Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Book Review: Marvel Comics' hardcover compilation of 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

(C) 2016 Marvel Comics & Lucasfilm Ltd. Cover art by Phil Noto
On December 6, 2016, Marvel Comics published Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a 136-page hardcover compilation of the six-issue comics adaptation of director J.J. Abrams' eponymous blockbuster space-fantasy film.

Written by novelist, screenwriter, and game designer Chuck Wendig (Star Wars: Aftermath) and illustrated by Luke Ross and Frank Martin, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is based on the screenplay by J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt, as well as the characters and situations created by George Lucas.


It's been three decades since the Rebel Alliance destroyed the Death Star and toppled the Galactic Empire...but now, on the remote planet of Jakku...there is a stirring in The Force. A young scavenger named Rey...a deserting Stormtrooper named Finn...an ace pilot named Poe...and a dark apprentice named Kylo Ren...their lives are about to collide as the awakening begins. Writer Chuck Wendig (Star Wars: Aftermath) and artist Luke Ross (Hercules) take us back into the saga of a lifetime! - Publisher's blurb, Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Following in the footsteps of Marvel's Roy Thomas and Archie Goodwin (and Dark Horse Comics' Henry Gilroy and Christopher "Miles Lane" Cerasi), Wendig follows the script by Abrams, Arndt, and Kasdan as closely as the comics format allows. 

As in the 2015 film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens takes place 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi. Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader are dead. The Galactic Empire has fallen, and the Rebel Alliance now governs the galaxy as the democratic New Republic. 

But in the farthest corners of the galaxy, a remnant of the Empire - the First Order - has arisen. Led by the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke, the First Order has created a fleet of Star Destroyers and raised an army of highly indoctrinated stormtroopers. Aided by a group of minions that includes General Hux, Captain Phasma, and a dark side adept named Kylo Ren, Snoke seeks to destroy the New Republic and restore Palpatine's fascist New Order to power. 

To accomplish this ultimate goal, the First Order has built Starkiller Base, a dreadful super-weapon  even more powerful than the Empire's two dreaded Death Stars. Essentially an armed mobile ice planet, Starkiller Base takes the Death Star's planet-killing concept and improves on it. Instead of having the ability to destroy single planets at a time, this super-weapon can incinerate multiple systems with a single salvo of its "dark energy" emitter. 

But before Snoke can proceed with his master plan to destroy the New Republic and a Resistance movement that has emerged against the First Order, he must find Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi Knight. Luke has disappeared, and until he is found, he poses a threat to the First Order's very existence.

So when the First Order learns that Lor San Tekka, an old adventurer who lives on the desert world of Jakku, has a star map with Luke's last known location, Snoke sends Kylo Ren, General Hux, and Captain Phasma to retrieve it. 

But wait! Poe Dameron, a Resistance pilot assigned by General Leia Organa to find her brother Luke, has acquired the map and entrusted it to his droid, BB-8. Now Poe, a former stormtrooper named Finn, and the young scavenger known only as Rey are the only obstacles between the First Order and the fate of the New Republic. 

My Take

This Marvel Comics hardcover is the seventh and (until the publisher releases a volume for the comics adaptation of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) final book in editor Mark D. Beazley's Star Wars adaptations series. 

Like the books based on the Classic and Prequel Trilogies, Star Wars: The Force Awakens shares many visual elements. The book has roughly the same dimensions as the previous entries in the series, and the layout is done more or less in the same style. The only difference is on the title page, which is more like the end credits sequence of The Force Awakens than it is like the same page in the other books.

Also, Beazley adds an additional touch when he introduces the book with static renditions of the "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away" card, the yellow-on-black Star Wars logo, and the main title crawl - word for word - from The Force Awakens. The only thing missing here, folks, is the stirring score by composer John Williams. 

As for the content, the book is divided into six chapters, one of each of the six issues created by writer Chuck Wendig and artists Luke Ross and Frank Martin. Each chapter, in turn, is introduced with a reproduction of the corresponding issue cover. For instance, Chapter One features a painting that depicts Finn, Rey, BB-8, the Millennium Falcon, and a TIE fighter on Jakku, while Chapter Two is heralded by Mike Mayhew's illustration of Rey, BB-8, Finn, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Kylo Ren, and Poe Dameron.

Okay, but what about the content? You know, the writing and the art?

Chuck Wendig tends to use a spare, clean style of prose that can be characterized as minimalist. I'm not referring to the dialogue spoken by the characters; their lines, condensed as they must be from the movie to the comics page, were written by Abrams, Kasdan, and Arndt. But where Marvel's Classic Trilogy's comics featured veritably verbose narrative descriptions, Wendig is content with an occasional reminder of where the action is taking place. 

The artistic style used by illustrator Luke Ross and colorist Frank Martin is up to par with the works of Doug Wheatley and Rodolfo Damaggio, two of the Dark Horse Comics artists who contributed to the Prequel Trilogy books. Ross tends to have a kinetic style that somehow manages to match the pace and energy of Abrams' movie and translate it into the printed page.       

As with all the books in this series, collection editor closes the book with a gallery of art used in various cover variants. My favorite is John Tyler Christopher's Action Figure variant for issue #5.

(C) 2016 Marvel Comics and Lucasfilm Ltd. Kylo Ren Action Figure variant cover art by John Tyler Christopher

I love Christopher's cover because it was done in the same style as the original Star Wars action figure packaging used by Kenner Toys between 1978 and 1985. I've been an avid collector since I was 15, and this clever concept brought back memories of those first Star Wars action figures.

The only gripes I have about this particular book are that the gallery only takes up one page and doesn't include any preliminary artwork or original art without the text, and that the editors, once again, didn't ask anyone connected with Abrams' film to write a foreword. The only books in this series that have "celebrity intros" are the adaptations of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Maybe I'm in the minority group of fans when it comes to which trilogies deserve to be enshrined as "true canon," but as much as I love the Classic Trilogy, I believe that the other two trilogies matter.