EXCLUSIVE: J.W. Rinzler Explores Lucas' Original Concept In "The Star Wars"

Originally conceived in 1974, "The Star Wars" -- George Lucas' original concept for his blockbuster science fantasy franchise -- has been the subject of rumor, conjecture and legend in the Star Wars fan community throughout the history of the galaxy far, far away.

Nearly 40 years later, and with new "Star Wars" films in the works courtesy of Disney and J.J. Abrams, Lucas and Dark Horse Comics have joined intergalactic forces to adapt the fabled tale into an eight-issue comic series. Set to launch in September, "The Star Wars" is written by J.W. Rinzler, who currently serves as executive editor at LucasBooks, and features art by Mike Mayhew ("Avengers").

In an exclusive interview with CBR News, Rinzler revealed that while the space adventure is ultimately reminiscent of the feature film that followed three years later in 1977, it features near-boundless differences and characters from the version millions of fans are familiar with, including Jedi Annikin Starkiller, General Luke Skywalker, an alien named Han Solo and exactly 100 Sith Knights.

In our very candid, spoiler-filled interview, Rinzler also explains the differences between lightsabers and lazer swords, shares the names of a few more Starkiller family members and reveals Lucas' level of involvement in the project to date.

CBR News: Based on your career, and specifically this project, I would guess you are a long-time Star Wars fan. What was your introduction to the franchise? 

J.W. Rinzler: I was lucky enough to be dragged to a sneak preview at the classic Coronet Theater in San Francisco. I say "dragged," because I thought it was going to be another lousy, boring sci-fi film like "Solaris." I was 14 at the time, and not too sophisticated. [Laughs] My brother says George Lucas was there. Like everyone else, I was just blown away by the opening, the music, the pace -- everything. I was hooked.

But I was always more interested in the films themselves and not so interested in anything else, so I don't know if you would've counted me as a "fan" by today's definition. I did buy the Super 8 excerpt and tried, without success, to add sound to it. In fact, "American Graffiti" probably had a bigger impact on me than "Star Wars."

Growing up in the same place, the San Francisco Bay area, where all this was happening -- Zoetrope, LucasFilm, ILM, "THX 1138," "American Graffiti," "Star Wars" -- has made it easier for me to understand the mindset of those who were creating the material when I write about it, whether it be fiction or nonfiction. It's hard to define, but there's something very specific to this area about all of it.

You have a long history with LucasFilm and LucasBooks, editing and writing various projects for both, but this has to be the granddaddy of them all. How did this come about?

This is a big one, and a fun one. It came about in a few ways. First, it came from writing "The Making of Star Wars" and reading all the drafts, including the rough draft, and coming to understand what a strange and interesting creative voyage George took, all by himself, to get to that shooting script.

Then it came from working with George on his book projects, like "Star Wars: Frames" and the Star Wars Art series, published by Abrams, and learning to understand what George likes -- particularly the comics book we did. George really emphasized to me, several times, how much he loves sequential storytelling when words aren't needed.

When Dark Horse and [editor] Randy Stradley said they wanted to adapt the rough draft into a comic book series, I suggested that they hire someone to illustrate a few pages of it. I chose a few scenes and wrote a rough adaptation for them, and an artist drew those few pages, about eight or so. These were scenes I thought George might enjoy seeing brought to life. And he must have enjoyed them just enough, because he then OK'd the project. We were pretty excited.

In the announcement, Stradley said that he always assumed this would be "one of those stories that would be lost to history." With the fanfare surrounding the new Star Wars movies, was this the time to set the record straight of Mr. Lucas' original vision for the universe, or was the timing of the Disney/LucasFilm deal a fortuitous circumstance? 

Coincidence. This has been, I think, more than a year in the works. After George approved us going forward, I wrote up a rough draft for the adaptation, breaking his script down into pages, and panels, and number of issues, and then showing it to George, with my very minor additions and changes highlighted. George OK'd it and then we were really all set to begin.

It's an eight-issue arc, with the first one coming out in September, I think. I guess that makes it a miniseries, but I don't work in the comic book world normally so am not sure of the terminology. On the other hand I feel like I'm getting back to my roots. From about the age of 10 to 18, I spent a lot of time writing and drawing, bad, comic books. But it's funny -- the first I ever did were making comic books out the early James Bond films.

Is the general story the same? And what would be the opening scroll, if there were a scroll?

There is an opening scroll, but I don't want to give it away here. The general story is sort of the same: The Empire versus the good guys. And there is a Space Fortress and there are Sith Knights. But there are 100 Sith Knights, though we only see a few, and there are two attacks on the Space Fortress.

Darth Vader is a general. Annikin's dad is Kane Starkiller. And Leia has her own parents, who we meet, and so on.

