Cyborgs & Sith Lords

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At some point last year I stumbled across a few articles/notices on the “War of the Bounty Hunters” crossover then taking place across Marvel’s Star Wars comics. One character I saw invited particular attention—a cyborg fighter that kindled memories going back several decades.

This guy, named “Valance,” appeared in a few issues of Marvel’s Star Wars series across 1978 and 1979. I happened to pick up his final appearance, a story titled “Dark Encounter,” from Star Wars #29 (Nov. 1979). I didn’t purchase Star Wars with great regularity back then, but if the cover and/or story intrigued me sufficiently, I would grab it. Looking back on the cover to this issue, I can see the appeal.

Looked like Darth Vader was taking on the Six-Million Dollar Man. Back in ‘79, few boys my age could have resisted plopping down their forty cents for such a fight.

We’ve known for a long time now that it is basically impossible for any Star Wars property to fail in commercial terms. Lately, with the series properties currently streaming on Disney+, it seems impossible for Star Wars to fail in creative terms either. In such an environment, I thought it would be interesting to look back at a time when Star Wars was new and its success was not as guaranteed as it seems today.

A Long Time Ago

Most of you out there were still several years (or decades) away from even being born when Star Wars first came out, which means 1977 probably feels more alien to you than the cantina at Mos Eisley. Suffice it to say, Star Wars was a different beast entirely then.

One of the biggest things that needs to be recognized is how little planning went into Star Wars when it first began. Much of this was a matter of necessity, as no one could have possibly predicted where this thing would end up going and what it would eventually become. For one, it didn’t start out as a trilogy. In order for it to become a trilogy, the original movie would have to be a pretty big hit first. The plan in place at the beginning was that if the film bombed, then naturally everything would end right there. If it had been just moderately successful, they could put together a low-budget, one-time sequel. If it was a smash, then they could get a big-budget sequel greenlit.

Alan Dean Foster, who had ghostwritten the novelization of the ’77 film for Lucas, would write the low-budget story, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. When the ridiculous success of Star Wars made a low-budget sequel unnecessary, Foster’s story was released as a standalone novel in 1978. The story here is revealing, as it featured Luke, Leia, R2-D2, C-3PO, and Darth Vader, but no Han or Chewie. There’s also more than a little attraction between Luke and Leia depicted here, making it clear they were originally intended to be the romantic leads of the narrative. I’m guessing that when they saw the chemistry between Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford on screen, that’s when they decided to turn it into a love triangle.

While Lucas had an idea to give Luke a secret twin sister at some point, that twin was never intended to be Leia until we got to Return of the Jedi. Heck, Darth Vader wasn’t even supposed to be Luke’s father until they had already entered production for Empire—Leigh Brackett’s original script for the film still had Luke’s father and Darth Vader treated as separate characters. (For a long time, I thought the fact that vater is German for “father” was intentional foreshadowing for the eventual reveal of Luke and Darth Vader’s true relationship, but obviously I was wrong.)

Circling back to Leia: By the time we get to Return of the Jedi, Lucas had decided to kill two plot threads (the love triangle and Luke’s secret sister) with one stone, as well as provide a cop-out resolution to the love triangle, by making Luke and Leia siblings. Clearly, it would have been a far more dramatic resolution to have Leia make a choice between the two men, but I think Lucas was just looking to get everything wrapped up as quickly as possible by this stage.

So the movies were big hits and made a mountain of money. The toys may have been even bigger hits and made even more money. There was only one time during this era when Star Wars stubbed its toe, creatively at least, and this took place on Friday, November 17, 1978.

I’m just putting that there and leaving it alone—if you’ve never seen it before, watch it at your own risk!

