ’70s and early ’80s would soon find out for themselves.
From The 100 Greatest Comics of the 20th Century By Mitchell Brown
Did you know…
Fans of Jack Kirby’s New Gods saga saw a lot of interesting connections between his stories and Star Wars. The Death Star, for instance, looked a lot like Kirby’s rendition of the war-planet Apokolips; Luke, like Orion, was raised in ignorance of his father’s true identity; Luke wielded the Force, while Orion mastered the “Astro-Force.” Lucas played down such connections, tracing the inspiration for his ideas back to old movie serials and popular myths.
Marvel’s success in Hollywood has been mixed at best; before the 2000s X-Men set box office records, bona fide turkeys such as The Punisher, Captain America, and Howard the Duck (which Lucas produced) mocked the company’s attempts to break into Hollywood.
The most successful comic based on a toy was Marvel’s G.I. Joe, a 1982 series based on Hasbro’s line of posable soldiers and their vehicles. It lasted 155 issues, spawning numerous spin-offs and two reprint series. In 1996, a new, less successful G.I. Joe series appeared, this time published by Dark Horse.