Welcome back to The Weird and Wonderful Worlds of Marvel’s Star Wars. The last time we visited Marvel’s first stab at a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the entire crew was reunited on a water world filled with dragons and destroyed two different crews of pirates! Oh, and Han flew through space, shooting people. It was great.
In fact, thanks to the last two major story arcs, it’s been over a year since Marvel’s readers have even seen the Empire. It’s now September of 1978, two months before the legendarily bad Star Wars Holiday Special reaches the airwaves. Luckily for fans who are about to be massively disappointed by the variety show, the Marvel comic was about to have one hell of a good story to make up for it.
Interestingly, these issues are also the last proverbial gasps of a bygone gimmick: dialogue on the cover. As an always-evolving medium, the cover is always an indicator of the status of the industry. The 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s were filled with dialogue balloons on the covers of comics, explaining the content of the cover, or trying to catch the reader’s eye beyond just the title on the cover. Around this time, Marvel Comics as a whole was moving to either narrative boxes describing the cover, or pin-up covers that were just artistic displays of the characters. DC would keep this up for a few more years, but also let dialogue balloons fall by the wayside.
There are still uses of dialogue balloons on covers even to this day, but it’s become an artifact of a bygone time these days. In a way, these Star Wars comics lose a small piece of their charm without Han Solo on the cover, screaming about how he’s got to die.
It doesn’t mean they won’t still be amazingly fun, though.
We are overlooking issue 17 in our coverage at the moment. The story Crucible is a solid tale of Luke’s past with Biggs Darklighter, but it comes right between a pair of unrelated massive stories. We will circle back to it eventually, however.
Issue 18 kicks off the next major storyline with The Empire Strikes! Archie Goodwin is once again the writer and editor, with Carmine Infantino and Gene Day on the book’s art team. Janice Cohen colors the book, while Rick Parker letters the pages. Recovering from their adventure in the Drexel system, the Star Warriors (as Marvel calls them) are resting on the Millennium Falcon as it runs back to Yavin IV. However, something terrible has happened to Luke Skywalker!
Luke is unconscious, and no one can find the reason! Leia figures he could be in some kind of Jedi trance, but R2-D2 has the answer. As it turns out, he was taping the whole thing. As this was decades before social media and YouTube, and at least 5 years before mail-in VHS training tapes, we can only speculate on why. However, R2’s tapes show that Luke was having issues focusing on the Force during his training. Trying to clear his mind, Luke tries out the concept of meditation.
Unfortunately, the remaining conscious cast has bigger things to worry about! You see, the Empire has set up a containment zone, presumably to keep the Rebels confined to the Yavin system. Or it would be, if it turned out the auto-navigator wasn’t setting the Falcon to drift off course, leaving them in the wrong sector of space. Blasting down the one lone TIE Fighter chasing them, Han figures they’ll be out of the system before running into more trouble.
Which is exactly what they find. The wrecked private merchant ship was owned by the House of Tagge, a powerful private family that works with the Empire. One of the older brothers in the family is even an Imperial Fleet Commander. They even find a living lone Rebel pilot in space alongside the wreckage, which doesn’t make sense since the Rebels wouldn’t be trying to rob private ships either. Han brings the pilot aboard the Falcon, but admits he probably won’t live long. The pilot takes the last of his strength to admit that the bodies of himself and his comrades were dumped here after an Imperial attack. That the Empire was framing them.
And then the Imperials show up. While the Falcon flees, they’re in big trouble. Not only are they being chased by a light cruiser, but the Empire has rolled out upgrades to their current TIE Fighter forces.
That’s right! The Empire has rolled out some kind of TIE Advanced fighters based on Darth Vader’s menacing prototype. The Empire’s Commander Strom claims this fits perfectly into his evil plans, chasing the Falcon into the welcoming arms of Space Casablanca Vegas.
They call it the Wheel, but this is literally Casablanca and Las Vegas in space. The Wheel is an independent entity that may pay taxes to the Empire, but the Empire agrees that those taxes will also keep them from poking their nose in on the gambling and promiscuity going on in the Wheel. It’s also allegedly independent from the whole Rebels vs Empire “thing,” hence the Casablanca comparison.
