Writer: Jason Aaron
Art: John Cassaday & Laura Martin
James R: The other night, whilst in the pub, your ever-loving' PCG reviewers were discussing 2015's hefty slate of exciting movies, and our esteemed editor Matt C asked me (with a definite glint in his eye) "So, which film are you looking forward to most then?" He knew full well that there was only one possible answer I would give: STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS! Despite being a wild-eyed comic fan, and as excited as the next fanboy about Avengers: Age Of Ultron, there is still no competition for me. The stories set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away will always hold a special thrall for me. Like a lot of fans in their 30s and 40s, I caught the full blast of George Lucas' space opera as a child, and no matter how many times I hear Han yell "You're all clear kid, now let's blow this thing and go home!" there is always a ripple of excitement that runs through me. The thought of a new chapter - which at the moment, looks utterly wonderful - is a definite thrill.
However, when it comes to comics, what should be a marriage made in heaven (two of my favourite things, combined!) has never quite worked. As a young kid, I got a copy of Marvel's original adaptation of A New Hope, written by the legendary Roy Thomas and illustrated by Howard Chaykin. I remember pouring over it, and experiencing something that clearly was Star Wars but yet, paradoxically, was not. For me, there's something about Star Wars as a cinematic experience that means that when it appears in another medium, something of the magic is lost. I never quite got on board with the Expanded Universe novels, and as I got older, I also felt ambivalent about the comics, which had passed into the care of Dark Horse.
There were certainly moments from the Star Wars comics published by Dark Horse that were great: the anthology series Star Wars Tales certainly had some decent short stories, the most memorable for me being Garth Ennis' 'Trooper', a tale that was reminiscent of Grant Morrison's landmark Invisibles issue 'Best Man Fall', in which Ennis traced the story of a trainee Stormtrooper, only to reveal that he is the trooper shot by Princess Leia aboard the Rebel Blockade Runner at the start of Star Wars. More often than not though, when I tried to add a Star Wars series to my pull-list, I was struck by the same sense of disconnect I experienced reading the original Star Wars adaptation - it often had all the right Star Wars attributes, but was missing the sparkle and visceral thrill of the movies.
Most recently, I looked at Dark Horse's last great hurrah with the franchise, the launch of a Star Wars series written by Brian Wood. I was initially taken with it, but after a few issues, although I could see that Wood's attempt to produce a good comic set in the Star Wars universe rather than rehash the movies was a brave move, in making it a series that played to his strengths as a comic writer, it slowly stopped feeling like Star Wars.
With the announcement that Star Wars comics would be published by Marvel again (as a result of George Lucas selling up to Marvel's parent company, Disney) I was initially nonplussed - three decades of mostly underwhelming books had left their mark - but then my curiosity was piqued when I saw the initial creative team. Jason Aaron is a brilliant writer, very much at the top of his game (with Southern Bastards and Men Of Wrath) and John Cassaday is possibly my favourite mainstream comics artist. With Disney's acquisition of Star Wars also came the news that the Expanded Universe and all other tales were null and void, and this new series represented the new canon.
So, how is it? Cautiously, it's a thumbs up from me. Aaron and Cassaday manage to hurdle my prior gripe with Star Wars books with consummate ease. Aaron certainly has the voices of the iconic cast right (most notably he does a fine job with Han) and Cassaday's art (which had wobbled recently at the start of Uncanny Avengers) certainly hits the high notes here. Aaron's plot riffs on some of the Original Trilogy's strongest moments, with our protagonists involved in an against-the-odds, think-on-your-feet mission. The story reminded me of Leia's rescue from the Death Star, and Han's rescue from the clutches of the vile gangster Jabba the Hutt in Return Of The Jedi, and that's no bad thing. I also loved Aaron's small touches here - Luke slowly starting to practice and use the Force, for example. It felt real, and as a hardcore fan, it worked as a kind of 'Episode 4.5.'
If you had placed this comic into my hands as someone who had never seen Star Wars, they might wonder what all the fuss is about, but I have the sneaking suspicion that the films are now so ingrained in popular culture, it's hard to see this book being picked up by anyone who doesn't love the tales of the Jedi. If you're a Star Wars fan, this book is definitely worth your time - but can Aaron and Cassaday build on this strong start? There's the rub, and only time will tell, but for now the Force is certainly strong with this one. 8/10