I have a passion for collecting vintage Star Wars merchandise from the late 70's. Action figures, comics, trading cards etc - anything related to the first Star Wars movie. But why only until 1980? It's not that I don't love The Empire Strikes Back and beyond (I really do), but there is something about that first wave of Star Wars mania that really grips me, back when it was all fresh and exciting...

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Han Solo at Stars' End by Brian Daley

Today, Star Wars novels number in the hundred's. But back in the late 70's there was Alan Dean Foster's Splinter of the Mind's Eye and the Han Solo adventures by Brian Daley, and that was it. Daley wrote three, beginning with the above, a tale of Han and Chewie before they met up with Luke, Ben and the Droids in the Mos Eisley Cantina and their lives (and ours) were forever changed.

Published on 1st April, 1979, Han Solo at Stars' End eschews the usual hordes of Stormtroopers, TIE Fighters and Imperial Cruisers that form the villains in most Star Wars works, and instead Daley creates the 'Corporate Sector Authority' (usually shortened to the 'Authority') as a foil for our heroes. This is my main disappointment in the novel. I like Stormtroopers. I like TIE Fighters. They're a huge part of Star Wars (especially in the early days of '79), and without them, the book feels a little like it's set somewhere else, like Han and Chewie have crossed over into a different Galaxy.

Anyway, the story begins with this all-powerful Authority trying to impound the Millennium Falcon, insisting that Han needs a special waiver to operate in its sector. So Han and Chewie bust out and jet off to find 'Doc' a shady technician that can do the job on the cheap. Upon arrival, they meet Doc's daughter, Jessa (an old flame of Han's, naturally) who tells them that her father has gone missing. She'll agree to do the job on the Falcon if they head off to Orron III and pick up a search party that has been looking for Doc and some other troublemakers who are believed to have been captured by the Authority.

Of course the mission goes totally balls-up with betrayal and murder in their midst and Chewbacca is captured and hauled off to Stars' End, the Authority's ultra-secure prison camp. Cue daring rescue with Han and his new found chums masquerading as an entertainment troupe to sneak in and bust everybody out.

Being a veteran EU reader from my teenage years, I noticed many terms in this book like 'vibroblades', 'holocubes' and 'Z-95 Headhunters' that later became EU staples. As they were never mentioned in the movie or novelisation, I am led to wonder if they were all inventions of Brian Daley and have since become regular pieces of the Star Wars universe. If so that's pretty impressive. One other thing that put a smile on my face is the name of one of the droids in the book. Now, maybe this is only funny to British people, but calling a character 'Bollux' is just asking for unintentional hilarity. I read somewhere that when the book was published in Britain, the name was changed to 'Zollux' to avoid testicular connections.

All in all, it's not a bad book. I honestly didn't know what to expect as some of this early EU stuff can be pretty bizarre. It's not nearly as off model as some of the Marvel comics. The plot is ok, nothing special, and the lack of pretty much all things Star Wars other than Han and Chewie just makes it all feel a bit mediocre. Being a first paperback edition, I bought it as a collectible, not for its reading value and I'll be picking the sequels up as and when they appear on ebay for reasonable prices.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

'We Want Those Robots, Boy!' Marvel #11 - #15

The pairing of Roy Thomas and Howard Chaykin who had done the original 6-part adaption and first non-movie story arc had come to a close and the new guys, Archie Goodwin and Carmine Infantino, picked up the writing and penciling duties here with the second original story arc. When we last left our heroes, Han and Chewie and their new found friends had just defeated Serji-X Arrogantus and his gang of Cloud Riders on Aduba-3. Luke was MIA on a mission to find a suitable location for the rebel base and Leia had gone off after him.

Issue #11 picks up with Han and Chewie deciding to head back to Yavin IV. Throwing their lot in with the rebels for the time being seems preferable to gallivanting around the galaxy with a price on their heads. Unfortunately, upon entering the Yavin system, they run into their old pal Crimson Jack. But there is a further surprise on board for them in the form of Princess Leia who apparently didn't get very far in her mission to find Luke (didn't she start out from Yavin?). After a brief shootout with Jack's men, Han comes up with a plan and tells ol' Redbeard that there is a rebel stash of loot that only Princess Leia knows the location of. If Han can get the Princess to talk, Jack agrees to go 50/50 with him.

