Star Wars reviews: Shattered Empire

Over the past few months I’ve been doing something of an informal countdown to The Force Awakens on this blog, reviewing some of my favorite Star Wars spin-offs. Today I’m looking at Shattered Empire, which was released in October by Marvel Comics.

Confession time: I haven’t been following the Star Wars comic books since they returned to Marvel, mostly because I’ve gotten the impression that they suffer from an extremely decompressed style of storytelling. But I decided to get Shattered Empire since it was a four issue miniseries and it was released on a weekly basis.  That meant I’d have the entire story in hand very quickly.  I waited until all four chapters were released and read it in one sitting.

Oh, yes, according to the indicia, the full title of this miniseries is Journey To Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Shattered Empire. What a mouthful!  I’m just going to call it Shattered Empire for simplicity’s sake.

SW Shattered Empire 4 cover

Shattered Empire is billed as a canonical prequel to the events of The Force Awakens. Writer Greg Rucka and artist Marco Checchetto examine how events unfolded across the galaxy in the weeks and months following Return of the Jedi.  We see these developments through the eyes of Lieutenant Shara Bey, aka Green Four, a pilot in the Rebel Alliance, and her husband Sergeant Kes Dameron, a commando in Han Solo’s strike team.

The Battle of Endor was undoubtedly the Alliance’s greatest, most important victory yet. Both Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader were killed, and the second Death Star was destroyed.  However, as we see in this miniseries, this was not the end of the struggle against the Empire.

I was only seven years old in 1983 when Return of the Jedi came out. Even at that young age I briefly questioned if this really did mark the end of the Empire.  Yes, I was obviously too young to comprehend such concepts as the difficulties in dismantling the remnants of a vast dictatorship, the challenges of establishing a stable democratic government, and the likelihood of ruthless opportunists taking advantage of the sudden vacuum of power.  Nevertheless I distinctly remember thinking that much of the Imperial fleet at Endor apparently survived the battle, and it seemed odd to me that they would all surrender.

As we see in Shattered Empire, there are indeed Imperial forces throughout the galaxy that have no intention of relinquishing power. Their defiance is spurred on by none other than Palpatine himself.  Master chess player that he was, the Emperor left in place a deadly contingency plan to be implemented in the event of his demise.  Via technology and loyal agents, many of the Empire’s officers are convinced that Palpatine still lives.  They are given orders to implement Operation: Cinder, the total devastation of numerous inhabited worlds.  Clearly the Emperor intended that if he couldn’t have the galaxy then no one would.

Shara and Kes’s elation at the victory at Endor, their optimism for the future, gradually gives way to weariness and despair, as the promised end to hostilities fails to materialize. Instead the couple is forced to face the possibility that they will have to spend the rest of their lives fighting against an adversary that is unwilling to capitulate.

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I’ve enjoyed Greg Rucka’s work in the past on Whiteout, Queen & Country and Gotham Central. He is definitely good at writing interesting, well-rounded characters.  Certainly he does a fine job developing Shara Bey.  She is a welcome addition to the Star Wars universe.  Her husband Kes Dameron is given somewhat less “screen time,” and is consequently not explored nearly as much.  Nevertheless, given the requirements of fitting such a large amount of material within four issues, Rucka succeeds at establishing both characters.

One of the subplots in Shattered Empire involves Princess Leia and Shara Bey visiting Naboo. This provides Rucka with a good opportunity to connect some of the strands from the original trilogy and the prequels.  Naboo is a peaceful democracy, but it was also the homeworld of the late Emperor.  Its people are understandably horrified and ashamed by this, and are quite eager to support Leia’s efforts to organize the New Republic.  Unfortunately this possibility was foreseen by Palpatine, and Naboo is one of the planets targeted by Operation: Cinder.  Leia, Shara and Soruna, the current queen of Naboo, are forced to pilot decades-old fighter craft in a desperate effort to fight off the orbiting Imperial fleet.

The final issue sees Shara joining Luke Skywalker infiltrating an Imperial facility on a rescue mission. The object that they seek to retrieve from the Empire is unusual, to say the least.  Well, perhaps that was why Luke only brought along one other person to help him, because he didn’t want to endanger anyone else on what might have been a questionable task.  This does give Rucka the opportunity to write an exciting action sequence showing Luke using his full Jedi abilities against a squad of Stormtroopers.

There’s another nice sequence Rucka has where he shows the Alliance have learned from past losses. In issue, #2, fighting against the Empire on Sterdic IV, the Rebels are pitted against an Imperial Walker.  Obviously remembering their devastating defeat on Hoth, this time the Rebels launch a group of Y-Wings to fly above the AT-AT, dropping clusters of magnetized bombs onto it.

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As Shattered Empire comes to a close, Shara and Kes have both put in the paperwork to muster out of active service. Shara explains her conflicted feelings concerning this decision to Luke…

Shara: I’ve got a son I’ve barely seen since he was born. A husband I get to see for an hour at a time every couple of weeks, if we’re lucky. I’m tired, and I feel guilty for even saying so. I feel like I’m abandoning the Rebellion.

Luke: But if the cost of our struggle is the lives we fought to protect, the future we hoped to see, then what is it we were fighting for?

At first I was a bit surprised that Shattered Empire ended without much resolution. Thinking it over, I realized that it did have closure as far as Shara and Kes are concerned.  And at its best Star Wars has always been concerned with how the lives of individuals and families unfolded amidst vast galactic events and upheavals.

Besides, until The Force Awakens actually begins showing, there is no way to know if Shattered Empire actually does set up any characters or subplots for the new movies.

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Marco Checchetto, with assists by Angel Unzeta and Emilio Laiso, provides the artwork for this miniseries. Checchetto’s work is very detailed.  He also lays out his pages dramatically.   Checchetto is definitely well suited to drawing both ground combat and space battles.

Checchetto is also good with the quieter, character-driven moments. That’s important, since the relationship between Shara and Kes is a central element of this story.

For the most part I found Shattered Empire to be a strong, enjoyable miniseries. Hopefully Marvel and Disney will ask Rucka and Checchetto to return to chronicling the Star Wars universe in the future.

Star Wars reviews: River of Chaos

As the release of The Force Awakens approaches, I’ve been reviewing a few of my favorite entries in the Star Wars expanded universe.  Today I’m looking at River of Chaos, a four issue miniseries published by Dark Horse in 1995.  It was written by Louise Simonson and illustrated by June Brigman & Roy Richardson.

SW River of Chaos 1 cover signed

Six months after the destruction of the first Death Star, ace Imperial pilot Ranulf Trommer is summoned before the high-ranking Grand Moff Lynch.  There are rumors that Grigor, the Imperial governor of M’Haeli, is engaged in illegal activity.  Lynch assigns Ranulf to be the Governor’s new aide, with orders to report anything suspicious.  Before Ranulf can arrive on M’Haeli, one of Grigor’s informants alerts him to the pilot’s secret mission.  Seeking to dispose of him, Grigor sends Ranulf to infiltrate the Rebel cell on M’Haeli.  The Governor subsequently dispatches Stormtroopers to attack the Rebels, intending for Ranulf to be killed in the crossfire.

Posing as a merchant, Ranulf brings a damaged protocol droid to Mora, an 18 year old human mechanic suspected of Rebel activity.  When she was only an infant, Mora was orphaned, and she was adopted by Ch’no, one of the H’Drachi, the native inhabitants of M’Haeli.  Ch’no has subsequently been ostracized by the rest of his people.  Likewise, because she was raised by a H’Drachi, Mora does not feel any real kinship with the human settlers.  She is not comfortable in either society.

Soon after Ranulf arrives at Mora’s shop, the two are attacked by the Governor’s troops.  Ranulf is wounded, and Mora helps him to escape.  She brings him to several of her Rebel friends, including the visiting Princess Leia, although they are immediately suspicious of Ranulf.  The Rebels discover that Governor Grigor is working with space pirates to run an illegal mining operation on M’Haeli.  Ranulf is convinced that once the Governor is arrested, he will be replaced by someone fair & honest, and that the planet will no longer want to join the Rebellion.

When it becomes apparent that Ranulf is working for the Empire, the Rebel cell understandably panics, fearing that an attack is imminent.  Mora once again feels like an outsider and an outcast as the other Rebels look upon her as a gullible fool who brought a spy into their midst.  She also wonders how she could have so misread Ranulf, who she sensed to be a good person. Ranulf, in turn, also begins to experience doubts.

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Louise Simonson does good work developing the characters in River of Chaos.  I really like how she wrote Ranulf and Mora, as well as the supporting cast.

