Star Wars #1 by Jason Aaron and John Cassaday has perhaps one of the best openings to a Star Wars comic ever. From that perfect blue font with those familiar opening words to the double-page spread of the famous logo and on to the scrolling text that’s static yet still somehow moves, you can’t help but hear in the back of your head John Williams’ famous and dramatic overture that kicks off every film. The book continues to mimic the opening of every Star Wars film ever with a slow scroll down towards the planet our story takes place on, and you can probably hear the goosebumps pop up and down your arms as you hold the book (depending on your level of fandom towards the franchise, I suppose – though I’d wager even the casual fan will probably have a nerd-out moment or so in these opening five pages).
And yet, no sooner than that triumphant symphony bellows out those famous opening notes do the instruments begin to fail, all of them decresendoing down to the disheartening eeee of a flatline. What we’re left with in Star Wars #1 is a book made by fans for fans – which perhaps has some form of entertainment value yet ultimately does very little to answer the question of why anyone needs this comic.
The premise of the story is rather simple. Taking place between the events of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, the book follows the intermittent adventures of Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, C-3PO and R2D2 as they continue the work of the Rebel Alliance post-destruction of the Death Star. Heading into familiar territory while using their cunning to infiltrate an Empire-controlled facility, the book finds the group on a mission close to home for Solo, who has a “pretty good feeling about this.” That line is but the first of a few nose-touches to the original films in a comic wedged inside the overall trilogy, attempting to offer a bridge where none was needed – and for something that is frankly altogether unnecessary (we “get” what took place between the two original films, and there’s a reason that other attempts to cover this gap in the Extended Universe have never taken hold in the mainstream), you would hope that the overall product justifies itself a bit more.
Yet, at no point does Star Wars #1 really do that. There’s nothing about the comic that really screams that this was a story that needed to be told, much less a story that needed to be told in comic form. Perhaps it is tough to judge that aspect of the series after one outing, but when that outing is so paint-by-numbers it’s hard to see it as anything inspired; we go through so many of the ‘Greatest Hits’ of the franchise that it’s a surprise that Boba Fett never shows up in the background with Yoda in a backpack while Nien Numb does his awkward chortle of a laugh. Aaron is a self-professed huge fan of Star Wars so of course a few on-the-nose moments are to be expected, but it seems that the action of the book is built up around those elements of the comic and not the actual plot.
This is where the problem lies: Star Wars is an average comic from a top-notch team. The characters move fairly listlessly through the story, with a fair deal of banter and actions reminiscent of the character’s onscreen portrayals, but the book relies more heavily on your love of the franchise than offering anything of substance on its own. While to some this is not too egregious of a crime, what Star Wars ultimately does is give us a painfully average comic book experience; one that you could find from any milquetoast fan fiction writer simply putting his favorites together in “what should have happened.” There’s very little imagination on display in setting or in story, instead relying on big moments or reveals to help push the plot forward at a punishingly slow speed that, by the end of the first issue, very little has happened other than various figures have been set up for a future conflict. Star Wars #1 is basically the equivalent of watching someone set up a series of dominos while quoting a few famous lines from a film you remember liking as a child, all the while constantly looking over at you to make sure you’re smiling and nodding and watching.
While that may seem fairly harsh, the biggest reason this comic can be qualified as a letdown is that all things considered, as a “Jason Aaron comic,” this is fairly unrecognizable. Throughout his career Aaron has repeatedly shown himself to be a creator deeply in touch with both his own inner demons and his homespun roots, which has allowed for a number of terrific series featuring broody protagonists in gritty settings. Even further than that, Aaron is a creator who has had quite a few noteworthy #1s, whether that’s sending his characters to Hell, to the South, to a horrific and bloody end or even a huge plot-defining twist. Aaron has always been a creator worth following because his work feels raw and honest, and it’s displayed with instant hooks that get under your skin or leave gravel in your guts (see: Scalped v4).
And yet with Star Wars, Aaron is either being restrained or is otherwise neutered. While Star Wars is not the place you’d expect to see hardened Southern criminals or sulking anti-heroes, you would imagine that Aaron’s penchant for characters with outspoken personalities would fit in well in this setting. Yet as the issue reaches its conclusion, the book that we’re given needs Aaron’s name on the cover no more than your wallpaper needs the signature of the person who plastered it. Everything just is: it’s all recognizable, from specific lines of dialogue to the way characters talk to one another, all toeing a familiar line without any inherent showing of identity. You can hear John Williams at the beginning of the book, but you’d be hard pressed to find Aaron’s voice anywhere after. Star Wars is perhaps one of the few cases in which characters do not need to be re-defined in an alternate medium, and yet if this were your first encounters with the cast then you’d be created by pigeon-holed archetypes without any nuance and a dash of smugness or naivety on top. Han Solo seems like the perfect anti-hero for Aaron to work with, but the character we’re given is essentially a clear-cut “cover song” version of Harrison Ford’s iconic performance; there’s no spin on it, no note out of order with any inflection – it’s just your average Han Solo in an average Star Wars book. And if you’re not going to get the full Jason Aaron experience, then what’s the point?
