One of the best perks of being Star Wars fans is that we get to enjoy so many great stories set in the saga’s universe across several different forms of media. For decades, we’ve enjoyed live-action films, animated shows, video games, novels, and comics. Plus, more recently we’ve started to get live-action TV series like The Mandalorian and the upcoming Book of Boba Fett.
Comics in particular have a long, proud history with the franchise. Marvel was quick to capitalize on the success of the original film in 1977 with the release of the very first ongoing Star Wars comic series. Its seventh issue, the first to continue after the ending of A New Hope, is among the earliest stories in the (now-discontinued) Expanded Universe. Since then, we’ve had plenty of fantastic stories from Marvel as well as Dark Horse Comics during the latter’s 25-year stint with the license.
However, there is one chapter of Star Wars comic history that too often goes overlooked: the classic newspaper comics. Specifically, the era presided over by writer Archie Goodwin and artist Al Williamson from 1981 to 1984. While the comic strip started in 1979 under writer/artist Russ Manning, it entered its golden age once Goodwin took over and was reunited with Williamson, who was a long-time collaborator of his.
The two men had previously worked together for 13 years on the Secret Agent Corrigan comic strip, and it shows. By the time Goodwin and Williamson teamed up to tell stories in that beloved galaxy far, far away, their artistic visions aligned in seamless harmony. As any comic book fan can tell you, those are the circumstances under which some of the best stories in the medium come into being.
First, let’s talk about Goodwin’s spot-on writing. When he was hired for the newspaper strip, Goodwin had already written dozens of issues of Marvel’s Star Wars comic series, making him the perfect choice to take over for Russ Manning. Additionally, he had a specific vision in mind for what story he wanted to tell. To Goodwin, the choice was simple: bridge the two existing movies.
In 1981, The Empire Strikes Back was a year old, and it had left audiences with a masterful cliffhanger ending for all of its characters. Naturally, fans around the world still wanted more adventures while they waited for the inevitable follow-up. Given that Empire had released, Goodwin could tell stories set after A New Hope while purposefully setting up the events to come in the next film.
Goodwin was the first writer with the opportunity to take this approach, since both the Marvel comic series and the Russ Manning era of the newspaper strip started publishing soon after the release of the original film, and therefore only had that movie to look at for inspiration. Given that Goodwin had spent time on the initial Marvel series, he had the chance to again cover some ground that was familiar to him, that being the post-Episode IV era, but this time with knowledge of the events in Empire, for which he would lay the groundwork.
As the Goodwin/Williamson run continued, and the 1983 release of Return of the Jedi approached, they had the chance to draw from that movie as well. In fact, Admiral Ackbar is featured in one of Goodwin’s later stories, and his appearance predates the release of Episode VI. That’s right, the newspaper comic strip introduced an original trilogy character before the films themselves did! Nowadays, we’ve seen this sort of thing happen when characters introduced in one medium make the jump to another, like when Bo-Katan and Ahsoka showed up in live-action in The Mandalorian after making their debuts in the earlier animated series The Clone Wars and Rebels. However, Goodwin and Williamson deserve loads of credit for achieving this almost 40 years ago.
The story of Goodwin and Williamson’s run on the strip begins shortly after the original film. The Rebel Alliance is in search of a new base now that the Empire knows they’re on Yavin 4, Han still has a hefty bounty on his head thanks to Jabba the Hutt, and Darth Vader is more determined than ever to crush the growing rebellion after the loss of the Death Star.
The first story arc involves our heroes scouting a distant jungle planet to determine if it would be a good spot for a new Rebel base. The mission goes south when they discover the Empire already has a training camp there, and they hastily retreat. However, during their escape the Millennium Falcon sustains some damage, and they decide to hide out on the nearby world of Ord Mantell while they repair their ship.
Of course, that planet’s name will be familiar to many fans since, during an early scene in Episode V, Han mentions an encounter with a bounty hunter there. Sure enough, our heroes are discovered by a bounty hunter named Skorr, who sees an opportunity to collect the price on Han’s head.
Shortly after this inaugural tale, Goodwin begins a long-running story arc concerning the construction of the Executor, Darth Vader’s terrifying flagship from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. You can already see just from these initial two stories that Goodwin is drawing on everything he can from Empire to believably chronicle what happened between the first two movies.
However, Goodwin didn’t focus exclusively on connecting the movies with a single, long-form narrative. He also found time to write compelling one-off adventures which he sprinkled throughout his larger story. To name a few:
• Luke gets stranded on a desolate moon where he has to lead a slave uprising against a tyrannical ruling class that maintains power by riding and controlling giant flying serpents (it’s awesome, trust me).
• Our heroes fall into a trap that a deranged Imperial scientist has set in the pull of a collapsing star.
• One of the Empire’s air raids on Yavin 4 awakens a seemingly-unstoppable, ancient night beast that threatens to destroy the Rebel base.
Over time, Darth Vader begins taking more of an interest in the young, Force-sensitive rebel he keeps encountering. He gradually gets more obsessed with capturing Luke as the comic continues, until it becomes his singular mission near the story’s end. Again, this tracks with the beginning of Empire, where the opening crawl informs us that Vader is sending thousands of probes out to search for him and the other rebels.