One of the things she touches upon is something you occasionally see pondered in fandom, namely just what sort of person would actually work for an organization like the Empire?  Obviously, as in real-world totalitarian regimes, you have those with a superiority complex who enjoy wielding authority and who wish to exercise power over others.  You also have those who see the excesses of the Empire as an unfortunate  necessity in maintaining an ordered society.  You then have those who see in a cold, impersonal bureaucracy the opportunity to exploit the system and become wealthy.  Finally, there are those who are unable or unwilling to think outside the box, content to blindly follow orders and unquestioningly listen to Imperial propaganda.

After he is assigned to his mission of espionage, Ranulf expresses uncertainty to his father, an Imperial Admiral…

Ranulf: We used to serve the Old Republic. And now we serve Grand Moff Lynch’s New Order. Doesn’t it matter who we serve and why?

Admiral Trommer: You were too young to realize the sewer the Old Republic had become. Grand Moff Lynch took control and changed all that.  He is strong, and we will help him keep the peace in any way possible.

Later on M’Haeli, away from his fellow Imperial troops and officers, among Mora and the Rebels, Ranulf gradually begins to see the universe through their eyes.  He starts to perceive that they have legitimate grievances.  Ranulf’s slowly begins to understand that there is little difference between Governor Grigor and Grand Moff Lynch.  He start to realize that Grigor subjugated M’Haeli in order to line his own pockets, but that Lynch is also willing to do exactly the same in order to further the cause of the Empire.

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One of the themes that run through Simonson’s work is family.  She explores that here through Mora and Ch’no.  In many ways this human teenager and H’Drachi elder are much closer than most daughters and fathers who are united by blood.  At the same time, Mora realizes that she needs to have more than just Ch’no.  The Rebels become the friends and family Mora never had.  You also get the impression that Ranulf is the first person for whom she has ever developed romantic feelings.

I like that Simonson has Princess Leia appear as a supporting character.  One of my favorite aspects of the EU is that it has enable writers to develop various minor characters from the movies, as well as brand new ones.  By having Leia appear in a minor capacity, it connects River of Chaos to the larger narrative of the movies without overshadowing Mora, Ranulf, Ch’no and the rest of Simonson’s characters.

The artwork by June Brigman & Roy Richardson is really lovely.  I have been a fan of both Simonson and Brigman since the early days of their careers when they co-created Power Pack.  It is always nice to when they have the opportunity to reunite on projects such as this one.

Brigman and Richardson’s work is very clean, with a cute and charming quality to it.  There is a genuine tone of fantasy and wonder to their style and the designs of their characters.  At the same time, they do a very good job rendering the established Star Wars elements such as Speeder Bikes and Stormtroopers.  Brigman & Richardson are definitely underrated, and I wish that we had the opportunity to see their work in comic books much more often.

I think River of Chaos fell somewhat under the radar amidst the rest of the Star Wars releases from Dark Horse, which often featured hyper-detailed and embellished artwork.  That’s a shame, because this was a nicely written miniseries with wonderful artwork.  The creators did a fine job of exploring and developing the Star Wars universe.  It’s well worth searching out.

Star Wars reviews: Rebels season one

As the release of The Force Awakens approaches, I’ve been reviewing various entries in the vast Star Wars Expanded Universe.  Today I’m looking at a recent piece of Star Wars lore, the first season of the animated TV series Rebels, originally broadcast between October 2014 and March 2015.  I picked up the season one DVD last month.

Rebels season one DVD

Set a decade and a half after the events of the prequels, Rebels chronicles the exploits of a small cell of the Rebel Alliance operating out of a freighter starship known as the Ghost in the vicinity of the planet Lothal:

Ezra Bridges – The fifteen year old is the figure through whom the audience is introduced to the crew of the Ghost.  Ezra’s parents conducted underground anti-Imperial broadcasts on Lothal.  They were arrested when Ezra was only eight years old.  Spending the next several years as a homeless thief, Ezra comes to the attention of the Ghost crew when he makes off with a supply shipment which they themselves had only just stolen from the Empire.  At first motivated solely by survival and self-interest, Ezra joins the Rebels after they risk their lives to rescue him from the Empire.

Kanan Jarrus – The leader of the Ghost crew is a former Jedi Padawan who survived the destruction of the Jedi Order during Order 66.  Spending the next 15 years in hiding, he became a smuggler and guerilla fighter, keeping his Jedi abilities hidden.  Kanan finally unsheathes his lightsaber in a battle to liberate Wookies who have been captured by Imperial slavers.  After years of running from his past, Kanan reluctantly re-embraces his Jedi heritage when he realizes that Ezra is a Force sensitive, and he takes on the boy as his apprentice.

Hera Syndulla – The Twi’lek owner of the Ghost and an extremely skilled pilot, Hera is the den mother of the group.  She has a close friendship with Kanan, and it’s implied that there is a mutual attraction between the two.  The level-headed Hera serves as the link between the Rebel cell and the larger Alliance, communicating with a mysterious contact known only as “Fulcrum.”

Sabine Wren – A sarcastic teenage explosive expert and graffiti artist, Sabine is from the planet Mandalore.  She was previously enrolled in the Imperial Academy, until an experience there completely embittered her towards the Empire.  As a result she developed an aversion to blindly following orders.  Ezra has a crush on Sabine, but she has declined to acknowledge it, preferring to remain friends.

Garazeb “Zeb” Orrelios – The large, hairy Zeb is one of the last of the Lasat, an alien race who were brutally invaded by the Empire.  Seeking to avenge his people, Zeb became involved in the Rebellion.  Something of a grumpy hothead, Zeb is less than enthusiastic about Ezra joining the crew, although they eventually develop a grudging mutual respect.

Chopper – A beat-up old astromech droid, C1-10P aka Chopper helps keep the Ghost running.  Possessing an irritable, mischievous personality, the droid expresses himself through grunts and beeps.

Over the course of the first season, the writers do a good job introducing the main characters, spotlighting each of them throughout the 15 episodes.  By the time I was finished watching the DVD set, I really did not have a favorite, having grown to like all of them.

Rebels characters

Probably the best character development was in the deep friendship that grows between Ezra and Kanan.  They become not just student and teacher, but also a surrogate family, with Kanan becoming a father figure and role model for the reckless orphan.  Teaching Ezra to use the Force and become a Jedi is just as much a learning experience for the teenager as it is for Kanan.  Both of them need to discover patience and understanding.  It is a different relationship than that of Luke and Yoda, as can be seen by this amusing exchange from “Rise of the Old Masters”…

Kanan: Enough jokes. Focus!

Ezra: I’m trying!

Kanan: Do, or no not. There is no try.

Ezra: What does that even mean? How can I do something if I don’t try to do it?

Kanan: Well, see… Actually, that one always confused me, too. But Master Yoda sure used to say it a lot.

That was one of my favorite bits from the first season!

Rebels appears to be geared to a slightly younger audience than the Star Wars movies.  There is more of an emphasis on comedy and slapstick, although at times it can also be pretty intense and serious.

Some of the humor derives from the fact that the Empire comes across as pretty damn incompetent.  Yes, there’s that old joke that Imperial Stormtroopers cannot shoot straight.  But if you actually watch the movies, most of the time they are incredibly dangerous adversaries who mow down their enemies left and right.  It’s only when they encounter major characters such as Han, Luke or Leia that they are utterly incapable of hitting the broad side of a Jawa sandcrawler.  And such is the case with Rebels, where the Ghost crew constantly runs circles around the Empire.  You almost get the impression that it’s only sheer force of numbers that’s allowing the Emperor to maintain control of the galaxy!

There are exceptions, such as Agent Kallus of the Imperial Security Bureau, who is dangerously competent, but who is constantly frustrated by the bumbling antics of his troops.  Likewise the utterly ruthless Grand Moff Tarkin arrives on Lothal late in the season to take charge of operations, and he seems to spend half the time uttering exclamations of exasperation at the people serving under him.

The closest thing to a “big bad” for season one is the Imperial Inquisitor, a Force-adept disciple of Darth Vader who utilizes a double bladed lightsaber capable of whirling like a propeller.  The arrogant, mocking Inquisitor spends much of the season in pursuit of Kanan and Ezra.  The design and personality of the Inquisitor is somewhere between Vader and his Sith predecessor Darth Maul.  He is definitely a formidable adversary.

Rebels Inquisitor

Several actors from the movies reprise their roles.  As always, Anthony Daniels is on hand to voice C-3PO.  James Earl Jones returns for his iconic vocalization of Darth Vader, as do Frank Oz as Yoda and Billy Dee Williams as Lando Callrissian.

Lando appears in the episode “Idiot’s Array.”  Zeb loses Chopper to Lando in a game of Sabacc, much to the droid’s indignation.  To get Chopper back, the Ghost crew agrees to help Lando smuggle cargo through the Imperial blockade of Lothal.  And, no, the cargo is not a case of Colt 45 (which was my first guess) but so-called “mining equipment,” namely a very odd animal that is a cross between a pig and a puffer fish.  This is a few years before Lando became the semi-respectable administrator of Cloud City, back when he was still a smooth-talking gambler and con artist.  Williams does a good job recreating the part.