Marvel’s comic adaptation was also a big hit and made Marvel a very healthy profit—but there’s a story that’s been making the rounds for many years now from several sources, including the New York Times, that the profits from this adaptation actually “saved” Marvel, and I have a very hard time believing this. Did the comic make money? Yes, clearly. As Roy Thomas mentioned in that Times article I linked, it was moving a million copies an issue at one point (plus the zero dollars in licensing fees helped a whole lot). But Marvel was the publisher of Spider-Man, okay? They would have still turned a profit without Star Wars. And this is just the comics we’re talking about. When you factor in Marvel’s toys, the superhero figures and dolls and related accessories, plus their T-shirts, towels, posters, etc., they were absolutely rolling in dough. I can’t possibly believe they were ever in any danger of going under.

A Galaxy Far, Far Away

Now despite being a big Star Wars nut, I didn’t buy Marvel’s Star Wars comic with any regularity back then, as I pointed out earlier. One reason for this was that my resources were limited. If my old man had doled out a big wad of bills to me every week to support my comics habit, I would have happily bought everything Marvel and DC published. (And Charlton, Archie, and Harvey too.) But my family wasn’t rich and my father wasn’t one to throw his money around—particularly not when it came to my comics, which he probably saw as a waste. (He never came out and told me this in so many words, but this was always my impression.)

Another reason—likely the primary reason—I didn’t buy the comic more often was because I didn’t like it very much.

You can blame Marvel for some of this, as they didn’t exactly put their best/hottest creators on the book (I really did not like Carmine Infantino’s art at this time), but you can also lay a lot of blame at the feet of George Lucas. By all accounts, he would not allow Marvel’s writers to delve too deeply into the backstories of the characters because he wanted to save it all for his films. Makes sense, and it is certainly within Lucas’s rights (plus he hadn’t decided himself yet where it was all going, as discussed above), but it’s certainly going to handicap the creators at Marvel from producing the best possible work.

One side effect of this was the inconsistent presence of Luke Skywalker in the comic. As I’ve mentioned here before, I was a huge Luke Skywalker worshipper, so he was the character I most wanted to see. If he wasn’t at the center of the story—or worse, didn’t appear at all—I probably wouldn’t buy the comic. Most of all, I really wanted to see Luke fight Darth Vader and avenge the death of Ben (Obi-Wan), but none of us got to see this anywhere until Empire was released in 1980.

With the benefit of hindsight, you can see the creative handcuffs with much more clarity. In the sixth, concluding installment of Marvel’s adaptation of the original film, Star Wars #6 (Dec. 1977), Luke destroyed the Death Star and Darth Vader was sent spinning off into space, just as had taken place in the movie. We would not see Vader in the comic again until Star Wars #21 (Mar. 1979), over a year later. And it would be a still more significant length of time after this before Vader and Luke would finally meet face to face.

One strategy for working around the limitations Lucas placed upon the strip was for writers to create and introduce new characters of their own. Turning to Valance as an example, it’s clear this strategy could be quite effective.

“Dark Encounter”

Valance first shows up in SW #16 (Oct. 1978) as a bounty hunter/mercenary nursing an obsession with a young rebel pilot (whose name is Luke Skywalker, though Valance does not yet know this) along with an irrational hatred of droids. As the tale unfolds, we learn he was once an officer of the Empire whose military career was derailed by a “serial torpedo” courtesy of this rebel X-wing pilot he’s looking for (again, Luke). Valance will spend the whole story chasing down a false lead trying to find his target. By the last panel, we see the flesh of the left side of his face torn away to reveal he is a cyborg, with half his body replaced by cybernetic parts.

Valance does not show up again until almost an entire year later in SW #27 (Sept. 1979). Vader has returned to the strip at this point and, like Valance, also does not yet know Luke’s name but is determined to find him. Valance discovers him first, however, and after a few pages of a scuffle, gets the drop on the aspiring jedi. But before he can pull the trigger, C-3PO steps in front of Luke in an effort to save his life. Valance freezes in shock, as this turn of events has shaken his deepest beliefs and prejudices to their core. Ultimately, he allows Luke and Threepio to escape, but not before learning that Luke’s last name is “Skywalker.”

