WC13: Dark Horse Grows its "Star Wars" Empire

The affable Jeremy Atkins, Director of Public Relations at Dark Horse Comics, led a panel at WonderCon in Anaheim focusing on the publisher's plans for the "Star Wars" franchise in the upcoming year. Opening the panel he asked for applause, then had to ask again, saying, "You made me think I was at a 'Farscape' panel or something..." In attendance were "Star Wars: Legacy" writers Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman, "Star Wars" colorist Gabe Eltaeb and Dark Horse vice president of publishing Randy Stradley.

The biggest news out of the panel was an adaptation of George Lucas original, pre-edits "Star Wars" screenplay, an eight-issue miniseries called "The Star Wars" that focuses on how the franchise looked before Lucas' engaged peer review. Written by J.W. Rinzler, the executive editor for LucasBooks, and featuring the artwork of Mike Mayhew, this project has personal input from Lucas and required a "small army of designers to build all the stuff that needs to be in this world," said Stradley. "It's not the 'Star Wars' we know."

How so? Stradley offered many examples: "There are a lot of similarities that highlight the differences. There is a cybernetic character whose limbs and organs have been replaced by mechanical units by damage done in a long ago battle, it's a completely other character who I don't wanna mention. The Emperor is a puppet, he's not really the big bad guy in this, the droids they start out working on the Death Star, they end up adopted by Annikin Starkiller and Princess Leia while they were lost in the desert." Vader? Not a Sith or even someone who uses the Force, but a general. There's no mention of The Journal of the Whills, Luke Skywalker is a grizzled old general looking to mentor the young Annikin, the son of his older brother Deak Starkiller. "There's two different attacks on the Death Star," Stradley said. "It's not even called that, it's called 'the imperial battle station.' Their environment is different from what we've seen. George himself has been looking over the designs. We're kind of excited. It won't be exactly George's vision, but we're going to make it as close as we can."

Stradley also said that working it out to 160 pages was about right. "Space is your enemy. Every word that a character utters takes up physical space. You're always in a struggle on how much can I show and how much can I write that there's space for stuff to happen and it moves the story along."

The second big "Star Wars"-related issue on the table was brought out by the first question from a fan: will Lucasfilm's new owner Disney take the license away from Dark Horse and give it to Marvel Comics, the publisher they purchased in 2009? Stradley said, "Well, as of two weeks ago I was told a bunch of Disney people were up at Lucasfilm discussing how the two companies would work together and move forward. At this juncture, not a single word has been said about changing the licenses. I have a lot of hope that when Disney bought Marvel they didn't come in and change everything; when they bought Pixar they didn't come in and change everything. I have a lot of hope that they're gonna let Lucasfilm be Lucasfilm. There's been no discussion about anything that would affect us yet, expect to maybe hear something some time [next] year. I'm not gonna worry about something that may not happen."

The panel looked at other news related to the space fantasy property, including discussing Brian Wood's very successful "Star Wars" series. With the aplomb of a veteran talk show host, Atkins asked Stradley how hard it was to get Wood on the series.

"It was difficult because I had to pick up the phone and call Brian and ask him if he would like to do 'Star Wars,'" Stradley said in a deadpan. "And he said, 'Really? It never occurred to me that I could write 'Star Wars'" He knows his way around the franchise. Brian suggested Carlos D'Anda, and his reaction was kind of the same as Brian, he was like, 'I really want my friend Gabe to color this.' I was like, 'That's not gonna happen, this guy's coloring...'" Stradley paused for a laugh before continuing seriously, "It really has been a dream team."

Stradley stopped to clarify a point about some statements Wood made promoting the series. "He's gotten himself into trouble numerous times because people misunderstood what he said for the characters he's writing, there is no 'Empire Strikes Back.' That's not what he means, he means those characters don't know what lies ahead."

Atkins mentioned Stradley's long history working on "Star Wars" comics all the way back to "Star Wars" #86, an issue titled "The Alderaan Factor." "I know how tricky it can be when you're writing a franchise character and you're in the middle of their lives, it's hard to force yourself to forget that these characters don't know as much about their lives as you do. Tomorrow hasn't happened yet. It still has to be a surprise. I'm still gonna find out Leia's my sister and Darth Vader's my dad -- I hope I didn't spoil anything."

Eltaeb continued more seriously, talking about how closely he lives to D'Anda and that Wood was attracted to their work on "Batman: Arkham City" after meeting while they both worked at Wildstorm. "I'm 34, so I was in elementary school when I was into 'Star Wars,'" he said. "That's a big part of why this is working so well from the three of us, it's such a cultural touchstone for all of us. When I work on 'Star Wars,' I'm not 34, I'm 8 years-old again." He related a story about drawing TIE fighters on butcher paper in his grandparents' restaurant. "Most people in our age group, it was just hours of playing 'Star Wars.' To get that call, it's kind of like a full circle." Atkins quipped that those butcher paper drawings are now available in the eBay Eltaeb's grandparents' eBay shop.

Wood should have a long run on "Star Wars," especially if Stradley has his way. "I told Brian as long as he wants to write 'Star Wars,' he can keep writing 'Star Wars.' I want you to be writing 'Star Wars' when you're live-action beaming your teleplays right into my cryo chamber 200 years from now."

Hardman had a similar story when asked how he and Bechko ended up bringing back "Star Wars: Legacy" after Stradley walked up to them at Emerald City Comicon and asked them to contact him. "The process has been very easy and organic," he said. "It comes pretty naturally. I was three years-old when I saw 'A New Hope.' I've known it my whole life."

Bechko agreed, saying, "It's making it feel the tone of 'Star Wars' even if it doesn't have the same characters."

"Making it both fresh and familiar is the job," Hardman said, "and it's an awesome challenge."

Atkins went on to tease "Star Wars: Darth Vader and the Ninth Assassin", written by Tim Siedell with art by Stephen Thompson, and the next story arc on "Star Wars: Dawn of the Jedi" called "Force Wars," which tells how the Jedi Order came to be, stop isolationist ideas and join the galaxy. Del Rey has launched a parallel line of novels chronicling this period.

Each panelist talked about their own love for the property. "I am completely indoctrinated into 'Star Wars,'" Hardman said. "It's the only thing I've known since I was a kid. Beyond the fantastical nature, it's about friendship and characters who are deeply devoted to each other."

"As a young child it was the heroicism," Eltaeb said. "They stand up to these impossible odds. It speaks to the human condition that we all feel this way. Somehow, this little person overcomes this great thing. You can be more than you thought you could if you work hard. I appreciate that now. I wanted to be Han Solo, I had dark blue pants with the red stripe in kindergarten and I wore them a lot."

"It seems big enough that it could have more in it," Bechko added of the "Star Wars" galaxy. "Maybe I wouldn't be a Jedi master, but maybe I could be the guy working on the ship. You can see how everybody would be in there."

Stradley agreed, "It is a whole galaxy, as other people have come in and been allowed to play in that galaxy. Thousands of years are covered. It's an immersive franchise that you can be anywhere in it. The genius of what George did was that he gave us enough of these characters that we thought we knew them but we could project ourselves on to them. Every one of us can imagine being one or all of these characters."

The panel had to have the obligatory question about any word on what director J.J. Abrams' upcoming "Episode VII" would be like. "Everything we've heard -- maybe I'm not supposed to say," Stradley said. "Disney is not going to feel bound by what has been established in the expanded universe, they will come up with their own take on what happens."

"Zombies!" Atkins suggested.

"It's not going to be zombies," Stradley responded quickly.

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