“Idiot’s Array” is one of the most offbeat and comedic installments of the entire season.  Actually, it’s a great episode, genuinely funny and entertaining.  And it actually works out well, coming right before the final four episode arc of the season, a very intense and serious storyline.

Season one draws to a dramatic conclusion with “Fire Across the Galaxy.”  The crew infiltrates Tarkin’s star destroyer to rescue Kanan.  This leads to a final, riveting showdown between Kanan and the Inquisitor.

“Fire Across the Galaxy” also reveals the identity of Fulcrum; she is none other than Ahsoka Tano, former Jedi and fan favorite from The Clone Wars animated series.  It was a pleasant surprise to learn that Ahsoka survived the Jedi Purge and was working alongside Senator Bail Organa to organize the Rebel Alliance.

Rebels Ahsoka Tano

As “Fire Across the Galaxy” came to a close, I found myself very much looking forward to season two.  The first year had done a great job at developing the main characters, and I am interested in seeing Ahsoka becoming a regular.  Also, with the arrival of Darth Vader on Lothal in the final scene, the possibility of Ahsoka encountering her former master and learning of his turn to the Dark Side appears to be in the cards.

By the way, in watching Rebels season one, I came to realize just how crucial the visual designs of Ralph McQuarrie, the music of John Williams and the sound designs of Ben Burtt all are in recapturing the feel, the atmosphere of the Star Wars universe in an animated series.  All of these have been utilized by the makers of Rebels, and it just would not be the same in the absence of any of them.

I cancelled cable TV service a while back, but I can always get Rebels season two through iTunes.  It’s definitely something I’d rather not have to wait for the DVD release.  It’s an entertaining, well-written series that does a great job of exploring the period between the prequels and the original trilogy.

Star Wars reviews: Jedi Aayla Secura

I’m continuing the countdown to the debut of The Force Awakens in December with another look at entries in the Star Wars Expanded Universe.  Today’s post spotlights Star Wars: Jedi – Aayla Secura published by Dark Horse in August 2003.  It was written by John Ostrander, drawn by Jan Duursema & Dan Parsons, and colored by Brad Anderson.

SW Jedi Aayla Secura cover signed

Several months have passed since the Battle of Geonosis.  The Clone Wars, the war between the Republic and the Confederacy, has spread throughout the entire galaxy.  Republic supply convoys are being ambushed in space by Confederacy raiders.  The Jedi T’ra Saa receives a holocomm message from Senator Elsah Sai Moro from the planet Devaron.  Elsah informs T’ra that the raiders are operating from Devaron and are being assisted by a member of the government.  Before the Senator can name the culprit, she is assassinated on-camera.

Soon after a trio of Jedi arrive on Devaron undercover: Aayla Secura, Tholme, and the mysterious Dark Woman.  Unfortunately the Dark Woman is recognized by Elsah’s killer, Aurra Sing.  Years before, the Dark Woman was Aurra’s teacher, but the young Jedi-in-training was kidnapped by space pirates, and she turned to the Dark Side.  Now a bounty hunter and assassin, Aurra hates the Jedi with a burning passion.  Aurra informs her employer, Senator Sai’Malloc, that the three visitors to Devaron are Jedi and that she intends to kill them.

Sai’Malloc does not want more murders on her hands and reluctantly admits her collaboration to Aayla.  By this time, however, Tholme and the Dark Woman have already fallen into a trap laid by Aurra.  To save her fellow Jedi, Aayla is forced to fight the deadly bounty hunter.

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As I’ve mentioned before, one of my favorite writers on the Star Wars comic books from Dark Horse was John Ostrander.  The penciler he most frequently worked with on these stories was Jan Duursema.  Having previously penciled issue #92 of the original Marvel Comics series in late 1984, Duursema became a regular contributor to the Dark Horse titles a decade and a half later, making her one of only a handful of creators to have worked on both SW runs.

Ostrander and Duursema were quickly paired up at Dark Horse and became an effective team.  One of their first collaborations was “Twilight” in Star Wars #19-22.  It introduced Quinlan Vos, an amnesiac Jedi tempted by the Dark Side, and his Twi’lek apprentice Aayla Secura.  Over the next several years Ostrander & Duursema did excellent work developing the characters of Quinlan and Aayla, as well as the brooding Tholme and the beautiful tree-like T’ra Saa.  Ostrander & Duursema examined the upheavals all four experienced as the Jedi were drawn into the conflicts and politics of the Clone Wars.

One of the threads Ostrander & Duursema wove in and out of the Republic monthly and the Jedi quarterly book was Quin’s continuing struggle with the temptations of the Dark Side.  By the time of Jedi – Aayla Secura, Quin had apparently defected to the Confederacy, falling under the sway of Count Dooku.  In fact Quin was working deep undercover as a double agent, so deep in fact that the handful of Jedi who knew the truth, as well as the readers, were constantly left questioning if Quin really had gone bad.

Quin had previously saved Aayla from becoming a pawn to a Dark Jedi, and she now wishes to go after her old teacher to return the favor.  Tholme, one of few to know the truth of Quin’s scheme, forbids it.  Consequently throughout this issue Aayla finds her memories returning to her past instruction by Quin, and the bond of friendship they shared.

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Ostrander compares and contrasts Aayla Secura and Aurra Sing.  Both of them were kidnapped and subsequently tempted by the Dark Side while they were still Padawan learners.  Quinlan refused to give up on his pupil, pursuing Aayla across the galaxy to locate her and bring her back to the light.  On the other hand, Aurra’s teacher was the Dark Woman, who was so fanatical about observing the Jedi’s code of avoiding attachments that she even gave up her real name.  When Aurra was abducted, the Dark Woman simply resigned herself to her student’s loss since she never allowed herself to develop any sort of emotional attachment to her.  Aurra’s subsequent corruption, her transformation into a sadistic killer-for-hire, is at least partially due to the Dark Woman’s negligence.

An interesting bit of characterization by Ostrander is Senator Sai’Malloc.  Like many politicians, she is not genuinely evil, merely weak and greedy.  She had only intended to line her pockets with Confederacy money, and to gain favor with them, so that if they emerged as the victors of the War she would be in a position to use them as allies.  But as Sai’Malloc’s involvement with the Confederacy grew, her crimes snowballed out of control.  Eventually, in order to keep her role a secret, she resorts to murder.  It is a very believable, realistic depiction of how corruption gradually eats away at a person.

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The pencils by Duursema are incredible.  She draws some amazing action sequences.  The fight between Aayla and Aurra is absolutely dynamic, a ballet of violence.  Duursema also excels at the quieter scenes of characterization.  The flashbacks to young Aayla being taught by and developing a friendship with Quinlan are very effective.

I really like Dan Parsons inking Duursema’s pencils.  They began working together with Republic #50 and have been an art team ever since.  I had previously enjoyed Parsons’ work writing & drawing his creator-owned series Aetos the Eagle and Harpy.  His detailed inking has a very dark tone to it, simultaneously very slick & polished and rough & gritty.  Parsons’ early art reminded me somewhat of Michael Bair.  Parsons’ inking gave Duursema’s pencils an atmosphere that was appropriate for the grim, moody tales of war and espionage that Ostrander was writing in the Star Wars comics.

The coloring by Brad Anderson is also very effective.  It is vibrant yet subdued, somber when necessary without becoming muddy.  Again, it works well at creating an atmosphere in these stories.

Aayla Secura Attack of the Clones

Aayla Secura has the distinction of originating in the Expanded Universe and then appearing in the actual movies.  George Lucas, while he was in the middle of making Attack of the Clones, saw Dark Horse artwork featuring Aayla and, struck by her appearance, added her to the movie.  She was portrayed by ILM production assistant and actress Amy Allen.

Aayla subsequently appeared in Revenge of the Sith where she was one of the numerous Jedi killed by the Clone Troopers during Order 66.  Between the comic books by Ostrander & Duursema and the movies, Aayla had definitely became a fan favorite, and many, myself included, were upset at her demise.

I wonder if Aayla’s popularity and the reaction to her death helped inspire Lucas to create Ahsoka Tano, another female teenage alien Jedi.  She also became popular among Star Wars fans and, unlike Aayla, survived the events of the Clone Wars.

The majority of the Dark Horse material is apparently now non-canonical, but don’t let that dissuade you.  If you cannot find this one via back issues or the now out-of-print trade paperbacks, I’m sure that Disney-owned Marvel will eventually be repackaging it.  All of the issues by Ostrander & Duursema are well worth reading.  They are among the best entries in the entire Expanded Universe.

