Star Wars began for me in the toy section of an old five and dime store called TG&Y. It was there I discovered a whole collection of new and unusual looking figures—“dolls” as my Arkansas relatives called them—all 3 ¾ inches high. They weren’t terribly expensive, so with only a modest amount of begging I was allowed to pick one to take home. It seemed impossible because there were so many to choose from, but with the keen perception of an eight-year-old, I picked the coolest one by far. It was a human-shaped, golden robot, and in my imagination he was an all-powerful world-conqueror who could fly and shoot laser beams out of his hands.
Needless to say, when I eventually learned a little more about C-3PO, he was no longer my favorite character. But I still have that figure. Or rather, my son has him. Threepio’s legs and arms swing back and forth a bit too freely these days and his gold plating has faded like a cheap piece of imitation jewelry. But every now and then when I look at him just right, I still half expect him to levitate in the air, raise his arm, and blast a hole in the wall.
Star Wars has been in my life ever since. It was the first fictional universe into which I ever fully immersed myself—my galactic gateway into geekdom. That’s true, I expect, for a number of us. And since that time, I’ve developed all sorts of other interests, but I always keep a special place reserved in my imagination for Star Wars. Like many of you, I’ve memorized the films, seen all of The Clone Wars, read many of the novels and comics, and even suffered through the mind-numbing spectacle of bad taste that is the Star Wars Holiday Special. I count as one of my greatest professional experiences getting to introduce Timothy Zahn at a book festival, and I’ve been known to sneak into my son’s room now and again to try (and fail) at putting together some of his Star Wars Legos.
But a funny thing has happened over the last few years. Despite all the books, comics, and cartoons, I’ve found it increasingly hard to lose myself in the universe. It’s not that the expanded universe material is bad—most of it is reasonably good—but rather that there is so much of it that the whole universe sometimes feels hopelessly diluted.
The same thing happened for me with Star Trek. I remember teaching a Shakespeare class once where one of my students, as part of his oral presentation, recited Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”… in Klingon. It was impressive and funny, but also a little sad. Klingons are supposed to be scary. Intimidating. Exotic. Seeing Klingon culture become so domesticated that you could turn it into a novelty act—like Lord Buckley performing the classics in the language of Hip—well, it almost made me wish they had they all just perished after that “incident” on Praxis.
This is the curse of fandom, in a way. As we fans become “experts” in our particular interests, we get much more fussy and much more prescriptive about what is acceptable, and we don’t tolerate anything that doesn’t reinforce our understanding of the subject we love. So if someone writes a Star Wars or Star Trek story, the terminology has to be right, the continuity has to be consistent, and the tone has to be in keeping with everything else. This is true of superhero comics as well. But what do these demands get us? Predictable, restrained, and safe variations on tired, old themes. That’s why I’ll forgive the recent Star Trek reboot for its various miscues, because it’s been so long since I’ve seen a version of Star Trek that was actually willing to commit miscues.
This risk-taking is crucial for almost any creative universe, but it’s especially crucial for science fiction and fantasy adventure, where the exotic and the marvelous are supposed to mesmerize us and fire our imaginations. We shouldn’t want familiarity. Familiarity breeds comfort, and if a Star Wars or Star Trek story seems completely comfortable, then I think someone is probably doing it wrong.
That’s why I absolutely loved reading the recent Dark Horse collection, The Star Wars. Here, unlike most of the canonical stories, is a Star Wars comic that I could easily lose myself in, largely because as I read it I never had any idea what was going to happen next. It’s an adaptation of George Lucas’s original, rough-draft screenplay for Star Wars—the one that was radically re-worked before A New Hope was ever filmed. You’ve heard of it, perhaps. It’s the bad one—the one with silly names like “Starkiller,” and the one chock-full of confusing and sometimes dumb ideas. Peter Biskind provides a fairly blistering account of it in his seminal book on ‘70s cinema—Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.
But in The Star Wars, J. W. Rinzler and Mike Mayhew have braved the Lucasfilm archives to finally reveal the original concept in all of its raw, unpolished, naked glory. And I must say, it’s the most fun I’ve had in the Star Wars universe in nearly a decade.
Now if you don’t know, the original, rough-draft screenplay was something Lucas wrote in the early ‘70s after completing American Graffiti. Lucas was never the most polished of writers, and his original story was dismissed by almost everyone who saw it. It was too long, too complicated, too unfocused, and too … goofy. But it also had lots of ideas in it—far too many for a two-hour movie. Gradually, bits and pieces from that original screenplay worked their way into the sequels and prequels, but that’s the familiar Star Wars. What about The Star Wars, the original, wild and ungainly vision?
Well, the weaknesses of the original concept are clear. There is far less mysticism and far more militarism in this version. Also missing are strong female characters. Even though Star Wars has often been too male-centered, at least in A New Hope and Attack of the Clones we’re given assertive women characters. In this version, Princess Leia’s role seems small and particularly passive. And the villains seem sketchy, with Darth Vader, in particular, feeling unfocused. However, there is an interesting “Sith Knight” as they’re called here, whose name, Prince Valorum, is familiar even if his character is not.
The pacing of this original story is also different from the films. Even though they’ve earned criticism for comprising an endless cycle of action sequences, the films adhere pretty strictly to a traditional three-act structure—especially the original trilogy. In The Star Wars, however, we get less structure and more of a sense of ongoing, episodic action scenes, much like Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon or the Buster Crabbe serials. Tellingly, in this original version, Mos Eisley is actually named “Gordon.”
But no one should come to The Star Wars for structure, polish, or perfection. Instead, we’re here for the “mess,” and Rinzler and Mayhew give us a reasonably coherent recreation of that “mess” with the same nonchalance of Han Solo tossing money at the cantina bartender.
My only serious complaint with Dark Horse’s collection is the absence of any supplemental material. If any comics collection cried out for an introduction or an appendix it’s this one. But regardless, The Star Wars is a perfect example of what a comic book company can do with a licensed franchise. Lucas’s original, rough draft screenplay is most likely not in any kind of readable or publishable state as a prose book, and filming or animating it would be cost prohibitive. Yet, for those of us who love Star Wars, seeing this story adapted in comics form satisfies the craving for something daring—something a little wild, a little wrong, and maybe even a little mad.
It’s the kind of madness that awakens the little kid in you—the kid that can look at a fussy protocol droid and see an all-powerful, laser-blasting, flying robot. And as madness goes, isn’t that the best kind?