It was George's first complete imaginings of the story, something I really responded to while reading it. It was out there and fun. He wasn't worried about what would necessarily work on film, which is why comics are a perfect medium for it. Much of what happens in the story really, perhaps originally, comes from the comic book world of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, Frank Frazetta and Al Williamson, as well as the dozens of other influences, including, of course, Akira Kurosawa's "Hidden Fortress."

Let's talk about a few classic characters that are being reimagined here. Or I guess simply "imagined." Annikin Starkiller is a Jedi, i believe, and General Luke Skywalker is an older Jedi general. Does that make Luke,Annikin's father or are the Starkillers and Skywalkers unrelated? What else can you tell us about these two main characters?

The Starkillers -- Kane, Annikin and Deak -- are unrelated to the one Skywalker: Luke.

Princess Leia has her own family, but Kane and Luke, the two veteran Jedi, are old, old friends. The idea is that these two Jedi have been through a helluva lot together, and they are perhaps two of the only Jedi left around. The others in the story are often skeptical that any Jedi are left, similar to Grand Moff Tarkin's conversation with Vader in Episode IV.

You'd have to ask Cameron. [Laughs] Solo isn't really a lizard. He's a giant, green alien/monster with gills. But he's still a good guy and he's still essential to the story. And he already has a special affinity with Wookiees.

Are there any other classic heroes that will make an appearance, either as we know them or as something quite different?  

There are so many parallels, things that you'll recognize as the prototype for a scene, or a ship or a vehicle, or a character. Tarkin is in there, briefly. There's the prototype for Count Dooku. There's a cantina scene. There are Stormtroopers. There are space dogfights. There's even reference to a senate. But don't worry. You never see it. [Laughs]

Earlier, you mentioned Sith Knights. If memory serves me right, I don't believe the term Sith is used much (if ever) in the original trilogy. How do these villains differ from Darth Vader and the Emperor?

The word "Sith" is used frequently in the rough draft. I think the idea is that they've hunted down the Jedi with a vengeance before the story opens. What few Jedi are left are not actively fighting back and have sort of dispersed throughout the galaxy, finding work or hiding out, more like leaderless samurai. Then, events conspire to bring Kane and Luke Skywalker back together.

There is an Emperor, but he's not a Sith as far as I can make out. He's only a minor political character. And the Sith do wear masks, but they are ceremonial/traditional, rather than cyborg-driven.

What is the difference between a lightsaber and a lazer sword?

In the rough draft, lazer swords are as common as swords in a Robin Hood movie -- everybody has one. Which, in a way, makes it a real swashbuckling tale. The Jedi are like Errol Flynn -- they're the best at using their lazer swords. It's like the Ralph McQuarrie painting with the Stormtrooper holding one. In my opinion, that's a lazer sword, not a lightsaber. They don't become lightsabers until later on.

How closely are you sticking to the rough draft? Are there holes in plots/characters that need to be filled?

It is/was a rough draft, though I believe Francis Ford Coppola thought it was pretty good even at the time. George was experimenting and not dotting every 'i' and crossing every 't,' so I have to fill in some minor holes.

For example, when characters that haven't seen each other for a while meet again, I throw in some dialogue. I've added a couple of fights where there was a need for them and thrown in some continuity fixes. Also, when you adapt from one form to another, you have to make allowances and adjustments. Nevertheless, I'm sticking as close as possible to George's original story -- that's the whole point of doing this. It's a great story, innovative and exciting, which I'd never want to gum up.

Is George Lucas involved at all in the process?

I've shown him early material. I'm still going to show him complete pages but I think, or at least hope, that he trusts us to do something good. And you never know. He may want to be more involved as it goes on. That's happened before. I'll show him the pages pre-dialogue and sincerely hope he'll like them.

Fortunately for all of us, Mike Mayhew is doing a great job.

I don't believe Mike has worked on a Star Wars project before -- how does his lack of Star Wars experience affect a project as unique as this?

I think it's a plus that Mike hasn't worked on Star Wars before. He doesn't have notions of how things should be done. He's not constrained. After all, this earliest version isn't beholden to what came afterward -- it's the original, in a way -- so Mike is free to create original looks for Annikin and Luke, and Leia, and Kane, et al.

But at the same time, it's clear that so much of it is going to be something else: one character might be an early Jabba. A landspeeder might become Luke's landspeeder. A ship might be the blockade runner -- we're having fun trying to figure it all out. I'm suggesting using certain early Ralph McQuarrie art, early Joe Johnston art, Colin Cantwell models and Alex Tavoularis storyboards as inspiration when it seems appropriate.

Mike has just dived in. He's doing amazing things. He is laying out his pages in an exciting way, with cool blocking, great designs, and a lot of kinetic energy. I hope fans and general readers will agree with me, come September. In fact I really feel that "The Star Wars" will appeal to all people of all ages. It should be endlessly interesting to fans and at the same time completely accessible to those who just want to read a good yarn. "Star Wars" may fascinate everyone all over again.

"The Star Wars," by J.W. rinzler and Mike Mayhew, debuts in September from Dark Horse Comics.

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