Marvel have been trying something which isn’t often seen at shared-universe publishers: introducing a second universe. Their “Star Wars” comics arrived last year, following Disney purchasing Lucasfilm and the inevitable subsequent end for Dark Horse’s most enduring comics licence. Since then, the books have been some of the biggest selling comics for the publisher, even as they move away from variant covers and #1 issues to head off into double-figure publishing numbers. And whilst we’d all expect the books to do well, it’s surprising just how much of an audience they’ve not only picked up – but retained.
And by introducing this Far, Far Away Galaxy apart from the Marvel Universe, Marvel have essentially offered a second line which appeals to a readership apart from their superhero fans. There’s clearly a lot of crossover between superhero comics fans and Star Wars fans, but there are also plenty of movie fans who are picking up comics only to catch up on the inbetween moments lived by Luke, Han, and Leia. DC have Vertigo, and Marvel have had the Ultimate Universe: but they touch on and sometimes interact with their core superhero universes. The Star Wars comics stand aside from everything, and it’s fascinating.
There aren’t many examples of a publisher having two universes existing at once, with the one big exception that of course Marvel have experimented with this before. The Ultimate Universe was a rebrand of their ‘classic’ Universe, which started with a few of their core ideas – Spider-man, Fantastic Four, Avengers and X-Men – and rolled them into a contemporary, somewhat harder-edged and more cynical superhero universe. Again, there were only a handful of books available at once, meaning there could be a tight continuity (hypothetically) which let readers track the whole universe at once. There were no books that didn’t “matter”, so to speak, so the audience were encouraged to try everything without feeling like they weren’t getting a whole story.
But when you look back, you can also see where the Ultimate Universe started to fall apart and disintegrate under its own weight. Perhaps in a few years the same thing will happen to Star Wars, particularly as throwaway comics like the recent “C-3P0” one-shot are released and the line becomes more about continuation than telling new, connected stories. The more readers find that there are dispensable Star Wars comics on the shelf, the more the line will feel dispensable as a whole. But on that front, Marvel do have one safety net: Disney itself.
Marvel Comics run their own universe, and they get to decide if continuity makes sense of not. If they want to kill off characters or write storylines which conflict continuity with one another, they can generally just go ahead and do that – it’s no matter. The Star Wars comics are stuck within a permanent timeline, however, and so their focus cannot be on “important” or “game-changing”; because we know when the characters live or die. It happens in the movies. Instead, the comics have to focus on “fun”, and developing the characters through the moments we haven’t seen onscreen. And if they ever did decide to kill off, say, Zuckuss, before the books catch up to at least “The Empire Strikes Back”? Then they’d be in for a hell of a lot of trouble with Lucasfilm!
Possibly. It’s likely nobody cares about Zuckuss at Lucasfilm either, because he was clearly the worst bounty hunter of the bunch and viva Gengar. But that’s the thing: even the lamest of the background characters is protected by an unshakeable canon. Compare that to the Marvel Universe, where “House of M” or “Age of Ultron” or “Secret Wars” can trigger a re-shifting universe whenever the company feel like it. There’s no sense of stability, which appeals to many readers and turns off perhaps just as many. Some people really enjoy knowing that everything they know will never be the same again – but a lot of people really like the security that comes from knowing that everything they know will always be the same forever.
With only a few comics, and a few characters to play with right now, Marvel have opted to retain a Star Wars line which remains accessible for readers, and where you can track the location of all the major characters at any one moment. To expose myself shamelessly, it’s a little like the plotting style of “Game of Thrones”. Almost all the major players in that series all started off converged in one place, before they subsequently wandered off into their own stories. Here Marvel adopted a similar tactic, where the first arc of the main “Star Wars” comic featured Luke, Han, Leia, Darth Vader, Chewbacca and the droids at once.
Since then, the characters have moved apart a little, and Marvel have started to introduce comics set at different points in the timeline (primarily to tie into “The Force Awakens” and the upcoming “Rogue One” – although the latter comic now seems to be in limbo). But at the start, everything was in one place, and readers got everything they needed from that one title. If you unfairly compare that to the Marvel Universe right now, then you start to see perhaps some of the reasons why the Star Wars Galaxy is currently outselling the Marvel Universe. There’s no ‘central’ location, because Marvel are putting out around forty titles a month and no single book can contain and reference all of them. At any point in time, Star Wars can loop the majority of the characters back into a single story. At no point in time can Marvel hope to do the same. Not least because the “Fantastic Four” are seemingly banned from being in the same place at the same time for perpetuity.
Which isn’t a criticism of the Marvel Universe either, particularly. The lack of jumping on points is a difficulty for a lot of potential new readers, but I tend to revel in the fact that this is a complex-continuity franchise where the X-Books have their own quirks not found in the Spider-Men titles, and where the Guardians of the Galaxy contrast and sometimes interact with the Avengers. Without the insane sprawling of their Universe, you’d never get something like Secret Wars, which thrilled to the idea that everything existed simultaneously and nobody could hope to contain it at once. That’s why “Civil War 2” has to exist as a main series, a bunch of tie-in stories within other ongoing comics, and several new comics which will be around for a few months solely because they can have an event banner across the top of their covers. It’s too big to contain, and Marvel don’t particularly want to contain it either.
Editor Jordan D. White, on the other hand, is able to contain the entirety of Star Wars in his head, seemingly. Most books are set between “A New Hope” and “The Empire Strikes Back” at the present, but there’s also a Kanan” series set through the time of “Star Wars Rebel”, sitting before “A New Hope”. And then there’s the developing group of comics which sit between and around “The Force Awakens”. The first was “Shattered Empire”, which is set immediately after the first trilogy and gave us a really early origin for Poe Dameron – who was the first character from the new movies to get his own series. Given how every other character went into the new movie with a mystery, and left on a cliffhanger, it’s likely he’ll be the only one to do so until 2017/18.
This is where we’re most likely to see the books start to separate out. The comics have a thirty-forty year gap between them now, chronologically, and people can pick and choose which parts of it they want. It’s a little like having the option between X-Men and Inhumans – they’re essentially doing the same thing, only with slight aesthetic differences. The key for Marvel will be in ensuring that there’s merit to all the different parts of their Star Wars Galaxy, where nobody steps on the toes of the movies or starts contradicting things established in the other comics.
As long as Marvel can create the aura of cohesiveness between the comics, the movies, the video games, and any other in-canon elements of the Star Wars brand as a whole, their line will remain fresh. It’ll also remain important. The lack of control over the main product leaves them fighting to prove the books they do put out, and it creates a sense of urgency in the line which you don’t always see in their franchise books. Each one of the books has to have a reason to exist, and a story to tell, but we’ll have to see how long that lasts for.
At this moment, Star Wars is the clear jewel in Marvel’s crown. It’s a Galaxy within their Universe, where readers get exactly what they’re expecting to get. The Star Wars line is an exercise in delivering comics which have a reason to exist and can hook in new readers without leaving them confused and isolated. The death of the Expanded Universe, in this case, saved the ongoing product – Marvel can maintain a Galaxy within their Universe.