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Anime Manga

Studio Proteus: Bringing Manga to the Masses

It would be a drastic understatement to say that anime and manga have been a smash hit in America. After all, the second-best grossing movie in the hellscape of 2020 was the movie Demon Slayer: Mugen Train, grossing almost half a billion dollars worldwide. Some of the best-selling comic books in America also reliably come from Japan, with industry mainstays like Dragon Ball and  Berserk constantly selling in high numbers alongside new successes like Beaststars and My Hero Academia.

And yet, 30 years ago, almost no one dealt in anime and manga unless it was for pornography or badly-translated pulp media. There was generally one exception, and that was the manga licensed by Studio Proteus. Essentially the first company to even try and bring manga to America regularly, Studio Proteus’ effects are as long-lasting as the American branch of the industry itself.

It began with one die-hard fan and massive nerd moving to Japan.

Toren Smith, circa 2011 (left). Self-portrait (right).

A Canadian native, Toren Smith was born on April 12th, 1960. Most of his upbringing was “traditional” for someone in the 60s. Sure, he liked comics and science fiction, but he also adored rock climbing, hang gliding, and even mountain biking. However, a chance invitation to a 1980 science fiction convention resulted in the claws of nerdom sinking into him forever. He would move to California and become part of the burgeoning anime and comic book scene in the bay area. While writing for Epic Illustrated, Eclipse Comics, and Amazing Heroes, Smith would befriend UK novelist James P. Hogan. When his works hit it big in Japan, Smith was invited to come along with Hogan to attend the convention Daicon V in 1986.

Daicon was the nickname of the Osaka-based branch of the Japan Sci-Fi Convention circuit, which would change towns each year. Those based in Tokyo, for example, would be called Tokon. For those who think it sounds familiar, animation studio legends GAINAX cut their baby teeth on animated intros for conventions Daicon III and IV. Enjoy what reconstructed footage exists below:

Just don’t make a drinking game out of the references. Oof!

At Daicon V, Toren Smith would meet a veritable who’s who of the best and brightest at the time, as well as those who would become industry legends. Osamu Tezuka, Toshio Okada, Yasuhiro Takeda, and many others. At that specific Daicon convention, Masamune Shiro’s own manga Appleseed was awarded the best manga of the year, and Smith realized what he wanted to do. Toren Smith knew Japanese, and he enjoyed reading these books. People in California’s growing anime and manga fandom scene also loved these books. After all, the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization of Los Angeles and their obsessive importing of Super Dimensional Fortress Macross basically resulted in the first successful American import of anime, 1985’s Robotech. And thanks to working in the comic industry, he also had a lot of connections with publishers in America.

So, Toren Smith packed up his things and changed his country of residence once again in 1986.

The staff of GAINAX, circa 1985, visiting the United States’ Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.

To Japan.

Smith was dedicated and was this remarkable oddity to the major publishing companies in Japan. This little nerd was so dedicated, he’d moved to Japan to try and bring comics to his country of origin (and America). Studio Proteus, as he had named his company, would be a middle man for manga. They would obtain Japanese comics for an American publisher, doing all of the licensing and negotiations with the Japanese publisher for the American market, while the release and marketing in America would be up to the actual company printing the manga.

Money was ridiculously tight, so Toren found himself living in an unheated, 12 square meter room with an outside toilet… and only cold running water. The rental unit held 8 apartments altogether, and the owner actually let Smith live in their residence for free, so long as he acted as the manager for the complex. This lasted for about three months…

…until the Yakuza who actually owned the place found out. While the articles I’ve found don’t go into what happened, it looks like Smith started paying rent once again. This resulted in almost no money for food, and his health suffered. Toren Smith went from 190 pounds to 163 pounds after only nine months of living in Japan. We know it’s only nine months because that’s when his Visa ran out for staying in the country.

Luckily, he’d made a lot of friends by this time. One of them was Tetsu Yano, a science fiction novelist who had made a name for himself with translations of American science fiction works before making his own. A letter of recommendation from Yano had allowed his Visa to extend those nine months, and Smith would return with many licensed works to start translating and publishing at the time.

The sheer amount of content and smaller page count did allow for multiple publications per month.

In 1988, the first manga translated by Studio Proteus was published. These earliest works were a partnership with California-based publishing companies VIZ Communications and Eclipse Comics, as the latter was suffering financial difficulties after a flood in 1986 caused catastrophic damage to their headquarters and saved content. These included Area 88, The Legend of Kamui, and Mai the Psychic Girl. The latter is best known as the first completed manga to be released to America, while Kamui is best remembered for being lettered and touched up by indie legend Stan Sakai. The manga line would be expanded upon, but financial issues would wind up causing Eclipse Comics to bow out.

Other releases would soon follow, with Dark Horse Comics and Innovation Publishing also joining the American release train. Dark Horse would pick up Outlanders by Johji Manabe, which was the start of a long and prosperous publication relationship between Dark Horse Comics and Studio Proteus.

Outlanders would sell massively for Dark Horse, as did the spinoff Caravan Kidd. Both would receive American-sized graphic novel collections, which was remarkably rare for manga before the 2000s.

Studio Proteus was an odd beast, so far as printing standards were at the time. Smith would work off the original art, making scans from the actual same quality of comic that was published in Japan. Everything would be translated, with sound effects cleverly replaced and re-drawn by hand. Only the most experienced writers and translators were hired, with the company having decades of writing experience under their roof. Further, their translators were paid some of the highest rates in the industry, and they even received royalties for their translations.

There are also times where a monthly release schedule meant that their comic needed new art for a cover. Rather than make their own, Studio Proteus would commission the original creator to make one. They would also make use of several pin-up pages from volume releases to act as covers, and their localized releases even had different art from the original on rare occasions.

Outlanders volume 1. Art and writing by Johji Manabe. Japanese edition on top from Hakusensha Inc, American edition on the bottom from Dark Horse Comics.

In the case of the above example, it’s not really known why the art was changed. Was it to make the book less violent, despite depicting a decapitation? Was Manabe not happy with the way the head was sliced in half? It does look like someone copied-and-pasted the head from panel to panel 3 before adding a blood splash, but we don’t even know for sure if it was that. No interview exists online that’s asked.

With his fledgling company starting to take off, Toren Smith would return to Japan in late 1988. This time he wouldn’t be living in a cold room under threat from mobsters. Instead, the same crazy animators who’d gone on to form GAINAX offered him a room.

The staff of GAINAX, circa 1986. Publication unknown.

GAINAX had taken up residence in an apartment. They lovingly nicknamed the place GAINAX house, and it was a little cramped. 12 animators lived there, stacked up on bunk beds and feverishly working on their next project. This didn’t come out of nowhere, either, as Toren had been long friends with the animators at one of the hottest new companies on the market. How do we know?

Say hello to Smith Toren, a reasonably important character from the middle of GAINAX’s legendary Gunbuster original video animation series from 1988. The character showed up in the middle of the series to show how horrible space could be to the main character, and he came from America. Obviously, he’s a “name” tribute rather than a complete copy-and-paste into an anime, but in the real world, Toren even got to add his voice to the Japanese language track to Gunbuster as it was being worked on. Sadly, he did not get to voice himself but was instead the voice of one of the bridge crew of the starship Excellion. While no interviews I could find talk about this, it’s fair to say he got one hell of a kick out of it.

GAINAX House was a hellscape for a few reasons. While Toren likely appreciated living with friends, he was still in an unheated room that was four square meters smaller and working on a salvaged typewriter mostly built out of an IBM Selectric. At least it was no longer a manual typewriter!