Leia and Han put on a little spat for the pirates (although Leia doesn't really seem to be acting much) before the Drexel system is named as the location of the loot. The Drexel system is where Luke went missing in the last story arc, so I don't know what Leia's reasoning is here. Perhaps she thinks that Luke is capable of taking on the whole of Jack's crew. Well, I guess handing out the names of random systems to enemies is kind of in character for her (remember Dantooine?).

Meanwhile, Luke and the droids have crash-landed on a watery planet in the Drexel system, and are under attack by a giant sea snake. Narrowly escaping, they witness the arrival of a second creature, only this one seems to have a rider...

I don't know about you guys, but this last bit really reminds me of the Holiday Special cartoon, when Luke and the droids crash a Y-Wing on a jelly-like planet and are attacked by a giant lizard only to be saved by Boba Fett on a similar creature. Maybe the '78 cartoon was loosely based on this issue?

Issue #12 carries on with Luke's storyline. The man riding the beast turns out to be a Dragon-Rider, but doesn't get to introduce himself as a gang of local pirates arrive on the scene and see him off. Luke and the droids are taken to the pirates' ship and introduced to their captain, Governor Quarg, who seems to be suffering from some sort of Napoleon complex.

Meanwhile, Crimson Jack's pirate ship makes its way to the Drexel system, but upon arrival, Jack's suspicions are raised as it appears that the planet is completely made of water. How could the rebel loot be hidden on a water world?

Issue #13
has Luke trying to impress
his captor, Governor Quarg, who would normally execute any newcomers. R2 repairs one of the damaged hydra-skimmers, but it's not enough to win the pirate chief over. Quarg instructs Luke to show off his target practice in the repaired skimmer. On the way out to the floating target, Luke is attacked by a burly looking man who has been hiding in the back of the skimmer. It is revealed that he is the master machine smith and is not at all pleased by the prospect of being replaced by Luke and his droids. A fight ensues at high speed and Luke succeeds in booting the machine smith out before heading off to destroy the target and win a place on Quarg's crew.

Quarg reveals to Luke that his father was once a Governor in the Old Republic who had a penchant for using sonic jamming devices to wreck and salvage ships. Rumbled by the Jedi Knights, he and his people fled but crash landed on the watery world of Drexel. A mutiny broke out between the settlers and was quickly quashed, but the ringleaders were set adrift by Quarg's father, only to master the local sea-dragons and become the Dragon-Riders, mortal enemies of Quarg and his men.

Meanwhile, in orbit above Drexel, things aren't looking too good for Han and Chewie. Crimson Jack doesn't believe that the watery planet could be the location for the rebel treasure, but doesn't get much of a chance to ask further questions as his cruiser is suddenly gripped by Quarg's sonic jammer. Amidst the confusion, Han, Chewie and Leia make their escape on the Falcon and head down to the water world below, landing right in the middle of a battle between Quarg's pirates and the Dragon-Riders. One of the pirates opens fire on the Falcon and is blasted by Luke who is unable to control himself upon seeing his friends fired upon. He brings his skimmer to a stop and is grabbed by the great hairy arm of Chewbacca who assumes that it was he who attacked the Falcon...

In Issue #14, things are looking pretty bad for our heroes. Luke and the droids are back in Governor Quarg's holding cell for blasting one of his skimmers, and their cell-mate Chewie, is none too pleased to see them, thinking that it was Luke who killed Han. Wait, Han's dead?! Not really, he was taken by the Dragon-Riders after hitting the water when the Falcon crashed. 3PO manages to trip up Chewie and R2 squirts him in the face with his firefighting foam, knocking the big Wookie out cold. As for Princess Leia, she's been captured by Quarg too and is looking pretty grumpy about it.

Quarg is still trying to bring down Crimson Jack's cruiser, but doesn't have enough juice to do it. He reasons that if Luke can tap the engines of the Falcon, then his sonic jammer will be powerful enough to do the job. If Luke refuses, well then it's bad news for Leia...

