The year was 1977 and an unsuspecting public was about to experience a film that would capture the zeitgeist of a generation…actually, several generations. When Star Wars hit the theaters in May of 1977, the world was exposed to the sci-fi genius of George Lucas.
Well, most of the world. Comic fans had already been reading the first two issues of Star Wars as a Marvel comic book.
Yep, as part of a grand marketing effort, Lucas and Marvel Comics teamed up to launch a sleeper content marketing tactic that, in retrospect, may have helped fuel the must-see status of this future blockbuster film.
As part of a favor to my friend Joe Pulizzi and to satisfy my own geeky curiosity, I tracked down some proof of this nearly 40-year-old legend. The most significant evidence comes from a minor feature in Marvel’s self-published fan magazine FOOM.
According to the feature in FOOM, the original Star Wars comics sold 10 million copies. Since the publication of that article in 1978, it’s likely that the original 6-issue arc adapting “Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope” went on to sell far more issues than that. In fact, Marvel’s run on Star Wars ran for 107 issues from 1977 – 1987) , not including the Droids mini series and the Ewoks mini series.
Love ’em or hate ’em, the Marvel Star Wars stories were the main source of original Star Wars universe. The Marvel books served as a lifeline for fans of the movies between the movies. Marvel would go on to publish adaptations of the original trilogy. In fact, Marvel would oversee many different variations of the Star Wars universe, but many of these tales and characters are no longer part of the official Star Wars canon.
Dark Horse Comics would go on to publish a wide range of Star Wars titles from 1991 – 2014.
With Disney owning both Marvel Comics and Star Wars, it’s no surprise that Marvel Comics has reassumed the publishing of original Star Wars stories.
FOOM #21 (Spring, 1978) was a first-person reminiscence written by comic book writer Roy Thomas (subsequently a comic book industry legend), who described his experience writing the original Star Wars comics.
For educational and critical purposes, I’ve had the article transcribed, which is allowed under Section #107 of the Copyright Act. FOOM (c) 1978 Marvel Comics. Star Wars is 2015 © & ™ Lucasfilm Ltd. All rights reserved.
“I first heard of the movie about two or three years ago, when it was called THE STAR WARS.
“”Ed Summer introduced me to George Lucas, and we had a couple of dinners together. George didn’t really talk much about it, other than to say it was a science-fiction picture with a big budget. Later, Charles Lippincott showed up in New York. Charlie is the media projects co-ordinator, and he was in charge of all the other things connected to the movie – the comic, the paperback books and the merchandising. At that particular time, they were still a little worried about the movie, because it was a science-fiction and they felt that science-fiction had not done terribly well.
“They felt the picture needed a lot of help.
“They were working on the science-fiction paperback, and they decided they wanted a comic-book. They approached Stan [Lee] in passing, and he was not terribly interested in it, I think partly because of the title, STAR WARS – it was not a character name. Charlie showed me a number of ‘sketches,’ as they were called – they were really full paintings by Robert McQuarrie, which have since been published as a portfolio. Anyway, he showed me the sketches and told me the whole story, and I was hearing words like Wookie, Darth Vader, Luke Starkiller *which was his name then), Han Solo, the Death Star, the Empire and so forth, so I was rather interested. This was during the time I was working on CONAN, mostly, and I thought it would be interesting since one of my pet projects has always been to try and make science fiction salable. With UNKNOWN WORLDS OF SCIENCE-FICTION, we had come very close, at least we hadn’t lost money, which was a step in the right direction.
“So I went in and plugged STAR WARS.
“I was convinced the name STAR WARS a good name for a comic – after all, WAR OF THE WORLDS had sold reasonably well, without the name of the a character for a title, before it was changed to KILLRAVEN. There was some discussion about whether we should do it as a black-and-white or as a color comic. I felt that I’d rather do it as a color comics series. Finally, they went along with my idea, with the stipulation that at least two issues would appear before the movie did. They wanted to hedge their bets by having this comic out, helping with the publicity.
“I chose Howie Chaykin as the artist. Star Wars Corporation never really had much to do with the comic, except that they gave me a copy of the script, and they gave Howie full co-operation with dozens and dozens of stills. Unfortunately, most of the technical effects weren’t done yet. And, of course, when you get stills, you only get it from certain angles – so you don’t really see how things are going to move. It was under those circumstances that most, if not all, the STAR WARS issues adapting the film were penciled. When I saw the rough cut, none of the aerial battle was there, none of the technical effects with the ships, at any rate. There was just a lot of WWII dogfight footage, in place of it. They’d show Luke Skywalker or someone else shooting, then they cut to a shot of WWII planes. Darth Vader still had the original voice of the actor who actually played him, not James Earl Jones, and we never did get any shots of the aliens in the cantina sequence, because the original aliens were entirely different and they added new ones later as inserts. Therefore, we never had a chance to see the aliens in the bar scene, and things of that sort. The fact remains that the real accomplishment of the STAR WARS comic, to me, is that it was there, it was done – and fairly well, at that. The fact that it was done at all is rather amazing. We didn’t have something like six or seven years to get it together, like George Lucas did. He worked on that movie from four or five scripts which are almost totally different. For instance, the original Darth Vader was actually a minor character with little more than a name. The original Luke Skywalker – LukeStarkiller – was a 40 years old general. The original Has Solo was an amphibious, seven foot creature.