An IBM Selectric II, a close approximation to what he was working with at the time.

Of course, it eventually caught fire while he was working on a translation.

Unfortunately, GAINAX House was also crammed full of 12 nerds from Japan (and one Canadian) with whom hygiene may not have been the highest priority. GAINAX staffer Yasuhiro Takeda would later recount their home in a memoir released in 2002 the condition of their living area:

Make no mistake, GAINAX House was a den of rabid bachelors. Nobody cleaned or even straightened up—ever. When we received a visit from Hiroe Suga (who for a time was staying at a boarding house in Tokyo and working as an author), she was literally sickened by the smell. The color drained from her face and she beat a very hasty retreat. Ultimately, we elected to move out of GAINAX House. When the landlord came by to give the place a once-over and release us from our contract, he was stricken speechless. Almost immediately after we vacated, the house was demolished.

No pictures exist on the western side of the internet of GAINAX house, and it is probably for the best. However, even while living in squalor and among the messiest people in the nation, Toren Smith actually did what some considered the impossible. Yasuhiro Takeda would add a side-note to the mention of GAINAX house about Smith himself:

He is one shrewd fellow—not only did he make plenty of manga-related connections while he was here, but he snagged himself a beautiful Japanese wife to boot. I still remember one morning, shortly after we all woke up; the door to Toren’s room opened and out walked a young lady we’d never seen before!

This woman was Tomoko Saitou. While she would undergo several name changes in her career on both sides of the ocean, perhaps the most significant was that of Tomoko Saitou Smith. The two were married in 1991, and she would work alongside Toren at Studio Proteus as a letterer.

According to what research that can be found, Studio Proteus was almost the victim of the crunch the comic industry experienced in the mid-1990s. For those who aren’t aware, the hyper pandering performed by most comic companies to a new speculation market would result in many ripples throughout the industry. Some of it was simple, with a large number of comics being relaunched with a new first issue to entice collectors (which still happens to this day). Others included artists becoming more important than the writer when it came to sales, almost directly starting a chain that ended with Image Comics being founded.

As the sales of the speculation market crashed around 1995, sales slumped across the board. Companies tightened their belts, and many smaller publishers fell to ruin. It looks like Viz Communications chose to cut costs by starting their own branch of translation rather than deal with Studio Proteus, while Dark Horse Comics seems to be the one company that was still working alongside Studio Proteus… on the all-ages market, anyhow.

This is the only cover we can show that is safe for work. I’m not kidding.

Working with a Fantagraphics imprint called Eros Comics, Studio Proteus began to crank out pornographic material to pay the bills. Proteus had dabbled with near-porn works before, as Outlanders creator Johji Manabe started as a pornographic artist and did not mind using nudity and sex as part of his plots. However, books like Secret Plot dealt with crossdressing and teachers seducing their students, while Super Taboo was all about incestual relations. Bondage Fairies featured characters akin to Tinkerbell in relation to the beasts living around them. These are just the more easily found content, however, as keeping track of Studio Proteus’ adult translations has been less important to the internet at large.

Needless to say, this didn’t help the image of manga in America, but you do what you have to do.

At this time in the publishing world, several companies tried to mimic what was done in Japan. Rather than release single chapters (or paired chapters) each month in a ‘floppy’ format like American comics, many attempts at large anthology releases were tried. 

1997, for example, brought MIXXzine. This was a collection of manga from MIXX Entertainment, later known as Tokyopop. Their works focused on the more girl-friendly works, like Magic Knight Rayearth and Sailor Moon. VIZ had their own, called AnimericaEXTRA, after their popular anime magazine. Also focused on the female audience, they would have works like Fushiugi Yugi and Video Girl Ai. Both of these magazines would survive the better part of a decade, albeit with low sales resulting in smaller page counts or lower quality printing. This is still remarkably respectable, as their prices were higher than the average comic at the time.

It was either Dark Horse Comics watermarks or another website’s watermarks…

Dark Horse would also release their own answer to this, partnered with Studio Proteus in 2000. Called Super Manga Blast, these 128-page volumes would feature content that would spread the target audience out. The cat-focused What’s Michael would appeal to everyone, while 3×3 Eyes covered the action and adventure. Oh! My Goddess was also a major hit early on, and the biggest draw for most fans of the day. It was also monthly and lasted for just shy of 5 years. This was around the time all the other manga anthologies died out, and for good reason.

Manga went mainstream.

Thanks to companies like Tokyopop churning out manga at inexpensive prices and partnering with major book retailers, the days of the floppy and anthology releases were ending. After all, why buy a chapter or two of manga when you could wait a few months and get a full volume for only 10 bucks? This shift was almost overnight, with every company changing gears in a way that must have left transmission fluid on the highway that is the history of manga in America.

Studio Proteus also survived this as well, with their running translations of Blade of the Immortal and Lone Wolf and Cub being converted to volume publication. Some of Dark Horse’s earliest direct-to-digest publications were also by Studio Proteus, such as Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis. Manga was also finally being released in a format that was faithful to their Japanese publication!

You see, almost all manga released before the 2000s was “flopped.” This means the art was mirrored before being translated, resulting in the book reading left-to-right to match the western style of reading. Most cases literally mirrored the art itself by flipping it digitally, but the art style of Blade of the Immortal was so loved by Smith and Studio Proteus that they actually cut the pages and re-laid the art so it would read Western without changing the art itself.

The fact that flopping the art would have made the manji on the back of the main character into a Nazi swastika is likely the real reason, though. The comic even had a full page dedicated to explaining the manji and historical Japanese references that basic liner notes could not do.

Toren Smith himself was against the idea of publishing in the Japanese format. At the time he started in the business, it was a risk just to publish some of these weird black and white comics from Japan. Because of that, making the comics as “normal” as possible was important. Smith would later admit that the revolution of manga publishing in the 2000s solved this issue by both making manga easier to obtain and sell. The fact that Smith was so adamant about flopping manga made him a bit of a pariah in the early online circles, but it wasn’t his only major controversy… that being the lack of shojo (girl’s) manga.

Luckily, the explanation for that one is easy: Toren Smith (and by extension, Studio Proteus) obtained and licensed the works he had an interest in. Toren loved science fiction, action, adventure, and comedy. Girl’s manga was less up his alley, which resulted in a blind spot for the company.

By 2004, Studio Proteus was no longer needed. The world had changed, and manga companies were dealing directly with publishers. Dark Horse Comics would buy them out, absorbing the company’s licenses into themselves as their manga publishing arm. Toren Smith took the opportunity to retire at this time as well, citing burnout and comparing his output to massive companies like Tokyopop.

With Studio Proteus behind him, Toren Smith would dabble with translation and writing still. However, he spent more of his time at anime conventions, conducting impromptu interviews with fans. Toren Smith passed away on March 4th, 2013 at the age of 52. He spent the last years of his life adventuring around the world with his wife, while also reading and enjoying the medium he so loved. However, Toren’s work would survive him, as any manga republished by Dark Horse’s manga division retains his touch as a translator. This even includes the recent omnibi of Gunsmith Cats and Dominion.

Without one weird little anime fan getting the idea to travel to Japan, it’s entirely possible that the manga boom of the early 2000s wouldn’t have happened. Anime still would have become popular, as it evolved on a different path in America, but major retail stores would be lacking a large selection of their stock without the path laid by those like Toren Smith and his cohorts in Studio Proteus. If you ever have a chance, check out some of those old books that Toren translated. They hold up really well and have this nice timeless quality to them… not all of which can be attributed to the original creators.