This review is dedicated to Jan Duursema’s daughter Sian, who convinced John Ostrander not to kill off Aayla at the end of “Twilight,” therefore leading to many more wonderful stories featuring the character.

Star Wars reviews: The Apprentice and The Dream

Continuing the countdown to The Force Awakens, I am looking at past Star Wars comic books.  Today I’m spotlighting two more issues from the original Marvel Comics series.

“The Apprentice” appeared in Star Wars Annual #3 (Summer 1983).  Its sequel, “The Dream,” was in Star Wars #92 (Feb 1985).  Both stories were written by Jo Duffy.  “The Apprentice” was illustrated by Klaus Janson.  “The Dream” was penciled by Jan Duursema and inked by Tom Mandrake.

Star Wars Annual 3 cover

Set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, “The Apprentice” sees members of the Rebel Alliance on the planet Belderone investigating rumors of an Imperial project that threatens their base on the nearby world of Kulthis.  Most of the locals are secretive except for two curious teenagers, Flint and Barney.  Flint in particular is intrigued.  Noticing the lightsaber Luke Skywalker carries, an excited Flint mentions that his late father was a Jedi Knight.  The teens take the Rebels to the local tavern, which is run by Flint’s mother Zana.  Princess Leia realizes that the two teenagers are star-struck by Luke, but he brushes this off, insisting that they have an important mission.

The Rebels’ arrival does not go unnoticed, and one of Zana’s neighbors notifies General Andrid.  The Imperial officer dispatches assassins to eliminate them.  But Luke’s connection to the Force alerts him to the impending ambush, and the Rebels are able to thwart the attack.

Off in space, Darth Vader’s ship is en route to Belderone.  He has sensed that something important will take place there, and he is expecting Luke’s involvement.  Vader learns of Andrid’s failed attempt to kill the Rebels, and the enraged Sith strangles the General.  Vader decides to take personal charge of operations planet-side.

Luke, realizing Vader is near, leaves for Kulthis to summon reinforcements.  Leia and the other Rebels are led by Flint and Barney to the mysterious installation where most of the population is employed by the Empire.  Suddenly the ground splits open and a group of Imperial Walkers emerge.  They begin marching to the nearby airfield, where they will be transported to Kulthis to attack the Rebels.

Star Wars Annual 3 pg 25

Flint and Barney, seeing the enormous AT-ATs heading towards town, rush off to warn everyone, including Flint’s mother.  They are secretly observed by Vader and one of his men.  The aid asks if they should have stopped the two teenagers, but the Sith is dismissive of the pair.

Before the Walkers can reach their ships, a group of Rebel X-Wings led by Luke arrives, catching them off guard.  With the aid of Leia and Lando Calrissian, who have seized control of one of the AT-ATs, the Rebels defeat the unprepared Imperials.

Unfortunately, before the battle is over, one of the Walkers wrecks a path of destruction through the nearby town.  Among those killed are Zana.  Flint, crouching by his mother’s body, is distraught…

“It was all just a game… we were useless… we couldn’t do a thing… And they let us go on… pretending we could help… But we couldn’t… we were useless… I was useless… and now you’re dead…

“I swear… I swear to you… I’m going to learn… I’m going to get the training… the same training my father had… I’m going to become someone who matters… And then I’ll show them all!”

The grieving Flint does not realize that he is being watched.  The observer steps forward and addresses him…

“I know how you feel… I had almost forgotten what it was like to feel that way… It has been some time since I heard anyone speak the way you do now… I did not take you seriously before, and I should have… forgive me. Let me make it up to you now…

“I could not single you out for special training right away… you would be just one of our men at first… but I have sensed the power in you… in time, I promise you, you will be tutored specially… and if you really wish it… you will become someone who matters very much!”

The way this scene is written by Duffy and illustrated by Janson, the reader is led to believe that it is Luke speaking to Flint, recruiting him into the Rebellion.  However, a few pages later we learn from Barney, who witnessed this exchange, that the individual who has approached Flint is none other than Vader.

As the Annual closes, Barney leaves Belderone with the Rebels.  Elsewhere, watched over by Vader, the grim Flint dons the armor of a Stormtrooper, joining the ranks of the Empire.

Star Wars Annual 3 pg 36

“The Dream” takes place several months after Return of the Jedi.  The former Rebel Alliance is attempting to organize the newly-freed planets and to deal with the Imperial remnants still active across the galaxy.  Luke is having a series of troubling dreams in which his now-dead father, Darth Vader, appears to him in an eerie mist-filled void.

A ship piloted by Prince Denin of Naldar arrives on Endor.  The desperate Denin informs the Alliance that Imperial forces are laying siege to his world.  The Prince demands assistance.  He also wants to be trained as a Jedi by Luke.  Reluctantly Luke declines, remembering how his own father Anakin Skywalker was not adequately trained, allowing him to be turned to the Dark Side of the Force.

Despite Denin’s brusque manner, Leia convinces the Alliance to investigate the Prince’s claims.  Luke accompanies Leia and the others.  Aboard the Millennium Falcon, Luke falls asleep.  He is once again in the void, but this time he is greeted by the spirits of Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and even his father Anakin.  Luke realizes the image of Vader represents a new Dark Lord.  Anakin explains to Luke…

“Do you not recognize him? We share the blame for his creation, my son.

“He is not beyond redemption, my son… but I am unable to return and undo the evil I did. Only you can save him, Luke.”

The Falcon arrives to find Naldar completely decimated by the Empire.  The ship is hit by a powerful energy cannon and crashes.  While repairs are being made, Luke heads out with Lando and Denin to investigate.  They are attacked by Imperial forces and soon surrounded.  A black-armored figure approaches.  Luke faces down the dark figure and challenges him…

“Why don’t you show us what’s under that armor? It’s not as though you need it to survive. Or are you afraid to face me without it?”

Grimly the armored figure removes his helmet… and, yep, it’s Flint!

Star Wars 92 pg 30

Luke and Flint engage in a lightsaber duel.  Flint reveals that Vader began training him in the use of the Force, and accuses Luke of killing him.  Luke tries to explain that Vader was his father, and that in the end he turned away from the Dark Side, but Flint is too enraged to listen.

The crew from the Falcon then arrives, and Barney is among them.  Flint is shocked to see his old friend.  Barney approaches him, accusing Flint of fighting the people he once admired.  When Flint argues that the Rebels couldn’t save him mother, Barney counters this…

“Was it an Alliance bomb that killed her? No, it was the Empire. And you couldn’t save her and be a hero… so now you’re gonna punish the whole universe, and kill a whole lot of mothers and sons and innocent people? That makes a lot of sense!

“Frankly, I don’t think you can. But I’ve been wrong before. So, prove it to me, for old times’ sake. See the face of one of your victims. Kill me first, Flint.”

And, despite all the crimes he has committed, Flint realizes that he is unable to murder his friend.

One of the Stormtroopers, watching this unfold, prepares to shoot Flint in the back for his “betrayal.”  But Denin (who we now know to actually be Princess Vila, taking on her fallen brother’s identity) sees this and grabs Luke’s fallen lightsaber.  Throwing herself in front of the Stormtrooper, Vila intercepts the blast meant for Flint, and kills the Imperial.

Witnessing Vila’s sacrifice, a disgusted Flint turns his back on the Imperial cause.  He uses the controls on his armor to destroy the energy cannon.

Star Wars 92 cover

Jo Duffy became the regular writer of the Star Wars comic book with issue #70 (April 1983) and, except for a few fill-in issues, wrote the series until its cancelation with issue #107 (September 1986).  Her stories were a wonderful mix of drama and comedy.  Duffy’s run is rather underrated, especially the later issues, where she was working to devise a new direction for the series after Return of the Jedi.  Duffy showed the characters attempting to transition from freedom fighters to diplomats, politicians and teachers.  She also introduced new adversaries to threaten galactic freedom.

“The Apprentice” and “The Dream” are two of my favorite stories that Duffy wrote for Star Wars.  She examined Luke’s burden to continue the legacy of the Jedi.  Luke was understandably reluctant to train a new generation of Jedi, concerned that if he did not do so properly that they could be corrupted by their powers.  But with the events of these two stories Luke learns that if he neglects to take up that responsibility then those with the potential to utilize the Force, such as Flint, might fight other teachers who would not hesitate the steer them towards the Dark Side.

This is another one of those instances where I’m really left wondering if George Lucas was influenced by these stories!  Flint is similar to how Anakin Skywalker was depicted in the prequels.  Flint’s mother dying, resulting in him accepting Vader’s offer to train him, is remarkably similar to what would happen in Attack of the Clones, when Anakin’s mother was killed by the Sand People, beginning his descent towards the Dark Side.  Vader’s own dialogue here implies that he was once in a situation that was similar to this.  Flint even looks somewhat like Hayden Christensen!

