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Friday, 9 February 2018

40 years ago: Star Wars Weekly #1 arrives in the UK

Star Wars Weekly issue 1 arrived just as the film was spreading across the UK

Star Wars in black-and-white. It was a much more appealing prospect than it might sound when Marvel Comics’ Star Wars Weekly arrived in Britain in the week of February 8 1978. 

Today, Episode Nothing looks at how the UK got the Marvel Star Wars without the colo(u)r but with some extras that the US missed out on. 

If you were a British kid in the 1970s, you might well have found yourself envying American children. If television and films were to be believed, they enjoyed unbridled riches, including TV sets in their bedrooms, extension phones and trick-or-treating. 

One of the many grounds for jealousy was that US comic books were in full colour (or color, as they insisted on calling it), whereas we had to make do with much skimpier volumes in black and white. But whereas American comics were monthly, at least we in the UK had a new instalment of our favourite titles every week. 

The first page of the comic
strip in Star Wars Weekly #1
The first edition of Star Wars Weekly, from the UK arm of Marvel Comics, bears the publication date February 8 1978, a Wednesday (although I'm pretty sure it reached my area on Tuesdays).  It contained half of the content of Marvel's first American Star Wars episode, plus a reprint of a much darker Marvel science fiction story, 'The Forest for Trees'.  Retailing for 10p, the comic came with a free cardboard X-wing fighter (or “X-fighter”, as the comic kept saying), which you slotted together and weighed down with a 1p coin.

Why did it come out so late, when Marvel’s American comic had appeared in April 1977, and the film had been in London’s West End on December 27 1977? 

Well, early February was when the release of Star Wars got significantly wider. It finally spread from London and one or two of Britain’s big regional cities, reaching provincial cities like mine, the Gaumont in Bournemouth. 

It was, Marvel must have reasoned, perfect timing. 

The Star Wars Weekly TV ad. There was one, I swear

Early competition prizes in Star Wars Weekly 

In this excellent post about Star Wars Weekly #1, the author, Slow Robot, raises the question of whether the Star Wars Weekly launch was backed with TV advertising. 

I can testify that it was. But of course, I can’t prove it.

The reason I can be so confident is this: The first time I saw that TV commercial was the moment I became a Star Wars fan.

For months, I’d been cynical about the hype surrounding this science fiction film that had stormed America. It had been featured in TV reports, newspapers and the youth magazine Look-In. But I wasn’t having any of it. I had even given away some editions of Look-In that previewed the film. I guess I wasn’t ready to give up my loyalty to 20th Century-Fox’s previous SF franchise, Planet of the Apes, and when I saw clips of an ape-like creature co-piloting a space ship, I grumpily told my brother that this simian didn’t look half as good as those in the Apes films and TV series.

Then, after school one evening, I saw a TV ad that changed my film-going life. A gold-coloured robot, who I later learned was called C-3PO, narrated the ad, telling us about the exciting comic that was about to come out. There were film clips, including – I recall vividly – a short, dome-headed robot falling over in a desert canyon.

I realised I’d been in denial. This Star Wars thing was obviously right up my street. Resistance was futile.

I placed my order for Star Wars Weekly.

For many young fans, issue one of the comic was our first encounter with the story of Star Wars.

Keen fans might have been able to get hold of the ‘treasury’ editions collecting the American comic strips, if they knew a shop which sold imported copies. And many more could have read the novelization, published in the UK by Sphere in 1977. But for millions of children, this was our introduction to Luke Skywalker. Over the next 12 weeks, fans read the Marvel adaptation, while wondering where the comic would go when the adaptation of the film was over.

But while the story may have followed the film, the comic strip didn’t always look like the movie. And that caused quite a controversy in the playground. 

Why didn’t Marvel’s Star Wars look more like the movie?

Darth Vader's first appearance in Star Wars Weekly

Marvel’s Star Wars comic, as drawn by Howard Chaykin, didn’t capture the visual style of the film. 

His is a much more stylised, almost messy, style, far removed from what George Lucas, his designer John Barry and cinematographer Gil Taylor captured on celluloid. 

