Can Star Wars Comics Compete with DC and Marvel?

When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, the Internet exploded, and business news and tech sites predicted 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. Fans were excited to return to watching new Star Wars stories in theaters; however, there were questions from Star Wars fans who had continued to read the stories of Luke, Leia, Han 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, 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 (Star Wars Rebels). Even though Disney would return to The Clone Wars years later, leaning on it heavily as marketing for Disney+, 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 that the universe and characters they had invested in were no longer relevant to the future of Star Wars, there was little surprise but hurt feelings, from fans. Things were indeed changing.

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 different periods (going back as far as 25,793 BBY).  

But with the canonical Star Wars novels and comics, it’s almost the reverse. The novels introduced and featured new characters that went on their own journeys separate from the 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. Even the novel Phasma, which chronicles Captain Phasma’s mysterious past, acts as an introduction to Resistance spy Vi Moradi and Captain Cardinal. Moradi appears as a character in Galaxy’s Edge Theme Park, and Captain Cardinal 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, and was part of The Clone Wars Legacy Project. The project 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 included the Original trio’s adventures 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 (2015) before getting her own 40-issue run in 2015. I won’t delve too much into Aphra (I have more on her in another 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 comics that started as publishing houses before evolving into global multimedia studios, Star Wars comics were created mainly 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 surviving 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 not. By making everything count, everything counts. You can’t just throw a “What If” issue out there for fun because Star Wars is beholden to major events already established in the films.  

Where Marvel and DC have hundreds of characters and stories in their arsenal that comic readers are familiar with to adapt for wider audiences, Star Wars comics are working backward. Yes, I know people felt things 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 they have comic book characters that have recently become pop culture icons (Captain America was a D-list character in the comics). 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.

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.    

DC comics’ reorganization is likely just the beginning. As the number of physical comics and new releases per year decreases across all franchises, more comic characters will make their way to other mediums faster. Kamala Khan made her first Marvel comic appearance in 2013 and she will soon headline a Disney+ 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. 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.


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