Speaking of the artists, these two issues were both well done.  Janson had a very moody, noir-ish style to his work on “The Apprentice.”  That’s not unexpected, given that this was drawn around the time he was wrapping up his six year long association on Daredevil.

The battle between the X-Wings and the AT-ATs is unfortunately a bit on the sketchy side.  Janson does much better work on people than machinery, although that splash page reveal of the Walkers is really stunning.  Most of the scenes are well-rendered, especially the shootout in the tavern.  Vader’s recruitment of Flint is effectively told, and Janson’s depiction of the Sith is menacing & sinister.  On the lighter side of things, I always laugh at the expression Janson gives Chewbacca on finding the tavern food disagreeable!

Star Wars Annual 3 pg 16 Chewbacca

Jan Duursema and Tom Mandrake happen to be married.  I believe “The Dream” is one of the few occasions they’ve worked together.  This was fairly early in their careers.  Nevertheless, the artwork is extremely good.

Duursema and Mandrake have very different styles to their work.  Duursema’s art is well suited to sci-fi and fantasy, while Mandrake’s is very much in the horror and supernatural vein.  This makes their collaboration on Star Wars #92 especially effective.  Duursema’s effectively pencils the characters and technology of the Star Wars universe, and Mandrake’s inking gives the story a genuinely eerie, atmospheric feel.

Although this was Duursema’s only work for the Marvel series, years later she would become a regular contributor to the Star Wars comics when Dark Horse held the license.  From 2000 to 2010 she did great work on several of their of Star Wars titles.  But hopefully more on that in a future post!

Star Wars 92 pg 19

The cover to #92 is an interesting collaboration by Cynthia Martin and Bill Sienkiewicz.  Martin was the regular artist on the Marvel series for its final two years.  She had a rather cartoony look to her work.  Having her finished by Sienkiewicz, with his bizarre, abstract style, results in a cover that very much suits the story within.

I recommend reading these two issues.  I’m confident Marvel with be reprinting them in the near future.

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.

Star Wars reviews: Marvel Comics Star Wars #89

As we await the arrival of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in December, I’m examining some of the Star Wars comic books and novels of the past.  Today I’m looking at issue #89 of the original comic book series published by Marvel.

From 1977 to 1986 Marvel Comics published an ongoing Star Wars title.  Marvel’s writers & editors were basically working in a vacuum.  They had no idea what was coming in subsequent movies, they weren’t able to explore the era before the first film, and they had various restrictions placed on them as to what the characters could do.  The result was some comic books that, by today’s standards, are quite odd.

Despite all of that, there are some very good stories that appeared during the first Marvel run.  One of these is “I’ll See You In The Throne Room” from issue #89, published in November 1984.  It is written by Ann Nocenti, illustrated by Bret Blevins and edited by Louise Simonson.

Star Wars 89 cover signed

It is shortly after the Battle of Endor.  The Rebel Alliance is working to topple the now-reeling Galactic Empire.  Luke Skywalker is on the planet Solay, assisting the local cell of the Rebellion to overthrow the Imperial-allied government headed by the monstrous King Blackart.

The revolution is successful, but its leader Raggold is mortally wounded.  Raggold tells Luke and the beautiful Mary that this is the work of a traitor, but he dies before he can name the culprit.  Luke is ready to seek out the murderer, but Mary restrains him, perceiving that his motivation is vengeance rather than justice.  Luke, realizing revenge is a path to the Dark Side, reluctantly backs down.

A week later Solay is still celebrating victory.  Luke is concerned that the rebels haven’t begun to organize a new government, but Mary urges him to relax.  Luke is about ready to do so, when suddenly the skies above Solay darken, filled with a massive fleet of Imperial spaceships.  Mary is brutally cut down by a volley of blaster fire that accompanies their arrival.

Luke realizes that the Empire used the Rebels to dispose of Blackart so that they could then take direct control of Solay.  Over the next few days the planet descends into chaos as individuals attempt to grab up wealth and escape before the Empire solidifies its rule.  The brooding Luke is obsessed with finding the traitor who sold them out, and with avenging Mary and Raggold.

Luke finds himself teamed with Scamp, an urchin who tries to steal the Jedi’s lightsaber.  Luke takes advantage of the pickpocket’s knowledge of the Solay underworld to search for clues to the traitor’s identity.  Unfortunately no one knows anything.  Scamp finally leads Luke to Braxas, an information broker who had a secret surveillance network installed in Blackart’s castle.  Braxas agrees to reveal the traitor’s identity in exchange for the Jedi helping him escape from Solay.

After Luke passes a harrowing test of nerves & skill involving a scorpion and a pair of chopsticks, Braxas gives him the surveillance tape with Raggold’s murder.  Luke wonders if he truly wants to view it, fearful that once he knows who the traitor is he will not be able to resist killing him.

Reluctantly playing the tape, Luke is shocked to see Raggold standing alone in the castle.  The old Rebel reflects on how he has played the part of revolutionary perfectly, manipulating his comrades on behalf of the Empire.  But now, having fought alongside the rebels for so long, Raggold realizes that he has come to admire his comrades and their cause.  Consumed by guilt over his treachery, Raggold shoots himself in the chest.

Now knowing the truth, Luke recognizes the futility of seeking revenge.  Fulfilling his end of the bargain, the Jedi helps Braxas escape Solay.  Departing the planet, Luke promises to one day return and continue the quest to liberate it from the Empire.

Star Wars 89 pg 9

I actually bought Star Wars #89 when it first came out in 1984.  I was eight years old and it amazed me.  It was an interesting examination of what could occur after Return of the Jedi, of how both the Rebellion and Luke would proceed following their biggest victory.  This must have been the very first story I ever read by Nocenti.  It was one of those comics that I read so often it fell apart.  About 15 years ago I bought a replacement copy.  Re-reading it as an adult, I found Nocenti’s story definitely held up.

Nocenti effectively examines the aftermath of revolution.  As difficult as it can be to defeat an oppressive regime, it is often even more of a challenge to replace it with a stable government that is better than what preceded it.

Following the overthrow of Blackart, Mary is celebrating Solay’s freedom, but Luke is more sober in his assessment:

Mary: This is just the beginning! Imagine, to be free to do and think whatever we wish! We’ll revive the arts!

Luke: But the people will need help. They don’t know what freedom is!

Mary: True, to ones enslaved so long, will they know what to do with freedom? I guess it isn’t so easy to be free.

Luke: We toppled another figurehead. So what? It’s not enough to be against something. One must be for something!

One of the themes running through the Star Wars movies is the cost of power, the weight of using it responsibly.  Luke is in danger of being overwhelmed by the awesome abilities that he possesses, of repeating the terrible mistakes made by his father Anakin.

Nocenti actually predicts a plot point that would appear two decades later in the prequels.  As was seen in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, Anakin became obsessed with preventing the loss of those he loved.  His mother was killed, and he was terrified of his wife Padme also dying.  Anakan wanted to be able to conquer death itself.  His fear and his desire for greater powers enabled Emperor Palpatine to turn him to the Dark Side.

In the pages of Star Wars #89 we see Luke expressing these exact same thoughts.  Anguished over Mary’s death, Luke cries out:

“I want her alive! I want to heal! What good is the Force now? It’s not good enough! I wish I were a god.”

Still mourning Mary’s loss, Luke has Scamp lead him to a member of the Rebellion who was in it solely for the money.  Luke is certain that this man must either be the traitor or know who is, and the Jedi uses his powers to brutally interrogate him.  It is apparent that the man known nothing, but Luke still contemplates killing him.  He is acting exactly like his father, Darth Vader, would have in this situation.  It is only when Luke remembers that Mary would have wanted him to be merciful that he reluctantly lets the man go.

As his quest continues, Luke eventually becomes aware that his actions are motivated not by loyalty to the Rebellion, but by anger and vengeance.  He realizes that he is in danger of turning to the Dark Side.

Star Wars 89 pg 16

The character of Scamp is interesting.  The young pickpocket is like something out of a Charles Dickens novel.  Despite Luke’s dismissal of the young boy as “a shallow petty thief,” Scamp ends up serving as the Jedi’s conscience in this story.  Luke is genuinely surprised when he learns that Scamp’s larcenous activities are actually in service of supporting his impoverished family.

Perhaps a weak point in Nocenti’s story is Mary, who is rather one-dimensional.  It seems she is there to act saintly & innocent and then be killed off.  Admittedly it is very difficult to develop a character who dies a third of the way through a 22 page story.  I imagine that if Nocenti was writing this story today her editors would instruct her to spread it out over four or five issues.  While that would have given her room to develop the characters, there’d nevertheless have been less dramatic punch if this story was padded out.