I remember this causing a lot of controversy among kids at the time. Some refused to buy the comic, loudly pronouncing it to be “rubbish”. I sometimes seemed to be its lone defender in my circle, and even I was disappointed in later issues, when some of the film’s most memorable scenes lost something the journey to the printed page. 

It didn’t help that colour strip had been rendered in black and white, which occasionally made some details harder to make out. (That said, the vivid colours in the American version are even further removed from the style of the film.)

But the playground critics had one advantage over Chaykin: They had seen the film. The artist himself had been working with whatever reference material was available before the movie was finished. 

While this must have put Chaykin in a difficult situation, I’m not sure that it entirely explains the look of Marvel’s Star Wars.

Marvel had brought its own style to its earlier comic books based on Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey, rather than replicating the look of the films. Why wouldn’t they do the same with Star Wars?

And its worth remembering that when George Lucas and his merchandising man Charles Lippincott pitched the idea of a Star Wars comic, it was by no means guaranteed to be a success. Marvel was the big brand name here. Star Wars was surely the junior partner in the deal. 

Read on....

If you’re interested in Star Wars Weekly, I offer another plug for Craig Stevens’ forthcoming book The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain

Craig has interviewed former UK Marvel boss Dez Skinn and found out all about how the comic was put together, and how it transformed the fortunes of Marvel’s UK operation. He traces the whole history of the comic and reminds us where the story went from issue 13. 

In the meantime, you could revisit my posts about each of those first 12 issues below.

Star Wars Weekly #1


Harrod said...

Another great article,but you're probably costing yourself web hits when you mail out the entire thing. I'd send out a paragraph or two to stoke interest, then have a "click for the rest" link.

Rory Cobb said...

I would love to have the first few of these- the black and white looks amazing on Chaykins drawings! I, too, did not like the first (of the US issue) of the comic- the art wasn’t my style. But it WAS the style Lucas and Charles Lippincott wanted! They were very influenced by Chaykins early 70’s art- In his blog, Lippincott has gone at lengths to explain how he was happy ONLY with the first issue (that being the only one Chaykin both penciled and inked ). Now, 40+ years later, I LOVE it! My only regret is that we didn’t get the full adaptation with Chaykin pencil and inks.

Twin30mm said...

Great article. I thought it was only me that recalled the SWW advert.
No recollection of C-3PO/Anthony Daniels narrating the ad, but I'm sure it included a film clip of 3PO and R2 in the Lars homestead garage. That image vividly sticks out in the memory.
Would love to track down a copy of the SWW ad (along with the SW Shreddies one).

Darren Slade said...

Hi Rory: When the first UK Star Wars annual came out, with parts of the Marvel strip reprinted in colour, I was struck by just how colourful it was -- really wildly stylised, with backgrounds changing dramatically from one frame to the next.
It's funny how many of us kids wanted something much more like the film, yet years later we've come to appreciate Chaykin's take on things. I know John White at feels the same way.

Hi Twin30mm: I'm so pleased to discover someone else remembers that ad. It's possible I've got the detail wrong, of course, but at least we're getting closer to confirming it existed!
Tell me more about the Shreddies ad. I recall watching commercial breaks during children's programmes in the hope that they'd show an ad which had a couple of very fleeting shots from Star Wars -- but I'd remembered that as a commercial for some brand of yoghurt. Maybe I've got that wrong and it was Shreddies. Do you remember any more?

Twin30mm said...

I'm positive the SWW TV ad existed. It's amazing that something I could have only seen once or twice at the most, has stuck in my head over the last 40 years. I can imagine my 9yr old self virtually hyper-ventilating after watching it!
Again with the Shreddies advert, I'm sure it existed. I seem to remember a kid sat down, eating a bowl of Shreddies and doing the rub-down transfers. The background was a minimalistic 70s space style set and clips of the film were intercut (the Millennium Falcon flying overhead sticks in the memory). I think the narrator mispronounces Darth Vaders name as VARDAR, which would have really irritated me at the time (although I might be misremembering that from another advert).
The only other SW advert that I can remember is the Kid Jensen narrated SW Look-In one. Pretty sure that's on YouTube.
Great blog, by the way. Some fantastic memories. Keep up the good work.