Star Wars reviews: Splinter of the Mind’s Eye

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens arriving in theaters this December, I’m examining some of the Star Wars comic books and novels of the past.  Today’s post looks at the very first entry in what is now referred to as the “expanded universe.”   Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was written by Alan Dean Foster and published in February 1978, eight months after the debut of the original movie.

Splinter of the Minds Eye novel cover

Foster’s novel opens shortly after the events of A New Hope.  Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia Organa, accompanied by the droids R2-D2 and C-3P0, are traveling to the fourth planet in the Circarpous system.  They hope to convince the inhabitants of Circarpous IV to join the Rebel Alliance.

Before they can arrive at their destination, Leia’s spacecraft develops a malfunction.  They are forced to head towards the fifth planet, Mimban, an inhospitable swamp world.  A sudden electrical storm causes both Leia and Luke’s ships to violently crash-land.  After days of slogging through treacherous swamp, the two Rebels and their droids come across a human settlement. Unfortunately it is an Imperial installation; the Galactic Empire is secretly mining the planet’s mineral wealth.

Stealing mine uniforms, Luke and Leia visit the town saloon.  They meet Halla, an elderly woman who possesses a slight affinity for the Force.  Halla is seeking the Kaiburr Crystal, a red jewel that “increases one’s perception of the Force.”  The crystal is thought to be a myth, but Halla has acquired directions to the ancient native temple where it is supposedly located, as well as an actual shard of the crystal (the eponymous “splinter of the mind’s eye”).  Luke touches the shard, and his connection to the Force confirms that it is genuine.

Halla makes a deal with Luke and Leia: if they assist her in locating the Crystal, she will help them steal a spaceship to escape Mimban.  Before plans can be made, Luke and Leia get into a brawl with a group of drunken miners and are arrested by Stormtroopers.  The two are brought before the planet’s Imperial overseer, Captain-Supervisor Grammel.

While suspicious of their claim to be criminals fleeing from Circarpous IV, Grammel is intrigued by the crystal shard Luke and Leia possess.  He orders them locked up and contacts his superior, Governor Essada, who possesses some knowledge of crystals and minerals, hoping to obtain an assessment of the splinter’s value.  Essada unfortunately recognizes Leia from the security photo Grammel sends him, and the Governor orders the two to be held until someone can be dispatched to interrogate them.

Luke and Leia are placed in a cell with two large hairy aliens known as Yuzzem.  Hin and Kee have been jailed for drunk & disorderly conduct, having caused a major ruckus after they realized they were unable to get out of their indentured servitude to the Empire.  Luke convinces the angry, hung-over Yuzzem that he and Leia are also enemies of the Empire.

At that point Halla pops up at the window of their cell.  She combines her minor Force abilities with Luke’s, and the two of them levitate a food tray between the bars, using it to activate the switch for the cell door.  The prisoners make a break for it, with Him and Kee causing tremendous destruction.  They rendezvous with Halla and the droids, steal a swamp crawler, and flee the settlement.

Heading out in search of the Kaiburr Crystal, the seven fugitives encounter numerous dangers in the swampy wilderness.  Luke eventually realizes that they face another fearsome adversary: Darth Vader has arrived on Mimban searching for the Rebels.  The Sith Lord also recognizes the significance of the Crystal and seeks it to augment his dark powers.

Splinter of the Minds Eye TPB cover

Alan Dean Foster was involved in the Star Wars universe from very early on.  When the first movie was still in production he was hired by George Lucas to ghost write a novelization based on an early draft of the script.  Foster was also contracted to write an original novel that could serve as a sequel.  Lucas was uncertain if Star Wars would be successful, and he instructed Foster to devise a story that could be shot on a small budget, using as much of the existing props and costumes as possible.  From this directive Foster devised Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, with its relatively small cast and its setting on a dark swampy planet.

Of course, as we all know, Star Wars was a gigantic success, and Lucas was able to make a very ambitious sequel, The Empire Strikes Back.  Nevertheless, although Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was never filmed it is still a good read, an interesting link between the two movies.

Even working within the constraints given him, Foster writes an entertaining novel with exciting action sequences.  There is a cinematic quality to Foster’s writing that definitely brings these scenes to life.  The novel culminates in a riveting lightsaber battle between Luke and Vader in the ruined Temple of Pomojema for possession of the Kaiburr Crystal.

Written as it was in 1977, there are inevitably a few aspects of the novel that don’t fit the later canon too neatly.  There’s no indication that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father.  Some of Foster’s dialogue for Vader seems a bit off, at least considering how the character was subsequently scripted in the next two movies.

