Charles Lippincott isn’t exactly a household name, but he is arguably the single individual most responsible for the billion-dollar industry of film merchandising and advertising as we know it today. Part of George Lucas’s inner circle during the years and months before Star Wars entered production, Lippincott held the hefty title of “Vice President of Advertising, Publicity, Promotion and Merchandising” in what was then known as the Star Wars Corporation. In short, that meant that the responsibility of marketing George Lucas’s ill-advised sci-fi experiment fell squarely on his shoulders.
Lippincott’s strategy was as bold as it was innovative. Rather than wait for the weeks immediately preceding the film’s release to begin advertising, the Star Wars Corporation would pursue an aggressive promotional campaign immediately. Once enough footage was complete, TV spots appeared, touting a Christmas 1976 release–a date that passed with little new to report. In his own words, “I really conceived marketing as a different way of handling science fiction. In a sense, it was like pre-advertising.” On the merchandising front, the incipient Star Wars saga spawned toy blasters, starship model kits, and even an empty box, sold by the Kenner toy company with mail-in coupons for the not-yet-produced action figures of the movie’s main characters.
But all that was years and galaxies away when Star Wars first poked its head into the world of comics. The year then was 1975. Star Wars was George Lucas’s pet project, but it languished in development hell as no film studio had yet agreed to foot the bill for production. In addition to sealing a deal for an official novelization, credited to George Lucas but ghostwritten by noted science-fiction author Alan Dean Foster, Lippincott also sought out a comic book adaptation of the sci-fi adventure. Lucas was a longtime casual fan of comics, a fact later made abundantly clear by the ill-fated Howard the Duck film he would go on to produce in 1986, and remained a silent business partner of the Supersnipe Comic Art Emporium, a comic book shop in Lower Manhattan.
With the assistance of the shop’s owner, Charles Lippincott turned to Marvel Comics editor Roy Thomas, who had overseen Marvel’s array of licensed Conan the Barbarian titles, published under both the main Marvel banner as well as the short-lived oversized Curtis Magazines imprint, which together constituted one of Marvel’s most successful properties in the period. Marvel, well over a decade after helping to usher in the Silver Age of Comics, was in deep financial trouble. “It was almost all newsstand sales then,” then-assistant editor Jim Shooter said. “This was before the direct market was a significant factor. The comics overall were breakeven at best…. It seemed like the company as a whole was in a death spiral.” While Thomas himself was enthusiastic to take on the project, according to Lippincott, Marvel’s editor-in-chief Stan Lee was unconvinced. “He said, ‘Once you shoot the film, come in and see me.’” Movie tie-ins had not historically been a lucrative niche of the comic market, and Marvel had precious little capital to risk on a tie-in for a film that was still unattached to a studio.
“The prevailing wisdom at the time said ‘science fiction doesn’t sell,’” Shooter recalled. “Adapting [a] movie with the hokey title Star Wars seemed like folly to most.” But, following a second meeting with Lippincott, and bolstered by samples of Ralph McQuarrie’s concept art, Thomas managed to win Stan over to the idea. It probably didn’t hurt that Lucas agreed to sign over the license to Star Wars for no money up front, claiming a royalty on the publisher’s profits only after sales topped 100,000 copies.
By the spring of 1977, 20th Century Fox studio exec Alan Ladd had picked up Star Wars, and after an agonizing series of reshoots and production delays, the longsuffering movie was finally in the can. Over at Marvel, a creative team consisting of Roy Thomas on script with art by Howard Chaykin and Steve Leialoha had been assembled. The first issue of Marvel Comics’ Star Wars was on newsstands two months before Lucas’ movie hit theaters. After the first six-issue story arc wrapped up, the series transitioned from the role of a simple adaptation to that of a full-fledged tie in, telling original stories within the nascent world of Star Wars, arguably the earliest installment in a groundbreaking Expanded Universe.
Though Marvel Comics’ Star Wars is now less familiar to fans than the more recent Dark Horse material, it remains an important part of the saga’s history. Over a period of nearly a decade, from the summer of 1977 until 1986, three years after the release of Return of the Jedi, Marvel published a total of 110 issues of Star Wars. While many of the stories ultimately came to seem somewhat odd in comparison to later parts of the Expanded Universe, or even to contradict official canon, the plot threads traced by the comic series sometimes cross paths with the wider saga in surprising ways, whether in the creators’ exploration of that “bounty hunter on Ord Mantell” incident mentioned in Empire or in their accidental anticipation of the second Death Star seen in Jedi. For fans of the saga, Marvel’s Star Wars was a monthly mainstay during the agonizing wait between films, and it holds no insignificant place in the history of comics as well. As the series wore on, it included contributions from future big names in the comic book industry that included Bill Sienkiewicz and Whilce Portacio. Even today, many (including Jim Shooter himself) credit the success of the title with helping to keep Marvel Comics afloat during a time of severe hardship.
