It’s only natural that when you have a film like “Star Wars” that spawned an entire industry unto itself, there’s going to be a higher than normal level of interest in its origins. So when you start hearing apocryphal stories about the original “rough draft” of the very first film and what it contained -- Anakin Starkiller! General Luke Skywalker! The Imperial Capital of Alderaan! -- the idea of “What might’ve been” is more compelling than you’d think. I can only imagine that’s what has led writer J.W. Rinzler, author of three exhaustively researched books about the making of the original trilogy, and artist Mike Mayhew, along with lots of staff at Dark Horse and Lucas Licensing, to deliver this new comic series based on that draft. While some very talented people worked to bring us this series, they appear to have forgot one crucial thing about writing: The first draft of anything is usually terrible.
There are hints that this is going to be a rocky endeavor right from the opening text piece that kicks things off. It tries to cram in all sorts of relevant information from the Jedi-Bendu’s roles as the architects of the Empire and status as the most feared fighting force in the galaxy to the fact that they’re now being hunted by a new power known as the Knights of the Sith in the space of two paragraphs. Once things get underway, we find out that the last of the Jedi-Bendu are making their stand with the Royal House of Aquilae as the Empire moves in for the kill. When things take a turn for the worse, however, it’s up to the aged but still badass General Skywalker, his annoying newbie apprentice Annikin Starkiller, to take the Princess Leia to a place where she’ll be able to rally Aquilae’s forces to retake the planet.
Probably the most interesting thing about the story here is how you can more clearly see the influence of Akira Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress” at work. Lucas has always cited that film as an influence on the original “Star Wars” and I always had a tough time seeing it. However, the narrative plays out as more of a “road trip” here so it’s easier to see how the setup of a veteran warrior, spunky princess, and two goofballs (read: droids) parallels its inspiration.
Then you’ve got all of the little scenes in the story here that actually made it into the final draft. Expect to see a bit of dismemberment at the cantina in the Gordon Spaceport, a spaceship the size of a (smaller) moon, and a sticky situation in a trash compactor here. While there’s a lot here that didn’t make it, certain parts -- a flight through an asteroid field, Annikin being revered as a god by the Wookies -- wound up in the later films after a fashion.
That’s about where the good news stops as everything else here can be charitably described as either “uneven” or “several shades of terrible.” Falling squarely into the latter category is the dialogue. This should not surprise anyone, but I have no doubt that Rinzler was adapting Lucas’ script word for word here. That’s because the results are AWFUL! If there was ever any doubt in your mind that the cast of “Star Wars” elevated the material they were given, this should put an end to it. By the end of the eight issues collected here, I was doing my best to skim through what was being said and save myself from slogging through endless exposition, witless comedy, and the beyond inept “romance” between Annikin and Leia.
As for the actual story, it was more interesting to observe how much of it there was than for the fact that any of it was actually memorable. There’s certainly a large scope to things given that the story ranges from Alderaan to Aquilae, to the Wookie homeworld, and the Empire’s starship base. Yet things move so fast that it’s hard to get properly invested in anything that’s going on. We get a major action scene on just about every other page as characters flail about and try to explain why we should be caring about what’s going on. The fast pace leads to awkward things like Annikin’s dad leaving him in Luke’s care in what appears to be a final farewell… only to show up a couple issues later for his heroic sacrifice. Like everything else here, it’s really hard to care about something like that when the execution is so sloppy.
You’ll also be able to appreciate the economy of the film’s cast after reading this comic too. By cutting out extraneous characters that added nothing like the Emperor and the Sith Prince Valorum, Lucas was at least able to focus more on developing the core cast. Instead of Darth Vader being some guy with a scar and robotic eye, we got the iconic Sith Lord that we know today. People may complain about Luke in “Episode IV” being whiny, but at least he’s not nearly as dopey as Annikin is here. He never hit Leia in the movies either, so you can consider that too. I will say that General Luke Skywalker is the one character who doesn’t come off as completely uninteresting or unlikeable. Clearly echoing the Toshiro Mifune role from “Hidden Fortress,” he’s portrayed as a very capable warrior who has lost none of his skills with age. Then there’s the version of Han Solo we get here which is devoid of the roguish charm Harrison Ford brought to the role. However, he looks like Swamp Thing here so I guess it’s not as bad a loss as it could’ve been?
According to the supplemental material in the back, Solo was described as a big green monster in the script. From that, I’m assuming that it’s Mayhew’s influence that turned him into Swampy. This questionable design choice aside, the artist does a pretty good job with assimilating all of the design work done for this series into a coherent world. In fact, the early issues boast some impressively detailed artwork that will have you thinking that you can excuse the book’s flaws if it continues to look this good. Spoiler warning: It doesn’t. Whatever lead time Mayhew had for this series wasn’t enough to get it all done before it was serialized. There were a couple of delays as this title was coming out, and you can see the art becoming increasingly more rushed as things go on.
The people at Dark Horse probably thought that there were going to be some delays on this title as they fit a special #0 issue into the halfway point of this eight-issue series. This issue contains a lot of the design work done for the characters, and tech with commentary by Rinzler. It makes for interesting reading, as does the pitch art from Scott Kolins that was used to obtain Lucas’ blessing for the project. I liked seeing that and I’ll admit that I wouldn’t have been averse to seeing Kolins handle the art for the whole thing if it meant that we would’ve got something with a more consistent visual quality from start to finish.
It’s also worth noting that unless you bought the series in single-issue form, the only way you’ll be able to read issue #0 in a collected edition is if you spring for the hardcover or deluxe editions. While the paperback will only set you back $20, the hardcover (which is what I got) goes for $40, and the “deluxe” edition is $100. If I’m being honest, paying the extra $20 for a hardcover and extra issue doesn’t feel like it was worth it. I’m not angry enough to podcast about it, but still… Even if this does take off and become a collector’s item, I still feel dumb for letting the thought of that influence my decision to pick this up.
That being said, it would’ve been for the best if I had just not bothered to order this title in the first place. I admit to getting caught up in what is the last big “Star Wars” event from Dark Horse and the idea of seeing the prototype for the start of my favorite film trilogy. As I said above, I should’ve realized that this “rough draft” screenplay was likely terrible due to its status as such. If nothing else, now I’m curious about all of the revisions it went through and am now more likely to pick up Rinzler’s “The Making of Star Wars” (particularly after how excellent his “The Making of The Empire Strikes Back” was) just for the insight into the script’s development. We should all be thankful for those revisions, because thanks to them we wound up with “Star Wars” instead of “The Star Wars.”