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What Is to Become of Star Wars Comics?

Star_Wars_LogoOn January 3, 2014, Dark Horse rang in the New Year with sad news for Star Wars fans, while Marvel rejoiced. For going on 23 years, Dark Horse has provided comics readers with thousands of new stories, characters, world, vehicles, and ideas that have expanded and enriched the Star Wars Expanded Universe. As of 2015, however, the Star Wars comics-publishing license, which has belonged to Dark Horse since 1991, will be reclaimed by Marvel comics, the original publisher of Star Wars comics since right before Star Wars: A New Hope debuted in May 1977. 

Of course, this is not a huge surprise for anyone who follows Star Wars news closely. In 2012 the Walt Disney Company purchased Lucasfilm and its subsidiaries (in other words, the Star Wars franchise) for nearly 4 billion dollars; three years prior, Disney had purchased Marvel Entertainment and its subsidiaries for roughly the same amount. Disney’s purchase of the Star Wars franchise, coupled with its announcement that, like Paramount’s recent revamp of Star Trek, new Star Wars movies and a television show would be produced, called into question the safety of the Star Wars license at Dark Horse.

It makes little sense, from a marketing standpoint, to continue to allow Disney’s competitors in the comics market to compete against Disney with Disney-licensed products. That is to say, it makes sense for Disney to allow its comics publisher, Marvel, to publish the tie-in comics for a franchise it owns. Already Marvel is published Disney-themed comics, like Disney Kingdoms: Seekers of the Weird, which is meant in part to bolster interest in Walt Disney Land.

Marvel ComicsAdditionally, it makes historical sense for Marvel to publish Star Wars comics, since they published an ongoing series of 107 issues (3 annuals) from 1977 to 1986. Like much of the Expanded Universe (for the uninitiated, I mean the stories set in and about the Star Wars Universe which are not part of the movies or television shows), Star Wars went on hiatus until Dark Horse received the contract to publish Star Wars comics, working ever closely with the Lucasfilm bunch to keep things in relative continuity.

To be sure, I am a devoted Star Wars fan and have often, and quite avidly, expressed my approval of Dark Horse as a comics publisher. At a time when the comics market seems to be repeating the disastrous and tiresome trends of the mid-1990s, Dark Horse stands as a shining example of what a comics publisher should be, how they should do business, and the sort of quality stories that should be populating (and not polluting) the week’s new floppies.

I am, therefore, distressed to see Star Wars depart Dark Horse. The comics, digest, and graphic novels they have produced in the name of the Force have defined my time as a comics enthusiast. In fact, my very first comic was a trade paperback of Star Wars: Crimson Empire, volume one, and it was my love for Star Wars comics that made me decide to write about comics as a critic and a scholar. But, like all good things, as cliche as this is, Dark Horse’s time with Star Wars must come to an end. I should give my thanks to creators like John Jackson Miller, Jeremy Barlow, Tom Veitch, Jan Duursema, John Ostrander, Randy Stradley, and Michael Atiyeh (now I know how important a colorist is thanks to Atiyeh!). For some it was the movies, with crawling script and a John Williams score, but for me it was your well-crafted pages that made me a fan and kept me satiated.

The end, however, is not nigh, just delayed. I mean, with Lucasfilm and Marvel under the money-making corporate reign of the Mouse, it would seem as though Star Wars could go on forever without needing to make a cent for itself. So Star Wars comics aren’t done for, they’re just transitioning. This transition, set to take effect in 2015, naturally begs some questions.

Primary among these, are two interrelated questions: What of the current ongoing series? What of the Star Wars comics publishing schedule?

I ask these questions in tandem because Dark Horse has had phenomenal success as a publisher by sticking to a mini-series publishing platform. This means that, rather than begin a half-dozen ongoing series, Dark Horse plans series in small chunks, usually of three to six issues. Mini-series like Star Wars: Dawn of the Jedi—The Force War, for example, are part of a collection of mini-series with the same subtitle; that is, there are multiple Dawn of the Jedi mini-series, all of which together comprise a vast story. This is the case with the recently concluded eighth volume of the Star Wars: Dark Times mini-series.

This mini-series platform is seen throughout Dark Horse’s output, from Hellboy to Mass Effect to Firefly/Serenity. And it is incredibly successful, primarily because it skirts the major issue faced by the Big Two: high-numbered ongoing series which serve as a bar to new readers. After all, you might feel a little daunted jumping in at Batman #632, if it’s your first time. This is not to suggest that the high-numbered ongoing series are a bad thing. Rather, that utilizing this method alone can be off-putting to new readers. Marvel and DC have, of course, both recognized this, and in part, this is why we’re seeing so many reboots (Marvel NOW and New 52). But, the ongoing series is still Marvel’s primary publishing platform.

