21 April 2016

"Poe Dameron" #1 & "Star Wars Special: C-3PO" #1

When Disney bought Lucasfilm, one of the first obvious implications was that Marvel Comics would eventually wind up with the Star Wars license for the first time since Star Wars #107, cover dated September, 1986. I enjoyed the Expanded Universe novels and comics of the early and mid-90's, but as the number of publications in any given month kept increasing, and the stories became increasingly tangled with one another, I bailed. I soured on the EU entirely by the time of the Prequel Trilogy, when too much of the film narrative subtext and context had been outsourced. A nice little wink and a nod to reward devoted readers is one thing, but I shouldn't have to do homework in order to become invested in a movie. When Disney bought Lucasfilm, one of the first thoughts I had was that this portended not just a transfer of the Star Wars comic license back to Marvel, but that it may well mean a completely new Expanded Universe. One that may just be accessible again.

Star Wars, more than many other licensed properties, lends itself naturally to the comic book medium. I simply can't afford to read new release comics today the way I could a quarter century ago, so I've been hesitant to explore Marvel's new books, but yesterday, I happened to wind up with both Poe Dameron #1 and Star Wars Special: C-3PO #1. I had access to most, if not all, of the other current Marvel publications, though I'll confess what drew me to those in particular was simply that they connect directly with The Force Awakens.

Poe Dameron #1
"Book I, Part I: Black Squadron"
Published: April 6, 2016
Charles Soule: Writer
Phil Noto: Artist, Cover Artist
VC's Joe Caramagna: Letterer
Heather Antos: Assistant Editor
Jordan D. White: Editor
$4.99 | 32 Pages | Rated T

If I'm being honest, Poe Dameron is sixth on my list of favorite new characters from The Force Awakens, but I also understand why he's really the only one who can even really be explored at all right now outside of the movies. The upshot is that the Poe we met in the movie is entirely upbeat and lighthearted, thanks in no small part to the charisma of actor Oscar Isaac. I've likened Poe to Doug from Up, all but literally saying to Finn, "Hi! I just met you and now I love you!" There's a place for that kind of exuberance, though, and I'm glad to see it being filled and explored.

This issue sees General Leia Organa give Poe his assignment, to find Lor San Tekka (the guy played by Max von Sydow in the first few minutes of The Force Awakens). That alone tells us we're in close proximity to the current movies. We also meet Black Squadron members Snap Wexley, Karé Kun, L'ulo, Jess Pava, and Oddy Muva. Ominously, the group shot that introduces them to us on page 11 has the dialogue box from Leia telling Poe, "...make sure they're people you can trust." We can assume that Wexley and Pava are on the level because they're still flying with Poe in the movie, but the other three seem to merit some suspicion. Poe may need to start being a little less trusting than Doug, though this is all yet to be seen.

Writer Charles Soule elected to start us in the "present", then flash back for a few pages to bring us up to speed about why Poe and BB-8 are where they are. It's not a narrative convention that would be at home in the movies, but works well here, because if we open with Leia giving Poe his orders, the story is probably too perfunctory and flat to be interesting. Starting out not really knowing just what is going on or even when this is taking place, though, sets us up to ask questions from the first page. Soule also has clear command of the characters' personalities and voices. In particular, I appreciated the following exchange from story page 10:

Poe Dameron #1, Page 10, Panels 1-3, art by Phil Noto
Phil Noto's art, showcased in those three panels, is clean and easy to follow. His feel for Star Wars costumes and technology is solid, but it's his faces that really stand out. Not just because he's nailed the likenesses of the appropriate actors (even from such an indirect angle, that's definitely Oscar Isaac in panel 3 above!), but because he understands the emotional honesty of any given panel. Just look at the example above. Panel 1 is about Leia's wariness; Panel 2 is about her wanting to impress upon Poe her confidence in him; Panel 3 conjures M dismissing 007, not particularly even wanting to know the details of what's going to happen. Noto has keen feel for how to frame and light to create mood and energy, so that even a routine "here's what I want you to do" exchange doesn't feel rote.

