“The comics kept me pretty satisfied in those years when the prequel trilogy was a rumor that I feared might not actually happen. I clung to Star Wars like a Rancor to a juicy Gamorrean guard. Even as the prequel trilogy was being doled out every few years, the Republic series made me feel as if I was following the Clone Wars in real time, privy to Darth Sidious’ evil machinations and the intrigue that was pushing that distant galaxy forward.” — Ryan Allen on Dark Horse Comics’ Star Wars stories.
For many, the only new and active exposure to the Star Wars saga and its multifaceted and multilayered complexities was through Dark Horse Comics, the Milwaukie, Ore.-based publisher that seized the license to print tales set in that ancient and faraway galaxy.
Now, though, the publisher is yielding those stories back to Marvel Comics, yet it does so with a body of work that is incomparable and has drawn in hundreds of thousands of readers and enthusiasts for whom its efforts will never be forgotten.
“These books helped Star Wars seem bigger than just the Millennium Falcon or even the Ebon Hawk crew,” said Jon Maurer, an 18-year-old from South Carolina who, upon seeing Boba Fett
consumed by the Sarlaac in Return of the Jedi felt the character was completely wasted by having him die. Then he chanced on a Dark Horse comic featuring the bounty hunter and was hooked on the possibilities that lay before him.
“It felt like a universe with a whole bunch of characters and stories waiting to be told,” he said.
This month ends the long, fruitful collaboration between Dark Horse and Lucasfilm. The last issues of Star Wars: Darth Maul, Star Wars: Rebel Heist and the ongoing Star Wars title have shipped and are on comic shelves.
Up next? For Dark Horse there will be graphic novel collections of Rebel Heist and Darth Maul in September and October, said Randy Stradley, vice president of publishing and long-time editor of its various Star Wars titles (his knowledge and prowess is such that, internally, he’s the company’s resident Jedi.)
“Our ‘swan song’ of sorts will be a fancy hardcover gallery edition of the first five issues of our ‘Dark Times’ series,” he told Coffee With Kenobi in an email. “The ‘Gallery Editions’ feature high-quality scans of the original art for a series, at the size at which it was originally drawn. It’s the closest you can get to actually holding the original art in your hands. I think people will be amazed to see how much detail artist Doug Wheatley put into his penciled art.”
Stradley, who wrote an issue of Marvel’s Star Wars in 1984, said even with the loss of the license (Marvel got it back when Disney bought Lucasfilm and is bringing three series to market starting in January), to publish the stories, Dark Horse curated the characters — established and new — through the years.
Getting the rights to publish Star Wars stories was a matter of asking, Stradley said.
Marvel Comics had published its own Star Wars for 107 issues, from 1977 to 1987 and had stopped. So Dark Horse, he said, asked if it could do it.
“At the time, Lucasfilm’s publishing arm was overseen by a woman named Lucy Wilson. Lucy wanted to revive Star Wars in print, and when we approached her, she cleared the way for the comics license to pass to Dark Horse,” he said.
“Our first book—Dark Empire—appeared
on the heels of Bantam Spectra’s Heir to the Empire, which relaunched the Star Wars prose line. Suddenly, Star Wars was back.”
And there it has remained, through novelizations. comics and, ultimately, the prequel films, television shows and, of course, Disney’s acquisition and at least three more films in the offing, not to mention October’s debut of Rebels.
Ryan Allen told Coffee Kenobi that “from the moment Darth Vader told Luke he was his father” his mind “raced with the dark histories that Star Wars held, and to me, these comics were the closest thing to filling in the blanks.” he said.
“Every corner of that universe held a story, and I had to know them all. Twenty-odd years later, they ‘all’ rest carefully slipcased and chronologically organized — with some trades in between — in two-and-a-half enormous boxes,” Allen said.
Nancy K said she was “super interested in the continuing story of Star Wars beyond Return of the Jedi, and I found the books first.”
She read Timothy Zahn’s so-called Thrawn trilogy and loved it.