The question for Marvel, then, is whether they will continue Dark Horse’s highly effective publishing strategy, thus providing mini-series that can be devoured in bite-sized chunks alongside one or two ongoing series, as Dark Horse is currently doing with Star Wars by Brian Wood and Star Wars: Legacy? This strategy, it should be noted, has the added benefit of allowing the publishing to cycle through multiple mini-series throughout the year, developing multiple facets of the Star Wars universe throughout the year and making sure that at least one Star Wars comic is on the rack each week.

But what of the current ongoing series, Wood’s Star Wars and Star Wars: Legacy? Though mini-series are effective, many comic book readers don’t want to be deprived of all of their high-numbered ongoing series. Granted, neither of these ongoing series will be numbered much higher than the mid-20s when Marvel takes over. I believe it would be a wonderful sign of continuity in the Star Wars universe if Marvel picked up where Dark Horse is forced to leave off. That said, Marvel and Lucasfilm seem determined to rewrite and reestablish the Star Wars canon once and for all, so it’s impossible to predict where Marvel will go.

The final problem about this transition that I wish to pose—though I’m sure more will surface throughout the year—is what will become of past trade paperback collections and future reprints? Typically, when the rights to produce a comic book based on a franchise are sold, the company purchasing the rights is able to reprint issues from before they owned the franchise. Take Star Trek, for example. IDW currently holds the license to produce Star Trek comics, and as such has also published omnibus editions collecting older Star Trek comics, i.e. those published by Malibu and by Marvel. Additionally, Dynamite owns the Red Sonja franchise, and can reprint Marvel’s issues of Red Sonja from the 1970s.

Now, I’m sure that there is some sort of compensation worked out in most cases. After all, it would seem unlikely that Marvel could take over Star Wars in 2015, reprint trades of Dark Horse’s Star Wars output in 2014, and make 100% profit off of them as though they did all the work.

The most likely scenario is that Marvel will not be putting out trade paperback collections of anything written previously for awhile. This assumption makes sense, since Leland Chee (the fellow at Lucasfilm who tracks all Star Wars continuity) has stated that, with the release of the upcoming movies, Star Wars universe continuity will soon be consolidated, so that not everything will be in continuity. This, in a sense, will make certain things obsolete. In addition, Marvel, just as much a stickler for comic-book continuity as any comic reader, will likely not publish vast amounts of trades which are decided to be out of continuity.

What this is likely to create, then, is a surplus of out-of-print trades published by Dark Horse. Critically, Dark Horse’s 30+ omnibus editions, which already have relatively small print runs, will likely jump in price. That is, of course, only if Dark Horse is no longer allowed to print and sell its old trades. It’s unlikely that Marvel would allow Dark Horse to compete against it.

We will likely be seeing something like the Marvel Masterworks or Marvel Essentials, and maybe even the newer Marvel Omnibus format, for the original Marvel Star Wars series (1977-1986). Eventually, once continuity gets established, it’s probably that Marvel will rename older Dark Horse-produced series to conform to Lucasfilm’s newly established canon, and we’ll eventually see trades or other collections as well. The day of the fantastically priced Dark Horse Omnibus is, devastatingly, at an end for Star Wars comics.

It’s impossible to tell what the future of Star Wars comics holds, let alone what the future of the franchise, it’s new films, new television series (Star Wars Rebels), new video games, and new canon will look like. One can hope that Star Wars’ long history at Dark Horse will not be forgotten. The teams that have worked on Star Wars there for over 20 years have produced enormous output, much of which outweighs the largely-terrible Star Wars novels in literary vitality, and which has brought joy to countless Star Wars fans in a way that no other aspects of Lucas’ transmedia empire have accomplished.

We’ve still eleven months to go, though, and Dark Horse has promised much to its fans. Both on the Star Wars front, with two new mini-series beginning shortly, one of which is written by Matt Kindt (Star Wars: Rebel Heist), and in the post-Star Wars era (unfortunately, I can’t reveal the hints we’ve received directly from the publisher, but trust me, Dark Horse will be offering up some amazing distractions that will ease the passing of Star Wars completely into Disney’s hands).

I know that I’ve got my work cut out for me, and I’ve made it my goal to collect and read all 30+ of the Star Wars Omnibus collections, with nearly a third already on my shelves (that’s more than 4,000 pages of Star Wars!). Look forward to more thoughts on Star Wars here in the future, and, as always, have a fantastic year!

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