Meanwhile, Han is making pals with the Dragon-Riders and they all set off to do battle with Quarg's men. Han gets there first and boards his beloved Falcon to stop Luke from sucking all the juice out of its engines. Luke then cracks him one on the chin for this as he won't risk Leia's life not even to save the Falcon. The link up is completed and has a bad effect on the sea-dragons who begin to drop like flies. Leia chooses this moment to make a run from it with the newly revived Chewie's help. Onboard the Falcon, Luke and Han discover that their ship is operational again, and see a chance to end the battle by blasting the sonic jammer. But there's a problem...

Leia has made it to the top of the mast which puts a hole in the boys' plans to blast it to kingdom come. Cue Luke's swashbuckling heroics. Swinging from one mast to the other, Luke sweeps Leia away, reminiscent of their Death Star chasm stunt, just in time for Han to blow the mast (and presumably Governor Quarg) to bits. This may seem like the end of the story arc, but readers (along with a worried looking Han) might remember the huge imperial cruiser in orbit and its crew of bloodthirsty pirates...

Issue #15 ties up the loose ends involving Crimson Jack. Our heroes are trying to get the Falcon up and running again when they are attacked by an outfitted Y-Wing from the pirate cruiser. Heading off into space, Han and the gang attempt to take on the whole of Crimson Jack's starfighter force, One of whom is the man-hating pirate wench, Jollie.

At this point we are given a quick look at Jollie's childhood where her father abandoned her in the face of an imperial attack and her mother is promptly killed, thus explaining her hatred for all men.

The space battle continues and Jolli's ship is critically wounded. Jack refuses to send help and tells her to make it back on her own. Han tells Jack that whilst he and Chewie were aboard his cruiser, Chewie transferred all the navigational maps to the memory banks of the Falcon. If Jack destroys the Falcon, then the pirates will be marooned in outer space.

A deal is struck and Jack agrees to trade a gyro control module for the navigational charts. Han and Jack meet between the two ships (sustained by a magnetic field), but as could be expected, Jack pulls a fast one and has all his men launched into space to open fire on Han. Suddenly, Jollie appears and she's mad as hell at having been abandoned. Opening fire on her old crew, she then slams her Y-Wing into Jack's munitions deck, destroying his ship. Han pops a laser cap in Jack's ass and the other heroes drag the gyro module into the hold of the Falcon. In between its wreckage lies the dying form of Jolli who Han kisses (her first and last kiss). Turns out she wasn't such a bad girl after all.

With all their enemies dead and the Falcon fitted out with a new gyro control module (whatever that is), our heroes head off to Yavin IV and so ends this story arc.

Here's a few images from between the covers including an advertisement for the hugely popular Kenner figures which were just coming out around this time (notice the absence of the Jawa, Sandpeople and Death Squad Commander - these guys came out a little bit later). I love how off-model the illustrations are. Check out the collars on Ben and Darth, not to mention the colour-schemes on Han and R2. Ben looks like he's playing a round of golf with his lightsaber, and 'Hans' Solo...? Whilst not Star Wars related, I also liked the advertisement for Close Encounters trading cards hidden in packs of sliced bread.

A couple of images from the back pages.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Kenner Action Figure Case

This 'Mini-Action Figure Collector's Case' was put out by Kenner in 1979 and was a much more effective carrying case than the infamous Darth Vader version released later. It remained a fixture of the line right up until 1983, with the artwork and logo changing to reflect the later films. Back when the Kenner line consisted of only 20 figures (plus Boba Fett who was put out the same year), the first carrying case had enough space for both the '78 and '79 line of figures plus a few extra stormtroopers or tusken raiders.

I picked this one up for quite a nice price on Ebay, although it's not in the best condition. As most of these things have spent the last two decades in people's basements and garages, the paper illustration behind the clear plastic has a tendency to warp and crease over time. Also a few of the characters' stickers are missing from the trays, but these things are pretty hard to pick up in mint condition.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Star Wars - The Novelisation

I love how this bears the subtitle: 'From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker' as if 'Star Wars' is just the name of one chapter in an on-going series about Luke rather than the name of the franchise itself. Well, I guess that was kind of true in the early days before all the 'Episode IV, V, VI' business. Published on November 12th, 1976, a good six months before the movie was released, this novelisation was the very first piece of Star Wars merchandise. It includes several pages of stills from the movie which must have been exciting for those who hadn't seen it yet.

