Sunday, December 6, 2015

'Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens' trade paperback & novels reviews

In addition to watching the entire "Star Wars" saga — and writing many reviews and op-eds, lately I've been reading the rebooted novels set to coincide with "The Force Awakens" film.

Most of the stories have been pretty darn bland and I wouldn't recommend even most the diehard "Star Wars" fan read any of them, much less own them.

On the other hand, Marvel Comics' rebooted series — at least the handful I've read — are quite entertaining. That's the case with the SHATTERED EMPIRE trade paperback (reviewed here after the jump and a couple short reviews).

The best and most fun novels are the part of the three-book JOURNEY TO STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS young adult/teen series, featuring Luke Skywalker (THE WEAPON OF A JEDI),  Han Solo and Chewbacca (SMUGGLER'S RUN) and Princess Leia (MOVING TARGET). Advertised with clues to "The Force Awakens," the stories' connection to the upcoming film are marginal at best. In each novel, the main characters recount stories from years past as they encounter a character during the "Force Awakens" time period (30 years after "Return of the Jedi").

The first two are set between the original film and "The Empire Strikes Back" (which I still plan to watch and review before Dec. 18) while Leia's novel takes place between "Empire" and "Return of the Jedi." Each novel is a quick, fun read and the authors are adept at writing Skywalker, Solo and Leia as they behave in the original trilogy. It's best to read MOVING TARGET last.

As you can tell from title, WEAPON OF A JEDI is the story of Skywalker learning to master his lightsaber and the way he trains himself to become more attuned to The Force. (Grade: B-) In SMUGGLER'S RUN by comic-book great Greg Rucka, Solo still is more freelancer than Rebel team-player and grudgingly agrees to a top-secret mission for the Rebellion. This brings Solo and Chewie to face off against an Imperial officer and several bounty hunters. (Grade: B) 

MOVING TARGET is the best of the bunch, since for one, it gives us a Leia solo story (something "Star Wars" fans hadn't had earlier), 2) it also does a delightful job of highlighting the sacrifices necessary in a galactic war and 3) reveals how deft of a diplomat Leia is, without ever jeopardizing what she and her team need to accomplish on behalf of the Rebellion (the Empire's name for the resistance group formally known as the Alliance to Restore the Republic). In an interesting bit of film continuity, MOVING TARGET explains how the Rebel Alliance obtained the Imperial shuttle that Han and Chewie flew to the Endor moon in "Jedi." Grade: B+

This finally brings me to the trade paperback SHATTERED EMPIRE I noticed at a bookstore fairly recently. After seeing the terrific interior artwork, I knew I needed to borrow it from the Norwalk Public Library.

SHATTERED EMPIRE includes the four-issue limited series of the same name (also written by Rucka), PRINCESS LEIA No. 1 and Marvel's STAR WARS No. 1, the first issue of the ongoing series (that lasted 107 issues) and features artist Howard Chaykin and writer Roy Thomas adapting the "Star Wars" screenplay by George Lucas. Just as the way Lucas released the first film in his prequel trilogy before "A New Hope," the stories in SHATTERED EMPIRE are presented in reverse chronological order.

Biggs Darklighter (aka "Red Three")
In STAR WARS No. 1, Thomas does a fine job compressing some scenes and Chaykin draws Skywalker with a much larger frame than Mark Hamill's and Leia with a much fuller figure than Carrie Fisher's. But what's most interesting are Skywalker's "scenes" that didn't make the 1977 film. Grade: B

Here's where we learn the young farm boy watches the brief battle between Leia's ship and the Imperial Star Destroyer from Tatooine by using his "macrobinoculars." His friends later blow off what he sees as one of Skywalker's daydreams and say he actually just saw two ships in orbit.

The scene with Skywalker's best friend, Biggs Darklighter (one of the last X-Wing fighters killed in the Battle of Yavin) is where we learn that Darklighter informs his buddy he's enlisting in the Imperial Academy (one of Skywalker's dreams) — but actually he plans to join the Rebellion.

While I understand such scenes weren't included in "Star Wars" because they would have dragged along the story, including the deleted Darklighter sequence would have given a bit more weight and importance to the long-time friends reuniting in the hangar bay on Yavin 4 before taking on the Death Star.

Since I unintentionally am going in chronological movie order, this brings me to PRINCESS LEIA No. 1.

The story starts with the medal ceremony that concludes "Star Wars." Chewie, Solo, Skywalker, Leia and the droids look great in the accomplished hands of artist Terry Dodson, who is inked by his wife, Rachel.

After the celebration we see in the 1977 film, Leia informs the gathered pilots and soldiers that while "we have much to be grateful for today," she requests everyone "take a moment to honor the lost souls of Alderaan. To honor Viceroy Bail Organa and Queen Breha Organa." After the moment of silence, the pilots find it hard to believe that's all "the Ice Princess" has to say about the deaths of her parents. What an intriguing spin — who knew the "regular people" of the Rebellion thought that about Leia!

Once General Dodonna orders the troops to start evacuating the Yavin 4 base, Leia is stunned to learn she's been given no duties to serve the Rebellion she's so "eager to serve."