As the original trilogy drew to a close, though, one chapter in the history of Star Wars ended. The full scope of the Expanded Universe, which would begin to boom significantly in less than a decade, had yet to be realized. Amid a bitter divorce, George Lucas had scrapped–at least temporarily–plans to produce any prequels or sequels to his three films. By the end of the 1980s, following several years of inactivity, Marvel’s license to Star Wars had lapsed. Around the same time, the Star Wars comic strip, a regular feature in newspapers across the United States, was also winding down. The strip had begun in 1979 under the leadership of cartoonist Russ Manning, but was soon taken over by writer Archie Goodwin and EC Comics alum Al Williamson on art duties. Williamson had reportedly been hand-picked by George Lucas on the strength of Williamson’s work on King Features’ 1960s Flash Gordon comic book series. The feature, which included primarily original stories along with an adaptation of the early novel Han Solo at Star’s End, finally came to its own end in 1984, though reprints of the earlier strips continued for several years in some papers.
Later issues of Marvel’s Star Wars saw dwindling sales as the comic strayed further from the source material and science-fiction fans moved on to newer properties. One of the series’ notable addition to the franchise mythos, virtually unacknowledged since, was a race of telepathic space rabbits called Hoojibs, who fought alongside the Rebel Alliance toward the end of the series’ run. Marvel Comics’ Star Wars series ended in 1986 with issue #107. The short-lived Ewoks title, an ill-fated tie-in with the Saturday morning cartoon series of the same name, was not far behind, reaching a grand total of fourteen bimonthly issues one year later. Ewoks’ sister series Droids was even quicker to go, folding after just eight issues.
By that point, however, early work had already begun on a project organized by former underground comic book writer Tom Veitch and 2000 AD artist Cam Kennedy. By the time Dark Horse Comics, a company less than five years old at the time, acquired the Star Wars license in 1991, this project had become Dark Empire. Taking place after the events of Timothy Zahn’s recently released Thrawn Trilogy of novels, the new comic detailed a series of events that included the resurrection of fan-favorite bounty hunter Boba Fett, Luke Skywalker’s temporary corruption at the hands of a clone of Emperor Palpatine, and the birth of Anakin Solo, Leia and Han’s first child.
Dark Empire was a respectable start to Dark Horse’s tenure as the official Star Wars comics publisher and, in hindsight, it’s clear that it is the book that set the tone for the Dark Horse releases that followed. Dark Empire was quickly followed up on with adaptations of the Zahn novels themselves, and later by the miniseries Crimson Empire and Tales of the Jedi, the latter of which spawned multiple sequels and inspired the Knights of the Old Republic video game series. Monthly reprints of the Goodwin/Williamson strips, along with selections of earlier Marvel material, began to be issued under the title Classic Star Wars in 1992.
As the ‘90s wore on and interest in Star Wars was rekindled, Dark Horse expanded their brand. New adaptations of the three films were published, and the anthology title Star Wars Tales, which often played surprisingly fast and loose with the official boundaries of canon, was launched in 1999. Dark Horse’s flagship title, branded simply Star Wars, was soon given the subtitle Republic, and began to feature stories set in the prequel era recently ushered in by The Phantom Menace. Republic itself was soon joined by Star Wars: Empire, a companion series set within the timeframe of the original trilogy.
In 2006, following the release of Episode III and the apparent end of Star Wars films, Dark Horse cancelled both Republic and Empire, replacing them with a slate of titles that included Dark Times, Legacy, and Rebellion. Legacy, written by comic book veteran John Ostrander, took Star Wars further into the future than any licensed story ever had, more than 125 years after Return of the Jedi, telling the story of Cade Skywalker and Darth Krayt as the latter begins his attempt to bring the galaxy under the control of the One Sith. The series ended in 2010, only to be restarted and renumbered in early 2013. In addition to the revived Legacy and a small battalion of miniseries, Dark Horse’s present slate of Star Wars titles boasts Adventures (a digest-sized, all-ages title), Brian Wood’s simply titled Star Wars, and the recently concluded seven-issue The Star Wars, a unique and magnificently executed adaptation of an early draft of Lucas’ screenplay for the first film.
With the Walt Disney Company’s purchase of Lucasfilm in December 2012, the corporate behemoth is set to consolidate Star Wars media, moving the comics license to its wholly owned subsidiary Marvel Comics. After nearly forty years, Star Wars comics have come full circle to the House of Ideas where it all began. To date, nearly a thousand individual issues of Star Wars comics have been produced, drawing on talent from all corners of the industry and making invaluable contributions to the Expanded Universe as a whole. Whether at Marvel or at Dark Horse, this has been one creative property it’s been impossible to ignore, and if the forward march of the Star Wars Expanded Universe will be slowing down anytime soon, it’s a pretty safe bet that it won’t be doing so on the comics front.