‘Star Wars’ flashback: Marvel Issues 18-23 (1978-79) (Comic book reviews)

“The Wheel” arc, issues 18-23 of the “Star Wars” Marvel comics run marks the first time the series truly feels like “Star Wars.” Writer Archie Goodwin and artist Carmine Infantino invent the Wheel, a gambling paradise that the Empire leaves alone in exchange for the considerable tax revenue.

Although the Wheel wasn’t built by the Empire, it feels Imperial, and it functions sort of like a mini-Death Star as our heroes run around on various adventures while pursued by Administrator Greyshade’s troops and Imperial stormtroopers. In a plot that Goodwin drew from many examples throughout history, but which echoes 2013 events in America nicely, the Empire uses a terrorist attack (staged, as it turns out) outside the Wheel as a pretense to gain complete control of it.

As one patron says in Issue 23 (in blunt old-school comic-book fashion), reflecting many people’s willingness to trade liberty for the illusion of safety:

“I don’t like gambling with a stormtrooper looking over my shoulder, either, but if it keeps us safe from Rebel attacks such as we’ve seen recently, then I’ll accept it.”

Another old-school element — more amusing than distracting — is Infantino’s muscular portrayals of the characters. Luke even has flowing golden locks like He-Man. Chewbacca is particularly ripped, not at all like his lithe-but-strong build in the film. Perhaps Infantino’s art inspired the 1995 Power of the Force 2 action figure line, which — aside from the fact that we were thrilled to get new action figures — wasn’t well-reviewed by fans.

“The Wheel” arc marks a couple more firsts for the Marvel series:

  • It’s the first time Darth Vader realizes there’s another Force-sensitive being in the galaxy. Rather conveniently, he and Luke just happen to pass close enough in space that they sense each other. Vader tracks him to the Wheel, where he just misses capturing the Star Warriorrs, similar to the near misses throughout “The Empire Strikes Back” (Fun bit of trivia: Issue 18 is actually called “The Empire Strikes.”) Interestingly, Luke’s rage (surely a dark side trait) at thinking he and his friends will be captured and killed causes a spike of pain in Vader’s mind (he yells “Aaaaa!,” although perhaps “Nooooo!” would’ve been more in character) and that gives them a window to jump to hyperspace.
  • Wheel Administrator Simon Greyshade, formerly an Imperial Senator, is the earliest-appearing Marvel character who would later pop up in a non-Marvel story. He showed up during his younger senatorial days in Dark Horse’s “Star Wars: Republic” issues 46-48, which take place between Episodes I and II. He’s a pretty great character here, as his crush on Leia makes him both creepy and sympathetic. It might’ve been neat to see that play out a bit more, as his demise is rather abrupt, and once again Marvel’s interest in the humanity of droids comes into play: Inspired by his friendship with Master-Com (the facility’s master computer), he does an about-face and sacrifices himself to save Leia and her friends.

All told, there’s a lot going on in these issues — the layers of plotting and characterization are bumped up considerably from what we’ve seen before, making for an intense page-turner (even if there’s never really any doubt that Chewie and Han won’t literally fight to the death in the gladiatorial arena). Goodwin shows that he understands both the adventurous spirit of “Star Wars” and the political maneuverings of a massive federal government. He dug into that angle two decades before George Lucas himself got to it in the prequel trilogy.