The plot resumes two issues later, in “Dark Encounter” from Star Wars #29, the subject of today’s post. Both Valance and Darth Vader are now on the trail of Tyler Lucian, a deserter from the rebel alliance who is of interest to them both because he knows the full name of the rebel X-wing pilot that blew up the Death Star. Vader wants him because he wants revenge for his defeat in the battle of the Death Star (also known as “The Battle of Yavin” in Star Wars lore), while Valance now seeks to protect the boy he once sought to destroy.

Lucian is holed up in an abandoned tower on Rubyflame Lake, a former resort spot of the old Republic on the planet Centares. The old planetary outpost has been all but wrecked by the Empire, with its waters turned into an acid-like deathtrap thanks to industrial waste. When we’re introduced to Lucian, he’s standing on a dock contemplating suicide by jumping into the water. “The pollutants in there can dissolve metal in hours,” he tells himself. “Flesh would surely only take minutes.” Dark stuff, right? But it’s going to get even darker.

Next, Valance shows up intending to kill Lucian, because dead men tell no tales, but Lucian escapes into his tower just as Vader arrives. This makes it showdown time between Valance and Vader and it turns out to be a cool fight, even if the outcome is never much in doubt. Knowing Valance’s background as a bounty hunter, Vader questions why they’re even having this confrontation and suggests they join forces. Valance refuses. Vader then uses his jedi mind powers to get Valance to drop his gun, but Valance then surprises him with a blast from his cybernetic arm.

Vader, temporarily brought low by the blast, is impressed. Again, he suggests they should join forces, and again Valance refuses. “The boy you’re seeking . . . and his droid . . . held out hope of something better, Vader. A time, a life, when even someone like me might not be a freak.” Tyler Lucian overhears this in the tower.

Valance tries to cut off the pier with another blast, but Vader leaps across the chasm and strikes him. Valance strikes back but Vader answers with his lightsaber. For a moment, the conflict appears to have ended; then Valance reaches out and grabs hold of Vader’s ankle with all the strength his cyborg hand can muster. Vader calls this “lunacy,” pointing out the inevitability of his discovering the identity this pilot eventually. “And for what will you have sacrificed yourself?”

“Time, force master,” Valance answers. “The boy you seek . . . the one with the droids . . . is good. And he’s growing. Someday he’ll be your equal . . . or your better. Any delay works in his favor . . . increases his chances.” Again, we are shown Tyler Lucian overhearing these words.

Vader lashes out once more with his saber, but Valance rolls off the pier and nearly takes the Sith Lord with him. Vader will free himself, ending Valance in the process, leaving Tyler Lucian to a grim decision.

Vader kinda has a thing for cutting off hands, no?

I’m pretty sure suicide was still against the Comics Code at this point, so take note how they masterfully work around this restriction. Something falls from the tower into those toxic waters and the text reads that Tyler Lucian found “the courage that has long deserted him.” The rest of the text likewise reads like pure poetry. Archie Goodwin was a damn fine writer, folks, and this was some dramatic and powerful stuff. The art job by Carmine Infantino and Bob Wiacek here was actually pretty good too. I recall enjoying this comic when I first bought it and might have enjoyed it even more on this latest read.

Vader would not learn Luke’s name until Star Wars #35 (May 1980) and would later, finally, meet him face to face this same issue. Bit of an odd choice, seeing as how the Empire Strikes Back adaptation would come up just a few issues later—after keeping them apart so long, why not just wait for Empire to bring them together by that point? A bit puzzling, certainly.

As for Valance, my understanding is that they changed his backstory for this new series, linking him with Han instead of Luke. While I hear good things about these new Star Wars books, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone doing better with Valance than Goodwin did here. Like I said, I didn’t buy Marvel’s Star Wars with great frequency back then, but later caught up on them via those reprint volumes from Dark Horse, so I can tell you with some authority: this story, “Dark Encounter,” may well have been the very best of the bunch.

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