'The Star Wars': Dark Horse's Jedi swan song
The Jedi universe wasn’t built in a day and the construction process had some strange stages. If you thumb through the 1974 draft of the George Lucas script for The Star Wars (as it was called then) you’ll see a funhouse version of the most famous space epic that includes a warrior named Starkiller and a reptilian alien named Han Solo.
That version of Star Wars has been a relatively obscure artifact, but now it will get a spotlight of its own in a major adaptation by Dark Horse Comics that maps out a tale that’s both familiar and totally alien.
For the Oregon-based comics company, the project may be the great farewell to the Jedi mythology. Star Wars comics have been a core part of the Dark Horse’s indie publishing empire since the early 1990s. Now, after the Disney purchase of Lucasfilm, Dark Horse is likely to lose the license in the months ahead. We caught up with Mike Richardson, founder of Dark Horse, and Randy Stradley, the Dark Horse editor who has been the architect of the brand’s Dark Horse success, to talk about rediscovered universes and losing Empires.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The Star Wars represents a voyage into a new corner of the Jedi universe, but it’s got a lot of startling aspects to it. Did this project come together quickly or was it a complicated path?
RANDY STRADLEY: It happened quickly this time. It was about 10 years ago or longer that we actually approached Lucasfilm with the idea and the people who were around back then just told us flat out, “Oh no, George would never be interested in this,” or “George would never allow it.” Time passed and Jonathan Rinzler, one of the editors at LucasBooks that has George’s ear, suggests the old idea and George is all for it. So either George changed his mind or, what I suspect happened, in the past nobody wanted to be the one to go to George with an idea he might not like. This is the first time that we’ve sort of had personal involvement from George Lucas; he looks over all the different character designs and vehicle designs and location designs and he’s picking the ones he’s liked. He’s steering us toward a vision of what that screenplay might have been like if it had been filmed.
The original script is much closer to John Carter or Flash Gordon…
Stradley: Visually I think it’s a lot closer to Flash Gordon. There’s still a lot of stuff that will be recognizable as Star Wars, but there are also a lot of different thing. For instance, Luke Skywalker is an older general and, uh, Han Solo is a big green lizard. Wookiees are the ones that lead the attack in the end on the Imperial Battle Station, which is never called the Death Star. Things are different but there are aspects that are the same as well.
What was the approach as far as the creative team and the design work for the project?
Stradley: We did a lot of searching to find somebody who was right for this and, almost by accident, I stumbled across samples from an artist named Mike Mayhew — he’s no relation to Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca by the way. But it just looked right. George really has an affinity toward classic-looking comic books; he’s a big fan of Jack Kirby and stuff from the 1960s and Mike’s drawings and storytelling approach is reminiscent of that, even though the style is very modern. It’s been a nice combination and so far George has liked what he’s seen, so we’re excited. The entire weight of designing this new universe won’t fall on Mike Mayhew’s shoulders; I’ve also enlisted an army of comic and storyboard artists that’s designing vehicles and characters and locations.
Star Wars represents so much history for Dark Horse. Along with things like Hellboy, The Mask, Concrete, and 300, it’s a signature part of the Dark Horse success story.
MIKE RICHARDSON: We had already had critical success but our first real financial and commercial success came with [licensed books such as] Alien, Aliens, Alien vs. Predator. We had a theory that because we didn’t have characters that had been around for decades — as Marvel and DC did — that doing sequels for our fanbase’s favorite movies might be a good formula. So after the first successes we went to our favorite, which was Star Wars. I saw Star Wars 19 times in the theater while I was in college. I just kept going back and seeing it over and over and over; it was a natural for us to go after. Marvel had it at the time but wasn’t doing anything with it and our success had sort of changed the landscape for film-based comics.
For years, comics based on movies were just after-thoughts or felt smothered by the movie continuities…
Richardson: Comics based on films before then had generally been done by anybody [instead of top talent] and they hadn’t been done particularly well, at least in our opinion. Going back to the early days of comics, they had counted on the title of the movie to sell the book and never really put much thought or effort into the titles. There were some exceptions — Walt Simonson’s Alien was a good adaptation — but as far as expanding the mythology? I don’t think any of them did it or did it well.
With their late 1970s Star Wars comics, Marvel took the mythology to unexpected places. I remember Han Solo becoming a gunslinger and teaming up with a giant green bunny…
Stradley: You have to put the Marvel series into stories into historical perspective. They didn’t know there was going to be a second movie, they didn’t know what form that movie might take. They were just running with it, although, yes, some of the places they went to would never have occurred to us.
