I’ll be counting down the days until I see The Force Awakens with a series of remembrances and observations about the franchise. Today, the sublime and the ridiculous of the dearly departed original Expanded Universe.
When most people think of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, they think of the incredibly successful series of novels that started with Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire in 1991. And indeed, that Zahn trilogy was key in the rebirth of Star Wars and its fandom in general (something I’ll be getting into in a future installment). But the Expanded Universe is actually only four months younger than the film itself. Because it was in September of 1977 that Marvel Comics’ Star Wars ran out of movie to print and struck off on its own.
It wasn’t the first time Marvel had ventured “beyond the movie.” It had seen some modest success continuing the stories of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes. But they’d never seen a movie adaptation succeed the way Star Wars had. Some at Marvel even credit it with saving the company (much the way the film saved 20th Century Fox). And while they were happy to keep reprinting the six issues that told the movie’s story in every possible manner they could think of, an ongoing monthly series felt like a can’t miss.
Which promptly missed.
Not that those first few issues immediately following the end of the Death Star were terrible. You still had art by comics legend Howard Chaykin and stories by Roy Thomas, who’d shot to fame bringing Conan the Barbarian to the comic page. And tossing Han and Chewie into a Seven Samurai-style story was not only a good fit for the characters, but a nice nod to Akira Kurasowa’s role in the origins of Star Wars.
But something felt amiss. There was the Starkiller Kid and his droid, who may as well have stood up and said, “We don’t want to use Luke and Threepio yet, but here’s Luke and Threepio.” There was a bit of space pirate cheesecake in a completely impractical outfit. There was what amounted to a space porcupine who could throw his quills at his enemies. And above all, there was Jaxxon.
Jaxxon was a wise-cracking space rabbit, basically Bugs Bunny with a blaster. And people hated him. Honestly, once you got past the cartoony appearance, he was a pretty decent character. Unfortunately, most people didn’t get past the cartoony appearance. He finished out the initial post-Star Wars story, showed up once more, then vanished completely from the EU. A shared universe that eventually mined every background character and stray mention it could get its hands on washed those hands of him entirely.
After that arc, Luke and the Rebellion returned, and the Star Wars comic soldiered on for over a hundred issues, maybe a good thirty or forty percent of which were actually good. But by the time Jaxxon was saying his goodbyes, the first Star Wars novels had begun filling in their own gaps.
First came Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, written by Alan Dean Foster (who ghost wrote the Star Wars novelization). Envisioned as a dry run for a cheap Star Wars sequel in case the film didn’t prove to be a huge hit, its development of the Luke/Leia relationship, its exploration of the Force, and its confrontation with Vader would provide headaches to continuity experts for years to come. The next year followed what stands in my mind as the early gold standard of the EU, Brian Daley’s Han Solo novels. These were pre-Star Wars adventures of Han and Chewie, rife with gangsters and criminals and double-crosses. Some less successful Lando Calrissian novels followed, and then came the eventual explosion thanks to Zahn and the seemingly innumerable comics series from Dark Horse Comics.
And that’s when the EU really started getting a little unwieldy. The universe felt about the size of Rhode Island the way everybody knew everyone else. Mary Sues abounded. It seemed like every author tried to create their own Han or Luke, only they thought they could do it better, which brought us Dash Rendar and Kyle Katarn and Corran Horn. Some used Star Wars characters to tell stories that simply weren’t Star Wars at all (I’m looking at you, Vonda McIntyre and Barbara Hambly). Kevin J. Anderson seemed to single-handedly scatter abandoned Death Star prototypes all over the galaxy. Soon there was an invasion by an alien race that seemed more at home in Star Trek than Star Wars, and then Chewie was getting a moon dropped on him and I found myself buying the books more than I was reading them. Eventually, the whole thing moved on to the kids of Luke and Han and Leia and I just couldn’t be bothered anymore.
But oh, there were people who held this stuff as holy writ. And when rumblings of new films started a few years ago, they were giddy with anticipation. Because of course Disney had spent $4 billion to acquire Star Wars in order to adapt a bunch of novels a relative handful of people had actually read. They demanded their Grand Admiral Thrawn, their Mara Jade, or there would be hell to pay.
Then Disney casually took the entire EU, gave it a gold watch and thanked it for its service. Not wanting to be beholden to forty years of accumulated material of varying quality, Disney consigned the EU to the “Legends” label and announced they were starting from scratch. If you ask me, the right thing to do, but some fans were livid. They’d been betrayed, had their lifetime of devotion tossed aside so they’d be forced to buy more books and comics. But it was the right move. The direction for Star Wars was forward, not backward.
The new EU is in its infancy, but it already feels like it’s on firmer ground. The comics, now back home at Marvel, have been stellar, particularly Darth Vader’s solo title. It’s essentially the origin story of the Vader we see in Empire, and it’s performing the not inconsiderable task of actually giving prequel Anakin some resonance. Star Wars Rebels, while not technically EU since it’s an official Lucasfilm property, is some of the best Star Wars we’ve gotten since 1980. I haven’t read many of the new books, but it’s a hopeful sign that there haven’t been a dozen of them already. All in all, having the entire franchise under one roof rather than scattered across several companies means a more cohesive vision for the stories to be told outside the films. And the films themselves even promise their own EU, as we’ll be getting non-saga films in the Anthology series. Like the actual universe, the Expanded Universe seems like it’s going to keep on expanding until the end of time.
Somewhere, I bet Jaxxon is smiling.
The Twelve Days of Star Wars