Even more stunning is when Leia learns her mother once mentored Evaan, an X-Wing pilot and fellow Alderaanian/"confirmed royalist" determined to keep the legacy of their destroyed planet alive. (I've noticed the novelists and comics writers have created many female characters for this new era of "Star Wars" stories.) The rub is while Evaan addresses Leia as "my queen," she doesn't respect the way Leia is handling her parents' deaths.

The PRINCESS LEIA series, or at least this storyline, sets up the two women developing an uneasy working relationship as Evaan pilots Leia off Yavin 4 to Naboo so they can stop the Empire from killing all the survivors of Alderaan. In a nice homage to Leia's "help me Obi-Wan" message to Obi-Wan Kenobi, she uses a realistic hologram of R2-D2 to deliver a hologram to inform Dodonna of her self-assigned mission, which Evaan unknowingly inspired.

Writer Mark Waid has a great handle on Fisher's take-charge and take-no-crap portrayal of Leia. On the other hand, each time the princess interrupts Evaan — in the midst of demanding "the truth" — it doesn't ring true. Or in this case, it isn't very Leia-like. Grades — Art: A; Story: B-

The art in SHATTERED EMPIRE is nothing short of spectacular. It's a treat for the eyes, full of great details complemented by fine inking and coloring. As realistic as the art is, the artists make sure the main "Star Wars" characters resemble their onscreen versions without going for all-out realism.

While Team Dodson's art in PRINCESS LEIA tends to be on the cartoon-y side (not usual for them at all), the trio of SHATTERED EMPIRE artists give a more cinematic feel to their panels. Especially striking is the perspective during the space battles and the realistic explosions. ("Impressive. Most impressive" is probably what a certain Dark Lord of the Sith might say about it. …)

Starting in the climactic moments of the outer-space Battle of Endor, the focus of the four-part story is that although the Rebellion gains a major victory in destroying the second Death Star, the harsh reality is there's much more mop-up work to do.

Lt. Shara Bey is the main character, a talented A-wing pilot known as "Green Four" who helped escort the Millennium Falcon into the heart of the Death Star. (While keeping an eye out for other ships in issue 1, she spots the "friendly" Lambda-style Imperial shuttle being piloted by Skywalker from the hangar bay of the battle station. ("I, ah, almost shot you down during the Battle of Endor," Bey tells him in issue 4.)

As dedicated she is the Rebel Alliance, Bey struggles with her yearning to spend more than an hour or so every few weeks with her husband, Sgt. Poe Dameron. (He's the connection to "The Force Awakens," being the X-Wing pilot we've seen in each trailer.)

Bey volunteers to pilot the combat transport for counterattack led by Solo to take down a base of Imperial "hold-outs" on the far side of the Endor moon.

In the most interesting of the stories, in issue 3, she's assigned to pilot Leia to the Naboo capital so she can request the queen assist in the restoration of the Senate. (Until I read PRINCESS LEIA No. 1, I didn't notice that Leia's comment about making "hardly an official visit" to her maternal mother and Emperor Palpatine's home planet is a reference to the adventure Leia and Evaan were about to undertake!)

Who knew Leia knew how to pilot a Naboo fighter? But that's exactly what the Alderaan princess does — along with Bay and the queen — to destroy the Imperial satellites ordered by Palpatine (in a message from the grave!) to have Naboo "scoured" in Operation Cinder.

Just as the trio enter the hangar bay that had been sealed off after the Trade Federation's invasion in "Episode I: The Phantom Menace," Leia has a brief brush with the Dark Side of the Force. She says she feels "cold" when she stands in the very spot Darth Maul where entered the bay, challenging Qui-Gon Jinn and young Kenobi to a lightsaber duel.

Issue 4 is where Bey works with the last of the Big Three of "Star Wars." Dressed as Commander Alecia Beck, an Imperial Security Bureau officer, Bey and Skywalker fly a shuttle to an Imperial base for Skywalker to retrieve the two Force-imbued remnants of "the tree that grew at the heart of the Jedi Temple on Coruscant."

The premise is utterly ridiculous. I can't imagine Palpatine ordering heightened security for "a couple of twigs." There's no way the Naboo senator who spent years patiently manipulating events to ensure his rise to being Emperor and the creation of his Galactic Empire would guard something that stood in the temple affiliated with the very Jedi Knights he ordered to be murdered via Order 66 in "Episode III - Revenge of the Sith."

Even more ridiculous is that the base commander sees through Bey's disguise since "Commander Beck is missing her left eye" — not that her "security officer" is dressed in the distinctive robe of a Jedi Master. Not to mention that Skywalker does nothing with The Force to disguise his appearance; the entire Empire by then should know who was responsible for the deaths of Palpatine and Darth Vader.

Also, while it's exciting to see Skywalker and Bey kick ass and fight their way out of the Imperial base, it's nearly impossible even for a diehard fan to see the credibility in two people surviving against such odds. Again, all for two trees that only have symbolism for one person!

Aside from the drawbacks of issue 4 and its hurried "happy ending" resolution with Bey and her husband Dameron, the SHATTERED EMPIRE story is enjoyable and worth checking out.

Grades — Issues 1-3: A; Issue 4: B-

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