Marvel have now got three Star Wars titles running, shortly to be joined by a fourth. They know they have major competition from their predecessor licence holder, Dark Horse Comics, but this is something they are used to. After all, Marvel and DC have been trying to out-compete each other for years. So, what are Marvel up to now?
To some, the answer seems obvious. Marvel will do a big event, a big, bombastic event story. I would agree that that may happen, and the just-announced Journey to The Force Awakens series is one contender, but I would not expect a major event to be in the cards until 2016. Why? Marvel excel at marketing bombast, but they also excel at planning out their events. Unlike DC, Marvel often do know where they’re going and their good events outnumber their bad. If you look at how Marvel handled their Ultimate line at the start, there were no events in the way we now know them. Yet there was no shortage of both new and reinvented concepts combined with strong execution – it is The Ultimates that practically gave us Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.
Which leads to the likelier option of what Marvel is up to – good concepts, excellently executed and skillfully marketed. This is what their creator assembly suggests – Waid, Aaron and Gillen, plus Cassaday, Larroca and the Dodsons – it is by any measure a first-class team. When Marvel are not doing events, yes there are times when they are not, they tend to opt for combining concept with controversy. Consider Wolverine being dead, Thor now being female and the entire Marvel Universe ending – they are all bold moves, but how did you know about them? Because Marvel got the marketing megaphone out and ensured, as far as they could, that you could not not know about them!
The Star Wars version then? Marvel are well aware that The Force Awakens is inbound, and we now know something of their plans to take advantage of that (though Marvel’s trade policy has never really linked to film releases in the way you might expect, it’s a rare weakness). There is also the Rebels series commanding a good deal of attention – how then to get the comics noticed? You do something to make people notice them and have a bit of controversy to boot, after all, that also hooks people. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader meet up before Empire with all that that entails. I’m not a fan of the idea but I can’t deny its effectiveness as a selling point. It immediately stakes out Marvel’s intent and ambition.
Of course, after a while, controversy fades and something new is needed, but Marvel’s focus tends to be on their comic sales in the immediate term, they tend to be less interested in trade sales by contrast. But this effect does not matter much as the controversial concept has done its job, it has got people interested in the books, it is the books’ job to retain that interest.
How will they do that? There are plot glimmers in their early issues that suggest an intriguing possibility. If you go by the films you would think the only time the Rebellion and the Empire engaged on a grand scale was the Battle of Endor. DHC did a story that had Vader hunting down, locating and ambushing the Rebel fleet, but that was a relatively brief skirmish overall. No, the idea has been that for the films, though it was overt and public, the Rebels were doing covert guerrilla strikes against the Empire. I think there are enough hints to suspect that, in the new SW material, this will no longer be so!
Imagine if you will a more powerful and effective Rebellion. It remains massively outgunned by the Empire on a material basis, but it also has significant victories that render the Empire unable to deny its existence! The opening arc of Aaron’s book has the Empire lose a planetary weapons factory – apparently their largest, which comes on the back of the destruction of the Death Star. Gillen’s book has mentioned Super Star Destroyers and Waid’s story has invoked the concept of “Rebel fleets“. This suggests a far more overt conflict than was previously done and raises the idea that we could see the Rebels running a major offensive against the Empire, one that perhaps fails eventually which is why they end up holed up at Hoth, with a minimal fleet, a few years later.
This could be – and trust Marvel to market it as such – a far bigger controversy! There is only one real big rule in SW: You do not screw over the films! But the basis of what constitutes that is very wide and equally subjective! To some, the very idea of a Rebel offensive, even if it fails, with fleets capable of engaging the Empire in open battle, with full tactical and strategic maneuvers, does indeed flip the bird at the Battle of Endor. It is committing the trespass of trying to outdo the films. To others, it is a superb idea and should be done, as it is taking advantage of the medium to tell a story that would be utter murder to do by film alone.
For all I disliked the idea of Luke and Vader meeting before Empire – it just feels off – this notion of a great Rebel offensive is one that could overcome that. I started reading SW comics with Dark Empire. No one could claim that that story lacked ambition, it started fast, it stayed fast and it set the stakes sky-high, Marvel could well be taking inspiration from it. If you are going to do Expanded Universe material well, it cannot be too timid or restrained – there should be key restraints, key limits on what can and can’t be done but outside of those few, the sky should be the limit!
I’ve no idea if what I propose here will come to pass, but I am quite certain that having got a spotlight on their books, Marvel will do all they can to keep that spotlight on them. It may eventually do that via an event but for right now, it’ll likely opt for the killer equation that is:
Concept + Marketing + Controversy = Sales