Foster includes sexual tension between Luke and Leia, as this was well before Lucas revealed (or perhaps even decided) that they were brother and sister.  Commenting on this in 1996, Foster stated “the tension in the book between Luke and Princess Leia works even better in hindsight, now that they can be seen as squabbling siblings ignorant of their true relationship.”  I suppose you could argue that.  At least Foster didn’t show the two of them actually kissing, unlike that now-unfortunate smooch on Hoth a couple years later!

On the other hand, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye actually forecasts certain elements of the series.  I wonder if Lucas was influenced by it when writing the sequels and prequels.  Mimban is very much like the planet Dagobah.  During the battle in the Temple, Vader uses something similar to the “Force lightning” later utilized by the Emperor.

An interesting thing occurs towards the end of the novel.  When the group arrives at the Temple, Luke leaves R2-D2 and C-3P0 outside to keep watch.  Later, when Vader appears, surprising them, the Sith explains “As for your ‘droids, they are conditioned to obey orders. I had them turn themselves off.”  When Luke reactivates them, a panicked C-3P0 tells him “We couldn’t escape him. He knew all the proper code words and commands.”

The first time I read Splinter of the Mind’s Eye in 1989 this was puzzling.  How could Vader possibly know how to shut down R2-D2 and C-3P0?  Of course, once the prequels came out, this made perfect sense, as we found out that C-3P0 was built by Anakin Skywalker, and R2-D2 was his astromech droid during the Clone Wars.  So of course decades later Vader would know how to deactivate both of them.  Again, I wonder if Lucas got the idea of tying Anakin / Vader to the two droids from Foster’s novel.

One of the weak points of the original Star Wars was that we never saw the events of the movie having any sort of lasting impact on Leia.  The way that Lucas filmed the scene setting up Leia’s interrogation by the Empire, it is very strongly implied that they are going to do something horrifying to her.  But the next time we see her she is seemingly unharmed and defiant.  Likewise, the destruction of Leia’s home planet of Alderaan is almost shrugged off by Leia.

Foster addresses this in his novel.  Leia has been hardened by her experiences.  Luke is aghast at the carnage and bloodshed of their battles with the Empire, but the more cynical Leia grimly accepts it as an unfortunate necessity.  While imprisoned by the Empire on Mimban, Leia finds out from Grammel that an Imperial Governor will soon be arriving to question her.  Her immediate reaction is uncontrollable panic as she flashes back to her ordeal on the Death Star.  Leia soon recovers her composure, but it is apparent that she still carries psychological scars from that experience.

The cover for Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was painted by Ralph McQuarrie, the artist who played a significant role in devising the look of the Star Wars universe, designing many of the characters and sets for the original trilogy.  His atmospheric rendering of a stunned Luke and Leia witnessing Vader’s arrival at the Temple of Pomojema is now an iconic image.

Splinter of the Minds Eye TPB pg 32

In 1996 Dark Horse published a four issue comic book adaptation of Splinter of the Mind’s Eye written & inked by Terry Austin and penciled by Chris Sprouse.  The miniseries was collected in a trade paperback with a cover by Duncan Fegredo.  Alan Dean Foster contributed an introduction.

It’s interesting to observe the choices Austin made in adapting a 300 page prose novel into a 97 page graphic novel.  A certain amount of condensing of scenes and dialogue was required.  Austin did a good job at keeping the important plot and character elements while working within a smaller length.

Austin took advantage of the fact that he was working in 1996 to add a few elements from subsequent movies.  Darth Vader is given a couple of short scenes that precede his original introduction more than three quarters of the way into the original novel.  In these Austin gives glimpses of Captain Piett, the flagship Executor, and an Imperial shuttlecraft arriving on Mimban.

Sprouse does wonderful work bringing the elements of the novel to life.  His designs for Halla, the Yuzzem, the giant swamp worm Wandrella, the native tribe of the Coway, and the Temple are all very effective.  Sprouse has always done good work on sci-fi / pulp-themed series, most notably Legion of Super-Heroes and Tom Strong.  That makes him a great fit for the Star Wars universe.

Austin is, of course, one of the all-time greatest inkers / embellishers in comic books.  As good as Sprouse’s penciling is on the Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, Austin’s inking makes it even more amazing.  Their styles mesh very well indeed, and their adaptation of Foster’s novel is wonderful.

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Super Blog Team-Up 5: The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong

Hello, everyone, and welcome to Super Blog Team-Up 5!  The theme this quarter is “Parallel Worlds and Alternate Realities.”  My fellow bloggers and I will be looking at stories that make use of the concept of the “Multiverse.”  You will find links to the other contributors at the end of this piece.