The front cover would have you believe that it was penned by George Lucas himself. Yeah, right. It was actually ghostwritten by veteran Sci-Fi writer Alan Dean Foster, who would go on to write the Star Wars 'sequel' Splinter of the Mind's Eye in 1978. Foster has also written a shedload of other movie tie-ins including Alien (1979), Clash of the Titans (1981), Krull (1983) and Pale Rider (1985) and is showing no signs of stopping having recently novelised Transformers (2007), Star Trek (2009) and Terminator: Salvation (2009).

Upon reading it, I was surprised by how closely the novel sticks to the film. Considering the amount of editing and rewriting that goes on during a film's production, I would have expected more deviations. There are a few differences, most notably the inclusion of stuff deleted from the final film such as the Anchorhead scenes between Luke and Biggs which were fun to read. The Jabba the Hutt scene in Docking Bay 94 is present too, although this was before it was decided that the character would be a giant slug-creature and Jabba is described as: "a great mobile tub of muscle and suet topped by a shaggy scarred skull". That sounds a little like the portrayal of Jabba by Declan Mulholland in the deleted scene from the film. Apparently Lucas wanted to insert a Harryhausen-esque stop-motion creature in post production. Of course that scene was dropped, but not before Alan Dean Foster had written it into the novel, seemingly using production photos like the one below as a guide.

A few other inconsistencies exist such as 'Red Squadron' (the X-Wings in the climatic battle) being labelled as 'Blue Squadron' in the book and 'Gold Squadron' (the Y-Wings) as 'Red Squadron'. According to starwars.com this is because blue markings on a ship don't work too well when the ships are shot against bluescreen. So in the film, Blue Squadron became Red, and Red became Gold. Even Kenner didn't get the memo as late as 1979 it seems, as their die-cast Y-Wing came with a red paint job having based the toy on early ILM photographs.

The other thing that really stuck out to me was how the Emperor is portrayed in the book. It is made clear on several occasions that the Empire is controlled by corrupt officials and corporations and the figure of the Emperor is merely an isolated puppet controlled by others. A far cry from the all powerful master of the force we would later see in Return of the Jedi.

All in all I enjoyed the book. It wasn't overly long, and yet it didn't skimp on the action or details. Having seen the movie way too many times, I found myself predicting the next line a character would say as the book sticks pretty religiously to the script. But I imagine that back in the days before home video entertainment, this was one way fans could bring the movie home with them and keep on enjoying it in some form or another.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Kenner 3-3/4" Action Figures - The Imperials

Ahh! The Kenner action figures! Pretty much every kid who liked Star Wars back in the day had a bunch of these. Retailing at about $2.00 each, these were small and cheap in comparison to other action figures of the day (Big Jim, GI-Joe, Mego etc). This meant that kids really could 'Collect 'em all' and Kenner could produce a line of vehicles and playsets that were actually in scale to the figures (kind of).Being born in '83, I really missed the boat with all things Star Wars. I would be about 10 when I got to see my first Star wars movie, but my relationship with the franchise goes back much further. When I was about 5 or 6, my neighbor (who had a kid a few years older than me) was clearing out her attic. She handed me a plastic carrier bag filled with funny little aliens and robots who had very limited articulation and tiny, tiny guns that were very fiddly to fit into their hands. I took them home and my dad (who had seen the movie several years previously) told me that they were Star Wars figures.

'?' my face must have said because he then gave me a very brief run-down on the plot; Darth Vader wants to take over the universe with his army of stormtroopers and the good guy, Luke Skywalker, tries to stop him. This was all my imagination needed and the figures became a regular fixture in my own play-scenarios, sharing the stage with He-Man and Thundercats figures and probably the occasional Ninja Turtle.

