'Star Wars' in Comic Books: A Brief History

From Marvel to Dark Horse and back again
Howard Chaykin/Marvel Entertainment

This Wednesday, Marvel Entertainment will release Star Wars No. 1 by Jason Aaron and John Cassaday, marking the return of the science fiction series to the publisher responsible for the first comic book appearances of George Lucas’ space fantasy back in 1977. For many, though, Star Wars is more closely associated with another publisher — one that helped build the franchise into what it is today.

Marvel’s initial Star Wars series ran 107 issues (along with three annuals and a handful of spinoff series, including Ewoks and Star Wars: Droids, both aimed at younger readers), from 1977 through 1986. Surprisingly, the publisher had initially turned down Lucasfilm’s proposal of the license in 1975, only changing its corporate mind two years later when then-editor Roy Thomas — himself a fan of much of the material that inspired Lucas — championed the concept.

It helped that, as Thomas later revealed, the terms of the deal were very favorable to Marvel. “The Star Wars people didn't ask for any money for the adaptation,” he told io9 in 2011. “I went with it because it was free.” Ultimately, that wasn’t the case; the title sold so well that Lucasfilm was able to renegotiate the deal, but the success of those initial Star Wars comics proved to be very important to Marvel. Jim Shooter, Marvel’s editor-in-chief from 1978 through 1987, has said that its success “kept [Marvel] alive during a very tough time. That book kept the company going.”

By 1986, however, things had changed — the last film had been released three years earlier, and no further installments were in the works, giving the franchise the appearance of winding down. Facing falling sales and interest, Marvel canceled the main Star Wars series, with both Droids and Ewoks ending the next year. The future of Star Wars looked dark …for all of three years.

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In 1989, fresh off a successful collaboration on the Vietnam War fantasy series The Light and Darkness War, creators Tom Veitch and Cam Kennedy decided that they were the right people to relaunch Star Wars. “We just knew there was more life in the series, and it was sitting there with no takers,” Veitch told Back Issue Magazine in 2012. After contacting Lucasfilm, they got a response asking to see samples of their work. “We sent him the six issue of [Light and Darkness War] and, within a week, we were offered the Star Wars comics franchise — not just the writing and art, you see, but the actual business itself of publishing new comics!”

The two went on to create a sequel to Return of the Jedi titled Star Wars: Dark Empire, which was initially announced as a Marvel project but ultimately published elsewhere. “Jim Shooter, who was editor-in-chief at Marvel, believed Star Wars was passe,” Veitch explained. (It’s worth noting that Shooter was out at Marvel at this point; Veitch might be mixing Shooter up with his replacement, Tom DeFalco.) As Veitch and Kennedy controlled the rights, they eventually pointed Lucasfilm in the direction of Oregon-based independent company Dark Horse, which at the time was getting a lot of attention for its comic books based on the Aliens and Predator movies.

It was a suggestion that would prove to be fruitful for all parties; the success of Dark Empire led to two sequels (Dark Empire II and Empire’s End), along with a number of spinoff titles that explored the larger mythology of Lucas’ universe in ways that had never been attempted before. After Dark Empire and a series reprinting the Star Wars newspaper strips from the 1980s, Dark Horse’s third Star Wars series went where no other Star Wars material had gone before: the distant past, taking place 4,000 years before the movies.

The success of Tales of the Jedi led to more and more Star Wars from Dark Horse, with the publisher moving throughout the timeline of the rise, fall and second rise of the Jedi in a number of titles including Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Star Wars: Legacy and Star Wars: Empire. Fan-favorite characters were given their own series in Star Wars: The Bounty Hunters and Star Wars: Darth Maul, and comic books were released to tie in with Star Wars products in other media, whether gaming, novels or television shows, including Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy and Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

Dark Horse’s publishing program coincided with a new wave of interest in Star Wars as a property — Dark Empire launched the same year as Heir to the Empire, the first Star Wars prose novel since the release of Return of the Jedi, and a couple of years before the game side of the franchise really got going — and, thanks to both the curiosity of creators and initial willingness to experiment of Lucasfilm and George Lucas, pushed the franchise in directions that had only been the stuff of hard-core fans' dreams up to that point. By the time Dark Horse lost the license to Marvel (announced in Jan. 2014, but only taking effect this month), the publisher had released 80 different projects based on Star Wars, spanning an in-universe time period of around 37,000 years. Not bad for just 23 years’ worth of comics.

Of course, none of those stories “count” in Star Wars mythology anymore, thanks to a decision in April last year to reset canon to only include the movies and television shows, but that hasn’t stopped Marvel from announcing plans to rerelease them in print and adding them to digital platform ComiXology for the first time ahead of next week’s Star Wars No. 1 release. For some fans, it’s a chance to catch up on what they’ve missed, and for Marvel, it’s 20 years’ worth of instant backlist — everyone wins, except for Dark Horse.

The return of Star Wars to Marvel is a big deal, at least in terms of sales — Marvel has confirmed that more than 1 million copies have been ordered by retailers, making it the highest-ordered comic book in more than a decade. With a number of high-profile creators and a slate of multiple projects planned for the franchise, it looks as if Marvel is taking the property seriously — but whether it can live up to the legacy left behind by Dark Horse remains to be seen.

Star Wars No. 1 will be released digitally and in comic book stores on Wednesday. Collections of previous Star Wars comic material are currently available digitally via ComiXology.