Before proceeding any further, I want to offer a big “thank you” to Karen Williams of Between the Pages.  Karen has been doing all the crucial heavy lifting involved in organizing this installment of Super Blog Team-Up.

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One of my favorite comic book tales of parallel universes is The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong, published in 2003 by America’s Best Comics / Wildstorm, and starring characters created by Alan Moore & Chris Sprouse in the Tom Strong ongoing series.  Published between June 1999 and May 2006, Tom Strong featured really great work by Moore, Sprouse and various other talented creators.

I cannot help thinking that the ABC line was crafted by Moore in response to the runaway success of Watchmen, which he co-created with Dave Gibbons.  Yes, Watchmen was brilliant and thought-provoking and groundbreaking.  But it unfortunately inspired an avalanche of imitators, series that embraced the “grim & gritty” trappings and that tried to replicate the “superheroes in the real world” premise.  The majority of these were ultra-violent, humorless retreads which contained little of the genuine creative spark that was abundant in Moore & Gibbons’ work.

Moore’s writing on the ABC titles a decade later seemed to be a concerted effort by him to demonstrate that comic books could be intelligent and sophisticated without sacrificing fun.  Certainly that was the case with Tom Strong.  Moore very deftly blended the archetypes of pulp adventures magazines, Silver Age whimsy, and high concept scientific theories.  The characters of Tom, his wife Dhalua, their daughter Tesla, and their extended supporting cast were expertly crafted, and their adventures were exciting & thought-provoking.

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The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong grew out of the events of Tom Strong #10 (November 2000) by Moore, Sprouse & Al Gordon.  Tom invented the “Searchboard,” a surfboard-like device which would enable its user to travel into parallel worlds.  On his first journey Tom ended up in a “funny animal” alternate Earth.  There he met a counterpart, “the bunny of bravery” known as Warren Strong, who protected the woodland folk from “science predator” Basil Saveen, a fox analogue to Tom’s arch-foe Paul Saveen.

After Tom returned to his home Earth, Tesla snuck into her father’s lab and decided to give the Searchboard a go.  This resulted in numerous other-dimensional versions of herself materializing.  The various Teslas were soon at each other’s throats, until their accompanying alternate reality fathers showed up to haul them home.  Accordingly, “our” Tom grounded his daughter for her role in the cross-continuum shenanigans.

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That brings us to The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong, written by Peter Hogan, with a plot assist by Moore.  Sprouse and inker Karl Story illustrated the prologue and epilogue, with an all-star line-up of artists contributing to the different chapters.

The story opens as Tesla, the talking intelligent ape King Solomon and the steam-powered robot Pneuman are cleaning up the Stronghold.  Solomon impulsively leaps onto the Searchboard and pretends he is surfing.  Unfortunately he accidentally activates the Board and vanishes into another dimension.

A moment later the Board returns without Solomon.  Its destination log has been wiped clean.  Tesla realizes that she must go searching for the super simian, who is like a brother to her.  Activating the board, Tesla glides out into the Multiverse.

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The first alternate Earth that Tesla arrives at is a post-apocalyptic radioactive nightmare where nearly all of humanity has been wiped out in World War III.  She is met by the gun-toting potty-mouthed Tekla Strong, a counterpart she previously encountered in Tom Strong #10.  Fighting off a horde of giant bugs, Tesla and Tekla duck into an immense underground shelter where most of humanity’s survivors have sought refuge.  Tesla tells her other self of her quest, and Tekla informs her that she has also lost her gorilla-friend, Archimedes the Atomic Ape, who likewise vanished into another dimension.  Tesla departs, continuing her search.

This segment is illustrated by Michael Golden, a talented artist who does extremely detailed work.  Golden is not super-fast, and so he mostly works illustrating covers.  But occasionally an anthology book such as this will come along and he will have the opportunity to contribute a few interior pages.  His style is definitely very well-suited to rendering Tekla’s hi-tech, bombed-out world.

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The next alternate Earth that Tesla arrives on is one where global warming occurred decades earlier, the polar ice caps melted, and most of the surface world was submerged.  Tesla encounters a mermaid version of herself named Tori, who explains that her father was able to transform humanity into mer-people via gene splicing, enabling them to survive the catastrophe.  Tesla is introduced to Tori’s father, a merman Tom Strong.  He hasn’t seen Solomon, but his own gorilla, Poseidon the Sea Monkey, vanished an hour earlier.  Tesla begins to see a pattern.  “I wonder if Solomon disappearing set off some kind of quantum monkey wave.”  Tesla hops on the Searchboard again and continues her journey.