“I read the Jedi Academy trilogy by Kevin Anderson and didn’t love it, but I was still rabid about the continuing story,” she said. “The Jedi Academy trilogy references events in the Dark Empire comic series — and that meant there was more story! It was imperative that I track down those comics and read them. And then I just kept reading!”
As time progressed, Stradley took over editing Dark Horse’s Star Wars line in late 2001.
“I had become concerned that Dark Horse’s role had become one of maintenance—finding gaps in continuity or in the lives of the film characters and creating stories to fill them in. I wanted us to be telling stories that mattered to the characters and to the overall mythos,” Stradley explained.
“Part of the way we did this is by focusing on parts of the timeline where the films and the other licensees had not, but we also increased the focus on characters who were original to the comics,” he said.
“For instance, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s and Anakin Skywalker’s timelines were rapidly filling up. But Jedi Knights Quinlan Vos and Aayla Secura could have wider-ranging adventures and still interact with the film characters. And Vos and Secura became popular enough that they made the jump to the prequel trilogy and to The Clone Wars TV series.
That willingness to explore the outer reaches of the Star Wars universe is what appealed to reader Andy Ury.
“I have what I’ll call ‘Big Three Fatigue.’ I have read nearly every story and comic featuring Han, Luke, and Leia and part of what drew me to Dark Horse Comics in the first place was the fact that they weren’t scared to shy away from the safe and reliable original trilogy era,” Ury said.
“They would introduce new characters, eras, battles and locales we have never experienced before. Tales of the Jedi
completely broke every mold by portraying an ancient Star Wars galaxy with weapons and worlds we have never seen.
“Jedi vs. Sith was a gamble with unique art style that paid off and would inspire the incredibly successful Darth Bane novel trilogy,” Ury recalled. “Legacy went beyond any era we have ever experienced and dangerously killed off nearly every character we knew in the original trilogy by introducing a new Empire, Sith and Skywalker that had such gripping story lines with no way to know what could be next for the galaxy.”
All told, Dark Horse published nearly 90 different titles with tales ranging across time and space and focused on characters from Darth Vader to Mara Jade to a delightful mash-up that saw Indiana Jones encounter Chewbacca in an issue of Star Wars Tales, an anthology of stories that were amazing in their scope and vitality, if not believability!
That’s a testament, fans say, to Dark Horse’s penchant for telling good stories and seeking to entertain and illuminate. It’s also what Stradley said the publisher has always emphasized: Good story telling from writers and artists whose love for and of Star Wars let them blend their personal and professional lives.
“One strength of Dark Horse Comic’s Star Wars stories was the sheer variety of artistic and storytelling styles, from the goofy Droids tales to the dramatic, often gritty X-Wing: Rogue Squadron comics, with the early Boba Fett one-shots coming as close as Star Wars ever gets to slapstick,” said Christoper Pope in an email. “This variety also helped fit Dark Horse’s reprints of first-generation Star Wars material into their releases. Of these, I’m especially fond of the Devilworlds issues and the adaptations of the comic strip, since I would otherwise have no way of reading them.”
Said Stradley: “So many of writers and artists wanted to be the ones to tell the story of ‘the bounty hunter on Ord Mantell’ or to tell the story of ‘the Kessel Run. But, not only were those stories told (sometimes more than once) 30 years ago, unless you can make them mean something to the characters, they won’t mean anything to the readers.”
And readers can be fickle, nitpicking continuity issues or a stray epaulet or wrong hue of a lightsaber’s color, yet it’s the readers who helped push Dark Horse and Star Wars ever onward, to keep the emphasis on the saga, its characters, its places and its history — official or otherwise.
“Creating Star Wars stories is not about shining the Star Wars spotlight on yourself, it’s about telling exciting stories that build up the franchise and touch something in the readers,” Stradley said. “I think, more often than not, we accomplished that.”
Matt Moore has been perpetrating journalism since 1985, reveling in Star Wars since 1977 and reading comics since 1974.
Coffee with Kenobi: This IS the podcast you’re looking for!Powered by Sidelines