Lockdown Legends: The Empire Strikes Back Comic Adaptations Review

I really can’t believe it is 40 years ago today that The Empire Strikes Back was released in cinemas. That is making me feel really old, but happy at the same time. There is one moment of nostalgia that this anniversary triggers and that is the memory of a birthday treat. One of the presents from my parents was a visit to the cinema to see a film of my choice. Empire had been released the month before and there was only one film I wanted to see!

I remember being in the reception area, sat waiting to go in to watch the film at the now closed Odeon Cinema in Wolverhampton, UK. This was the same venue where I had experienced Star Wars during its original release a few years earlier. I spied the new Marvel Special Edition #2 comic book containing all 6 issues of the comic adaptation of the new film there on the concession stand. With my love of comics burning within this 8-year-old boy, I persuaded my mom that it was an essential purchase. So, I handed over the money she gave me to the lady behind the kiosk and I was in possession of something magical.

In the days before the internet, it was easy to avoid any information about the film’s storylines and events. I remember feverishly thumbing the pages of the epic encounter I was about to witness on the big screen. And then there it was, spoiler alert! What did I just read… oh, wow! Then moments later, we were beckoned into the screen by the usherette with her torch and she led us to our seats. The rest, as they say, is history!

For many years after, that comic got read from cover to cover on a regular basis. I am sad to say that I no longer own that copy, where it went, I do not know. It is now high up on my wish list of replacement comics and books that I hope to own again someday.

Over the years, the comic book adaptation has seen a few revisions and some reimagining over the last 40 years. For Lockdown Legends, I not only wanted to celebrate the anniversary of Empire, but I also wanted to celebrate the different incarnations of the adaptations too. So, for that reason, this review is slightly different to the other reviews in the series.

May the Force be with you!

The review;

By the time of the release of The Empire Strikes Back comic book adaptation, we had been treated to 38 glorious issues and over 2 years’ worth of expanded universe stories from Marvel Comics. With Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson at the helm, the comics had evolved massively. They became the dream team of the era with their plots and storylines. The creative team had become a more settled group and a seemingly well-oiled machine.

On first retrospective look through the original adaptation, it is immediately apparent that more reference material and information had been afforded by George Lucas and Lucasfilm to them for the creation of this new body of work to accompany the film’s release.

There are 2 things that I notice before anything else in the early versions of the adaptations and one of those is the colour pallets. While our heroes are pretty much accurate in their colour schemes, we do have a few ‘left field’ colour choices. And the second noticale difference is Jedi Master Yoda.

I’ll deal with the colours first. We have some very peculiar choices. Boba Fett is depicted in what is now known as his classic Kenner 13” figure colours, but Fett is not the only bounty hunter who gets a makeover. Dengar has sandy brown skin, 4-LOM’s head is purple and Bossk is bright green, with orange coveralls. A rather fetching red cape over a green tunic is the look for Mr Smooth himself, Lando Calrissian. To be honest, it reminds me of a saying from my youth about wearing certain colours. I was always told by grandmother that “red and green, should never be seen!”. When I see this, I can’t help but agree.

I have thought long and hard about the colour schemes and discussed it with many, but I can’t really understand why some of the colours were so far off the on-screen look. The accuracy of the artwork is far superior to that over the adaptation for A New Hope, so it is evident that better reference material was available, but what if that material was produced in black and white and not colour? This could explain the stark contrasts in differences. 40 years ago, I’m sure there would be some need for poetic licence to be afforded to the creative team. Back then colour pictures were still quite expensive to produce and many reference photos I have seen from this period are black and white. Colour in magazines around this time was sparingly used and they were majority black and white except for the cover. Is that the answer? I don’t know for sure, but it’s the best theory I’ve got.

A conversation some time ago with Chris Ryall from IDW reminded me of the original Yoda depiction in the first release of the adaptation. The character was drawn in the same way as the Ralph McQuarrie concept art and not the Stuart Freeborn puppet we see on screen. Yoda was portrayed as just over 1 foot (30cm) tall and he got a purple skin makeover, although officially the skin colour was regarded to as blue. This never really registered in my younger days, but on going back and comparing the plethora of the comic adaptation reincarnations, it became very noticeable.

Eventually Yoda would be replaced with the on-screen Freeborn puppet likeness for the comic book adaptation released in Star Wars #39 to #44. This was done pretty much in the same way Jabba the Hutt was superimposed over the original actor of Declan Mulholland in the 1996 Special Edition release of A New Hope. Yoda was redrawn over the original likeness to hide the McQuarrie design. This brought the comic up to be more screen accurate and he was now the correct colour too.

