Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
May 2011

Rrwwoowwoooo means "I love you" in Wookiee. Rrwwoowwoooo.

Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy (Dark Horse)

A long time ago in a sleepy suburb of Los Angeles far away . . .

Cue Star Wars theme!



Ahem. I am eleven and I have just purchased two paperback books entitled Heir To The Empire and Dark Force Rising, by one Timothy Zahn. I am holding the book, stunned, nay, wordless, that someone is telling the story of what happens after the film Return of the Jedi.

If this seems weird to you now, you're not the only one. Heir To The Empire, the first "Expanded Universe" Star Wars novel, rocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller lists. Everyone who had faintly enjoyed the original three Star Wars movies bought the book.

Take a moment to appreciate the irony. A Star Wars tie-in novel outsold every other book in the galaxy.

It helps that Zahn's novels are good. Damn good. They brim with betrayal, intrigue, subplot-mania and personal vendettas that make the space opera of Star Wars far more expansive. He pushed every aspect of the Star Wars mythos, keeping the battle between the light and dark side of the Force as only one aspect of a larger galaxy in turmoil.

Occasionally, we fans who remember them fondly refer to them as "the anti-prequels."

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He couldn't develop Luke, Leia or Han too much, but Zahn introduced a host of vivid, unpredictable characters who stuck around the Expanded Universe mythos, particularly the red-haired former Imperial assassin Mara Jade. He wove political intrigue and strategic warfare into the larger context of the battle between the light and dark sides of the Force. To do so, he also introduced some rather "un-Lucas-y" plot devices: Grand Admiral Thrawn, the Imperial strategist more cunning than any Jedi, nasty political maneuvering within the Alliance's ranks, and the ysalamiri, which are little lizardy sloth things that "push back the Force."

(Although I've never understood how you can push back an energy field that surrounds and binds all of creation. Presumably the ysalamiri just clouded any nearby Jedi's perception of the Force.)

(I could look it up on the Star Wars fan-created wiki, but then I would be doomed to read more wiki articles for the next hour and come away knowing too much about Chewbacca's extended family and bathroom habits.)

As perhaps the best measure of Zahn's success, the very first Expanded Universe toy line featured a number of his own characters. That's how Grand Admiral Thrawn is standing, in three-inch plastic glory, on my bookshelf.

That's also how Zahn's novels were fast-tracked to comic status by Dark Horse, who had been producing Expanded Universe comics since just about the same time as Heir to the Empire.

Which is cool. Star Wars is made for comics; it's a comic-booky story that relies heavily on visuals. Zahn got deep inside the heads and the politics of the galaxy, but he could only allude to some amazing visuals that we never got to see, until this comic.

We open on, naturally, a looming Star Destroyer floating through space. In this case, the Star Destroyer is the remnant of a once-mighty fleet, home to the brooding Grand Admiral Thrawn, who contemplates the art of various species in order to better commit genocide upon them.

Olivier Vantine's pencils and Fred Blanchard's inks are stunning in their power and their dynamism, calling up the long-imagined action of Zahn's prose. The lizardlike Noghri assassins loom from the shadows. Luke darts through the canyons of the forested world Myrkr as he seeks to escape Mara Jade's pursuit. Ships swarm in stellar battles, shredded in the hail of laser fire. The trees of Kashyyyk, the Wookiee homeworld, tower miles above the planet's surface. Vantine and Blanchard create rather funky facial expressions, but they have the action down for a Star Wars comic.

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The art comes down a notch with the legendary, but not Star Wars-y Terry Dodson, in Dark Force Rising, the second chapter. He gives the characters distinct facial features that either match their respective actors or resemble new, just as real actors, but a lot of the stellar set pieces, like Luke and Mara's daring escape through the bowels of a Star Destroyer, get short shrift. Edvin Biukovic and Eric Shanower, on the third chapter The Last Command, make similar missteps.

Dodson and Biukovic aren't bad, and in their defense, they have to juggle a lot of stuff that writer Mike Baron has squeezed into six issues from a four-hundred page book.

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Therein is the great flaw in this adaptation. Baron states in his introduction that all the text here is straight from Zahn's books. He ain't kidding. Toward the end, through The Last Command, pages and pages are festooned with text. Sometimes the sheer amount of story leads to major missteps in comic-bookery. In one teeny panel, Luke lowers Mara from a few stories up to the ground -- with no more evidence than a simple narration bubble: "Using the Force, Luke eases Mara to the ground."

And then there is a lot of cool detail that didn't, possibly couldn't, make it into the comic, and thereby makes the comic hard to understand unless you've read the books. For instance, Thrawn is a blue-skinned alien who rose high among the prejudiced Imperial ranks, where almost all officers were human. You have to know that to understand why he flew under the Imperial radar all these years. In the section where Leia visits the ferocious Noghri, the complicated backstory of the killer race is skimmed, leaving out crucial information.

The Thrawn Trilogy comics fall prey to that cursed curse of adaptations -- too faithful to the source material, but not enough space to properly reproduce every scene and set-piece that is crucial to the material. It is a textbook example of what comic book adaptations get wrong.

Can you blame them? Baron and his artists got six issues per novel. Novels have a lot of words in them. Six issues is a two-hundred page trade paperback, meaning that the creators had half the page space that Zahn did to tell the same story. So if Zahn writes a lot of exposition, it has to be shrunk down. If he writes an awesome action sequence, it has to be shrunk down, even though the visuals would take up more space.

The only stuff that doesn't have to be shrunk down is the stuff that you can leave out of the comics. For a twisty, plotty writer like Zahn, that's really not much! Zahn's tiny details all turn out to be much more important later.

I hope that, with the rise of the graphic novel as its own form, and not just a trade paperback, comic-book adaptations will start to acquire their own character and their own page count. Let the artists and writers run wild and really make the comic its own creation, complimenting the work it adapts.

Then we can get the detail we need from books like Zahn's. Maybe even down to Chewbacca's bathroom habits.

In solidarity with that thought, please join me and a jubilant, or possibly constipated, Chewbacca, in the following:




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