Penciling this chapter is Adam Hughes, with inks by Story.  Hughes is another one of those incredibly talented but not especially fast artists who mostly works on covers.  This special gives him a chance to pencil some interior art, and to show off his storytelling abilities.

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As Tesla’s trans-dimensional journey proceeds, the story briefly checks in on Solomon.  He awakens to find himself imprisoned with numerous other-dimensional analogues.  Of the gathering Solomon astutely observes, “There’s more than a barrelful of us.”

Arthur Adams illustrated this two page interlude.  He is definitely the go-to guy in the comic book biz when it comes to illustrating monkey-related mayhem.  Adams’ hyper-detailed rendering of Solomon and his numerous alternate selves is an amazing, imaginative, and humorous grouping.

Tesla continues her tour of the Multiverse, encountering different variations of herself and her family along the way, all of them very odd indeed.  And on each alternate Earth, the story is the same: that world’s version of Solomon has also gone missing.

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I was definitely thrilled that one of the segments was illustrated by legendary DC artist Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.  I’ve mentioned on a few occasions in the past that I am a huge fan of his work.  He depicts Tesla’s reunion with her super-powered counterpart Tesla Terrific.  Garcia-Lopez is definitely the ideal choice to depict such an “old school” vignette.  He possesses a style that is both traditional and extremely dynamic.  His layouts on this seven page chapter are very effective, and he puts a great deal of detail into his finished art.  Really, I am in awe of Garcia-Lopez’s work.  It’s just so fun and brilliant.

The Searchboard eventually brings Tesla to one of the 2,057 alternate Earths that comprise the pan-dimensional “Aztech Empire” introduced in Tom Strong #3.  On this particular Earth, everything is scaled to giant-sized, and Tesla meets towering duplicates of herself and her father.  She is brought before the Empire’s ruler, the computer program / deity Quetzalcoatl-9, a literal deus ex machina.  The serpent god recognizes Tesla to be the daughter of Tom Strong, who previously assisted him.  Tesla explains what has been going on.  Examining the Searchboard, Quetzalcoatl-9 is able to restore its destination log, allowing Tesla to finally learn which reality Solomon ended up in.  Thanking god, so to speak, Tesla heads out to find her gorilla friend.

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In an extended chapter illustrated by Jason Pearson, Tesla arrives on “Earth-B.”  She is immediately knocked out in a gas attack by her malevolent counterpart Twyla Strong, Twyla’s equally diabolical father Tiberius Strong, and their cigarette-smoking gorilla Nero.  Taken prisoner by the sadistic Twyla, Tesla is informed that after learning of his numerous counterparts back in Tom Strong #10, Tiberius plotted to murder them all by sending bombs to their various realities.  Unfortunately the plan has backfired, and instead they ended up capturing Solomon and several dozen of his equivalents.

Incidentally, despite the fact that he is an evil other-dimensional counterpart, Tiberius Strong does not have a beard or an eye patch.  However he does dress in black.

Left chained in Twyla’s dungeon, with the imminent threat of torture hanging over her, Tesla is close to despair.  Then surprisingly, who should sneak in to rescue her but “gentleman adventurer and occasional science hero” Peter Saveen, a heroic counterpart to Tom Strong’s arch-nemesis Paul Saveen.  As if that isn’t weird enough, Peter Saveen takes Tesla to meet his ally Ilsa Weiss, an alternate version of another of Tom’s old foes, the psycho Nazi dominatrix Ingrid Weiss…

Saveen: May I introduce my associate, Fraulein…

Tesla: Ingrid Weis?! But she’s a Nazi.

Ilsa Weiss: Ilsa Weiss, actually. And I do not know how things transpired on your world, but here National Socialism saved the lives of millions. It is a tragedy we were defeated.

Yes, that is how completely upside-down this version of Earth is; the Nazis were actually the good guys!

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Saveen and Weiss reveal that Solomon and the other gorillas have been imprisoned in an abandoned typewriter factory, obviously a nod by Hogan to the idea of an infinite number of monkeys being given an infinite number of typewriters.  And, appropriately enough, the sign of the factory reads “Sprang Typewriters,” an affectionate homage to Golden Age Batman artist Dick Sprang, who often populated his stories with all matter of oversized props, including giant typewriters.

Tesla finds the Searchboards used by Solomon’s counterparts to bring them to Earth-B.  She takes one, and Saveen uses a stolen time machine to transport them back several hours, to before Tiberius dispatched a bomb through the dimensional gate.  Hiding behind a stack of crates, Tesla sees her past unconscious self being hauled off by Tiberius, Twyla and Nero.  This leads to a humorous exchange between her and Saveen…

Tesla: That’s impossible, isn’t it? For two of me to be in the same place at the same time?