This issue also features a backup story:

by Chris Eliopoulos with Jordie Bellaire

Here, BB-8 witnesses X-wing pilot Theo Meltsa and technician Peet Deretalia crushing on each other from afar and takes it on himself to create enough mechanical problems to bring the two together. It's cute and whimsical, in large part because of Bellaire's tonally perfect artwork. Being as concise as it is helps, too, because it's such a familiar premise. It also helps that BB-8 himself is the kind of character that lends himself so easily to this kind of scenario. Plus, I love that the crush being interracial doesn't mean anything to the characters whatsoever. This is how overcoming bigotry gets normalized.

Poe Dameron #1, "saBBotage", Page 24, Panel 5, art by Jordy Bellaire
There's time for seventeen issues to be published by time Episode VIII opens 15 December 2017, the next time Soule will have anything official to play off of with this book. That's time for three six-issue arcs, which begs the question just what the long term plan for Poe Dameron is. The framing device of searching for Lor San Tekka will almost certainly become secondary to the adventure at hand in any given issue along the way, but eventually I suspect we'll feel kind of trapped by it. For now, though, the energy level is right and there's a lot of promise to this book.

Star Wars Special: C-3PO
"The Phantom Limb"
Published: 13 April 2016
Writer: James Robinson
Artist & Cover Artist: Tony Harris
Letter: VC's Joe Caramagna
Assistant Editor: Heather Antos
Editor: Jordan D. White
$4.99 | 31 pages | Rated T

A friend bought this and lent it to me after I'd expressed curiosity in it. What he loved about it is that for once, Threepio isn't the butt of all the jokes. This is the account of how he came to have a red left arm in The Force Awakens. He's aboard a ship carrying a captured First Order droid, Omri, who has information about where Admiral Ackbar is being held. The ship crashes, killing everyone save Threepio, Omri, and a few other droids. Threepio takes command in short order, asserting that despite being a protocol droid, he's seen his fair share of action over the years and is the most experienced of the group.

The story isn't really about saving Ackbar, which doesn't even happen in the comic, or even about how C-3PO lived through being shipwrecked. It's about the relationship forged between Omri and him under special circumstances and in short time. Omri argues that he's only in the service of The First Order because that's how he was programmed, just as Threepio and the others are only in the service of the Republic/Resistance because that's how they were programmed. It's a classic nature versus nurture contemplation, but with the twist that these are sentient beings whose very will is in the hands of their programmers and owners.

I'll concur with my friend about it being nice to see this side of Threepio, and I appreciated the philosophical debate. The contrivance of the shipwreck is obviously just that, though, without any explanation even existing for why Threepio was part of this mission in the first place. The other droids are all snuffed out in a quick series of calamities, and this is also a problem for me because they haven't done anything to earn our being upset by their deaths beyond the basic expectation that we ought to be bothered by death and destruction by default.

Part of my problem with those droid deaths feeling hollow is with Tony Harris's artwork. Action sequences feel rushed and cluttered, imagery without emotion. That said, the overall aesthetic is outright eerie throughout and Threepio has seldom looked cooler:

Star Wars Special: C-3PO #1, Page 5, art by Tony Harris
I was interested in the themes and relationship between Threepio and Omri, but the issue itself falls a bit short of being satisfying. Not that it matters, but I read Omri's dialogue as narrated by Steve Buscemi and that felt really right to me. I'd recommend it.

As I said, the C-3PO issue was a loaner from a friend, and I found Poe Dameron in with back issues for just $2.00 (its digital code was even still intact!). I guess I'm just too old to accept that these two issues have a combined cover price of $9.98. I'm officially bailing on one of the two monthly books I'd been reading since November, though, and with my 15% discount for being a holds customer, I think I might get into Poe Dameron through its first arc, but I still can't help but wonder how kids today are expected to get into and follow more than a couple of new comics at a time.