Thanks, Smith. You were one in a million.

Categories
Comics Film

The Weird and Wonderful Worlds of Star Wars Pt. 4

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.

Obviously, Luke saw the prequels coming. Poor bastard didn’t stand a chance.

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’s right, he has his eyes on Princess Leia! The creep meter just hit an all-time high here, folks.

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 is hardcore.

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.

Look, we don’t judge at GateCrashers.

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.

I would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for you meddling Rebels and that damned Wookiee!

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.

I’m genuinely amazed no one has made a page for it on Wookieepedia.

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.

Naah.

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-

Yes, that.

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!

Eyes glazed, numb to the world. Are we sure he’s not just on drugs?

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.

It’s also kinda dark side, using your emotions and power recklessly to lash out at your foe. The hell, Ben.

Luckily, Luke only kills off a bunch of guards without realizing he’s done so.

My god, I was joking about Luke having mental trauma last episode. The poor guy needs a therapist!

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.

There’s subtext, and then there’s text. And then there’s Master-Com.

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.

Good lord. Luke. I’m here if you need a shoulder, man.

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.

I was kidding about him willing to kill any threat to Leia! Kidding!

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.

Man. No wonder Leia blue screened in Return of the Jedi when Luke told him they were related.

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.

Like I said. There’s text, and then there’s Master-Com.

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.

Man, weaponized angst runs in the family.

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

Categories
Comics Film

The Weird and Wonderful Worlds of Star Wars Pt. 3

Welcome back to The Weird and Wonderful Worlds of Marvel’s Star Wars. For those who missed the last tall tale told, Han Solo and Chewbacca teamed up with a bunch of misfits and pop culture references to fight an artist from MAD Magazine and a Kaiju. It was rather awesome.

I love how Don-Wan now looks like he needs to go back to Hogwarts for the new semester.

During those same issues of 7 through 10, the audience was treated to several asides featuring Luke Skywalker looking for a new planet to host the hidden Rebel base. He promptly went missing, and Leia stole a ship to chase after him, despite being a relatively high-ranking person in the Rebel Alliance. For those fans demanding more of the actual main character of Star Wars and the leading lady, issue 11 would at least satisfy one of those demands.

Issue 11, Star Search, welcomes Archie Goodwin as the new main writer and editor of the book. We also have a new art team, in the legendary Carmine Infantino and Terry Austin. Janice Cohen colored the book, while Joe Rosen lettered. Roy Thomas remains on as a consulting editor, and he presumably passed on any notes from his cast interviews to Goodwin. With this, we’ve actually gone from one legendary team of creators to another. 

Archie Goodwin? He worked on a lot of early-1970s Marvel books, and even co-created Luke Cage and the Jessica Drew incarnation of Spider-Woman. Carmine Infantino? He made roughly half of the Silver Age DC Comics roster, especially Barry Allen’s incarnation of The Flash. Terry Austin? He’d spent time on the seminal revival of Batman in the mid-1970s, and was also working on Uncanny X-Men at this time. The tone and feel of the comic is certainly going to change, but the quality is going to remain excellent.

Han and Chewie have been able to leave Aduba-3 finally, but spend less than an hour in space before they’re jumped by Space Pirates once again. It turns out Crimson Jack slapped a tracking device on the Millenium Falcon when he stole Han and Chewie’s reward last episode, and the two of them were unlucky enough to stumble their way into his path once more. This time, rather than running, Han lets the Falcon be taken by Jack and his pirate crew. You see, he’s got a plan: The Rebellion could always use a captured Imperial Star Destroyer, and-

Why is Princess Leia a captive of Crimson Jack?

Tragically, the cast is going to remain in their movie wardrobe for a while, but Infantino makes it work.

Leia was on her way to the mysterious Drexel system to find where Luke Skywalker had vanished when Crimson Jack and his motley crew grabbed her ship and captured her. Jack figures he’s going to keep the Falcon and kill off Han, then ransom Leia to the Rebels… when it turns out Chewbacca is blasterproof!

I never thought I would see a literal example of plot armor!

Han is able to wrangle up a blaster and uses it to weasel his way into a partnership with Jack. There’s totally a Rebel base with a ton of cash out there, and Han knows exactly where it is. Also, the Princess totally loves him, see?

Wait, how was Leia captured again?

I’m not gonna lie, I love how nuanced their flirting has become. It actually feels like something that could evolve and mutate into the sheer married couple bickering we see in The Empire Strikes Back. Leia “gives up” that the Rebel treasury is hidden in the Drexel system, but promises that Luke Skywalker is there, with deadly surprises!

Hey, speaking of, how is the farm boy doing anyhow?

Yep, that figures.

The comic slams back to Leia being escorted over to the brig by the first mate Jolli. Unlike her namesake, Jolli is a cold woman with no time for romance or humor. She even remarks she’d rather shoot Solo than kiss him, and Leia comes back with a weird remark that again perfectly predicts The Empire Strikes Back.

Jolli feels like a weird interpretation of a feminist character seen through the perspective of an older white guy in the 70s. Hates men, yet is tempted by the heroic handsome hetero male all the same. To be honest, a more modern interpretation of Jolli could make her asexual or aromantic and place her on a more diverse section of the spectrum of sexuality. I know Disney likely wouldn’t do this, seeing how their one bone tossed to the LGBTQ community in The Rise of Skywalker was an easily trimmed moment of background characters of the same sex kissing… but it’s still nice to dream. It feels like Goodwin is scratching at the surface of what could be a great character – or at least some good representation.

Jolli violently reacts to the idea of being kissed, and Leia takes the time to flash back to the movie she starred in a few months ago. Han bargains for Chewbacca to access the Falcon so they can provide accurate charts for the Drexel system, and the comic returns to Luke Skywalker as Han hopes the kid isn’t in trouble.

Well, issue 12 goes into the kind of mess he’s in, titled Doomworld. The creative team remains the same, but Roy Thomas has left the book as consulting editor. Now we have Jim Shooter, the man who would eventually run Marvel as Editor in Chief for most of the 80s. Luke’s escape pod has fallen onto a world of fantasy on the high seas, as dragons menace him – and sea pirates on hover boats hunt them.

It’s quite the change from Tatooine, for sure! Two of the four hunting skimmers are trashed before the dragons flee, including a weird man riding the dragons. Luke and his droids are saved by them, but they want to gut Luke and scrap the droids for spare parts. Luke takes exception to this

Ah, I see he picked up diplomacy from his father’s side.

Luke whips his blade around, sending people flying. While it looks like the art has them being hit, the dialogue explains they’re all jumping for cover. The end result makes it look like Luke is using his lightsaber as a baseball bat, and it is hilarious. R2-D2 squirts oil onto the deck to slip up the other sea pirates as Luke makes like Erroll Flynn and jump-kicks his way into command of the boat. Luke demands to meet the leader, and an explanation as to who these “Dragon Lords” are. It turns out Luke landed on the previous incarnation of Kevin Costner’s Waterworld.

I’m not gonna lie, this is some fantastic stuff. I adore the image of a large sailing vessel having been turned into a home by necessity. Any free sailing this ship once did looks to have long since ended, and the homes seem to be made up out of a combination of the sails and what could be moss. It easily explains the kind of dilapidated life these sea pirates experience, and tells a lot without needing excessive narration.

The Governor is a horrible rotund man, looking like actor Trevor Howard in the role of Captain Bligh from 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty with extra flair.

No, seriously.

