By Steve Morris
Spoilers below, of course: we’re talking about the last issue of the run!
The original Marvel run of Star Wars lasted #107 issues, and was cancelled for having the kind of “low sales” which nowadays would be considered excellent numbers for a major superhero launch. Overseen by Lucasfilm, who were more powerful than little old Marvel Comics at the time, the series lasted for nine years – during which time all three of the original Star Wars films were released in cinemas, and subsequently adapted as part of the ongoing partnership with Marvel.
Starting in 1977, the first six issues of Marvel’s Star Wars adapted A New Hope, and then issues 39-44 adapted The Empire Strikes Back – a corporate synergy which seems amazing to say today. Even now, with Disney owning both Marvel Comics and Lucasfilm, that level of cooperation seems impossible to imagine. And yet here, it seemed to make perfect sense: fans could read comics while they waited for the next film to come out, which in turn would hype them up to read more comics. One medium would promote the other, keeping viewership of both distinctly healthy. And the partnership worked: many of Marvel’s staffers of the time believe that Marvel’s Star Wars have been a singular reason why the publisher made it out of the seventies at all, saving them from an otherwise terrible year of sales in 1977.
Issue #107 came out in 1986, three years after the final part of the then “trilogy” had been released. And things were not the same as the glory days of the franchise. Marvel were somewhat under the thumb of Lucasfilm by this point, whose licence had become increasingly costly to renew, and was notably less valuable with each year that the movies fell into the past. With editorial interference from a protective movie studio, escalating costs, and a declining readership, issue #107 was the last issue of Star Wars which Marvel published for decades.
There’s something curiously fascinating about seeing a major franchise exist in such a perilous state. In recent interviews, the creative team have said that Lucasfilm were forcing particularly inscrutable rules on the comic strip – for example, despite being set after Return of the Jedi, the series couldn’t make any mention to several of the major events of the film, including Leia and Han becoming a couple; Luke and Leia being revealed as siblings, or Luke finally becoming a Jedi Master. Despite being set at the end of Star Wars continuity, the creative team had to pretend they were only part-way through, leaving every character in creatively-sterile limbo. At least Iron Man can pretend to develop over time! By contrast writer Jo Duffy had to feature all the comics-selling characters like Luke, Leia and Han, but withhold any kind of forward momentum for them.
Her solution to that problem was to introduce a wider supporting cast, who were able to have active emotional arcs which the famous characters could only aspire to. Under her pen, the new creations wisely had the big stories with lasting change, whilst the famous characters reacted to them on the sidelines. By the time readers reached issue #107, they were mainly following newly established characters like Den, Dani, Knife and Fenn Shysa (yes seriously) above anyone else. The closest any of the characters from the movie got to an emotional note was Han, whose newly-established childhood friend turned to the side of the villains in a previous issue. In this final issue, that friend reveals himself with a few pages to spare and shoots the actual villain, revealing he was a double-agent the whole time.
It’s an incredibly rushed payoff, which owes to the fact that the issue was half-finished when the news came out that it’d be the last one. The creative team had to quickly take their middle-chapter-of-a-longer-story issue and suddenly turn it into an ending. While the first half of the issue is clearly written to be part of the original plans of a slow burn arc, the second half rushes to an ending which brings back all the fan-favourite characters, resolves the ongoing mysteries, and gives readers a quick happy ending. For example, one of the long-term villains of the series pops up here… despite not being a part of the story to this point, and is shot by Han’s childhood friend… who also appears out of nowhere. Clearly both these characters weren’t intended to show up at this point, but Duffy and Martin had to cram them in so readers could feel some kind of conclusion had taken place.
That the comic makes any kind of sense can only be because of the creative team who, alongside editor Ann Nocenti, provide one of the earliest examples of a Marvel comic run from the top-down by primarily female creators. The team of Jo Duffy and Cynthia Martin create a comic which doesn’t ever really feel like Star Wars, but is at least properly alien and weird, in a way which normally only people like Steve Englehart get credit for creating. The artistic team in particular are very successful in making the comic look strange and unsettling – which comes perhaps at the expense of character likenesses, as nobody here looks much like they did in the films. Leia, in particular, is unrecognisable until somebody says her name. But it all sort-of works, bizarrely enough.
Alongside colourist Elaine Lee, Marvel’s Star Wars creates an alien world which looks unrecognisable, even whilst establishing that the villains here are a race of aristocrats who are unsubtly called “tofs”. They’re English, in other words. There’s also an attempt at politicising Star Wars, as characters from different races and species team up to take down this aristocratic monarchy so they can form a socialist future. It doesn’t get the space it would’ve had, but you can see how this forms some of the same political points which decades-later would get The Last Jedi in trouble with youtubers. Luke – who spends the entire issue dressed up as Rambo, all rippling torso and arms, even finishes with a note of peace. “For the first time in a long long time, all of us, as races and individuals, have a fair chance at making peace”.
It’s a little too neat, but with no other option, neat is the best thing that the creators could aim for. Comics will always get cancelled early – especially if they’re written by women, you could argue – but Duffy does as strong a job as anyone of making sure that Star Wars ends in an appropriate place. She had to creatively strip down her story to meet random demands from an interested licensor, get readers to care about primarily new characters, and wrap up her long-form story with about five pages of advance notice. That she manages anything at all is amazing. How fascinating is it, though, to see how the series started and then how it ended? From the saviour of Marvel comics in 1977 to albatross around the publisher’s neck within the space of nine years.
Writer: Mary Jo Duffy
Penciller: Cynthia Martin
Inker: Whilce Portacio
Colourist: Elaine Lee
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
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