Saveen: Well, you’re not, are you? She’s way over there.

Tesla hops on the Searchboard and arrives back home to find Tom and Dhalua constructing a replacement two-seater Board to go in search of their daughter.  Before Tom can give his daughter one of his patented stern lectures, she alerts him to the incoming bomb.  He is able to divert it to the skies above the already-radioactive world of Tekla who witnessing the explosion lets off her usual stream of expletives.

Tesla and her parents quickly return to Earth-B, where Saveen and Weiss have freed all of the imprisoned gorillas.  Tiberius, Twyla and Nero are in a free-for-all with the escaped prisoners, and Tom takes the opportunity to engage his counterpart.  Asking his evil duplicate why he wants him dead, Tiberius snarls “Because I am a genius… I deserve to be unique. And because… because…”  At which point the villain’s rant is abruptly interrupted by a titanic paw slamming down on him.  As Tesla comments, “You know, I was kind of wondering if a giant Aztec gorilla was going to show up.”

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I don’t know how the rest of you feel, but I’ve got to say that any comic book featuring a giant Aztec gorilla is pretty darn cool!

In the epilogue we see Quetzalcoatl-9, at Tesla’s request, has located an empty, radiation-free Earth in his empire to which Tekla and her people can relocate.  In exchange, they are given custody of the defeated Tiberius and Twyla.  Despite the fact that Tiberius is psychotic, Tom promises to see he is treated humanely and to try to rehabilitate him.  Tiberius and Twyla both scoff at this, vowing revenge, to which Tesla resignedly states “I guess some people, you just can’t help.”

Tesla and Tom are due back on their own Earth for a read-through of Solomon’s new play, “The State of Denmark.”  Obviously those gorillas made use of those typewriters, after all!  Tom, however, suggests that he and Tesla “go for a spin around the Multiverse instead,” something to which she readily agrees.

Hogan’s scripting on this epilogue was nice.  One of the ongoing themes of the Tom Strong series was that, due to the cold, analytical manner in which Tom was raised by his father, he occasionally has difficulty expressing emotions or socializing in a normal manner.  However, we see through scenes such as this that underneath it all Tom is a much warmer, caring figure than his father.  He has a genuine relationship with his daughter.  He also wants to try to provide his adversaries with an opportunity to reform.

Tesla herself is a wonderfully fun character.  She was fantastic in the regular Tom Strong series and I very much enjoyed seeing her get the spotlight in this special.

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Some comic book editors and writers have argued that readers cannot relate to characters that are married and have children.  I definitely do not agree with this.  Neither apparently does Alan Moore.  He crafted an interesting, engaging family unit between Tom, Dhalua, Tesla, Solomon and Pheuman, gifting the characters with real chemistry, writing interesting stories about them.  Peter Hogan, both in The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong and in later issues of the regular Tom Strong series, effectively continued with this.

I really wish that there were more comics such as The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong.  It is a enjoyable book, full of appealing characters, an exciting plot, and imaginative ideas.

If you have not read any of the Tom Strong stories, I encourage you to pick up the trade paperback collections.  The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong itself is collected in the volume titled Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics.

Super Blog Team-Up 5 banner

I hope that everyone enjoyed this one.  Here are links to the other great entries in Super Blog Team-Up 5:

  1. Between The Pages:  A Tale Of Two Cities On The Edge Of Forever
  2. Bronze Age Babies:  Things Are a Little Different Around Here…
  3. Firestorm Fan:  Firestorm in Countdown Arena
  4. Flodo’s Page:  The Ballad of Two Green Lanterns
  5. The Idol-Head of Diabolu Podcast:  Martian Manhunter Multiversity
  6. The Legion of Super-Bloggers:  Star Trek/Legion of Super-Heroes
  7. Longbox Graveyard:  X-Men #141 & 142: Days of Future Past
  8. The Marvel Super Heroes Podcast (part of Rolled Spine Podcast):  Epic Comics’ Doctor Zero
  9. Mystery Vlog:  Marvel & DC’s Secret Crossover: Avengers #85–86 (1st Squadron Supreme)
  10. Superior Spider-Talk:  Spider-Man: Reign and Chasing Amazing:  The Case Against Spider-Man: Reign
  11. Superhero Satellite:  Marvel Comics’ Star Comics Line: “Licensed Reality and Parallel Properties”
  12. Ultraverse Network:  Parallel Worlds: The Ultraverse Before and After Black September
  13. The Unspoken Decade:  5 Batmen, 1 Superman, Zero Hour and The Ghost in the Machine: Robocop Versus Terminator