We may no longer have Howard Chaykin making pop culture reference characters, but this doesn’t seem to be a coincidence.

And like Captain Bligh, Governor Quarg is a paranoid and vindictive man. He vows to kill everyone who let those two skimmers get wrecked, and only holds back on wrecking the new droids when Luke brandishes his lightsaber once more. Interestingly, this comic also lists the Jedi as Warrior Priests and Wizards in the rumors about them, which kinda nails what they would become to a vast degree for the prequel movies. I’m sure this stems from the ideas George Lucas had about the old Jedi Order at this time, but it’s still really cool to see what could be nailed this early in the franchise.

We cut back to Han and the Pirates, and Han is trying his best to continue lying about the treasure the Rebels have hidden in the Drexel system. He’s able to wrangle Chewbacca access to the Falcon for a little while, and Jolli provides a distraction by rambling about kisses and then trying to shoot anyone who tries to kiss her!

Yanno, I am totally ok with her killing rapist pirates.

Jolli says she hadn’t given consent to being kissed, and was frying those who were trying to take advantage of her confused state. And since it’s somehow Han’s fault, she slaps him hard. Meanwhile, Goodwin nails that Chewie is a lot older than fans guessed at the movies:

The fact that the pirates have no idea what he’s saying, but are just snapping to attention is hilarious and perfect.

Finally, they arrive at the planet Luke Skywalker vanished at, but it’s a water world! The Rebels couldn’t possibly have a treasury or even a base there, could they? Han sweats bullets as we roll into issue 13, Day of the Dragon Lords. Rick Parker has joined on as letterer, but the rest of the creative crew remains the same. 

Luke has been taken in by the Governor, as R2-D2 has proven to be a rather good mechanic in his own right. Luke isn’t too bad either, and Governor Quarg is considering making Luke his new Master Machinesmith. The old one takes umbrage with this and tries to kill Luke while the lad tests out a repaired sea skimmer.

Luckily, Luke is able to ditch the man into the sea, where he is merely knocked unconscious. Until the Governor gets his hands on him.

That’s a death by hanging, in a Comics Code approved comic book! Star Wars!

Luke realizes he’s only alive at the whim of the Governor while the madman relates his backstory. His father worked for the old Republic, as a Governor of an asteroid belt colony. They would salvage from wrecked ships, and would even cause a few accidents for nicer targets, until they were stopped by the Republic and their Jedi. Fleeing, they crashed onto the planet Drexel and tried making a life for themselves. A rebellion would result in some people fleeing and living with the sea dragons of this world, while others would fall under Quarg’s rule. Quarg would continue his father’s work, dragging down ships to salvage to stay alive and in power. And hey, an Imperial Star Destroyer has just come into orbit.

Crimson Jack and his crew are thrown into a panic when all power on the ship cuts off and begins a slow descent to the planet. Han and Chewie take the time to escape, and Leia seems to be the only sane person on board.

Han should know who wears the pants in these rescues by now.

Han, Leia, and Chewbacca escape in the Falcon to the planet’s surface to find Luke, only to crash in the middle of a massive war between the Quarg’s sea pirates and the Dragon Lords!

“This must be a Thursday. I never could get a hang on Thursdays.”

The Falcon is struck by turbolaser fire from a sea skimmer, and several of the crew are knocked overboard. Luke pulls up on his own to try and save who he can, only to be nearly killed by Chewbacca’s iron grip! Luke’s sea skimmer exploding stops this, but Luke wakes up in the brig next to the angriest Wookiee he’s had the misfortune of meeting!

I love how Chewbacca is just going to use C-3PO to crush Luke.

Luke’s life-threatening encounter with the limb-ripper himself continues in issue 14, The Sound of Armageddon! Denise Wohl takes over letting duties for this issue, as Chewbacca continues to rip the wooden brig apart as he tries to pop Luke’s head from his shoulders like a ripe space-grape. 

Luckily, Han is still alive, being dragged around underwater by one of the Dragon Lords. Leia is also safe, locked in the Millennium Falcon and waiting to blast anyone who walks onboard. While Leia is, again, captured by a group of pirates, Luke is barely able to hold off Chewbacca for R2-D2 to blast him with fire-retardant. This somehow knocks the Wookiee unconscious. Poor guy must be having an off day.

The Dragon Riders are still assaulting Quarg’s base ship, and Han meets with one of their leaders in their secret base. As it turns out, the very system that Quarg uses to bring down ships causes immense pain to the water dragons, and is causing ecological damage that is slowly driving them to extinction! Reluctantly, Han signs up to take out the ship, but is also told the Dragon Riders want to wipe out the Falcon too!

In the chaos of war, Leia is able to escape the Governor’s men, and Chewbacca rips free of his wooden jail. Luke and Han meet up in the Falcon by chance, and the plans of both men line up perfectly. Luke wanted to link up the Millennium Falcon to the Governor’s EMP beam to pretend to work with him, but the same link would make the Falcon immune to the EMP. Han realizes that this would allow him to destroy the device with the ship’s turbolasers, saving the Dragons and his ship! But they can’t fire yet, because Leia has found herself trapped by Quarg!

I’ve really got to wonder what Luke’s mental state is now that he’s willing to kill anyone who threatens this girl he likes.

Luckily, Luke swings by out of nowhere to save her and kill Quarg at the same time. Now that the war on the surface is over, however, Han is worried about what waits for them in space. That brings us to issue 15, Star Duel! John Costanza steps in as the letterer of the month, and the story starts out with a screaming red-bearded pirate.

Crimson Jack wants the blood of Han Solo. Han not only left Jack and his crew in the lurch, but he also sabotaged every single one of his fighters. Jolli manages to repair her craft first, which looks like a yellow prototype Y-Wing. She strafes the Falcon as everyone scrambles aboard, but not before Luke reveals one of his darkest secrets.

This is perfect. It makes sense that Luke wouldn’t know how to swim, coming from a world where moisture farming was a viable job. It also helps show that while Luke could someday become a super-cool space wizard, he’s still just a normal Joe. Leia helps Luke flounder to the Falcon so they can all escape into space. As they do so, Jolli reveals her dark past that made her hate men: her father abandoned her mother (and herself) rather than fight the Empire. A space torpedo then struck nearby, killing her mother. So, thus, she hates men.

As the Millennium Falcon streaks by the Star Destroyer, Jolli’s bootleg craft rams the Falcon. This somehow knocks loose the gyro control module, and they need a replacement before they can fly again. Luckily, the Star Destroyer can’t destroy the stranded Falcon, as Han and Chewie wiped their entire star logs from the pirate ship. This leaves the ship unable to jump to hyperspace without risking landing in the middle of a star, planet, or black hole.

Han proposes a trade: a copy of the Falcon’s star charts for a new gyro control module. How is this done?

IN SPACE.

Without the super-serious rules of “hard” science fiction to restrict them, the team working at Marvel decided that Buck Rogers rules were due for Star Wars. No fancy space suits, just a mask that keeps you with breathable air. This, hilariously, also predicts The Empire Strikes Back’s “asteroid cave” scene where Han and Leia survive in open space (space worm lungs?) with similar masks on their faces.

A massive shootout ensues, with Han having to face down roughly 30 pirates on his own. As he panics and flails like any scruffy nerf herder would, Jolli decides to rebel against Crimson Jack. The collision with the Falcon left her stranded in space, and Jack was ok with her dying out there, since it was her fault. She shoots nearly every pirate dead, then rams her ship into the bridge of the pirate ship, killing everyone else. Han takes the chance to shoot Crimson Jack dead.

