Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Star Wars Omnibus: The Complete Saga, part 1 review

I wonder if there was a huge debate at Dark Horse as to which order they should present the stories of the Star Wars films. I’ve convinced myself that some people wanted to print the sagas in their original order of release, starting with the original trilogy and ending with the prequels.  Maybe there was even someone who was of the opinion that the adaptation of Episode I not be included at all. Obviously the final verdict was to release them in chronological order but I won’t the Man tell me in which order to read my comics. Fuck that! No sir. I’m reading them in the order in which the movies were originally released but even more importantly, I’m reading them in the order in which the comics where originally released. You see, the comic book adaptations of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi were all release before the adaptations of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith (way back during Marvel first tenure as official publisher of Star Wars comics). In all begins in the skies above Tatooine . . .

Episode IV: A New Hope
Script: Bruce Jones
Pencils: Eduardo Barreto
Inks: Al Williamson, Eduardo Barreto, Carlos Garzón
Colours: James Sinclair, Cary Porter
Lettering: Steve Dutro

The comic book adaptation of A New Hope is the most cinematic adaptation of the original trilogy. I say this because it’s the one with the least narration. There are very few caption boxes and those that are present are mostly used to set a scene and place a reader in the location such as “The Death Star conference room…” or “The fourth moon of Yavin…”. That isn’t to say there aren’t other types of caption boxes. Some of them give us insight into the characters’ feelings and others, particularly during the Battle of Yavin, give the reader additional details on the action present on the page. The comic feels more cinematic that the adaptations for Episode V and VI because the story is mostly told with the use of dialogue and art. You might be thinking “Aren’t all comics storytelling through the use of dialogue and art?” Well, yes (and no) but reading these three adaptations back to back it really struck me just how different A New Hope is from the others, both in how it tells it’s story and how it more closely resembles the film. I think that the storytelling is closely linked to how the comic accurately portrays the movie.

Despite these cinematic similarities, A New Hope doesn’t work nearly as well in comic form as it does on the screen. There are too many important components of what defines great Star Wars for me that are missing from the comic. The first is the absence of John William’s music. It’s such an important part of what maintains the tone of the movie that without out, the comic struggles to establish and maintain the tone. Fans of Star Wars have likely seen the movie a dozen times and when you’re reading a particular scene, say the Millennium Falcon defending itself from TIE fighters after escaping the Death Star I can’t help but hear the music in my head and knowing that it’s missing is a shame. It’s a pretty poor criticism, I know, comics aren’t auditory but it’s hard to accept that in this case. The other important element that is missing is the sense of movement. In my review of X-wing: Rogue Squadron I mentioned that the novel did a poor job of giving me that same sense of movement and energy given to me by the movie’s battle scenes. The same problem happens here but it’s somehow worse. In my mind’s eye I could take Michael A. Stackpole’s descriptions and make a mini movie in my head but with the comic, everything is incredibly static. That’s not to say you can’t draw something that gives the illusion of movement. Many artists have done so before but sadly you won’t find it in this comic.

I do not know if it was the intent of the creative team to give this comic adaptation a cinematic feel. It seems likely considering they’re adapting a movie but what seems like a good idea at first might actually be the comic’s biggest flaw. By resembling the movie more than the comics for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, the comic adaptation of A New Hope attracts more comparison with its movie counterpart than the other two adaptations. The comparison favours the original because there are too many elements that are characteristic of the Star Wars films that are difficult to do the medium of comics. It was an uphill battle from the start but I don’t think anybody was expecting the adaptation to be equal to or better than the movie. They rarely are.

Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Script: Archie Goodwin
Pencils and inks: Al Williamson, Carlos Garzón
Colours: James Sinclair, Frank Lopez
Lettering: Rich Veitch

Part of the problem with the comic adaptation for A New Hope was that it accentuated how plain the plot is. The Empire Strikes Back has a much more complex and engaging plot than A New Hope but Archie Goodwin’s excessive use of narration gets in the way of it and the whole things feels bogged down. The pacing is slower because of it and it affects the quality of the story. One of the greatest strengths of the movie is just how organically the story moves from Hoth to Dagobah to the asteroid field to Cloud City. The movie explores multiples characters in multiple different settings and it maintains a high level of action and adventure. What’s interesting about the adaptation is that there are several scenes that are added to the story. One example is the attack on the Rebel’s based on Hoth by the same yeti-like creatures that attacked Luke in the movie. Oddly enough we never actually get to see a full figure drawing of the monster. Instead, all we see are hairy arms and legs. Another example is additional training scenes Yoda has with Luke on Dagobah.

Reading The Empire Strikes Back was a strange experience. It’s very different from the movie and a lot of that has to do with Goodwin’s writing. His use of narration serves to slow down some scenes from the movie while also quickly skipping over other scenes. If you consider the additional scenes, it’s no surprise that the comic seems to present an alternate version of what The Empire Strikes Back could have been. The art by Al Williamson and Carlos Garzón is much moodier than the art for the other adaptations. Part of it is because of the inks and another part of it has to do with the colours by James Sinclair and Frank Lopez. It works well with the more introspective tone and feels of the series. Overall I connected more emotionally with the art in The Empire Strikes Back than I did with the art in A New Hope but what it gained with its moodier art it lost in clarity. The art in A New Hope was easier to read but it also had less detail and the storytelling wasn’t as strong. The story in A New Hope’s adaptation felt like there were regularly panels missing from the page; the storytelling in The Empire Strikes Back is much stronger. It’s clearly the work of veterans of the comic book industry and it shows on the page. I had to get used to it a bit but once I was in the story my biggest problems were with the unnecessary narration regularly stepping on the artists’ toes.

Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
Script: Archie Goodwin
Art: Al Williamson, Carlos Garzón
Colours: Cary Porter, Perry McNamee
Lettering: Ed King

Return of the Jedi was adapted by the same writer and artists as the comic of The Empire Strikes Back but there are some significant differences between the two comics. For starters, Return of the Jedi is the shortest of all the adaptations in this omnibus collection. It’s just a tad under 70 pages long and that’s pretty surprising for an adaptation of a full length movie. It contrasts the length of the previous comic which was one of the longer stories in the collection. The reason being is that Goodwin reduced the frequency of his caption boxes. The narration is much more limited and evenly spread out as it was in The Empire Strikes Back. He changed his storytelling approach and used far more dialogue per panel and per page than he did in his previous adaptation. The reader actually experiences characters talking without being intercut by needless narration. Dialogue heavy scenes take less space than before and the same can be said for action heavy scenes. The fight against the Empire on Endor is one of the moments where caption boxes are most heavily uses but Goodwin does it in a different way. Instead of using narration as a device to provide additional details, he uses it as a way to reduce the number of panels necessary to tell the story. It could also be that Goodwin doesn’t feel like spending time in the head of Ewoks. I can't say I blame him.

The art also contributes to shortening the length of the comic. There are more panels made up of just faces or upper torsos as opposed to full body or three-quarter body images. A lot of room is given to speech bubbles and the art suffers for it. While reading The Empire Strikes Back I couldn’t help but wonder what the art would look like at a larger page size. The page size of the omnibus collections is smaller than your standard comic book and the result is that art is smaller than its intended size. I certainly felt the same way about the art of Return of the Jedi but there is a considerable amount of pages where I honestly don’t think the page size matters because it would just look like a bunch of speech bubbles with faces next to them. It’s also interesting to point out that while the same artists worked on both stories, the art is Return of the Jedi is cleaner and less heavily inked. I think it might have to do with just how much is done by Wiliamson and how much is done by Garzón but either way, they’re a decent team. It is a bit of a shame that the technology looks better drawn than the characters but it helps that everything remains consistent throughout each story.

I will conclude my review of Star Wars Omnibus: The Complete Saga next week with Episodes I, II and III.

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