Of course, that’s not going to stop Commander Strom. But first, he has to get inside. This wasn’t an issue for the Millenium Falcon, however, as Han nearly crashes the ship taking up a reserved bay to avoid the latest Imperial patrol. Ditching the Falcon, Han and Leia run off in one direction, with the droids taking the still unconscious Luke to the nearest hospital. Chewie goes off on his own, and Han makes them all promise to meet up at the Crimson Casino Lounge. They’re in trouble for barging in without paying, but Han figures they can straighten things out with the authorities once they reach the upper levels.
Unfortunately, Strom really doesn’t give a crap about the Wheel’s alleged independence. He sends in Troopers to hunt down the fleeing Rebels, though he doesn’t know exactly who he’s hunting down. Strom doesn’t waste any time blaming them for the recent acts of piracy, however.
News of this reaches the administrator of the Wheel, one Senator Simon Greyshade. An elderly man who used the dwindling power of the Galactic Senate to make the Wheel with government funds, he delights in his ability to flaunt the law while keeping his people happy. He’s most displeased with Strom’s men running rampant over the lower levels of the space casino, but chooses to allow it once he blames the Rebels for the piracy that’s affected his recent profits. Greyshade doesn’t care much until the female Rebel catches his eye.
That brings us into issue 19, The Ultimate Gamble. Bob Wiacek joins the crew as the inker of the month alongside Carl Gafford on colors, while Irving Watanabe letters the book. The issue begins with the comatose Luke Skywalker being carried by C-3PO while R2-D2 attempts to locate the Hospital… and flanked by Stormtroopers. Luckily, R2 is able to shut some blast doors between them, which results in the death of three living beings.
R2 and 3PO’s antics have drawn the attention of the main computer of The Wheel, named Master-Com. The computer is both the central brain of The Wheel, but Senator Greyshade has also granted the computer a small army of robot bodies to interact with him on a more personal level. The robot body even has controls built into his form, but it genuinely looks like Master-Com is playing with its nipples the entire time.
Han and Leia are cornered by a squadron of troopers, but Wheel Security prevents them from being killed off. Unfortunately, this is just because Senator Greyshade wants them split up. Princess Leia is brought to him, while Han is dragged back to the Falcon to make sure that they don’t have any ill-gotten finances. Chewie is able to reach the upper levels of The Wheel, but is captured when security notices he’s missing proof of payment for entry. As his unconscious body is dragged out of the Casino, onlookers point out that the Gladiator Pits have found a new participant.
Senator Greyshade greets Leia in his office, and the two actually debate on if the Rebel Alliance is to blame for the recent piracy of the profits from The Wheel. Upon hearing that the private vessel from earlier was likely raided for taxes intended for the Empire, Leia realizes what’s really going on. The Empire, and Commander Strom in particular, have taken it upon themselves to create an artificial emergency that will result in the Empire taking power without upsetting the economy of reckless gambling.
Leia is taken away to a fancy jail cell, while Greyshade and Strom hack out a deal. Strom remains in power, and the Empire continues to blame the Rebels to make themselves look like the good guys. Also, Greyshade vows to have all the non-Leia rebels killed off through “accidents.”
C-3PO and R2 are captured, and taken to the storage hold. Apparently Han Solo has been let go, and has pawned the droids so he can gamble! Meanwhile, Luke lays half-naked in the hospital, still in a coma. Finally, Chewbacca is throwing fierce-looking aliens out of his holding cell, and he’s forced to stop or else he’ll be sent to the spine mines of Kessel.
No, not the spice mines. Spine mines.
As it turns out, Han has been trying to gamble to earn funds for the Star Warriors’ entrance fees and the docking fee for the Falcon. However, his line of credit quickly runs out, and he’s given an offer of dueling in the gladiatorial arena! Surely, this is an innocent offer, and not a grand plan by Greyshade to have Han killed.