“In adapting the story, I worked out a deal with Howie, because the thing that interests me most about comics is not the writing, but the putting together of deals or of people or of ideas to get the material done. So I worked out a deal with Howie to break down the story, after we’d discussed how to pace it, and he did a very good job.
“As a matter of fact, since I had already seen a rough cut of the movie by the time I’d written about half the first issue, I never actually finished reading the script from beginning to end until after I’d finished the comic-book. Steve Leialoha, Tom Orzechowski and I had been up at George Lucas’ home – which has this large projection room – along with a lot of other people, which included Steven Spielberg, to see a rough cut of STAR WARS. I picked up a copy of the paperback novelization and used it for adaptations. Depending on which issue I was writing. I used varying amounts of copy from it, to keep both the comic and the paperback rather consistent.
“I don’t think that either 20th Century Fox or George Lucas had any suspicion how big the movie would be – that it would gross something like $150,000,000 (by last count). What is really amazing is that with some 10,000,000 copies of the Marvel adaptation in print – up to and including that strange paperback with the really tiny pages – it may be the most successful, most-reprinted comic of all time.
“The real hassle came when the movie actually appeared – because, by that time, Howie and I had moved beyond it with our storyline in the comic. I had lunch with Charlie, George and Mark Hamill and we discussed the problem. We weren’t sure where we were going with Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia or any of the others. The only character we felt we could do anything with – as long as we kept it open for him to return to meet Luke Skywalker – was Han Solo and his first mate, Chewbacca. So Howie and I decided to do ‘Han Solo’ comics for a couple issues, as kind of a holding action. We couldn’t use Darth Vader, because he had disappeared, and nobody knew whether or not he would be appearing in the second movie or the second book – so we could only show him in flashbacks.
“It gave us a chance to introduce some new characters, because if you can’t use the regulars except in certain ways, your only alternative is to introduce new characters. It was interesting to me that someone wrote in a letter recently to the effect that having a six-foot great rabbit was really too much. That struck me as really amusing. Not because it was either a great or poor creation, but just that, once something is done, it seems inevitable. Some purists claims that anything that isn’t derived from the released version is out of the spirit of the movie. The thing is, there’s definitely a spirit to the finished STAR WARS movie, but there was also a certain spirit to the various scripts I saw for inspiration. One of the characters in the bar sequence, in fact, reminded me of Porky Pig – which sparked me to create the green rabbit.
“After that, I figured it was tine to move on, since working from more movie scripts doesn’t interest me as much as adapting works of literature. I’m more interested in books than movies or television, because I feel the latter are a lesser art form – primarily because they are collaborative. George Lucas came as close to anyone ever can in a movie to having it be his own work. But, actually, as far as I’m concerned, the thing I’m proudest of that I’ve done for Marvel in the science-fiction field, in regard to quality, is UNKNOWN WORLDS OF SCIENCE FICTION.”
So there you have it…proof that Marvel Comics was one of the early partners in the launch of the original Star Wars movie.
By the time this was published, it was 1978 and Roy Thomas was no longer writing the comic. Archie Goodwin had taken over the title and Marvel was promoting the soon-to-be-released Star Wars issue #14. The first Star Wars movie had just concluded, but the Star Wars comics were just getting started.
So what do you think?
How important was Marvel Comics and the original Star Wars adaptation to the original release of the Star Wars film in 1977?
UPDATES TO THE POST:
Someone asked about the original Marvel comics and if they were available. They certainly are. Here’s where you can find the reprints:
First try your local comic book store. Here’s the Comic Shop Locator Service that will help you find comic stores in your area.
If that doesn’t work, try your local Barnes & Noble stores. We have to support bookstores or they could close down. You can pre-order a book and have it delivered to your local Barnes & Noble. Here’s the B&N Store Locator.
Another update is an article from the Hollywood Reporter that talks a bit about the original screenplay. ‘Star Wars’: An Early Script, A Different Darth Vader and the Making of a Classic
Or just shop online.
Paying The Bills: