Saturday, January 10, 2015

Review: Star Wars Omnibus: Early Victories

With the return of the Star Wars license to Marvel and the publisher's first new series set to start in the immediate future—not to mention a filmic reboot coming to theaters near us in about a year's time—I've been racing to read all of the Dark Horse Star Wars comics I can before they disappear.

Marvel's notoriously bad at keeping collections of comics in print, so even if they decide to and/or are able to republish collections of the decades worth of superior Dark Horse comics, there's little guarantee that they will do it in a sensible fashion, or keep those books in print. So I've been availing myself of Ohio's libraries to read Star Wars trades and ominbi as collected and published by Dark Horse, before they fall apart and crumble to dust.

This particular 350-page collection includes stories set in the relatively early era of the fictional Star Wars Expanded Universe timeline, chronicling events that took place shortly after "The Battle of Yavin" (i.e. the climax of the original film), which the Star Wars chronologers apparently use similarly to the way that historians used to use the birth of Christ: This is set so many years before the Battle of Yavin, this so many after the Battle of Yavin, and so on.

These stories are also early in terms of Dark Horse's publication history; they are all products of the first seven years or so of Dark Horse's acquisition of the license, the contents were all published between 1995 and 1999, and they look and even feel rather old school. Perhaps it is merely a byproduct of coming before the second film trilogy, in which the official, popular version of the Star Wars universe expanded so greatly, paired with the publisher's reliance or more classical, style-chasing adverse artwork and the coloring process of the mid-to-late 1990s, but these comics read an awful lot like the Dark Horse collections of the original Marvel Comics...only better-written, better-drawn and featuring far more sophisticated storytelling.

The omnibus contains five distinct comics stories of various lengths, one of which is actually a four-part, 1995 adaptation of a prose novel, and plenty of work from some big-name creators, like Dave Gibbons, June Brigman, Chris Sprouse and Bret Blevins.

Let's take 'em one at a time.

First up is Vader's Quest, a four-issue, 1999 miniseries illustrated (and lettered) by Dave Gibbons and written by Darko Macan. Despite the title, the stars of the book are really Luke Skywalker and a washed-up rebel X-Wing pilot named Jal Te Gniev. Vader, of course, appears throughout, and, as for his quest, it is to find Skywalker, the young pilot who destroyed the Death Star at the end of the first Star Wars movie.

This story seems to be set almost directly after the events of that film, as the main characters are all dealing with its fall-out (Luke even puts his white moisture-farming outfit from Tatooine back on). While Vader goes in pursuit of Skywalker, before even bothering to check in with The Emperor, Luke finds himself the unexpected hero of the Rebellion and naively trying to do good with his new notoriety.

Jal, a seasoned veteran pilot, had to sit out the Battle of Yavin in the sickbay, with measles (Yeah, their galaxy still has measles, apparently. There were a lot of anti-vaxxers a long time ago). Seeing all the glory being showered upon Skywalker for his lucky shot in his very first mission, Jal turns to drink in frustration.

As punishment for a dumb accident involving his fighter and the space garage door, Jal gets semi-grounded and semi-exiled to a planet where he's supposed to be recruiting for the Rebellion, but instead just bellies up to that planet's bar and starts anti-recuriting. Meanwhile, Luke goes on a diplomatic mission to a planet that Gibbons designs to look like something out of old Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon strips, where the native population looks completely human, save for little dog-like snouts, slightly pointier ears than humans and four-fingered hands.

They have a neat-looking beast of burden there, which looks like a gigantic shell-less tortoise, making a perpetually slightly bored and rather pissed-off face:

I don't know what that thing is—I'm sure there's a Wookiepedia entry on it, and probably a few short stories in an anthology comic somewhere starring it—but I like it.

Both Luke and Jal make some pretty big mistakes during the course of their adventures, but both make up for them before the story's end, Curious George style. One of them gives his life atoning, however, while the other survives. Can you guess which of them lives and which of them dies?

The climax involves a showdown of sorts with Darth Vader, but it's more of a face-off than the usual light saber duel. There's a neat scene of the princess of the dog people totally emasculating Darth Vader...
...which may be even better than the scene where a local dog person throws a bottle at a Stormtrooper and calls Darth Vader "Darfader."

Okay, actually, that second scene is probably better. It's hard to beat a local drunk finding the courage to stand up against the Dark Lord of the Sith, slurring his name into "Darfader."

Gibbons' art is, it will come as no surprise, pretty great. His line is clean and smooth, and he draws all the expected vehicles and items and characters in a way that they are instantly recognizable, but also his own. I particularly like his frozen-faced Darth Vader. When he doesn't have his towering stature, theme music, wheezing and scary voice going on—that is, when he's in a comic and not in a film—the villain loses a lot of his edge, but Gibbons helps give him an unsettling creepiness simply by the way he draws and frames his stiff, immobile, frozen face and his towering, black, stiff form.

There's another character who appears in this that I suppose plays a part somewhere later in some other Star Wars story, as she gets a relatively great deal of panel-time, but there's little resolution to her story. She's a badly burned and wounded humanoid who uses a gun-toting, many-armed droid as a sort of full-body prosthetic.
I don't know who she is exactly, what her deal is, where she's coming from or where she's going, but I like the design of the that droid a whole lot. Props to whoever came up with it (and, if not Gibbons, then to Gibbons for drawing the hell out of it).

The next story is from a 1995 miniseries, River of Chaos, written by Louise Simonson, penciled by June Brigman and inked by Roy Richardson. Seeing the amazing quality of Brigman's work—which is every bit as clean, smooth and classical in construction as that of Gibbons, but slightly less stiff and featuring a more dynamic sense of emotion and action in many of the panels—I was really quite surprised that I had never heard of her before. Well, I've heard of her before, but just her name; before reading this I don't think I ever read anything she had drawn before. Looking at her bibliography, I see she co-created Power Pack with Simonson, but her comics work seems to have been relatively sporadic and low in volume. That's a little on the perplexing side, given how damn good she is, but it sounds like she's been kept busy teaching and doing plenty of illustration and comics work outside of the comic book industry proper, like drawing the Brenda Starr comic strip for over 15 years.

The only character from the Star Wars films to really appear in "River of Chaos" is Princess Leia, and while she plays a pretty big role in the proceedings, she's not one of the stars of the story. That role is filled by a pair of star-crossed lovers.

The male half of the couple is Ranulf Trommer, the handsome son of an imperial admiral and an excellent pilot. Leia herself admires his skill as he's blowing the shit out of an underwater rebel base even after the rest of his squad is decimated and his tie fighter is badly damaged. Aftewards, a Grand Moff (I don't know why exactly, but that is my favorite phrase in the Star Wars universe) gives Ranulf an assignment he's not terribly comfortable with: He's nominally being sent to a planet with a strong rebel presence in order to serve as aide to the military governor there, but he's also meant to spy on that governor, as the Moff thinks he's up to no good (and he is!).

The female half is Mora, a beautiful, red-haired human girl who was adopted as a baby by one of the H'drachi, diminutive sentients that look vaguely like a race of Joe Camels and who make their home on the planet Ranulf is being sent to. Their elders have a weird ability to read the time stream, an ability magnified when the elders all work together, and they have used what insight their visions have provided them to basically sit out the Empire/Rebellion conflict, even as it rages around them.

Mora's adopted father is an outlier, and the other little camel people don't like the fact that he's adopted a human and raised her as one of them. Thus their not really succeeding when it comes to reading the river of time (hence the title).

Ranulf, posing as a merchant, quickly gets swept up in the events on the planet, finding himself sympathizing with Mora and the rebels. Simonson presents Raulf, and his father, are presented at first as conflicted "good German"-style characters, whose morality is in conflict with their sense of duty. Both loyal officers of a military family that used to serve the Old Republic and just continued serving, even after it became corrupted at the top, they fight for the Empire because they've always done so, but aren't really down with the whole "evil" part of this particular evil empire.

Ranulf's own moral dillema is made somewhat easier on this particular planet, given that the Empire itself is unhappy with the way its being run by its imperial governor.

There's a lot of well-executed action in this story—particularly when the governor brings in a horned bountyhunter with wrist-rockets and pre-cognition abilities, and enough drama about the true loyalties of Ranulf and a few other characters new to the conflict that the story has twists and turns, rather than being a straighforward march from Point A to Point B.

It also offers a nice portrait of Leia as leader, here completely divorced from her normal male co-stars and funny sidekicks, and it has both the speeder bikes from Return of the Jedi, one of my favorite vehicles from when I was a little kid, and the AT-ATs from Empire, which I fucking love. (I believe my first reaction to hearing there was going to be a new Episode VII movie was something along the lines of, "Oh good, maybe they can have AT-ATs in a city in this one...").

Next up is Splinter of The Mind's Eye, writer Terry Austin's 1995 adaptation of Alan Dean Foster's 1978 prose novel (the very first "Expanded Universe" book!), drawn by Chris Sprouse with Austin inking his work (Damn, Gibbons, Brigman and Sprouse make for a great 1-2-3 combination of pencil artists; all have a style that is similar enough that their work looks "right" together, in addition to the fact that they are all, you know, excellent artists). Sprouse seems to go to greater pains to make the designs of his characters more closely resemble those of the actors who portrayed them in the movie, and of the three stories in this collection, this one seems to most closely resemble the Star Wars universe as seen in the films, with apparently less latitude for designing creatures and cultures (The fact that this comic story feels like one closer to the Star Wars universe of the first Star Wars films may have something to do with the fact that the source novel was originally conceived of a potential sequel to the first film, if what we'd later call Episode IV wasn't a big commercial hit, and they had to go for a low-budget follow-up).

Despite the fact that the comic is based on a novel, the plot is pretty straighforward—much more so than that of the story it follows, actually.

Luke, Leia, C-3PO and R2-D2 are taking two ships to some sort of rebel conference, when damage to Leia's ship forces them to attempt to land on a planet along the way...ultmiately, crashland, due to some sort of lightning-based security system or weird storm on the planet. You know how interplanetary travel is.

Once on the ground, they quickly discover that there's actually an Imperial mining operation going on here, and they do their best to blend in, stealing black mining uniforms and heading to a cantina.

This leads to one of my favorite parts of the story, as Leia frets that the waiter might suspect that she and Luke are not really Imperial miners after all:
Maybe Leia—the senator, princess, wanted leader of the Rebel Alliance and probably the Empire's Public Enemy Number One—should have changed her distinctive hair-do as part of her disguise? I'm pretty sure she's the only person in the whole galaxy rocking that particular look.

Someone does suspect them, but it's not the Empire, it's an old woman in Jedi-esque robes named Halla, who claims to be a master of The Force and to have recognized Luke's Force sensitivity. She tries to enlist their help in tracking down an ancient treasure called the Kaiburr Crystal, which increases the Force abilities of whoever holds it to immeasurable proportions. To prove her story, she carries a splinter of it (Hey, like in the title!), which is enough for Luke to feel the crystal's power.

Before the trio can go in search of the crystal, however, Luke and Leia get involved in a brawl with some other miners, and they're all taken to the local Imperial jail. With Halla's help they break out, in company of two creatures that are essentially just huge Wookies with wild boar's heads, and they go about meeting the challenges of the quest: Fighting a giant worm monster and then a giant lizard monster, traveling through underground tunnels, being attacked by some kind of invisible amoeba creature, running afoul of and then befriending the planet's natives and eventually coming into conflict with a Darth Vader-lead contingent of Stormtroopers (Leia, who plays an awfully active role int his story compared to that of the movies, almost ices Vader, putting a blaster-hole in his cape).

They finally come to The Temple of Pomojema, which is apparently Basic for "Cthulhu":
And then who should stride in but Darth Motherfuckin' Vader, ready for a rematch.

Leia takes up Luke's lightsaber to battle the Dark Lord while Luke's incapacitated, and it doesn't go so great for the Princess.
They have kittens in the Star Wars-iverse...?
Vader lands like four blows to her, but he's apparently concentrating on merely cutting off her clothes, as each swipe seems to do nothing more than take a small chunk out of her mining uniform.
Leia eventually tags out and Luke comes in swinging; it's a pretty thrilling fight, really, far better than the old man sword fight Vader and Obi Wan had in the first movie, and Luke acquits himself much better here than he would in the next movie.

Vader even makes a ball of Force lightning to throw at Luke, and Luke bounces it back at him like it was a dodgeball.

At the climax of the fight, Luke straight-up chops Darth Vader's sword-arm off while Vader's punching him with his other arm.

And then Vader does pretty much the most bad-ass thing anyone has ever done in a sword fight.
He plants his foot on his own severed arm and pulls the lightsaber out of his dismembered fist using his other hand to continue the fight!
That moment of extreme bad-assedness is immediately erased by his next action, however, which is to then trip over his own severed hand...
...and fall into a deep pit, screaming NOOOOOO like he hasn't had to since he heard that Natalie Portman died of sadness.
If that's not the most dramatic single page of a comic book story ever, I can't imagine what is.

That proves to be the climax of the entire omnibus too, as the collection more-or-less peters out with two more one-shot comics, Shadow Stalker and Tales From Mos Eisley.

The former was a 1997 comic written by Ryder Windham and drawn by Nick Choles, and starring a guy named Jix.

Jix is a human with long hair he wears in a pony tail and a vest he wears over his bare torso. An extremely capable agent able to take down as many has a half-dozen stormtroopers at a time with his bare hands, he’s introduced in a six-page sequence demonstrating his capability by beating down the stormtroopers sent to summon him to Darth Vader’s castle, and then infiltrating it, getting all the way to that little cubicle thing Vader uses to get dressed in or whatever.

After Vader levitates and Force-chokes Jix for awhile, he sends him on a dangerous mission. Apparently he does this sort of thing for Vader a lot? I got the sense this was not the first Jix story, but I didn’t want to look him up on Wookiepedia, as if I look up every new character I encounter in one of these comics on Wookiepedia, I many never finish reviewing a single Star Wars trade.

So he goes on a mission involving Imperial governors and look-a-like droids. His arrival on the planet is pretty neat, as he smuggles himself there inside one of the bigger, goofier looking droids—basically a large refrigerator with legs—and then stuffs a guy he beats up into it.

He also fights a giant, fire-breathing salamander snake (Is it weird that at least half of the stories in this collection involve the protagonists fighting giant burrowing worm monsters of some kind?).

This story, while engaging enough, does seem a little out of place in this particular omnibus, as it doesn’t really qualify as a victory for anyone other than maybe Vader, even if it is set “early” in the Star Wars timeline. It’s followed by a comic that similarly doesn’t seem to fit, at least not in terms of showing a rebel victory early in the Alliance/Empire conflict.

This one, originally published in as Star Wars: Tales of Mos Eisely, is written by Bruce Jones and drawn by Bret Blevins, a stylist whose presence in the fictional Star Wars universe is quite welcome—even if he’s not getting to draw much in the way of touchstone characters here.

Divided into three short stories, it’s essentially just a group of unrelated pieces in which one patron of the hive of scum and villainy relates a dramatic experience to another.

These are all rather old-school stories, sci-fi versions of the old horror or crime stories that used to make up so many anthologies between various superhero booms in the industry.

In the first, a man hired to operate a lighthouse for the benefit of the Empire discovers himself besieged by bizarre and horrifying monsters that take alluring forms.

In the second, one that doesn’t really feel like it belongs in the Star Wars universe (which is actually a rather stiflingly small place), a 90-year-old man strides into Mos Eisley to tell about his 71-year-long cargo run. His ship lost it’s hyperdrive abilities in an accident, so rather than being able to just jump from planet to planet like Star Wars ships usually do, he’s forced to simply get from Point A to Point B by flying in a strightline…which takes a lifetime.

He comes down with the second-worst case of space madness I’ve ever seen, falls in love with a droid on the ship and, on the last page, reveals a hell of a stinger ending, worthy of an old EC Comic.

In the third tale, another white bearded old-timer—who probably looks a little too much like the protagonist of the previous story, even if Blevins takes some pains to differentiate them by a few decades worth of age—tells a strange story involving an alien egg and time travel in an attempt to con a younger man out of a drink.

And that’s that. The second-to-last page includes “A Word about the Omnibus Collections,” which says:
Dark Horse Comics’ Star Wars Omnibus collections were created as a way to showcase novel-length stories or series, and to provide homes for “orphaned” series, single-issue stories, and short stories, which would otherwise never be collected, or which might fall out of print.
I’m assuming the presence of those last two entries in this book can be explained by that little mission statement; perhaps there just wasn’t anywhere else to put them.

Although I’m a little surprised there aren’t more Tales of Mos Eisely; none of those three short stories even feature any of the popular—or at least name—characters seen in the cantina scene of Star Wars. Like, I wouldn’t mind knowing what the deal was with Walrus Man, Hammerhead, Greedo and the other action figures I used to play with as a child.


Matt Brady said...

I'm not sure if you're joking with that last sentence, but just in case you aren't I think the "Tales from Mos Eisley" comic was based on the short story collection "Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina," which I believe did exactly what you're asking, telling back stories of all the various aliens glimpsed in the background of that scene. Here's a link on amazon:

Matt Brady said...

Hmm, I don't know if that link showed up correctly, but I'm sure you can figure it out. Or look it up on Wookiepedia. That book was followed up with "Tales from Jabba's Palace," "Tales of the Bounty Hunters," and others. I might have read some of them when I was a teenager, but I really don't remember.

Anyway, if you were joking, which seems likely, sorry for being the "um, actually..." guy.

Caleb said...

Thanks Matt! I wasn't joking; I am really rather astonishingly ignorant of a lot of subject matter I write about. As I think I noted somewhere in this post, I kinda quit Wookiepedia-ing everything I encountered, as I found myself spending about five times as long reading ABOUT the comics as the comics themselves (this is, like, the second of a dozen or so Star Wars collections I've read in the last few months).

And you're always welcome to be my "um, actually" guy...

Bram said...

Gibbons, IIRC, often lettered his own work; I think he was one of the first to digitize his lettering.

In a roundabout way, he's to blame for Comic Sans.