A few years later I finally got around to renting a Star Wars movie from our local library - Return of the Jedi. Yeah, I know, completely the wrong one to start with. I can't remember why I chose that one - either the other two weren't in stock, or it simply just had the coolest cover. Nevertheless I fell in love with it and can remember being thrilled to see my action figures personified as living, breathing characters on the TV screen.

Not much later I sold all my Kenner figures at a yard sale for peanuts (D'oh!). But in my teenage years I rediscovered Star Wars and began collecting, picking up a few of the lil' ol guys from comic book stores where they were kept in glass cases.

Darth Vader here is sporting a vinyl cape that was pretty much a staple throughout the Kenner line. Kenner did issue a few of their figures with cloth capes later on, but in the late '70's vinyl was the rage. The great thing that amused me as a kid was the 'slide-out' lightsaber that can be seen emerging from his right arm. You'll notice that it has a little tip on the end. Originally the lightsabers were supposed to be telescoping, but for some reason Kenner quickly changed the design to the 'solid' lightsaber seen here.

The trusty Stormtrooper is quite possibly the most common Star Wars figure. Everybody had a couple of these or more it seems. This guy is even less articulated than the others as his head and torso are one solid part. The pristine white armor can be tricky to find in nice un-yellowed condition these days.

The Death Squad Commander was later named 'Star Destroyer Commander' presumably to avoid any Nazi connotations. Nevertheless, these guys are pretty much the SS in the Star Wars galaxy. In the films this is more prominent due to their all-black uniforms. I have no idea why the action figure was moulded in grey.

Monday, May 10, 2010

'Keep firing Chewie!' Marvel #7 - #10

Here we have, most probably, the first original Star Wars story (other than the film and novelisation), and the first entry in what became the Expanded Universe (EU) in later years. After Marvel had finished their six-issue adaptation of the movie, naturally they wanted to carry on with a good thing. Beginning in January 1978, Marvel put out a four-issue story arc depicting the post-Star Wars adventures of Luke, Han and Leia. Many more story arcs and one-shot issues continued in the years leading up to the release of The Empire Strikes Back and the resulting 38 issues of Marvel Star Wars goodness remains a well-loved (if often downright bizarre) piece of nostalgia in the hearts of many fans.

Widely regarded as non-canon now in the wake of prequels, novels and other comics, the Marvel series was all fans had to go on once the film had left theatres (other than Alan Dean Foster's 'Splinter of the Mind's Eye' novel which came out about the same time as this story arc). Marvel didn't always get things right (a giant green rabbit called 'Jaxxon'? Honestly?), but they damn well tried. They did at least get some minimal approval from Lucas for each storyline, but took their time in bringing Darth Vader back in as a villain as it was not clear at that point what the plans were for the character in the upcoming sequel. So there were plenty of other villains devised to fill in the gaps in the meantime.

Issue #7 picks up pretty much immediately after the ending of the film when all the rebels are presumably recovering from their post-Death Star destruction celebrations. Han and Chewie head off on the Falcon with their reward money with the intention of paying off Jabba the Hutt (spelt 'Hut' here). Unfortunately for them they are boarded by a pirate known as 'Crimson Jack'. the cool thing about this guy (the only cool thing) is that he is cruising around in a hijacked Imperial Star Destroyer. He relates to Han in a later issue just how he came by this. After pilfering all Han and Chewie's money, Jack gives them the boot (theorising that he can rob them again sometime if he lets them go free). Poor old Han. Return to Start. Do not collect $200.

With a price on their heads and not a cent to their name, Han and Chewie decide to lay low on a backwater planet called Aduba-3. Here they get into some trouble with a mob of locals who object to a 'borg' (cyborg) being buried in a local cemetery (why Han cares about this or decides to get involved is beyond me). After brawling with the hoodlums, our heroes decide to hit the bars and check out the local girls. Their fun is interrupted by some cheerless looking fellows who have a job proposition...