The differences to the film don’t just end there. As with many adaptations, there are sequences that are shortened, like the asteroid battle during the escape from Hoth. An epic thing to tell on screen, but very difficult to convey on paper. But there are other subtle and some not so subtle changes in there.

I think all fans of Star Wars love deleted scenes, I especially love to see those extra bits that landed on the cutting room floor and imagine how it might change how the story unfolds. In the adaptation there are 3 key scenes on Hoth that are expanded from the film.

We see Wampa’s actually getting through the walls of Echo Base and the Rebels fighting them. It is only one frame, but an interesting addition which leads directly to the next scene.

The next one involves See-Threepio and Artoo-Deetoo. We are all aware of the cut scene of Threepio removing the sign from a door that warns of the Wampa’s trapped in the room. Here we see the droids outside that same door discussing how the Wampa’s are being coaxed in by high pitched droid noises that attract them, and then, they are trapped.

Two-OneBee the medical droid while attending to Luke removes a bandage of sorts from his face. Now I was always convinced when I was younger that this happened on screen, but it didn’t. It must be due to the fact that I had read the adaptation so many times, I actually came to believe I’d seen it happen.

While the adaptations artistic accuracy is excellent, there are some key design differences that don’t change the story, but still show how the creative team may still have been asked to change or they hadn’t seen footage of the on screen events of some scenes.

There is one that is complete artistic license in my opinion, and this is when the evacuation of Echo Base starts and the rebel ship leaving the hangar looks nothing like a rebel transport I’ve seen before. It is a beautifully drawn ship, that harks back to the early Star Wars comics and is reminiscent of a ship from the Flash Gordon TV serial. Unfortunately, this ship has become hidden in some variations of the adaptation depending on the placement of some frames and panels due to the format of the media.

Some scenes on Dagobah have slight changes too. Luke during his training is no longer sporting his vest, but like Han Solo in issue 8 of the Star Wars (1977) comic, he is shirtless. Luke is also pictured taking a swing of his lightsaber at a floating metal bar, but his efforts are wide of the mark.

The next change is a peculiar one. When Luke defeats Vader in the cave, we all know he decapitates his foe and the mask explodes to reveal Luke’s face. In this version he cuts down Vader, but doesn’t remove his head, it only removes his helmet and shows a prone Luke on the floor in Vader costume apart from his helmet. I can only imagine this was to avoid a decapitation sequence, but hold that thought, I’ll come back to this shortly.

There are more changes on Bespin, we are treated to frames that show the exteriors of Cloud City, well before it’s George Lucas reimagining in the Special Editions. Also, the scene where Chewie retrieves Threepio from the Ugnaughts is completely missing.

One last noticeable change comes during the lightsaber duel. We don’t actually see Luke’s injury during his battle with Vader and ultimately, we don’t see him undergo the attachment of a prosthetic hand either. These parts are skirted around, and it is almost as if they were hidden as to not to make the comic too graphic. This also adds up when you take into account the cave scene on Dagobah too.

In 1994, Dark Horse Comics repackaged the adaptation and distributed it over 2 volumes and under one bind as a graphic novel. The only changes that had been made were to the colours that were originally laid down by Carl Gafford. James Sinclair and Frank Lopez were drafted in to replace the bold primary colours by using a more subtle pallet. Lando’s random red cape and green tunic, and all those other oddities were now gone.

Apart from the replacement of Yoda, the adaptation endured many years without change, but when the movie changes, the adaptation needs to be updated, doesn’t it?

1996 saw George Lucas revisit the trilogy and brought us the Special Editions. Empire probably had many cosmetic changes rather than any major scene changes and this in turn would surely require an updated version of the adaptation to be released reflect those changes. Unsurprisingly a repackaged adaptation was duly released by Dark Horse Comics, but there were no changes to the storyline, or any artwork deemed necessary.

The one thing that really made this copy stand out was the cover artwork. Dark Horse had commissioned Greg and Tim Hildebrandt to produce all 3 original trilogy Special Edition adaptation covers for this release and they simple quite stunning.

1999 saw a ground-breaking adaptation, which I have recently fallen in love with. Toshiki Kudo was commissioned to draw all 3 original trilogy adaptations in the Japanese style of Manga. The artwork was unusual to me at first, but there is a beauty to it that I never thought I’d see.

