Before The Empire Strikes Back was released in 1980, Star Wars fans who wanted more stories from George Lucas' “galaxy far, far away" had few options. Marvel Comics presented original adventures after its six-issue adaption of the film. Alan Dean Foster's Splinter of the Mind's Eye novel had been intended to be the basis for the movie sequel, so it seemed the most canonical; and of course, the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special on television. In 1979, the Star Wars Universe expanded into newspaper comic strips for five years. The Library of American Comics is releasing those strips in a three-volume set, with Volume 1 well timed in its release being the same month as Star Wars' 40th anniversary,
The book presents 10 stories. From March 11, 1979 through to September 9, 1979, the dailies and Sundays were separate storylines (one of the former, two of the latter), written and drawn by the legendary Russ Manning, whose Tarzan Sunday strips would be concurrently running in papers until June. The remaining seven stories would run through the week until completed with occasional story overlap and repeated panels. Manning (along with his assistants and other artists) only draw six of them and Alfredo Alcala draws the final one. Steve Gerber, co-creator of Howard the Duck, wrote one story while Russ Helm and Don Christensen each wrote three.
The stories are interesting, though clearly created without the writers informed about the true relationships between characters, which was to be revealed in the next two films. Luke, Leia, and the Droids head to the “Gambler's World” to disrupt an Imperial casino, admittedly an odd idea for an evil Empire that destroyed an entire planet. Seems more likely they would “tax” or just steal the money they needed rather than set up games of chance. While the plot is simple at the start, it was nice to see complications arise for the characters when young thugs kidnap Leia for a ransom. “The Constancia Affair” is about Han and Luke helping aliens escape the empire. There's not much to it, but there are some great drawings of the Millennium Falcon and Tie Fighters that surely were taped to some young readers' bedroom walls. Han and the Droids go with Chewbacca to his home world Kashyyyk to celebrate Life Day, so clearly Manning saw the Holiday Special.
With new writers, the stories have better plots and get a little darker. In Gerber's “Tatooine Sojourn,” Luke returns to his home planet with the Droids as the Empire conducts biological warfare. “Princess Leia, Imperial Servant” finds the heroine crash land on a megonite-mining planet run by the widow Lady Tarkin. A slave hopes to steal some of the highly volatile, deadly mineral and sell it off planet with the help of an old spice-running partner (Guess who?), but the Empire intercepts a transmission, causing Vader to go pick up the shipment. “The Second Kessel Run” gives Han a chance to beat his record as he, Luke, and Chewie work to stop the Empire from abusing a climate-control device.
Manning's art is top-notch. One great choice he made is black Stormtroopers, but unfortunately, they don't last long. Sundays have some of the best images, like the Droids ramming a Jawa crawler into an Imperial compound on Tatooine. “As Long as We Live...” has a marvelous space-battle sequence that runs over a week, including a single daily panel of a freighter crashing into an Imperial Star Destroyer. The contributors who draw under Manning's name do a good job replicating his work. When Alcala takes over on “Planet of Kadril,” his different character design is apparent with Chewbacca being the one misstep.
Star Wars: The Complete Classic Newspaper Comics, Vol. 1 is an enjoyable throwback to the early days as Lucas' fictional universe was expanding. They aren't the most compelling stories, but that doesn't diminish the fun they deliver. The inclusion of more familiar characters would have been welcome, but at least Boba Fett appears with a large role in “The Frozen World of Ota”. The book opens with two essays (Rich Handley's “A Long Ago at a Syndicate Far, Far, Away” tells of the strip's creation, and Henry G. Franke III's “From the Databanks of Mistress Mnemos: Remembering Russ Manning” about the artist and his work on the strip) that reveals some of the stories behind the stories.