Once more, Han shoots first.

The Star Destroyer is either damaged beyond repair, or they just don’t have enough people to crew the thing. Han finds Jolli’s corpse, just dangling out of her ship, and decides to thank her for saving his life in the only way he knows how.

I firmly believe that Goodwin and Infantino wanted to be touching and kind with this scene. However, with a modern perspective, this actually comes off as creepy. Yes, she’s dead, but she really was a confused person who may have wanted to explore what she wanted, but certainly never wanted to do so when she was alive. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but this really struck me as wrong when I first read it as a kid, and still does today.

And with that, the second major original storyline of Star Wars comes to a close. Long-running multi-issue stories were rare in the 1970s for comics, and Star Wars had run two of them in their first year of stories. The comic has also been granted two fantastic creative teams, and it’s hard to see how a kid living in a post-Star Wars world wouldn’t love these comics. There’s action, adventure, weird romance, and everyone gets a chance to be awesome. Except C-3PO.

Fans adored these issues, but the letters were still highly focused on what they found to be wrong with the comic. The first-ever original novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye by Alan Dean Foster had been released a few months back, so comparisons between the two books were inevitable. 

As you can see, Bill here was convinced that we need to figure out why Leia and Luke couldn’t swim in one continuity or another. It’s amusing, but these things still happen. Again, it’s fascinating to see how little the fandom has changed.

The universe of Star Wars is starting to feel richer and more nuanced, with examples of corruption from the previous Republic and space pirates to go along with the space smugglers. The events of these issues are fairly self-contained, and with almost the entire cast of new characters killed off, it’s easy to see why. The Drexel System would get a namedrop in the later original Expanded Universe novels with a Drexel Minor System to have a planet named Drexel II since this Drexel System was a one-planet solar system. It feels somewhat convoluted for a name drop, but that’s the original Star Wars Expanded Universe for you.

The Tally Count:

Issues Covered: 17
Accidental Incest: 2
Cast Members Killed: 13
Lightsaber-related Injuries: 6

Categories
Comics Film

The Weird and Wonderful Worlds of Star Wars Pt. 2

Welcome back to The Weird and Wonderful Worlds of Marvel’s Star Wars. Last time, we looked at the original movie and how it was adapted into a 6 issue comic book by Roy Thomas and Howard Chaykin. It was fairly normal, aside from when it turned out the menacing slug Jabba the Hutt turned out to actually be a yellow furry alien guy.


Marvel asked for fan-mail with those early issues. It wouldn’t be until issue 7 when we got actual fan-mail published, but it looks like the breakout characters of Star Wars were Han Solo and Chewbacca! How can we guess? Well, the first story that branched out from the original movie focused exclusively on them! 

Now, interestingly, Roy Thomas would admit in the eighth issue’s letter column that he didn’t just make these upcoming issues from whole cloth. He spent a ton of time on the set with George Lucas and the “Star Wars project director” Charles Lippincott about how the comics had been handled thus far, and possible ideas for the future. Further, he also spent time with Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill to ask about what they would like to see their characters get up to. No mention was made of Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, or any other cast, but we can hope he did interview them as well. During this time immediately after the first Star Wars movie, George Lucas was already starting to plan out the second movie and what would become The Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. As such, plot outlines would have to be shot by George Lucas’ desk before being ok’d and run with.

As this was before the disaster that was The Star Wars Holiday Special, it’s safe to guess that he was a lot laxer on what could happen.


The first original Star Wars story not written by George Lucas is titled New Planets, New Perils! and was worked on by Roy Thomas and Howard Chaykin, who shared plotting while they split on writing and art duties. Frank Springer is credited as an Embellisher, while Carl Gafford is the colorist. Joe Rosen also worked on the letters, and Archie Goodwin is credited here as being a consulting editor to balance out Roy Thomas’ editorial duties.

With the Death Star destroyed, and a delightfully large reward given to them for helping, Han and Chewbacca are gone. Luke and Leia would like for Han and Chewie to help establish a new rebel base, but they say their farewells and let the two blast off into space. Why? Well, Thomas and Chaykin want to address the first dangling plot thread in the Star Wars tapestry: Han’s debt to Jabba!

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for something to go wrong. It looks like Lucas wasn’t a fan of tying up that plot point, so Han and Chewie are ambushed by space pirates almost immediately on their way to find Jabba.

Space-Mercenary. Cosmic Buccaneers. I wish Disney would bring back this terminology.

Chaykin completely nails the design schema of the prequel trilogy completely by accident, making some majestic and sleek ships that look closer to modern airplanes. It’s really cool, even if they’re just random background vehicles. Amusingly, these space pirates have also jacked an Imperial Star Destroyer, and are using whatever small fighters they can get their hands on. These pirates, among whom is even a former stormtrooper, are led by the ruthless Crimson Jack! Clad in the best that space-1970s can offer, he and his first mate Jolli take the very treasure that the Rebel Alliance had given Han and Chewbacca.

Now broke and again in debt to Jabba, but still alive, Han decides to have the two of them hide out on one of the worlds of the Outer Rim. Landing on the slum world of Aduba-3, it doesn’t take long for Han and his Wookiee friend to get into trouble. They come across a funeral being interrupted by restless natives, and for what they feel is a good reason: a Borg funeral. A cyborg has recently died, and this old alien priest is trying to get him buried, but the locals detest any combination of flesh and machine. However, there is a lovely tradition that whatever the body had at the time of death goes to those who bury him. And who is Han Solo to say no to money?

Wait. Why is Tharok of the Fatal Five here?

After a massive brawl in the city, Han and Chewie are able to help the old priest take the body to a secure area. It’s a nice little scene, and the entire issue is a delight when it comes to galaxy-building for Star Wars. We learn some new space-slang when Han shows respect to the priest, and even see someone be buried.

Despite being just a Star Wars comic, there are some rare points where the narration feels meaningful.

But now that they’re paid, Han and Chewie are looking to get laid!

No, seriously.

Don’t worry. Chewie has a lady on each arm and a massive grin on his face in the next panel.

But before Han Solo can get some Comics Code Authority approved lovin’, he’s jumped by a bunch of people in the bar! You see, Han was hitting on someone else’s woman and we enter the eighth issue of Star Wars: Eight for Aduba-3. Tom Palmer takes over as inker and colorist for this issue, while John Costanza joins on lettering. 

Han gets into a fantastic little barroom brawl, only for it to be broken up when Chewbacca joins in and lets out a Wookiee howl. With the fighting over with, a trio of peasant farmers approach Han with the desire to hire a protector. You see, their farms are being menaced by the horrible, malevolent, Sergio Aragones.

Hm?

Oh, wait.

My editor has corrected me. It’s actually Serji-X Arrogantus.

Yes, one of the most prolific western comedy comic creators of the 20th century is in Star Wars.

You can see how I could get confused. My apologies.

The Arrogant One has been raiding the local villages with his outlaws, terrorizing them. This includes stealing Banthas, burning crops, and even stealing women with implications of rape. Han makes a few snappy remarks, but agrees to help if he can hire some others to assist.

What happens is Han assembles an eclectic eight, all beings who don’t have an issue with fighting for pay. Rather than stick to established aliens in Star Wars, Thomas and Chaykin have chosen to experiment! The first companion to join is Hedji, a bipedal porcupine that fires quills as a weapon.


A previously unmentioned old friend of Han and Chewie also joins. She is Amaiza, the den-mother of the Black Hole Gang. True to old friends who deal in the grey market, Han thought she was dead.


Don-Wan Kihotay also wishes to help, calling himself a Jedi Knight. Yes. This is Don Quixote. In Star Wars.

Don’t worry! He also gets full plate armor later! Because Jedi Knight.

If this wasn’t strange enough, we also have Jaxxon. Jaxxon is a 6-foot tall space rabbit dressed in red, and actually may be a knockoff of 80s independent comic character Bucky O’Hare. This is a complicated little story, but records show that Larry Hama and Michael Golden had the character concept for Bucky O’Hare pitched to DC in 1977, but it was rejected. Comics being one big family, it’s likely they shopped the idea around to Marvel as well. The fact that Marvel chose to spin this character out in November of that year, it seems to be more than a coincidence.

Amusingly, Michael Golden himself would work on Star Wars in a few months. It’s likely this was compensation for the idea, or one hell of a coincidence!

Finally, we have Jimm the Starkiller Kid and his droid companion FE-90, a treaded droid known as Effie.


That’s right, Han recruits an expy of Luke Skywalker, using the nickname that George Lucas once planned to give to Luke. Effie is a weird combination of C-3PO and R2, except he actually has the same sardonic personality that would later be adopted by K-2SO from Rogue One. Han calls himself out on the fact that Jimm could be a replacement for Luke, wondering how the real Luke is doing.

Luke is actually voyaging off in a miniature version of the Corellian Corvette ship seen in the opening of the first movie, jetting around the Galaxy to try and find a new base for the rebels. He, too, misses Han and wonders how he’s doing.

I really have to wonder if this is the Star Wars equivalent to Kirk/Spock shipping.

Serji-X Arrogantus tries to bribe Han and the others to his side as the group finally gathers, thanks to a tip-off from the bar, but they all refuse. This brings us to issue 9: Showdown on a Wasteland World! Howard Chaykin and Tom Palmer share illustration credits now on this issue, but the crew remains the same.

The motley crew are riding banthas to the remote village, and Don-Wan has somehow found the time to make sure he’s in full armor and carrying his Jedi Lance.

I want to see this armor and lance in the next movie.

Their peaceful journey is interrupted by a flock of high-hounds, a bunch of man-bird monstrosities that are trying to devour the village’s crops. The group is easily defeated, and the crew seems to be bonding. Jaxxon flirts shamelessly with Amaiza, and Han even finds the time to rescue a sword and sorcery-designed bikini babe.

We’re sure this comic is for kids, right? I’m guessing Harrison Ford asked that Thomas toss in a lot of women throwing themselves at Han.

Off in space, Luke and his droids are exploring the space above the water planet Drexel for a new base location. However, his transmission to Leia is cut off, and his ship vanishes! Leia doesn’t even wait to see if it was a technical malfunction, and commandeers a ship for herself to go rescue Luke.

Back on Aduba-3, Han and his Space-Hoppers are now defending the village from The Arrogant One’s band of crooks. While Han and the new characters are all on foot, the outlaws ride hoverbikes, making it easy pickings for them. It also doesn’t help that they’re outnumbered. To ramp up the tension, the first of our heroes fall.


And another joins Effie.

Next issue? He’s back on his feet. Apparently, he’s just over-dramatic.

Meanwhile, the shaman of the small space village has been chanting and wailing at an altar. Thinking him insane, he’s been ignored. Finally, the old one speaks, and the nearby mountain rips asunder.


That cliffhanger brings us to issue 10: Behemoth From The World Below. Don Glut takes over this issue as a scripter, but Thomas and Chaykin are still the main plotters of the story. Alan Kupperberg is credited with layouts, which are like the storyboard of a comic. Françoise Mouly is also credited as the colorist, going under the easier-to-fit-on-the-page F Mouly.

The behemoth begins swatting down the outlaws, and Han notices they’re beneath the beast’s notice. He isn’t sure if it’s because of the shaman, or if it’s blind luck at this point, but he’s going to question it. This, unfortunately, changes when the shaman and Serji-X are both crushed at the same time, underfoot of the creature.

Now without a proverbial master, the village and even the world are in danger. Han and everyone stay behind shelter while debating what to do, but Don-Wan charges at the beast with his blade alight. Hedji the Spinner tries to assist, but is vaporized by the behemoth’s forehead laser.

Hedji also dies here. No one noticed, and I had to check Wookieepedia to see what happened.

Because it has one. Star Wars!

It turns out something about the lightsaber is driving the beast nuts, making it miss Don-Wan completely. Chewie carries Han out to Don-Wan, and Han takes the lightsaber out of the old man’s hands. Running like a maniac toward the monster, Han makes a running leap and stabs it in the chest, the lightsaber buried to the hilt.

See? Told you Don-Wan was ok.

With the village saved, Han and the survivors depart. Han muses that the whole ordeal wasn’t so bad. After all, at least for a little while, he got to feel like a Jedi Knight.

Oh, and Princess Leia both misses Luke and wishes Han was there to help. These side stories of the other main cast members will take the forefront with the next issue, but first: something only slightly different.

We will skip ahead slightly in our coverage to check out a solo issue that ties in with this storyline. Issue 16, The Hunter, actually returns the story to Aduba-3 and revisits Jimm, Jaxxon, and Amaiza. By this time, Archie Goodwin has taken the dual duties of editor and writer. Walter Simonson and Bob Wiacek are the artists of the issue, with Bob Sharen as colorist and Denise Wohl as letterer. Jim Shooter has also taken over as the consulting editor for this issue.

Our issue opens on Valance. He’s a bounty hunter leading a team, and is currently destroying a medical facility to eliminate his past. He takes a particular interest in wiping out droids, and shows no hesitation to destroy the central computer core either. One of the hunters along with Valance overhears a delirious old man. It’s Don-Wan!

I’m not sure if this means he was gravely injured, or if Han only helped him get to a nursing home later.

Well, it sounds like someone has a tip on a hot new bounty! Valance and his men blow up the facility, which also kills off Don-Wan Kihotay, much to everyone’s lament. Valance and his men target Jaxxon, figuring it’s easy to find a gigantic, green, carnivorous space rabbit. I mean, they’re not wrong.

Bucky O’Hare and a Bugs Bunny reference? Why have people slept on this guy?

Jaxxon is bailed out by Amaiza, and the book takes time to show they’ve been hanging out since their last job. And are now very friendly. Realizing the kid they’re talking about has to be Jimm the Starkiller Kid, they head to Aduba-3 and warn him. Jimm is rather shocked, as he’s settled down with a local girl, and even has a kid on the way.

On the way to Aduba-3 himself, Valance flashes back to his own mysterious past. He was once a trooper in the Empire, an officer. However, an outworld skirmish would end his career. He was heavily injured at the hands of a Rebel torpedo, and nearly died. Instead, he lived. And that, somehow, was why he could not serve again. It’s really interesting stuff!

The Empire has also put out a videotape with the footage of those terrorists who damaged the Death Star: Leia, Han, Chewie, some mysterious old man, and a boy with droids. This being so far back in the franchise’s origins, it’s hilarious to see a complete lack of connection between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. And, of course, seeing the boy being so friendly with his droids enrages Valance even further.

After a massive space battle, and a large ground battle that reduces Valance’s marauders to just himself. He confronts Jimm, only to realize he looks nothing like the man the Empire wants. Valance realizes he’s ruined himself, only to suddenly launch a laser blast out of his arm!


Valance flees, leaving everyone miraculously alive. Jimm, Jaxxon, and Amaiza are confused, but are glad that they came out alive. However, there’s a Twilight Zone level twist to our story. The droid hater Valance? Well. He’s not who he seemed.


Delicious. These five comics are fantastic, and that’s even when comparing them to the modern content put out by Marvel Comics. While the plot ranges from generic to Twilight Zone, the execution of the story and the fleshing out of the universe is nothing short of amazing. Making a space-Dirty-Dozen with Han Solo the loner trying to bring a team of weird pop culture references, a Luke clone, and anthro animals together? It doesn’t sound good. And who would want to follow up with those guys?

And yet, the execution completely nails it.

When it comes to the impact on the greater universe? These issues are somewhat self-contained. After issue 16, the entire expanded cast introduced here (save Valance) vanished from the comics entirely. Rumor has it that George Lucas himself disliked the giant green rabbit, but the man would approve of teddy bear aliens in 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Oh, and he would also name Chewbacca’s family Mala, Lumpy, and Itchy for the Star Wars: Holiday Special. Considering the decisions made around this time, it’s hard to argue this actually being his fault.

And hey, maybe we’re onto something with the Bucky O’Hare timeline.

Regardless, Jaxxon would become the focal point in the fandom’s distaste for the old Marvel comics. Articles in Star Wars Insider during the late 90s, for example, would constantly name him one of the weirdest and worst ideas of the classic comics. In fact, Marvel would poke fun at his existence being disliked when they re-launched Star Wars in 2015 with a variant cover.


Worry not, however! Jaxxon and Amazia have returned to the current Star Wars canon in recent years. The two of them have been restricted to the prose stories and the Star Wars Adventures books, the latter of which is intended for a much younger audience. This has allowed creators to just play with the rabbit’s pedigree and make for a highly entertaining rogue to help out the Rebels.

Amazia also remains pretty much the same as well, and it’s great to see a strong female character around who doesn’t have to magically belong to a strong force-user family lineage.

Jaxxon even has a slated release soon in the Star Wars Black Series figure line. However, the head sculpt tries to fit in with the current universe design scheme, rather than his cartoony classic self.

Yeah, these issues are all fairly small in the 44 years of Star Wars. However, it’s hard to ignore the heavy impact they had on the franchise and fandom at the time. Join us next time on The Weird and Wonderful Worlds of Marvel’s Star Wars, where we’ll see what happened to Luke and Leia! Water dragons! Swashbuckling swordplay! And a blaster duel in space! 

The Tally Count:
Issues Covered: 11
Accidental Incest: 2
Cast Members Killed: 9
Lightsaber-related Injuries: 3

Categories
Comics Film

The Weird and Wonderful Worlds of Star Wars Pt. 1

Star Wars. Just say the name, and people imagine the epic adventures of the Skywalker family throughout the generations. Ever since the first movie premiered in 1977, a marketing juggernaut was spawned that was only kept down for just over a decade by a lack of new movies before rising again and becoming a global phenomenon. Comic books, novels, TV shows, TV specials, and more have spawned from the mind of George Lucas and his many assistants, not to mention those who came after him.

However, what if you lived in 1977? If you wanted more Star Wars, what else was there to grab? There certainly wasn’t a television show, and action figures wouldn’t be out until after Christmas! You actually had to go out and buy a cardboard set that promised you’d get the figures when they finally came out. The first prose book, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, wouldn’t release until early 1978. Hell, the internet didn’t even exist in its public infancy yet, so you couldn’t even argue with strangers on BBS message boards.

So, aside from picking up the novelization by George Lucas (ghost-written by Alan Dean Foster), that left only one thing: comic books.


You see, back in the days before the internet, most licensed comics were a re-telling of a popular movie that people would want to take home and re-read whenever they wanted. If it was a license of a TV show like Star Trek, then the comic would just feature vague adventures that kinda fit with what the show had established. Mostly. It was good for a quick buck, and most property holders were happy.

However, Star Wars would be perhaps the first time that a licensed movie comic would be allowed to continue beyond the original plot summary and re-telling. Normally, we’ll look at the misadventures of the cast of Star Wars as the writers and artists at Marvel fill in the gaps between movies, adjust to wild plot and tone twists, and even try to build a plot beyond Return of the Jedi. Our first look back at the earliest Star Wars comics is going to be different, as we’ll be looking at the original six issues that covered the movie before we can get into what expanded the universe for the first time. 

Back before Star Wars released on May 25th, 1977, George Lucas was trying to shop around his movie to build up the hype. It was, after all, something that the studios had very little interest in. Almost everyone, from Universal Studios to Walt Disney Studios themselves rejected the original finished scripts and pitches. It wasn’t until Lucas basically dogged the head of 20th Century Fox that someone finally agreed to back the project, something Lucas admitted was more based on his own talent than the movie’s potential. With a limited theatrical release that had 20th Century Fox essentially blackmailing theaters into ordering Star Wars if they wanted some highly-expected movies, Lucas was getting desperate.

According to legend, and Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Marvel writer and editor Roy Thomas was somehow able to convince Stan Lee to take on a Star Wars comic. Marvel was in money trouble at the time, which happened about once a decade with the company back then. Lucas and Thomas had been distant friends ever since randomly meeting up and swapping stories, as well as Thomas having Lucas over to show off his Scrooge McDuck painting by Carl Barks. Luckily, Thomas and Lucas cut a deal where Marvel would pay zero licensing fees for Star Wars, making it only a risk to work on and publish the comic. And that, Stan could cover. Thomas was able to wrangle six full-color issues out of Stan, and they would eventually make history.

Welcome, to The Weird and Wonderful Worlds of Marvel’s Star Wars.

As you can see, coloring was a lot more liberal in the days when no one cared about the franchise. I kinda dig the green Vader, though.

The first issue of Star Wars hit the newsstand on April 12th 1977, a month in advance of the movie. Working on the book, we would have some serious industry legends and old standbys with Marvel. Roy Thomas himself would work on the adaptation of Lucas’ script, while Howard Chaykin would pencil and ink the first issue. Marie Severin would color the art. Jim Novak would letter the book. Roy Thomas would also have the title of editor, something that was actually allowed back in the weird heyday of the 70s and 80s.

While fans of Star Wars will be incredibly familiar with the overall story, Roy Thomas had been given an early shooting script for the movie. As such, there would be several scenes adapted that would end up on the cutting room floor. The first issue would feature the lost scenes of Luke Skywalker seeing the space battle from Tatooine’s surface, Luke trying to get his friends to see the same battle, and the introduction of Biggs Darklighter.

Keeping to actor likenesses was more of a suggestion in the 1970s, it seems.

Another amusing bit is when Roy Thomas would use outdated terminology that would be changed before release, or would try to add his own flair. For example, referring to The Force as The Cosmic Force in the first namedrop of the mystical life-force that binds the galaxy together.

Hilariously, an entire episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars’ 6th season would explain what The Cosmic Force was.

Ending on a cliffhanger created by Luke being threatened by the Sandpeople of Tatooine, the comic also has a little essay written by Roy Thomas about how Star Wars was made as a whole. There’s also a subsequent essay that actually talks about the series of coincidences that resulted in this comic. 

As the adaptation rolled into the remaining issues, the crew working on the comic would change up a little bit. We would also have Steve Leialoha working on inks and colors. Carl Gafford and Glynis Oliver would join for coloring a few issues. Tom Orzechowski would take over for lettering issues 2-5, while Carol Lay and Michael W Royer would letter the final 6th issue. Paty Cockrum would also color issue 6.

