Before The Empire Strikes Back. Before the fandom and the religion and the institution. Before Star Wars was Star Wars, there was this goofy little fantasy film that caught on with the public imagination. No one was sure where it was going to go next but George Lucas and the rest of his people at LucasFilm knew people wanted more of it. Following the success of the Marvel comic and the gradual expansion of the maybe-sequel-but-not-really Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, Lucas decided to go for syndication. Russ Manning, of “Tarzan” fame, was tapped for the daily strip and he turned in something that bore the hallmarks of Star Wars but was allowed to head off on its own wavelength. The result is something fascinating.
Written by Russ Manning, Steve Gerber, Russ Helm,and Don Christensen
Illustrated by Russ Manning, Rich Hoberg, Dave Stevens, and Alfredo Alcala
The first of three volumes that present, for the first time ever, the classic Star Wars newspaper strip from 1979-1984 in its complete format – including each Sunday title header and “bonus” panels in their meticulously restored original color. Initially the color Sundays and black and white dailies told separate stories, but within six months the incomparable Russ Manning merged the adventures to tell brand new epic seven-days-a-week sagas that rivaled the best science fiction comics of all time. Volume One contains 575 sequential comic strips from the strip’s premiere on March 11, 1979 to October 5, 1980.
• The classic strip collected in its entirety in its original format for the first time!
With an adaptation like “Star Wars: The Classic Newspaper Comics,” cartoonist Russ Manning was given some strict directives for the comic. He couldn’t, for instance, kill off any of the main characters nor could he reveal anything to potentially conflict with the next film, which was currently in production when he got the gig. Some of the earlier attempts at chronology and canon are quaint, cute. Has “Master and Mistress Tan Skywalker” ever appeared again? When it started, the syndicated daily strip was separate from the Sunday page, instructing Manning not to use the same characters between the two to avoid reader confusion. For its first six months, the strips were two separate stories, neither of them too concerned with the greater Star Wars mythos.
This first collection of strips covers March 1979 and goes to October 1980. It’s presented as a frame story, where Threepio narrates the further adventures of Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewbacca to the enormous ’70s-era Rebel computer, the strips follow the typical post-Star Wars pre-Empire style adventures. Namely, it features our heroes running around the galaxy, dodging the Empire, gathering allies and information, and causing havoc. Manning, who drew the syndicated “Tarzan” comic for years, arguably leans even more heavily on Alex Raymond’s “Flash Gordon” strips than Lucas, with his arching architecture and bright star fields. This is especially evident in the first few months’ worth of stories.
Manning was already a cartooning pro by the time he came on, so there’s less of him trying to find his footing or figuring out how to present his story. His panels are filled with these deep, shadowy blacks, drawing out the depths and distances in his landscapes. Even in black-and-white, the lighting is dramatic and catching. He’s economical with his compositions. After all, he often only had three panels for each strip and there’s a constant surging forward in the narrative. He favors hard, emotional close-ups; his figures are constantly in motion, not letting the strip ever feel like it’s slowing down or losing traction; he conveys so much movement and kinetic energy with a few quick swipes of his pen. Most importantly of all, he’s well aware of how readers take in the information. He drops details from the first panel, trusting they’ll continue on to the second, making for an easy, engaging reading experience.
What he struggles with in the beginning of “Star Wars: The Classic Newspaper Comics” is the overall tone of Star Wars. Even after he settles into his stories, there’s still something that feels quaint or odd about all these strips. Luke seems more gung-ho and daring-do than he ever did in the film, where he was almost dragged from set-piece to set-piece by someone else. Han has a James T. Kirk attitude. His first adventures appeared in the Sunday pages, where he’s giving a joyride to some pretty young thing before being caught up in the problems of the greater galaxy. Leia is less about diplomacy and negotiation as she is about charging in, blasters blazing. Even Threepio and Artoo’s sass comes from somewhere different. It’s like some in-universe Star Wars narrator was relating the stories they heard about people they only knew from rumors and reputations.Continued below
This doesn’t stop the series from being immensely entertaining, however. Once the dailies and the Sundays start telling the same story, Manning really starts hitting his stride. He concocts this disease where victims’ eyeballs reveal everywhere they’ve been across the galaxy. He has Leia infiltrate Grand Lady Tarkin’s factory as she attempts to wreak vengeance on those who killed her hubby. There’s an anarchy, a looseness with the universe at play in these early strips. Manning tosses in teenage gang raiders, a silhouetted villain named Blackhole who’s doing something under Vader’s orders, and a squadron of stormtroopers who are incredibly effective at finding our heroes, but not as much about apprehending them (you know, like stormtroopers in general). It’s only here, too, we get these crazy adventures. Eventually the strips started adapting some of the novels into comics form. Immediately after this, Manning went on to adapt “Han Solo at Star’s End” and the necessity of canon started crushing down on it. While those are also well-delivered adventures in a galaxy far, far away, its adherence to everything Star Wars strips away some of its life. They’re a great deal of space fun for those who know next to nothing about Star Wars and a fascinating alternate reality for those whose blood bleeds Jedi.
One last note: make sure you pick up the hardcover edition from Library of America Comics and IDW, and not the trade paperbacks from Marvel. The hardcovers are presented horizontally, as they were in the papers. Marvel cut up everything, cropping panels, adding weak colors, and pasting the frames haphazardly on the page, interrupting all the energy and nuance making these comics so special.