The artwork by Blevins is fantastic.  He utilizes dramatic, inventive layouts to tell the story.  His inking is very detailed and rich.  The pulp sci-fi / space opera designs for many of the characters, especially the hulking, brutal Blackart, are striking and effective.  The sequence where Luke uses the Force to lift up the body of the dying Mary is genuinely powerful.

Blevins brings out both the drama and the comedy of Nocenti’s story.  Scamp is, naturally, a constant source of humor.  Blevins’ depiction of Blackart is simultaneously terrifying and comical.

The art Blevins did for this issue is especially impressive when you consider that he had only been working professionally for about three years when he drew it.

Star Wars 89 pg 22

Simonson (under the name Louise Jones) was the editor of the Star Wars comic from 1981 to 1984.  Many of the best stories to appear in the series were from that four year period.  As with her editing on other Marvel titles, she got really great material out of the creators working on Star Wars.  Simonson has always impressed me as the type of editor who identified the strengths of her creators and guided them in a direction that utilized those abilities, and who then stepped back and allowed them to tell stories without undue interference.

Looking at Star Wars #89, it’s not surprising that Nocenti, Blevins and Simonson all went on to very successful careers in the comic book industry.  They did excellent work on this story, both in examining the character of Luke Skywalker and his struggles with power & responsibility, and in delving into the complicated issues surrounding rebellion and freedom.

Star Wars reviews: Republic #61

The new Star Wars movie The Force Awakens comes out in December.  Although I haven’t written much about it on this blog, I’ve been a big Star Wars fan since I was a kid.  At first I was thinking of re-watching and reviewing the previous six movies on this blog as a sort of lead-in to The Force Awakens.  But I realized that so many others have written about them already.  Besides, I just couldn’t decide what order to review them in!

Then it occurred to me to look at some of the tie-ins that have been published over the past 38 years, the comic books and novels.  Most of those have never been examined in-depth.

I know that many people were disappointed in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy.  While I readily acknowledge that those films were flawed, I still enjoyed them.  And they opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the so-called “expanded universe.”  Dark Horse, which had the rights to publish Star Wars comic books from 1991 to 2014, released many excellent stories set during the prequel era.

My favorite writer to work on the Dark Horse comics was John Ostrander.  He has always been incredibly adept at crafting stories that combine action, drama and political intrigue.  This made him particularly well suited to examining the events of the prequel era.

Star Wars: Republic #61 is written by Ostrander, with artwork by Brandon Badeaux & Armando Durruthy and a cover by Brian Ching.  It was published in January 2004.

Star Wars Republic 61 cover signed

Sixteen months after the Battle of Geonosis the Clone Wars are raging across the galaxy.  Senator Bail Organa is en-route from his home planet of Alderaan to the capital on Coruscant when his ship is attacked by space pirates.  Fortunately the Jedi arrive to drive off the raiders.

Landing on Coruscant, Organa is greeted by Senator Mon Mothma.  She is unsettled by the Senate’s willingness to leave oversight of the war to Supreme Chancellor Palpatine.  Organa acknowledges he is perplexed the Senate hasn’t discussed the Republic’s recent catastrophic defeat on Jabim.

That evening Organa is secretly visited by Finis Valorum, the previous Chancellor who resigned in disgrace after a vote of no confidence.  Valorum is aghast at the Senate granting Palpatine more and more power.  Organa rationalizes that this is “temporary,” to which Valorum fires back…

“The Senate barters away the fundamental rights upon which the Republic was built! You trust that the tyrant you are creating will give them back to you when the crisis is over? Palpatine will give back nothing! No one who seeks power the way that he does ever surrenders it willingly!”

Valorum informs Organa that Palpatine is using the assault on the Senator’s ship to reintroduce the Security and Enforcement Act.  Organa is alarmed by this news.  As their meeting ends the two are unknowingly observed by a cleaning droid equipped with a camera.

The next day Organa has an audience with Palpatine.  The Senator questions the lack of debate on Jabim.  Palpatine waves this away, arguing that if the facts of the Republic’s defeat were on the record it would serve to alarm those whose loyalty is wavering.  Organa then informs the Chancellor that he resents the space pirate attack being used as an excuse to reintroduce the Security and Enforcement Act, and that he will be opposing it.  An unperturbed Palpatine simply replies:

“You must, of course, do as you think best. Might I give you a small warning? It would not be wise for you to see Finis Valorum again. Dirt rubs off so easily, and can tarnish those who would otherwise seem clean.”

Of course Organa detects the implied threats beneath Palpatine’s seemingly polite words, and he begins to ponder if Valorum is correct.  Soon after he and Mon Mothma meet with Valorum, who is preparing to depart Coruscant.  Organa says he is starting to share Valorum’s  suspicions concerning Palpatine.  Valorum boards his ship, which takes off… and then, to Organa and Mon Mothma’s horror, the vessel explodes above the spaceport.

The following day in the Senate, the destruction of the ship by an act of “terrorism” is offered as a further argument for the necessity of the Security and Enforcement Act.  Organa addresses his colleagues, voicing his opposition.  He passionately argues of the dangers that occur when too much power is held by a single individual:

“This chamber is a place of reason, invested with certain powers and authorities! When power is invested in many, it cannot be seized by one! That was the plan and the purpose when the Republic was formed!

“The powers that this Act seeks to invest in the Supreme Chancellor belong to the Senate! They are our responsibilities and given to us in trust…

“We fight for the Republic. But what is the Republic, if not the principles on which it is based? To cast aside those principles would make even a clear-cut victory in this war pointless.”

Despite Organa’s efforts, the Act is passed into law by the Senate.  Although he has lost this battle, Organa tells Mon Mothma he now recognizes the importance of fighting for the integrity of the Republic.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 9

When Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were released in 2002 and 2005, Lucas was asked if he was commenting upon George W. Bush’s “War on Terror,” the passage of the Patriot Act, and the formation of the Department of Homeland Security.  Lucas denied this, stating that both the original trilogy and the back story he utilized in the prequels were originally conceived in the early-to-mid 1970s.  If there was any influence, it was actually Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War.

Lucas went on to state that the prequels were an observation of the cyclical nature of human history.  Specifically he was commenting upon how democracies often give way to dictatorships as citizens willingly give up their rights & freedoms for the promise of security.

This is something that I’ve observed on this blog before, the seductive lure of the so-called “benevolent dictator” who will supposedly guide a nation through turbulent times with a firm hand, relieving the population of the burden of the messy, complicated business of democracy.

I went to see Attack of the Clones in the theater with my father. He didn’t regard the rise of the Separatists and the Battle of Geonosis being secretly orchestrated by Palpatine to enable himself to obtain “emergency powers” from the Senate as a reference to the War on Terror.   Instead my father was reminded of how in 1964 Lyndon Johnson convinced Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in response to a supposed act of aggression by North Vietnam.  This gave the President the power to utilize military force in Southeast Asia to combat “Communist aggression” without a formal declaration of war from Congress.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 12

In 2008 I met Karen Traviss, author of several novels set during the Clone Wars, at a book signing.  As with Lucas, she commented that her books were not inspired by the War on Terror per se, but on reoccurring motifs throughout history.  Traviss stated that just as people seeing the prequels in the early 21st Century might be reminded of Bush, so too would those born in the mid 20th Century recall Johnson and Nixon, and a Roman centurion watching the movies would see parallels to the rise of Julius Caesar.

Nevertheless, when I met John Ostrander at a comic convention in early 2005, he confirmed for me that Republic #61 was certainly his commentary on the War on Terror.

There were several scenes filmed by Lucas for Revenge of the Sith where Padme Amidala, Bail Organa and Mon Mothma, realizing that Palpatine does not intend to relinquish his extra powers once the war concludes, begin organizing the movement that would become the Rebel Alliance.  Unfortunately these ended up on the cutting room floor, although they were included in the extras on the DVD.  As these were omitted from the actual movie, I’m glad that at least in the comic books Ostrander was able to depict some of the events that placed Organa and Mon Mothma on the path to opposing Palpatine.

Ostrander is correct that “temporary” or “emergency” powers granted to heads of state are often anything but transitory and are seldom relinquished.  One only needs look at the transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama.  I don’t know if Republicans honestly believed that the authorizations that they granted the Presidency in the aftermath of September 11th would simply vanish into thin air once Bush left office.  But they certainly appeared to be completely shocked when Obama utilized those same broad powers to authorize drone strikes and conduct warrantless surveillance on millions of American citizens.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 21

This is one of the reasons why I am a huge science fiction fan.  Yes, sci-fi is fun with its robots and rockets and ray guns.  But the genre also allows writers to offer commentary on political and social issues via allegory and symbolism.  Often it is much easier to critically analyze these controversial topics by transposing them into the future or onto another planet, to address divisive questions in a setting less likely to arouse bitter partisanship.