By the time Goodwin and Williamson concluded their run on the strip in 1984, every question fans had about what occurred between the first two movies was answered. The three-year period between Episodes IV and V has been revisited in comic form many times over the decades, most recently by Marvel once again in their 2015-2019 series simply titled Star Wars, but I would argue that Goodwin did the best job of any writer to date in chronicling what happened during that era.
That brings me to the second reason why these newspaper strips are such great contributions to the Star Wars universe, that being the art. There’s no other way to put it: Al Williamson nailed it. I’ve read hundreds, maybe even thousands, of issues of Star Wars comics, but I’ve never seen an artist bring this universe to such vivid, screen-accurate life the way Williamson did here. Did I forget to mention that Williamson was George Lucas’s first choice to draw the newspaper strip?
Drawing Star Wars art is something of a tricky proposition. The franchise has lots of iconic and unique ships, vehicles, armors, and images, including TIE fighters, X-Wings, the Millennium Falcon, Boba Fett’s legendary armor, and even Darth Vader’s looming, menacing figure. On one hand, Star Wars artists get the chance to draw these famous characters and ships in their own style, which is likely a dream come true for many illustrators. That said, all of the ships and characters I mentioned require a strong attention to detail if they’re to be convincingly drawn in comic panels. That’s why many artists have understandably struggled to get the intricacies of objects like Stormtrooper armor or Darth Vader’s helmet to look right.
Al Williamson never had that problem. His Darth Vader is uncannily accurate to the point that he looks like he stepped right off the screen onto the page. The same is true for his takes on Stormtroopers, C-3PO, R2-D2, Boba Fett, and the many ships of the Star Wars universe. As for the core trio of Han, Luke, and Leia, they strongly evoke their film counterparts without looking like photograph tracings.
Additionally, Williamson repeatedly proved that he was capable of visualizing all of Goodwin’s more fantastical new additions to the Star Wars universe, such as the aforementioned night beast and flying serpents. Then again, Williamson’s skill at drawing the fantastical shouldn’t be a surprise given his prior experience drawing Flash Gordon comics. Overall, Al Williamson remains my favorite comic artist to ever work on Star Wars.
While I’ve spent this entire editorial raving about the classic newspaper strips, I’m not oblivious to their flaws. For instance, these stories sadly fall into a common trap that ultimately harmed many early works in the EU. That is, they insist on creating a love triangle between Han, Leia, and Luke. Before the release of Return of the Jedi and its revelation that Luke and Leia were siblings, many writers and fans considered the possibility of a romance between the two. Stories written before 1983 often had Han openly flirting and bickering with Leia while Luke struggled to express his feelings for her. It’s understandable why writers frequently made this choice back then, but Episode VI has retroactively made these stories somewhat awkward to read.
Also, Leia unfortunately receives a bit less attention than the other characters. While Luke often heads off on adventures with R2-D2 and C-3PO at his side, and Han goes on missions with Chewie, Leia is usually either stuck at the Rebel base or only gets to leave when accompanied by Luke and/or Han. That’s not to say Leia barely appears. She’s in the comics a fair amount, but the series misses the opportunity to give her engrossing solo stories.
Overall, these comics do a phenomenal job of capturing the feel of Star Wars for me. The creators deserve praise for crafting a story that still holds up decades later at a time when they only had two movies to work with. It’s hard to imagine now that we have countless Star Wars stories across so many forms of media, but in the late 70s and early 80s, writers of the Expanded Universe didn’t have much to go on when they were coming up with new ideas.
If all of my praise of these comics has convinced you to check them out, the good news is they’re easy to find nowadays. Marvel has reprinted them as part of their Epic Collections line, and also collaborated with IDW to collect them in a series of three volumes. Both versions start with Russ Manning’s run on the strip before continuing into the Goodwin/Williamson years. The first volume of the Epic Collections version ends with the first couple of Goodwin stories, while the second volume contains the rest of the run. The IDW version dedicates its first volume to the Manning era before collecting Goodwin and Williamson’s work in the next two installments.
Which format is better depends mostly on your personal preference. The Epic Collections edit the strips together so they have the layout of a typical, fully-colored graphic novel. That is, the panels of the strips are arranged to tell a continuous story and take up entire pages similar to what you’d see in a modern comic trade paperback. Both Epic Collection volumes are fully-colored, in contrast to the strips’ original newspaper run, which printed the weekday and Saturday strips in black-and-white, and the Sunday stories in color.
The IDW books take a different approach and present the comics in their original format, using a pattern of two pages with three black-and-white strips, each followed by a full-page, full-color Sunday strip. Personally, I prefer the IDW volumes, since they preserve the original strips’ presentation, but that’s just my opinion. No matter which option you choose, you’re in good hands.
As the opening panels of Goodwin and Williamson’s three-year comic saga inform us, many adventures happened with the beloved original trilogy cast between the destruction of the first Death Star and the Empire’s retaliation on Hoth. So go ahead and read them! You’ll be glad you did.