That cliffhanger rolls us up to issue 20, Deathgame. George Russos tags in for colors, and John Costanza is the letterer of the issue. The issue opens with Greyshade and Strom plotting and recapping the previous two issue’s events, bragging about how Luke will likely perish in the hospital while Han and Chewbacca are going to be killed off in the duels. They also plan to melt down the two droids, after wiping their memories.
Han winds up in his first deathmatch, a literal duel to the death. Han is given a power pace and power shield, rather than a blaster. His first opponent is a massive four-armed hulk that uses what Han calls dagger thorns. One scratch, and the poison will kill the victim in seconds. Han dives in, doing his best to block and bash while not dying. Unfortunately-
With Han’s weaponry destroyed, he’s thrown to the ground easily. As the creature stomps towards him, Han uses his shield like Captain America and is able to make him fall. The dagger thorn scratches across the alien’s chest, dooming Han’s foe. It charges forward, intent on dragging Han to the grave with him. Luckily, Han is able to drag a rock into the way to take the final thorn blow, and survives.
Meanwhile, Master-Com frees 3PO and R2, feeling that he can spare them to analyze the devotion and dedication they show to Luke. They liken the relationship to friendship, and lets them loose on the station to try and save their friends. Leia is also able to escape, using a knife she stole during her last meal to sabotage the door locks.
With Leia on the loose, we come to issue 21: Shadow of a Dark Lord. Gene Day comes back to ink the book, but the rest of the cast remains on board for their second issue in a row. The Rebel princess is able to take out a lone guard, gaining his gun in the process. She flashes back to the previous issues once more, as Marvel was running a theory at this time that any comic could be someone’s first and needs to be friendly to new readers. Meanwhile, Luke wakes up in a berserker frenzy and starts barreling down the corridors of The Wheel like Conan with a laser sword!
Inside his mind, however, Luke is struggling. He’s battling the memory and shadow of Darth Vader, while being coached by the late Ben Kenobi. Ben does something bizarre and actually gives Luke useful advice, which is most unbecoming of a Jedi Master.
Luckily, Luke only kills off a bunch of guards without realizing he’s done so.
However, now that Luke has snapped out of his murder trance, he realizes what sent him crawling inside himself. Darth Vader survived the destruction of the Death Star, and he’s mad.
The book cuts to an interlude of Darth Vader slaughtering Rebels, even using his lightsaber to finish off a Rebel begging for relief from the pain he was in. It turns out Vader was only finishing off these Rebels in general, as Valance has been hunting down rebels himself. However, Vader’s earlier mind-touch with Luke sets him on the right course: The Wheel.
As if this isn’t enough, Master-Com has decided to come out of the closet to Senator Greyshade.
Greyshade seems to turn away Master-Com’s desires of friendship and companionship, but is also completely distracted by these things. Strom insists he forgot about things and just enjoy the gladiator duels.
Speaking of, Han is up for his final gladiatorial fight. It’s a battle royale against multiple opponents, and only one being can survive. If Han wins, he gets enough to save the Millenium Falcon, the droids, and all his friends. If he loses, then… well, he won’t live to regret it. Unfortunately, Greyshade has stacked the deck against Han.
And that cliffhanger drew audiences to issue 22: To the Last Gladiator. Bob Wiack returns as inker, while Bob Sharen works on the colors. Clem Robins (credited as C Robbins) letters the book as well.
The gladiator battle royale is utterly fantastic. Taking place entirely in zero-gravity, Han and Chewie are forced to team up with one another when it turns out their needle guns have been sabotaged. This leaves the two defenseless, aside from a pair of ray shields to block the lethal projectiles. The planetoids surrounding the combatants are also crammed full of boobytraps – from disintegration rays to explosives. The two are able to trick multiple combatants into killing themselves and pick up the discarded needle guns.
Meanwhile, Luke increases his nameless mook body count.
Unfortunately, this was not enough to prevent Leia and the droids from being captured by Greyshade once more. Greyshade vows to let everyone go, but only if Leia runs away with him and all the riches he’s embezzled from The Wheel. Her friends will be safe, but only if she gives him a chance at love. Again, we’ve hit maximum creep levels with Greyshade, but he’s still a family-friendly creep.