There is a fundamental difference in the way we read English and Japanese. English reads from left to right and Japanese is read from right to left. This means that all the artwork had to be mirrored to remain in context for its new audience when translated from Japanese. It does mean that the Falcon cockpit is on the wrong side, etc, etc; but that does not detract from how good these adaptations are.

Spanning 4 volumes and nearly 350 pages, the dialogue is verbatim and features some cut and extended scenes. Interestingly, where the original Marvel Comics adaptation shied away from showing the decapitation of Vader on Dagobah, the Manga version seems to revel in it.

The Manga version of The Empire Strikes Back won a Harvey Award for Best American Edition of Foreign Material in 2000 with the treatment of A New Hope winning the Eisner Award for the similarly titled Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material. All the Manga adaptations were reprinted in 2015 through Marvel Comics and I do think it is well worth purchasing to experience Empire in a different way.

2002 saw a rather unusual step by Lucasfilm and Dark Horse Comics with the release of a new series called Star Wars: Infinities. Dave Land wrote alternate scripts for all the original trilogies movies. Each movie broken down into a 4-part miniseries where Land would reimagine the events of the original trilogy movies. These were alternate paths for our characters beginning with the events of A New Hope.

It explored some very different events, while also keeping some events the same. In the Infinities version of Empire, Luke dies on Hoth shortly after Han reaches him. Leia is the one who now goes searching for Yoda to train to become a Jedi herself on Dagobah. This chain of events also leads to bounty hunters capturing Solo and Chewbacca and handing them over to Jabba. Vader finds Leia on Dagobah during her training and then duels with Force ghosts of his former masters as well as Yoda and Leia. Now if that isn’t alternate, I’ll never know!

All 3 Infinites adaptations are dark, brilliant to read and something fun. Their storylines are plausible and definitely get your brain running in a different direction to where you know things go for the original trilogy.

Marvel Comics were busy in 2015 after reacquiring the Star Wars comic book licence from Dark Horse Comics. They decided to release a remastered version of their original trilogy adaptations. There was the addition of an introduction penned by Billy Dee-Williams, extra decoloured sample pages and cover artwork from previous releases. The significant change was that the colours were again updated. This time the whole comic was recoloured by Chris Sotomayor, aka SotoColor, who left us with more realistic and accurate tones.

This was an inspired move. Movie accuracy is something many fans crave but the artwork didn’t change. That decision is a testament to how well Al Williamson and Carlos Garzón treated the original adaptation. The artwork didn’t need to change, it still holds up so well today and has now taken on a new lease of life.

In 2016, IDW Publishing released their first adaptation of Empire in Star Wars: The Original Trilogy – A Graphic Novel. All 3 new adaptations in one bind with a typical IDW look. Set for a younger reader, Alessandro Ferrari headed up the creative team to work on this adaptation.

A bumper sized hard cover (14″ x 21″) Artist Edition of the original adaptation was released in 2016. This was in tribute to Al Williamson’s work on the Star Wars comics. This is a well sort after item and contained many extras from Williamson’s run on the newspaper comic strip too.

Ferrari’s adaptation was revisited in 2019 and was released in a single issue in The Empire Strikes Back Graphic Novel Adaptation.

One thing I have realised researching and writing this review is that if you sit down and take time out to really study and compare all these different versions of the adaptation of Empire, you can see how the story and comic industry has evolved with us. While the inventive ability of those who created the originals is not in question for me, the last 40 years has seen the technology used to create these different versions of the adaptations evolve and advance beyond anything I could have imagined.

The main factors that I believe that have been the game changer is the advancement in the quality of the production of comics. From the early days of very poor-quality rough paper with limited colours running through printing mills; to the ultra-smooth, glossy photo like paper with what seems to have a never-ending colour pallet applied to it and all digitally produced.

I am sure we will see more versions of this adaptation in years to come, but for the moment let us bask in the comics of the past 40 years.

Happy 40th Anniversary to Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Here is to the next 40!

Availability;

The original adaptation of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was released in 1980. It is currently available in digital format from the Marvel Online Comic Store, via the Marvel App, comiXology or by subscribing to Marvel Unlimited. A physical copy can be found in one of the many trade paperback releases from Marvel. Please check with Amazon UK and US or your local comic bookstore for availability.

Steve Galloway
Steve was 5 years old when he saw Star Wars for the first time during its first UK cinema release. He considers himself a first generation Star Wars fan and in his own words is a ‘Child of 77’.