Richardson: What struck us as strange is that after Return of the Jedi, Marvel kind of decided Star Wars was over. We discovered that because there were no movies on the horizon and no Star Wars merchandise coming out, the fans were hungry for it. They were primed to have more Star Wars, not less. We asked ourselves, “Hey, what’s the the next movie we’d like to see?” and that connected with fans who weren’t ready to leave Star Wars.
Dark Horse took Star Wars comics away from one central ongoing saga and set adventures in different eras and followed different characters, an approach that is now part of the Lucasfilm plan moving forward with spotlight films on Boba Fett and Han Solo. Do you think they might pluck ideas from the Dark Horse canon?
Richardson: I can’t imagine that they will. I mean, it’s certainly possible, and certainly within their rights but, you know, everybody wants to come up with their own ideas and especially with Star Wars. It seems like everyone who works on it wants to a chance to put their fingerprints on that mythology. I think the books we’ve done will have an effect on some stuff that happens. I mean, some of the characters that we’ve created are included in the mythology, so the material’s there and people will see it.
Stradley: I looked up our Crimson Empire on Wookieepedia, [the Star Wars wiki] and I couldn’t believe all the stuff that had been written about and around the comic books that we did. It’s all incorporated in this huge Star Wars mythos, that if you go in there and start reading stuff it’s amazing. Just individual characters that we have that were, you know, maybe on 20 pages of an entire series have whole legends behind them now.
As storytellers, do you find the sprawl of all the Star Wars mythology appealing or does it get a bit numbing and off-putting?
Stradley: I think it’s great. The amazing thing is whether you set out to do this or not, it grew organically out of what George created. It’s not just a set of characters and a situation, but an entire galaxy, and even when you watch those original movies, there are suggestions of things happening on a wider scale than just in what you’re seeing in the movie. You end up with this entire galaxy and now the timeline, the history of that galaxy has been expanded to 25,000 years of events. How many stories can you tell set on Earth? Well, for this galaxy, take that number and times it by a hundred thousand inhabited planetary systems in the Star Wars galaxy.
Richardson: At one point we actually tried to add alternate dimensions too and we got shot down. So we were even trying to expand it further, and they didn’t [think] that it was necessary.
That’s interesting. So that raises the question of what’s it’s been like working with Lucasfilm?
Richardson: I think that it’s been a great partnership. They’ve trusted us. We got a lot of leeway in creating what we want, but of course it’s always under their guidance and they’re very protective of their continuity. We’ve tried to talk other franchise owners that we’ve worked with into following their model, because what happens, particularly in film, is often you bring in a talented writer, director and they have their own ideas. When they destroy the continuity of an existing franchise, it often destroys the credibility of the franchise.
Could you give an example of how Lucas has expressed a concept or philosophy that’s come to bear on the series?
Stradley: We never hear directly from George but Jonathan [Rinzler of LucasBooks] shows him all the stuff, and, for instance, on some of the stuff we’ve given him he’ll have three or four different versions for what this could look like. And he’ll say “This one” or maybe “This first one but this second one can be something in the background” or something like that. I’ll hear things from the people at Lucasfilm. They’ll say something like, “This isn’t for publication but George really likes this.” Or sometimes, “Well, I can’t tell you who, but somebody has asked for more copies of this book.”
The licensing landscape is shifting after Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm and must be a source of intrigue to you. Disney owns Marvel so it is natural to suspect the comics will be returning to their portfolio after your contract runs out in the next few years…
Stradley: Well, we’re, waiting for the other shoe to drop. What we’ve been told is we’ll hear something about the future of the license sometime this year.
Richardson: We have it for the foreseeable future, though, so we’re just going about business as usual. It is what it is. Look, from day-one we always knew it was a possibility that someday we might not have the license. We’re prepared for it. We have other franchises to move into that space, but we got involved with publishing in part because we loved Star Wars and so sure it’ll be disappointing on a business level, but probably more disappointing on a personal level.
If you both return to the status of “interested fan,” what would be your hope about the film trilogy on the way?
Stradley: I really hope they don’t just retread the old ground. I hope they embrace the idea that they’ve got an entire galaxy to explore and take the time to do it. Especially with the expanded universe and within even our comics, the old ground has been trodden and re-trodden until it borders on the familiar rather than the exotic. And I’d really hope to see new situations and new planets and new characters. I don’t figure that as a big concern. I think they’re going to go for the new, but I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve seen how many people just want to regurgitate what’s been done before.
Richardson: Yes, it would be great to see them start in a whole new place. Maybe with reference to the classic characters, but really give it a, a whole new start. They’ve got terrific filmmakers involved. When Kathleen [Kennedy] was first announced, immediately we figured something was afoot as far as the filmmaking. That’s the great thing about bringing J.J. Abrams on board. I don’t think that [recycling or revisiting] will be his approach to the material and with Kathleen involved it really bodes well for the future of the franchise.