Luke doesn’t like that.
Unfortunately, Leia isn’t fast enough in making up her mind. Everyone watches in horror as Han encourages Chewbacca to kill him, and the Wookiee reluctantly does so. With one of the main characters dead, the final issue opens up: issue 23, Flight into Fury. Carl Gafford colors the issue, while John Costanza returns for lettering.
A broken and bitter Leia gives in, agreeing to go with Greyshade. However, she wants one last goodbye.
The Empire is also sick of playing it safe, with Commander Strom telling his troopers to take over the station and take no prisoners. This also has the side-effect of bringing Han Solo back to life, as it turns out he and Chewie faked the whole thing. However, his miraculous revival is likely going to be short-lived.
Luke and Leia are able to escape on Greyshade’s personal shuttle, as Greyshade chooses to remain behind and hold the Empire off. His reasoning is that he can’t compete with young brave souls like Luke and Solo, and instead says that he’s found a new reason to live: Master-Com!
Yes, that comes across exactly as it sounds.
Strom tries to interfere as well, but Greyshade takes him out with a point-blank grenade after being gravely injured. Luke and Leia and the droids escape while Greyshade and Master-Com’s fates are left unknown.
Han and Chewbacca are also able to escape to the Falcon, but Darth Vader shows up in an Imperial Star Destroyer, intent on wiping out the Falcon for its role in the destruction of the Death Star. Han and Chewie seem doomed to die when Luke reaches out with his frustration and inflicts pain upon the dark lord using the Force.
Yes, because that is a perfectly normal and well-adjusted thing a light side Force user will do.
Luckily, this distracts Vader enough for everyone to flee. Their objective? To reach Yavin IV, to reunite with the Rebellion and hope to find a new base that the Empire won’t know about. If they can… well, that’s a story for next time.
These issues are completely fantastic. Space Las Vegas is a hilarious concept, but this comic works it well. The fact that Greyshade is an unsubtly named neutral party helps add shades of grey to what has been a black and white comic world so far. The story of redemption for him comes out of nowhere, and his stated intent comes off as hilarious for an older man to desire a friend. However, it’s still touching, and the subtext that feels… remarkably blatant only adds to what becomes a good character resolution. The multiple death traps were also fantastic, and it’s hard not to love the gladiatorial arena concept and execution.
When it comes to long-lasting effects, this comic is weirdly precinct in some strange ways. It predicts that Luke’s first instinct with problems is to either lash out with his lightsaber or to use the dark side of the Force. These are things that won’t just pop up again with The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but also the recent sequel trilogy of films. The Wheel is also a beloved piece of expanded universe lore, showing up in comics and novels before the Disney purge. It’s also returned for the new Disney canon, as it’s just hard to beat space casinos and family-friendly deathtraps.
Fans also loved these issues, with letter pages in the following months filled with love for the art, the new characters, and even the setting. Even though his role was limited, everyone went gaga over the idea that Darth Vader was back. For all anyone knew, his role was over in the saga after the first movie. I mean, he was also in Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, but promotional material hadn’t even been released for The Empire Strikes Back yet and his only role in The Star Wars Holiday Special was recycled footage.
And then we have people determined to figure out the future plots ahead of time. It’s amusing to see people figuring that Darth Vader and the main cast won’t be able to be face-to-face in order to not contradict the next movie. It’s a lot like what would eventually happen during The Clone Wars cartoon with Anakin Skywalker and General Grievous, almost to the point of parody.
Join us next time on The Weird and Wonderful Worlds of Marvel’s Star Wars as the Empire finally strikes back against the Rebels after a year and a half! The menacing Baron Tagge makes his push against the Rebels and Darth Vader! And a long-lost story of Obi-Wan Kenobi from the days of the Old Republic!
The Tally Count:
Issues Covered: 22
Accidental Incest: 3
Cast Members Killed: 18
Lightsaber-related Injuries: 13