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Can Star Wars Comics Compete with DC and Marvel?

The real question is can Star Wars characters introduced in the comics become as loved as the Marvel and DC characters that were introduced in comics before appearing on the small and big screen? 

When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, the Internet exploded and business news and tech sites were predicting total Disney domination through IP acquisitions. This had come three years after their acquisition of Marvel Studios 2009, which itself came three years after purchasing Pixar films in 2006 after having a long-term distribution deal with the animation studio. The acquisition of Lucasfilm for $4.05B came with an announcement that the studio was planning on a seventh episode in the Star Wars saga which got most fans excited to return to watching new Star Wars stories in theaters; however, there were suddenly a lot of questions for Star Wars fans who had continued to read the stories of Luke, Leia, Han and friends in the novels and the comics.  

Concern started to grow when in April 2013, after 31 years, Disney shut down LucasArts Studio, laying off around 150 people and canceling the current projects- Star Wars: First Assault and Star Wars 1313.  There were mixed feelings on the actual game projects being canceled: 1313 had undergone several changes to the story with the last version adding Boba Fett as the main character and LucasArts had not really had a successful game launch since The Forced Unleashed in 2008. But there was still a sense of unease that Lucasfilm would shutter a storied institution within Lucasfilm, diving full force into licensing out to other development studios. They also canceled The Clone Wars after season 5 and announced a new animated series for Disney XD (which would be Star Wars Rebels). Even though Disney would return to Clone Wars years later, leaning on it heavily as marketing for Disney+, at the time it seemed like Disney was eliminating loose ends and there was a sense that the Expanded Universe was next on the chopping block. So, when Disney made it official a year later in April 2014, there was little surprise, but some hurt feelings from Star Wars fans that the universe and characters they had invested in were no longer relevant to the future of Star Wars. Things were indeed changing.

But there was also a promise that moving forward, every piece of content would count: films, TV (including The Clone Wars), novels, and comics would all be a part of one connected universe. The comic publishing license would eventually move from Dark Horse back to Marvel (and IDW for all-ages comics). The Expanded Universe gave Star Wars fans who wanted the story of Luke, Leia, and Han to continue long after Return of the Jedi. However, the novels ONLY focused on the trio, and even when they did feature other characters (The Heir to the Empire Trilogy introduced and featured Grand Admiral Thrawn) the overall plot still tended to revolve around Luke, Leia, or Han. The comics in the Expanded Universe, in contrast, did tell stories not just of other characters in the universe but in completely different periods (going back as far as 25,793 BBY). 

With the canonical Star Wars novels and comics, it’s almost the reverse: the novels introduced and featured new characters that go on their own journeys separate from main characters in the prequel, original, and sequel trilogies. Books like Lost Stars, The Force Collector, Battlefront II: Inferno Squad followed new characters as they navigated familiar situations within the Star Wars Universe, but we follow only their story. Even a novel like Phasma, which chronicles Captain Phasma’s mysterious past, is really an introduction to the more interesting Resistance spy Vi Moradi (who has since made a sort of live-action appearance in Galaxy’s Edge Theme Park) and Captain Cardinal (who has made his way to retail shelves as a Black Series figure). The comics, however, rarely see new characters introduced with their own titles and rely heavily on popular heroes and villains.  

Star Wars Age of comics with some familiar faces.

The first canonical comic was Darth Maul: Son of Dathomir that filled in gaps between Clone Wars seasons and was a part of The Clone Wars Legacy Project which published content from unfinished Clone Wars episodes in other mediums (the novel Dark Disciple was also part of the project). Other earlier titles that followed Mauls include the Original trio’s adventures in between the original trilogy films, Darth Vader, Princess Leia, Lando, Poe Dameron, and Chewbacca. So basically, the same characters we have always followed or, in Poe Dameron’s case, we were beginning to discover in the Sequel trilogy. There were also comic adaptations of the films and novels like Thrawn and title runs of characters from the animated Star Wars Rebels (Kanan: The Last Padawan) but for the most part, the comics were sticking with the same set of characters in a supposedly expanding canon universe. An exception was Doctor Aphra. Aphra, the space archeologist of Star Wars, was first introduced in Darth Vader’s run before getting her own 40-issue run in 2015. I won’t delve too much into Aphra (I am going to cover her extensively in a future blog post) but that’s it! That is the only character to be introduced in the comics so far that has gotten her own title run. 

Unlike Marvel and DC, who started as comic book publishers before evolving into the global multimedia studios and had decades to build fan bases and loyal readership, Star Wars comics were created to keep fans engaged with the movies. Star Wars has always utilized a top-down approach with the comics complimenting the films (and TV series) by filling in the gaps of key events of beloved character stories. And the comic runs are almost always prequels: Kanan: The Last Padawan chronicles his former life as Padawan Caleb Dune and survival of Order 66, Jedi: Fallen Order has a prequel comic run following Jedi Master Eno Cordova and his Padawan Cere Junda. None of these comics venture out into the future…because they can’t. Because by making everything count, everything counts and you can’t just throw a “What If” issue out there for funsies because Star Wars is beholden to major events already established in the films. 

So, where Marvel and DC have literally hundreds of characters and stories in their arsenal that many comic readers are familiar with and can be adapted for wider audiences on the big and small screen, Star Wars comics are almost working backward. Yes, I know people felt some type of way when Kathleen Kennedy said there was no source material for them to get direction from, but compared with the other billion-dollar franchises, she’s not wrong. But Marvel and DC have a 40-year head start on Star Wars and comic book characters that have become pop culture icons (who would have thought Captain America would be in that echelon). There are only a handful of characters in the Star Wars Universe that have that kind of awareness. Yes, they could adapt one of the new canon novels, like Lost Stars, into a film but that would still be retreading the same events we have already seen; though there is a case to be made that with the launch of Disney+ streaming service this could be a possibility. 

This limitation is probably why Lucasfilm has pulled some of the more popular concepts and characters from the Expanded Universe sooner than they might have liked (it didn’t take long for Grand Admiral Thrawn to make his canon debut). And it is also why the upcoming The High Republic publishing campaign is such a big deal. It will be the franchise’s attempt through novels and comics to establish that core source material from which they will likely make into TV and film content.  

And as the number of physical comics and new releases per year decreases across all franchises (DC Comic’s recent reorganization is likely just the beginning), more comic characters will make their way to larger mediums at a faster rate: Kamala Khan made her first Marvel comic appearance in 2013 and will soon appear in her own TV series and it is only a matter of time before Marvel Star Wars’ own Doctor Aphra makes the jump. 

Time will tell if new comic characters that have been introduced in Marvel/IDW Star Wars titles will have a series run to call their own (Sana Starros and Black Krrsantan are pretty solid candidates) but as the lines continue to blur with content across mediums, new comic characters that make an impression likely won’t be sitting on the comic shelf for too long before stepping into the mass market arena.

Sources:  

Disney shuts down LucasArts

Disney to acquire LucasFilm for $4.05B

Is Disney about to destroy the Star Wars Expanded Universe altogether?

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