Today, Patrick and Michael are discussing Star Wars 23, originally released September 28, 2016. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Patrick: There has been a lot of digital ink spilled on the subject of the predictable nature of the structure of the Star Wars films. Whether we’re talking about the Campbellian Hero’s Journey or some kind of impossibly orchestrated ring-based super structure, or just the fact that Force Awakens hits all the same beats as A New Hope, everyone likes to image that they know how a Star Wars story is going to go. Hell, even the interquel nature of the Star Wars comic book series forces the reader to apply all kinds of knowledge about how they already know the story ends. There are — presumably — no surprises to be found between the 4th and 5th episodes of a ubiquitous series based on the culturally omnipresent mono-myth. But writer Jason Aaron is aggressively mucking with structure in this story arc, “The Last Flight of the Harbinger,” and issue 23 finally starts to marry disparate story threads and character beats into genuinely harrowing conflict.
The issue starts off by filling in one of the more explicit gaps from the previous issue. What we had seen in issue 22 was the Harbringer exploding, followed by a hard cut to one week later, our heroes safe and sound aboard the stolen Star Destroyer. And while it was pretty glaring that we didn’t see that action last time, there’s nothing too surprising that happens in those lost moments. Luke, Leia, Han et. al eject the melting-down reactor at the last possible second and jump to hyperspace, creating the illusion that ship was totally obliterated — pretty much what I had assumed. But Aaron and artist Jorge Molina get to start an issue that is otherwise kinda light on action off with a life-and-death ticking time bomb scene. We even get a little victory celebration.
It’s like a whole Star Wars story in miniature. But this is also where the predictably structured stuff ends. From this point in the story, which already purports to taking place “days ago,” we flash back again to “more days ago.” That’s an unusual structure for any story, but it stands out as especially unusual for Star Wars, which is often overly careful to establish the stakes before launching into the action. That’s when we first get down to the specific reason Luke and Leia want to hijack a Star Destroyer. I suppose even this sort of jumping back to fill in the blanks isn’t totally alien to Star Wars — we get a lot of that during the Tattooine segments of Return of the Jedi, albeit without the use of flashbacks. But there’s an even subtler foreshadowing when we get back to the “now” portion of the story. Sana and Luke end up sorta bonding through their engineering dorkiness, and Luke asks what Coruscant is like. Sana describes it, before tossing off that it’s “like Nar Shaddaa, only with less grime.” If that lights up your brain, that’s because we’ve been to Nar Shaddaa.
Remember issue 21? It looked like a one-off issue, focusing on a bad-ass squadron of elite Stormtroopers, but with that simple mention of Nar Shaddaa, they’re eased back into the reader’s consciousness. And that’s a good thing too, because they’re the surprise reveal at the end of the issue. I love the way Aaron and Molina build up the threat of Squadron 99 even within this issue. Is there anything more intimidating — and, by that token, as uncharacteristically non-Star Wars — as seeing a dead man strapped to the front of a rebel ship?
And, again, it’s Sana who sees through this, which — however indirectly — ties her suspicions about this ship to her knowledge of Nar Shaddaa, and to the hardest Stormtroopers about to board the Harbinger.
All of that is wrapped around the most frivolous story I’ve ever read in a Star Wars book. Michael, what do you make of Han and Leia’s race to the captain’s chair? It’s cute and all, and it certainly succeeds in lulling me into a false sense of security, making the above corpse-hood-ornament all the more alarming, but it too feels out of character. Let me ask you this – we’ve been so focused on how these new additions to the Star Wars canon all feel like Star Wars, but maybe there’s more virtue to not feeling like Star Wars?
Michael: I think you’re right on the money there Patrick – in my mind for these books to succeed they should not necessarily feel like Star Wars. You touched on this a bit and I’ve talked to you personally about how I’m one of those Star Wars fans that tries to reconcile the events of the films and how the comics can’t tread too far in certain directions (ex: Han & Leia 4ever) without steamrolling continuity; not to mention making my brain explode. Obi-Wan Kenobi once said “There are alternatives to fighting.” Perhaps there are alternatives to traditional Star Wars storytelling as well. If there is a straight line from A New Hope to The Empire Strikes Back, then I guess I’d say that everything that Jason Aaron & co. have shown us thus far is the long way around – detours that we are aware of but the characters aren’t.
To double down on your point: yes I do believe that there is virtue in a Star Wars story not feeling like Star Wars. Despite rumors of reshoots and rewrites the new Star Wars film Rogue One seems to be a stealth/heist drama told in the language of Star Wars. Just like (the idea) of Rogue One, the Elite Stormtrooper Squadron of Star Wars 21 maps the story of a well-oiled combat unit onto familiar visuals of The Galactic Empire’s military force. The “bad guy soldiers with terrible aim” trope is not something that Star Wars invented, but it is most commonly attributed to the Stormtroopers – especially in the age of insufferable internet memes. I think that the stark tonal shift between a schoolyard chase to a frozen corpse surprise is extremely intentional. It’s a declaration from Squadron 99 to our motley crew of Rebels: “We do not miss. Do not fuck with us.”
There’s some humor in that jarring dichotomy, of course: like when a cartoon character comes to life and realizes that cartoon physics no longer apply in this strange, serious world. Anybody with a quarter of a brain could tell you that Star Wars is a story about good vs evil, dark vs light – but how dark can it go before it changes the nature of the story itself? I personally would love to see Squadron 99 take our Rebels to their serious world of Rebel popsicles and never missing. What would such dire and frightening circumstances bring out of our heroes?
Is the race between Han and Leia frivolous? Absolutely, but I’d argue that Star Wars as a series is frivolous. But my friend Patrick once told me not to question why it exists, because it does exist – nothing to change about that. So what do I expect from a Star Wars comic? Pretty much what Star Wars 23 delivered to me: some interesting Star Wars lore that we might not have seen before, some “will they, won’t they?” Han/Leia interplay that gets conveniently interrupted a final page reveal cliffhanger and Bob’s your uncle. The task laid out for Jason Aaron and Jorge Molina is to play with all of the toys in the Star Wars sandbox but not to break them, so mission accomplished? To be honest I didn’t mind the race to the bridge between Han and Leia; if anything it got me to be like “hey, THAT’S what the cover means!”
I keep guessing what Squadron 99 is gonna do in Star Wars 24 and what kind of tone it will take. Is it bad that I’m rooting for the bad guys on this one? I would love it if the next issue had the Stormtroopers’ POV throughout, with just glimpses of Han, Luke, and Leia as they cross their paths. Wishful thinking for something dramatically different?
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?