Ostrander certainly did this in his work on the Star Wars comic books published by Dark Horse, crafting stories that were both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Christopher Lee: 1922 to 2015

Veteran actor Christopher Lee passed away on June 7th at the age of 93.  Judging by the numerous comments and posts that have appeared online in the week since then, Lee had a legion of fans, many of whom grew up watching the movies in which he appeared.  And, yes, I am definitely one of them.

Christopher Lee

Lee led such a long, interesting, full life that entire books could be written about him; I am sure that at least a few already have.  There is no way that I could do his life & career justice by attempting to cover them in a single blog post.  So I am merely going to share my thoughts on him, and on the performances I found most memorable.

One of Lee’s famous early roles was in Dracula, released in the UK in 1958 by Hammer Studios (titled Horror of Dracula in the States).  Lee portrayed what some would argue is the most iconic depiction of the vampire lord.  In the role of Count Dracula, Lee was suave, cultured, and sensual, yet also savage and frightening.

Playing opposite Lee in Dracula was Peter Cushing as Professor Van Helsing.  Lee and Cushing co-starred in a number of films, and they were also very close friends.

The next Dracula movie, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, was not released by Hammer until 1965, with several more sequels following in rapid succession.  Lee reprised his role of the vampire in most of these, albeit very reluctantly.  In later years he commented that he found the dialogue written for him to be atrocious and begged Hammer to utilize some of the lines from the original Bram Stoker novel.  When they refused to acquiesce Lee instead played Dracula mostly dialogue-free.

Christopher Lee Dracula

Lee’s final two performances as Dracula were in movies that I consider quite odd even by Hammer standards.  Dracula A.D. 1972 opens in the late 19th Century, with the vampire and Van Helsing, reprised by Cushing for the first time since 1958, in what appears to be their final battle.  Van Helsing once again manages to slay his undead adversary, only to succumb to his own wounds.  The movie then jumps ahead a century to present day London, where Dracula’s disciples revive him.  Opposing him is Lorrimer Van Helsing, a descendant of Dracula’s adversary portrayed, naturally enough, by Cushing.

The modern day storyline wrapped up a year later in The Satanic Rites of Dracula.  The movie cast Dracula in the role of an apocalyptic super-villain who plotted to wipe out humanity with a mutated strain of the bubonic plague.

By now Lee’s dissatisfaction with having to play Dracula was palpable.  In what appears to be an interesting piece of method acting, Lee as Dracula, contemplating the total eradication of humanity, displays a tangible ennui, and it can simultaneously be read as the vampire’s weariness at his endless cycle of destruction & resurrection and Lee’s frustration at feeling imprisoned in the role.

In any case, this was his final outing as Dracula.  The next year Lee went on record, stating…

“I will not play that character anymore. I no longer wish to do it, I no longer have to do it and I no longer intend to do it. It is now a part of my professional past, just one of the roles I have played in a total of 124 films.”

Despite his despondency as having to repeatedly reprise Dracula for Hammer, Lee nevertheless acted in numerous other movies made by the studio.  A part of that was obviously due to his desire for steady work, but he also appeared to have a real fondness, if not for the studio’s management, then for his fellow actors, and for the people working behind the cameras.

In his 1997 foreword to The Hammer Story, a look at the history of Hammer Studios by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes, Lee wrote…

“Hammer inspired some superb work from a talented group of technicians and actors. Even our canteen, run by Mrs Thompson, was the best in the country. I know this has become a cliché, but, for a while, we really were a family.”

Certainly some of the Hammer movies that Lee appeared in were quite good.  One of my all-time favorites is The Devil Rides Out (1968).  In one of his all too rare turns as a hero, Lee portrayed the Duc de Richleau, an expert in the occult who uses his knowledge & abilities to fight against the forces of darkness.  The movie was adapted from Dennis Wheatley’s novel of the same name by another talented writer, Richard Matheson.  Lee knew Wheatley personally, and one gets the impression that the actor was keen to ensure the adaptation of his friend’s work turned out as well as possible.  Without a doubt The Devil Rides Out is an amazing movie, and it was one of the few that, decades later, Lee would look back upon with genuine satisfaction.

Christopher Lee The Devil Rides Out

Lee worked on numerous other movies outside of Hammer’s output.  That aforementioned desire for steady work meant that Lee would accept nearly any job offer.  And he certainly was offered a great many, as he was a very talented actor.  As noted by the website TV Tropes, “Christopher Lee made a career out of doing any role at a reasonable price without excessive prima-donnaism. In other words, if you could fork up the cash, you’d get a classy talent who’d play any role.”

Of course, this inevitably resulted in Lee appearing in some really bad movies.  Sturgeon’s Law states that “ninety percent of everything is crap.”  Well, Lee undoubtedly appeared in a lot of crap.  It definitely speaks to his talent and professionalism, though, that he was almost inevitably the best thing in most of those awful movies.  Often his presence in an otherwise-execrable production would be the one thing preventing it from being a total disaster.

Regarding some of the less-than-noteworthy movies that he appeared in, Lee philosophically observed…

“Every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them.”

All of this comes to mind with Lee’s performance in the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).  Lee was related to author Ian Fleming, who unsuccessfully attempted to have him cast as Dr. No in the very first Bond film.  It’s regrettable that did not come to pass, although twelve years later Lee finally had an opportunity to play a Bond villain in The Man with the Golden Gun.  Unfortunately it is one of the campiest entries ever in the Bond film series.  The highlight of the movie is undoubtedly Lee’s portrayal of Scaramanga, the world’s most dangerous assassin.

Actually, the cinematic version of Scaramanga is a definite improvement over the literary one.  In the novel, Scaramanga was a crude, sadistic thug whose only distinguishing quality was his incredible prowess with a gun.  In contrast, Lee’s Scaramanga was cultured, sophisticated and chilling in his casually ruthless actions.  It was a memorable performance in a somewhat mediocre movie.

Christopher Lee Peter Cushing Horror Express

Fortunately, amidst all the rubbish Lee appeared in were a number of quality films.  In 1972 Lee was reunited with Cushing when they co-starred in Horror Express, a Spanish / British co-production about a monster stalking the passengers of the Trans-Siberian Express.  Horror Express contains another of Lee’s infrequent turns as the protagonist.  Despite its low budget, the movie’s intelligent script coupled with Lee and Cushing’s performances make it enjoyable.  I just re-watched it about a week ago and it’s still entertaining.

Of course, when it comes to listing Lee’s greatest movies, mention must be made of The Wicker Man (1973).  Written by Anthony Shaffer and directed by Robin Hardy, The Wicker Man featured Lee in the role of Lord Summerisle.  On numerous occasions Lee cited it as one of his favorite performances.

I saw The Wicker Man in the mid-1990s when I was in college at Pace University. Rebecca Martin, who taught two of the literature classes that I took while I was a student there, screened the movie one evening as part of an informal series of films that members of the Lit/Com Department were presenting.

The Wicker Man is not a horror movie per se, but it is definitely horrifying.  It is a film about religious fanaticism.  Perhaps that is why I found Lee’s performance so riveting and creepy.  Unlike so many of the other antagonists he portrayed over the decades, there actually are many individuals such as Summerisle in the real world, a charismatic man who regards himself as “good” but who exhorts others to commit terrible acts in the name of religion.

Christopher Lee The Wicker Man

Lee’s career was on the wane in the 1980s and 90s, although he did pop up here and there.  However, with the dawning of the 21st Century, Lee suddenly became very much in-demand, and was once again being offered numerous roles.

Lee was a longtime fan of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.  He stated on several occasions that he re-read the trilogy once a year.  One of his longtime ambitions was to appear as Gandalf in a cinematic adaptation of Tolkien’s works.  The stars finally aligned in 2001 as Peter Jackson began filming his adaptation of the trilogy.  By this time Lee was unfortunately too old to play Gandalf, but he was cast in the role of Saruman, the once-noble wizard who was corrupted by power and ambition.

I haven’t actually seen the three Lord of the Rings movies all the way through.  Like Tolkien’s novels, they are loooooong!  Actually, I never finished the original books either.  One of these days I really need to, at the very least, obtain the DVDs and take the time to watch the trilogy.  I’ve heard so many good things about them.

Lee’s old friend Peter Cushing had appeared in the original Star Wars, playing Governor Tarkin.  It was therefore quite appropriate that George Lucas cast Lee himself in the second and third prequel films, Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005).  Lee portrayed Count Dooku, a former Jedi who had turned to the Dark Side.  He also voiced Dooku in the animated movie The Clone Wars (2008) which was set between those two films.

