<i>Star Wars</i> #1: Fresh water from an old well

Dark Horse has long been the exemplar of how a smart publisher can make pretty great comics out of licensed properties, even those that might not even seem all that worthwhile to begin with. (Compare, for example, Dark Horse's first few batches of Predator comics to Predator 2, or the publisher's Predator Vs. Aliens comics to the eventual films bearing that title.) Certainly the company has had its greatest success with the Star Wars license; if there are any other relationships that have been as long and as fruitful as the Dark Horse/Star Wars one, I'm hard-pressed to think of them.

Despite those scores of Star Wars comics from creators who generally range from up-and-coming but professional talents to some of the best in the industry, the publisher's new Star Wars series — called simply Star Wars, no colon or dash, no subtitle — seemed well-positioned to be something special: the new flagship of the comics line, something for new readers a la DC's New 52 or Marvel's NOW! machinations, a Star Wars comic for people who like Star Wars and like comics, but maybe don't already read Star Wars comics.

Part of that positioning came from the unusual (for the franchise) creative team: writer Brian Wood, a longtime creator whose idiosyncratic work has always tended more toward critical acclaim than sales blockbuster, artist Carlos D'Anda, a newish-to-comics creator whose most recent high-profile work was Batman: Arkham City, and cover artist Alex Ross, the industry's favorite painter of '70s and '80s nostalgia.

A greater part, I think, came from the focus. While Dark Horse has published comics about just about every character in the Star Wars "Expanded Universe," and made a lot of them about the ancient history of George Lucas' galaxy and the Clone Wars era (Lucas & Co.'s focus for the past decade or so), this new series is to center on the core cast of the original film trilogy, and to be set right after the events of Star Wars: A New Hope.

In this first issue, Leia, Luke, Han, Chewbacca, C-3PO and Darth Vader are established as the cast (I'm sure R2-D2 is in there somewhere; probably plugged into the back of Luke's X-Wing fighter). As exciting as the new series no doubt is for readers of Star Wars comics and Star Wars fans coming to the comics for a more "pure" experience closer to the original films, it's probably greatly overshadowed by the other news in Star Wars circles. You know, the whole Disney-buying-Lucasfilm thing, and publicly discussing making new films, like Episodes VII, VIII and IX.

As was noted by pretty much everyone in comics almost immediately, Disney already owns a comics publisher, one of the biggest in the North American comics industry, so it should only be a matter of time before Star Wars comics go the way of BOOM! Studios' Muppets, Pixar and Disney afternoon comics. That is, taken away — although hopefully not to exist merely as Marvel reprints or to whither away into nonexistence.

Ironically, this new Dark Horse comics series, debuting just yesterday, weeks after the news of Disney's purchase, covers the exact same fictional ground that Marvel's Star Wars comics from 1977 did (Of course, Marvel's comics were kind of forced to tell stories set immediately after the events of the first film, because that's all there was at the time, and writer/editors like Roy Thomas and Archie Goodwin were flying blind, making up the galaxy in 22-page chunks, with many of their innovations later to be contradicted by official Star Wars stories ... like The Empire Strikes Back.)

The plot of this comic is even remarkably similar to that of the first Marvel Star Wars following the film adaptation: After the battle of the Death Star, the Rebel Alliance is seeking a new base of operations, and Luke and others are scouting around the far reaches of the galaxy for a suitable planet.

And that may be where the similarities end.

The first issue opens with a trio of X-Wings scouting, and piloting them are Luke, Wedge and ... Princess Leia?

I've seen all the movies and read some of the comics, but I am hardly a Star Wars expert — I'm not even as expert as I was when I was in grade school — having little to no experience with countless novels, video games and comics, but I was awfully surprised to see Leia flying a ship. I honestly didn't know she could pilot. A few pages later, when she drills an Imperial pilot with a laser blaster, then strolls up to his prone body and fires two more shots into him just to make sure he was dead, I was even more surprised.

I know Leia's pretty hardcore — did she did threaten to blow herself up and take all of Jabba the Hutt's guys with her in Return of the Jedi, and then strangled the big slug monster to death, after all — but I was a little surprised by her soldierly depiction.

There's nothing wrong with it of, course; like I said, I don't even know enough Star Wars to know whether it's out of character somehow, let alone care about it. However, I was a bit surprised. Does it have something to do with how attitudes toward women in pop culture might have changed between 1977 and 2012? Or is Wood choosing to focus on Leia simply because she's a more interesting, less-explored lead than Luke? I don't know; I think it's pretty clear that at this point, though, Star Wars has long ago shed its boy's fantasy origins (the biggest Star Wars fan I know, for example, is a 30-year-old woman librarian who occasionally cosplays as as Padme or Boussh).

That's not the only thing about this first issue that seems new (or at least new-ish) to the franchise. The mood of the first scene is a somber one, but more mature and mournful than melodramatic. Luke and Leia talk about losing their family members in the film, but instead of focusing on the fantastical elements — remember, Leia's whole planet got blown up by a cyborg space wizard using a giant laser gun the size and shape of a moon — Wood has Leia mention something specific and relative to the conflicts in our galaxy. Like a President Obama or Bush have in the past, Leia sighs about having had to attend far too many funerals.

After this conversation, the comic goes about its business as a space adventure: TIE fighters attack their X-Wings, Han Solo says "I have a bad feeling about this" and he has a one-sided conversation with Chewbacca about whether they should go back to their old lives or stay with the Rebellion, a plot regarding a spy in the Rebellion is raised, and we check in with Darth Vader and the Emperor. (One benefit of returning to this time period is now we, the readers, know Luke and Leia are Vader's kids, and we know that Vader knows, or at least suspects, which makes their conflict seem a little more Greek tragedy than Buck Rogers good guy vs. bad guy.)

In other words, Wood checks off all of the expected boxes, he introduces (or re-introduces, I guess) the cast, sets up a multi-issue plot and offers a new take on a 35-year-old franchise, with a distinct tone that makes it seem of our time as much as something from our collective childhood. (It's weird, I was reading and thinking about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and then I turn the page and see a crashed TIE fighter and a close-up of its pilot, and think of the toys I played with as a little kid. A writer could really do something with that kind of dissonance; I do hope Wood does.)

As for D'Anda's art, which is colored by Gabe Eltaeb, I've no complaints, which was something of a relief, as I generally have complaints. Everything looks perfectly on-model, the characters all suggest their film appearances without ever striving for some sort of semi-creepy verisimilitude, and the story-telling is perfectly clear (I don't know if it's the difference in the way the writer scripts or the editors edit, but D'Anda's art here is head and shoulders above what it was in Arkham City, the last of his comics I've read).

His style looks much less personal here than I've seen it elsewhere, but that's perhaps for the best, given that these aren't his characters, and pretty much no object in the Star Wars universe hasn't already been designed and redesigned by dozens of other people.

It can be hard to judge a comic book series by its first issue, but this certainly passes my personal test of whether or not I want to read the next one. I don't think it quite transcends its source material — like, this isn't a comic book so great it will be of interest to someone who isn't already at least Star Wars-curious — but it's a perfectly decent, far better than average genre comic.

And depending on how ambitious Wood is and how much latitude Dark Horse, Lucasfilm and, I suppose, the audience give him and this book, it could go to some pretty interesting places. I've got a good feeling about this book.

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