Issue #8 tells us that the local moisture farmers are being plagued by a gang of 'Cloud-Riders' led by one 'Serji-X Arrogantus' who rustle their banthas and take off with their women. Han agrees to help for no fee, purely out of the goodness of his charitable heart (the writers here didn't seem to have a handle on Han's mercenary/scoundrel image yet) and so, in the upstairs room of a seedy dive, he begins interviewing potential guns for hire (with his shirt off for some reason). His chosen six include the aforementioned green rabbit, an eccentric old buffer called Don-Wan Kihotay (geddit?) who claims to be a Jedi Knight and even has a lightsaber, a 'spiner' called Hedji, a human kid called Jimm (who likes to be known as 'The Starkiller Kid'), a droid called FE-9Q ('Effie'), and Amaiza Foxtrain, an old acquaintance of Han's who, it is explained, used to head the infamous 'Black Hole Gang'.

Meanwhile, back on Yavin IV, Luke heads off with the droids to search for a new base for the Rebels. This bit is pretty brief but serves to assure us that the writers haven't forgotten Luke and Leia and the rest of the Rebels who are, with good reason, concerned that a fleet of extremely irate Imperials will be coming down on them pretty soon.

Back on Aduba-3, Solo and the gang soon encounter Serji-X who arrives with his crew on speeder bikes. Some banter is made and the battle lines are drawn with Serji-X taking off spouting threats.

Issue #9 sees Solo and his gang making their way across Aduba-3 to the village they have been hired to protect. En route they are attacked by 'High Hounds', giant bloodthirsty birds. Han spots one of the villagers, a pretty girl in a loincloth, being attacked and saves her. The birds take off and the gang reach the village.

Meanwhile, Luke's mission to find an new location for the Rebel base has brought him to the Drexel system. He makes contact with Leia, but something seems to frighten him and he abruptly breaks off contact.

On Aduba-3, Han and his chums are confronted by an old man known as the 'Old One' who claims that their help is not needed, as he has faith in a mystical solution he once beheld in his youth. Ignoring him, the six companions take on Serji-X and his men who have just arrived on the scene. A battle ensues in which both Effie and Don-Wan bite the dust. Things look bad, but are set to look worse as the Old One summons a gigantic lizard creature from the mountain which brings us to...

Issue #10 - 'Behemoth from the World Below!'
The creature (which has a built in blaster) begins attacking Serji-X and his men, but its heavy footsteps begin an avalanche. It also inadvertently steps on Serji-X as well as the old duffer who summoned it. 'Heavenly Hutches!'

With the Cloud-Riders dealt with, Han and the gang attempt to take on the beast themselves with little success. Then, Don-Wan (who is somehow alive again - continuity, guys!) rushes to meet the creature head-on in chivalrous knight fashion...
Cut to a brief segment on Leia as she leaves Yavin IV to search for Luke who is now missing in action.

Don-Wan has little success against the beast with his lightsaber and Hedji tries flinging a few spines at it to no avail. Han theorises that the lightsaber is only making the monster madder and snatches it from Don-Wan and plants it right in the big lizard's chest. This causes the creature to rapidly disintegrate, leaving Han as the hero of the day.

The gang receive a handsome reward from the villagers for their efforts (weren't they doing it for free? Another continuity issue, I'm afraid). The girl Han saved in the last issue hitches up with Jimm and the heroes go their own separate ways. And so ends the first non-movie story arc in the marvel canon. But what about Luke Skywalker? Well, that's a different story...

I also came across some great Star Wars related ads within the pages of these comics. The first shows some 1978 calendars including a Frank Frazetta one which must have been awesome. Artist Howard Chaykin also treats us to a 'pin up' of the heroes. I wonder if any kids actually tore this out of their comic and pinned it to their bedroom wall. You've got to love Chewie's 'cat-face' and who the hell did Chaykin have in mind when he was drawing Leia? 'A Galaxy of Star Wars Treasures' greets us here showing all the staples such as those t-shirt transfers that seemed to be everywhere back then. I love how Obi-Wan is politely tapping that stormtrooper on the shoulder who is admiring a poster for the movie.

A couple of images from the back covers. The first is a particularly nauseating 'Patty Prayer Doll'. I can't imagine who Marvel thought its target audience was with this one. Presumably the same ad made its way onto the backs of Spider-man and Incredible Hulk comics too.