It was somewhat frustrating that Lucas’ scripts offered very little to explain Dooku’s fall from grace.  Nevertheless, despite the limited development of the character, Lee memorably brought the Sith Lord to life, imbuing him with gravitas and menace.

(Thinking about it, I am left wondering if Lucas was influenced by Saruman when casting Lee as Dooku. There are definite similarities to the characters.)

Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings introduced Lee to an entirely new generation of viewers, and gained him many new fans.  He was subsequently cast in various high-profile projects. After decades of toiling in low-budget movies, at long last he finally gained real prominence, as well as a decent paycheck.

Christopher Lee Count Dooku

Lee appeared in 206 films made over a 67 year period.  However there were definitely many other aspects to his life.  Lee was also an accomplished singer, recording a number of albums, including heavy metal.  He spoke several languages fluently, and he was an expert fencer.

Lee was also a World War II veteran.  This was an aspect of his life that he mostly kept to himself, offering sparse details.  He was assigned to the Special Operations Executive, which was also known as the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare… and what a very British name that is!  Apparently Lee participated in a number of covert operations behind enemy lines.  At the end of the war he was reportedly involved in hunting down Nazi war criminals.  In regards to the specifics of his military service, Lee would only comment

“I was attached to the SAS from time to time but we are forbidden – former, present, or future – to discuss any specific operations. Let’s just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read into that what they like.”

Lee also had this to say about his experiences during the war…

“I’ve seen many men die right in front of me – so many in fact that I’ve become almost hardened to it. Having seen the worst that human beings can do to each other, the results of torture, mutilation and seeing someone blown to pieces by a bomb, you develop a kind of shell. But you had to. You had to. Otherwise we would never have won.”

It seems likely that during the war Lee not only witnessed but was also required to commit many deeply unpleasant acts.  I imagine that his reluctance to discuss this was motivated by the fact that he did not regard himself as a hero, but merely as someone who did his duty to help keep his country safe.

I regret that I never had the opportunity to meet Christopher Lee.  I’ve sometimes commented that he was the real life version of “the world’s most interesting man.”

Christopher Lee narrator

A number of years ago one of his Hammer Studios movies, Scars of Dracula, was released on DVD.  It is a rather unremarkable entry in the Dracula series.  Nevertheless, I purchased it because it included a second bonus disk containing a documentary, The Many Faces of Christopher Lee.  Indeed this nearly hour-long piece was infinitely more entertaining than the Dracula movie.

In the documentary,  Lee speaks at length about his career and on of a variety of subjects, including his knowledge of fencing, his spirituality, and his great-grandmother, the English-born Marie Carandini who was an acclaimed opera singer in 19th Century Australia.  Lee discussed his thoughts on roles in specific movies, and there were brief clips of these, among them The Devil Rides Out, Rasputin, Hannie Caulder, The Three Musketeers, The Wicker Man and his 1978 appearance on Saturday Night Live.

If you can find The Many Faces of Christopher Lee on DVD then I highly recommend getting it.  It offers a fascinating glimpse of a multi-talented man who led an extraordinary life.

Happy birthday to June Brigman

Here’s wishing a happy (belated) birthday to the super-talented artist June Brigman, who was born on October 25, 1960 in Atlanta, GA.  Early in her career, Brigman worked as a portrait artist at Six Flags Over Georgia.  Her talent at illustrating children would prove to be a valuable asset when in 1984, with husband Roy Richardson, she relocated to NYC and came to the offices of Marvel Comics seeking out work.  There she met editor Louise Simonson, who was in the process of pitching her first series, which was about a group of pre-teen superheroes.  Simonson was introduced to Brigman and, learning that she could draw children, the two soon began working together, developing Power Pack.

Last month, when I blogged about Louise Simonson’s work, I talked about how much I enjoyed Power Pack when I was young.  I really believe that June Brigman, working with veteran inker Bob Wiacek, was crucial to the appeal of the series.  Brigman designed the four Power siblings, the visual manifestations of their abilities, as well as the looks of the kindly alien Kymellians, the Smartship Friday, and the malevolent invading Snarks.  What she came up with was such a departure from the traditional Marvel sensibilities that it really stood out.  Paired with Simonson’s imaginative plots and wonderful talent for scripting young characters, this ensured that Power Pack was a unique title.

Power Pack Classic vol 1

Brigman worked on Power Pack for a year and a half, departing the series with #17.  Subsequently, her art appeared in a number of series at Marvel such as Alpha Flight, Barbie, She-Hulk, New Mutants, and Strange Tales.  In that last title, she penciled an unusual two-part team-up between Cloak & Dagger, the Punisher, and the Power Pack kids!

Power Pack was cancelled in late 1990.  The last several issues had, unfortunately, seen the title go in an unpleasant, dysfunctional direction.  As a reader, I wasn’t too happy with that.  “Dark Power Pack” just seemed wrong.  Now obviously, as I’ve written before, I am a huge fan of graphic novels such as Watchmen and Faust.  But I also enjoy “lighter” fare, to be sure.  Diversity is great; not everything needs to be grim & gritty.  And, honestly, Power Pack had been a rather serious title under both Simonson’s helm.  I mean, at one point it even crossed over with the “Mutant Massacre” storyline, which was a bloodbath!  But throughout her run, despite the upheavals in Alex, Julie, Jack, and Katie’s lives, Simonson had always maintained a real sense of fun and wonder.

Fortunately, Simonson and Brigman were able to reunite for the Power Pack Holiday Special, released in December 1991.  They more or less hit the big old reset button, and restored the Power family to (relative) normality, in the process telling a really awesome adventure.  Brigman, paired with her husband Roy Richardson on inks, turned in superb artwork.

In the 1990s June and Roy lived in White Plains NY, pretty close to where I grew up.  So I used to see the two of them regularly at local comic conventions.  They were always both very friendly.  When I began collecting original comic book artwork in high school, one of first pieces I ever bought was one of their pages from the Holiday Special.  Two decades later I still have it, framed.  I really ought to take a photo and post it on Comic Art Fans.

Supergilr 4 pg 13

In 1993 Brigman did some work for DC Comics, penciling the Supergirl/Team Luthor special, which was followed shortly thereafter by a four issue Supergirl miniseries.  I really enjoyed these stories by Roger Stern, which spun out of his ongoing plotlines from Action Comics involving the Supergirl (aka Matrix) from the Pocket Universe and her relationship with Lex Luthor who, at the time, was masquerading as his own son via a brain transplant into a cloned body… long story!!!  Brigman was inked on these issues by Jackson “Butch” Guice.  It was an interesting collaboration, since the two artists have very different styles.  But I felt that it worked well and suited the mood of the stories.

Shortly thereafter, Brigman re-teamed with Simonson and Richardson over at Dark Horse for the Star Wars: River of Chaos miniseries.  Other than Princess Leia, all of the characters featured were brand new, which allowed Simonson & Brigman the opportunity to design & develop some interesting additions to the Star Wars mythos.  I think this is one of the few Star Wars titles that Dark Horse did not subsequently collect into a trade paperback, or if they did it’s now out of print.  Whatever the case, River of Chaos was a great read with wonderful art, and I recommend searching out the back issues.

SW River of Chaos 1 cover signed

Brigman took over the Brenda Starr newspaper strip in 1995, and stayed on it until its cancellation in 2011.  During this time, she also penciled several issues of Meridian and Sojourn for CrossGen.  These comic featured some really beautiful artwork.  Brigman’s style is very well suited to the fantasy genre, and I wish she had the opportunity to work in it more often.

More recently, Brigman has been working with Teshkeel, a comic book company based in Kuwait that publishes The 99.  In addition to her work on the comics, Brigman’s art has appeared prominently in a theme park based on the series.  Some of her art from The 99 can be viewed on Teshkeel’s website.

Brigman once again briefly returned to Power Pack in 2010, penciling a seven page story in Girl Comics #3 written by Simonson, with inking by Rebecca Buchman.  In 2011, Brigman and Richardson drew two issues of Herc that tied in with Marvel’s big “Spider-Island” crossover, and also contributed the variant cover for FF #15.  I was happy to see her work in these books, and I really hope that at some point she has the opportunity to illustrate some other projects.  As I’ve said before, it would be great if she and Simonson could do a new Power Pack miniseries or special.  Even better, I would love to see them collaborate on a creator-owned project.  They are each immensely talented, and I imagine they would conceive something really spectacular.

Girl Comics 3 pg 14

June and Roy moved back to Atlanta a number of years ago.  Fortunately there is the Internet, and I get to chat with them regularly on Facebook.  As I said, in addition to being accomplished artists, they are both really nice people.

I hope you had a very happy birthday, June.  Thanks for all they wonderful artwork over the years.