As for the plot, again, it’s pretty much the movie. However, large expanses of action with little dialogue would allow for Roy Thomas and Howard Chaykin to experiment with storytelling. For example, the slowly-paced scene of Leia being slowly tormented by a floating ball of needles was instead this:

Again, you see the result of not having a finished movie to build off of. The torture robot is… less threatening, but the comic pulls it off.

And for those people concerned if any of the printings for this comic somehow went the way of almost every other Star Wars release, rest assured: Han Solo still shoots first.

I love the fonting used for Greedo’s text, but the comic just has everyone but Chewbacca use the same language. No subtitles here.

Oh, hey: Han also mentions Jabba! Since this was based on the earliest of shooting scripts, it also means that we should have a Jabba the Hutt scene. Almost every Star Wars fan remembers the weirdly bad CGI Jabba the Hutt from the infamous Special Edition releases, and how CGI Jabba was made to replace the human actor who’d once played the intergalactic gangster. Well, he does appear in this story as well. However, he is a little different.

As a kid, this was my introduction to Jabba. I was wondering what space disease he’d contracted to turn into a slug man by the third movie.

Thomas and Chaykin would also build upon some of the romance that the first movie hinted at, which has become utterly hilarious in retrospect.

A chaste peck on the cheek turning into a romantic kiss? Sure. Why not. It’s not like they’re brother and sister or anything.

Much of the action sequences would also be jammed with narrative dialogue from Thomas to try and explain what was happening in the story. This worked well to keep the attention of the kids, and even added some major drama in lesser situations. For example, the weirdly slow Obi-Wan and Vader lightsaber duel became something more action-packed with what felt like quick cuts and narration galore to fill in the gaps.

A lack of anything other than promotional art, photos taken on set, and a promise that this would look cool when they watched the unfinished movie resulted in some weird coloring decisions.

Despite being a small fight, and even somewhat underwhelming at times, the narration really beefs up this scene. The last narration box really helps build up the idea that the Jedi are something important that’s gone extinct. I also particularly like the implication from Obi-Wan that Vader can’t use the full aspect of the Force, even if the rest of Star Wars doesn’t agree with it.

Issue 5 follows the movie to Yavin 4, and sets up the grand finale of the story. Most of it is either breathing time for the characters to interact, or blowing up pursuing TIE Fighters… but the story still has the time to slip in more narration from Thomas to expand on the lore of the universe. According to his lore, the temples on Yavin 4 come from a long-lost civilization, and the moon is long since uninhabited aside from the Rebel Alliance setting up shop. It really helps explain where these things came from, which the movie doesn’t have the time or mind to explain.

Oh, and we have time to further explore romance.

If you listen carefully, you can hear Padmé spinning in her grave.

With Luke and Leia. Man, the early stories of Star Wars have become hilarious in retrospect.

After making out, Luke reconnects with Biggs. The early introduction of him, along with the new pages of Luke meeting with Biggs once again really helps highlight how much Biggs obviously meant to Luke. While the movie is certainly an overall improved experience, this is one place the comic really surpasses the source material. In fact, the sixth issue is generally incredible as an adaptation of an action-packed sequence. The entire issue is packed with explosions, space battles, and Thomas adds in a bunch of narration to provide us a window into what the characters are either feeling or thinking. A fantastic example is the death of Biggs, coming in the middle of the issue.


While the movie simply gave Luke a moment of “oh crap” before getting back into the thrilling Death Star trench run drama, there’s an entire page dedicated to his death. Vader comes off as menacing in his Advanced TIE Fighter, and the fact that characters had more reactions than a moment of silence actually makes it feel like Luke lost a friend rather than a prop.

Of course, the comic ends with our heroes triumphant, and moves to the overly dramatic medal giving ceremony. Fans have objected for years that Chewbacca somehow never received a medal from Leia during the ceremony, but Roy Thomas actually thought of that ahead of time.

I mean, it makes sense.

Throughout all of these six issues, Marvel would put out an address for everyone to write in to. Letter columns may have fallen by the wayside in recent years, but these were great ways for editors to address the fans. Some long-running friendships, and even fan clubs, would be started from these pages. The archives we have access to only have a few letter pages preserved, but we feel they’re an important way to see how comics were received back in the day. When possible, we will bring them in for some extra clarity to the Star Wars phenomenon.

Letters covering the first issues wouldn’t be included until the Star Wars comic reached original content, but we’re gonna look at some of them here.


This is the first-ever fan letter for Star Wars. And, true to form, it is nit-picking about the setting of Star Wars and the terminology that can be used. Thomas himself admits that the crew working on the comic only got to see a heavily unfinished version of the movie, and the cut they saw didn’t even have the A Long Time Ago, In a Galaxy Far, Far Away opening text that we all know and love. It’s rather interesting, and I wish these letter columns had been preserved beyond old scans you need to “find” online.


This is the only letter Marvel would publish for some time that was negative about the entire comic. Apparently, every piece of movie merchandise in the early days would completely misspell things, like “Wookie” instead of the now commonly-used “Wookiee.” This letter is also fascinating, because it rips into Roy Thomas’ adaptation in general. The “extra sequences” were also greatly disliked by Don, despite the fact they came from the original scripts and cuts of the movie that Thomas and company got a sneak peek of.

Really, it’s just fascinating to see that, while technology has improved the rate of communication, fandoms in general just have not changed.

These first six Star Wars comics have been reprinted a good dozen times, and it’s easy to see why. Star Wars was a massive hit and readers were demanding a chance to pick up the issues they’d missed, resulting in a pair of Treasury Editions being released later in 1977 that were a larger format containing the whole story. Dark Horse would reprint these comics often, most recently with a 5 volume omnibus format. Marvel has also recently re-published these under their Legends branding, with digital touch-ups in an Epic Collection format, and also offering some really advanced takes on the 6 issue adaptation with a more accurately colored volume release.

Of all of these, though, which should be read?

Well, we’re going to be honest. Avoid the recolored version.


Yes, it’s more accurate to the original movie. Yes, the coloring is intricate and detailed. However, the comic’s art isn’t drawn nearly as accurately as the coloring presented. It also makes the comic somehow feel more dated with digital coloring than the originally printed comics do. It just comes off as weirdly lazy, or perhaps being ashamed of the decade it came from.

As for the Dark Horse and Marvel reprints, they’re about the same. The Dark Horse omnibus can often be found for cheaper overall, running about $20.00 when they’re not on sale, and were added to the digital marketplace not long ago. Marvel, meanwhile, has been selling the issues individually on digital sites like ComiXology for $1.99 an issue or in their Epic Collection format. This does make it more expensive on a per-issue basis, but the presentation is closer to the original comics from 1977 through 1986. Marvel’s digital conversions keep the essays intact, and the colors are almost as close as you can get to the original palettes 

Left to right: Original scans of a 30-year-old comic, Dark Horse Omnibus reprint, Marvel’s faithful reprint, and the Marvel “accurate” reprint.

Either one is a fantastic choice, with it just coming down to if you prefer trying to find a physical copy or want to see a more accurate printing of the comic.

Come back for our next installment of The Weird and Wonderful Worlds of Marvel’s Star Wars, though, and we’ll have a real treat for you all: the first time anyone explored what fans would call the Expanded Universe! A peek into what Jedi Knights (probably) looked like! A giant green space rabbit! A large space porcupine! And Han Solo takes on a Kaiju with a lightsaber!

The Tally Count:
Issues Covered: 6
Accidental Incest: 2
Cast Members Killed: 5
Lightsaber-related Injuries: 3