The more problematic aspect of Star Wars here, though, is John Cassaday. Cassaday is an incredibly accomplished artist, alongside colorist Laura Martin, known both for popularized runs on Astonishing X-Men or Planetary as well as smaller hits like I Am Legion. One of the pioneers of modern photo-realism in comics, Cassaday is an artist who has always walked that line of creating characters that are lively in an unbelievable world while also being fairly realistic. Yet somehow all that is lost, as Star Wars is perhaps one of the most singularly static books in a sequential world; all vitality previously shown by Cassaday is lost here, as Cassaday favors accuracy towards the real life counterparts over any kind of vitality within the cast, and the result is staggering. Perhaps Cassaday’s former books not specifically relying on real people plays an influence on his decisions here, but Star Wars leans heavy on poses and clever facial ticks rather than any kind of actual momentum, and the characters don’t so much as move along the page as they are simply picked up and posed like action figures on a child’s floor in an environment that could be classified as “evil Apple store.” For a book that should assuredly revel in imagination, this book seems to show little.
What makes it ostensibly worse is that, all things considered, Cassaday should be much better than this. While in his current years it’s clear that Cassaday favors cover work over sequentials – something in which posing is inherently favored – even his brief stint on Uncanny Avengers was a bit livelier. Perhaps the burden that Star Wars has in being a sequel to A New Hope weighs too heavily, but that hardly seems like an excuse to make the book so visually boring: our setting is on a world of trash in a facility where everything looks the same as it does on a Star Destroyer or the Death Star, because apparently the Empire couldn’t be bothered to hire interior decorators, with characters inside featuring the expressionless faces of creepy dolls in a horror film. You could perhaps wager that Marvel hired Cassaday for Star Wars because he’s considered a Big Gun whose work is usually considered to be a show-stopper, yet here he brings the entire production to a screeching halt.
Now, I’ll relent: part of me realizes I’m being somewhat harsh on the book. As I’ve discussed with others and seen in several reviews, Star Wars has managed to scratch a fairly popular itch, and its goosed-up millions of sales is certainly nothing to shake a stick at. Clearly it’s me that’s missing something here, because everyone else seems to be having a ball. And yet, alongside the high sales of the books created due to the staggering amount of variants available, the Star Wars #1 experience is remarkably similar: all show, little substance.
Star Wars should be a lot better than it is. The Extended Universe that came out of the Star Wars trilogy is one in which ingenuity is encouraged, where seemingly anything is possible; we can visit any world, meet any species, see anyone doing anything at any time. Perhaps it is unfair to compare this Star Wars #1 to the last Star Wars #1 produced by Dark Horse, but the incredible variance here is really palpable; one book throws every member of the cast in a fairly decompressed experience, while the other set up new worlds, new angles, new possibilities, new character identities. Looking at the two books together offers remarkably different experiences, and while quality can be determined by the reader, it’s worth noting that the Dark Horse book actually tried to play in the infinite sandbox made available by the Extended Universe.
Speculating on the freedoms allowed between Marvel / Disney and the previous deal between Lucasfilms and Dark Horse is fruitless, but the Marvel / Disney Star Wars book seems fairly timid. Offering the bare minimum for a fifteen minute read and an otherwise vacuous experience, it’s a Star Wars book that has covered the electrical outlets and has set up barricades on the staircases to prevent it falling.
That’s why Star Wars is such a colossal disappointment in my eyes: this barely needs to exist, let alone be a comic book. I’m willing to forgive boring stories generally speaking, but as a comic book this plays that much worse. With top-tier creators on the title there’s no reason the book should be as dull as it is, and yet if you handed me a book full of photographs from the films with word balloons attached I may not be able to tell the difference. (I’m exaggerating here of course.) The reason Star Wars has stuck around so long in comic book form is because the Extended Universe allows for the attached creators to push people, places and things past beyond any previously known limitations, including stories that use the main heroes and heroines of the saga, but nothing of that sort is present in this book – and that gives us such a tremendously wasted opportunity. There’s no great new spin on things, no real reason to continue reading beyond just wanting to continue reading a comic book with the words Star Wars on the cover; the book essentially hits the bare minimum requirements of what you’d inherently think it needs to be and then leaves it alone.
Perhaps the adage “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” is applicable here. Perhaps I’m even naïve, as it probably appears that I might think Star Wars was the comic that would save us all. Yet with the push Marvel gave this book and the potential to reach new readers, it honestly would’ve been nice if something as huge as this book was something we could hand to non-comics fans while saying, “See? This is why comics are awesome.” That’s not Star Wars #1, though. While the specifics are probably debatable in a more spoiler-laden review, there are definitely things that “work” for the franchise in terms of its mass appeal, and the book definitely strides that line almost with a sense of trumped up pride – but when we strip away the glitz and the glamour, removing all the nostalgia and childhood love most of us share for this grand space opera, Marvel’s offering in Star Wars #1 is just a painfully average book with some familiar faces and wasted talent.