Like a lot of you, I saw The Empire Strikes Back many times in the theater. I saw it in regular theaters. I saw it at a drive-in. In fact, I even saw it another state. Let's just say that I was a fan. I loved this second tale of Luke Skywalker battling the evil Darth Vader and everything that he represented. The fact that Luke and the Rebellion basically lost in this fifth episode (the fact that I hadn't seen the other episodes that weren't even made yet never occurred to me) was what made this movie-going experience so special. Even at that young age, I knew that what I was witnessing on screen was like nothing I had ever seen before.
All of my theater viewings of this second Star Wars were special. So much so that I don't think I've seen The Empire Strikes Back VHS or DVD more than 3 times. There was no need to. My brain had been marinated in this movie through the cinema. Yet, there is one screening that stands out more than others. And this one centers around something that isn't rare for a lot of movies anymore, but back then it was rare for me as moviegoer: The Empire Strikes Back comic book.
Full disclosure, I am not a comic book person. I've never collected any comic books for any of the properties, franchises or superheroes that I love so much. As a consumer of content, I don't watch a movie based on a graphic novel or comic book and use any knowledge from that to help me better understand the movie (however, that would've helped in the case of Batman V. Superman). I tell you this because, to the best of my recollection, the comic book I remember them selling in the theater featured Hoth, Darth Vader, a Tauntaun, T-47 Airspeeders and somebody I've always believed to be Luke Skywalker but it very probably could be Han Solo. The cover of the one I bought had a yellowish, orange tint to it. This version came out in 1980 when The Empire Strikes Back was released.
Multiple versions of this Marvel Star Wars comic book were seemingly released during this year. They just had different covers. One of them featured Darth Vader, as well as Star Destroyers, planets and a small image of C-3PO and R2-D2. There's another version of this comic that features the one sheet from this film's release. There are probably more versions of The Empire Strikes Back comic that I am not privy to. Again, please forgive my lousy description of this seminal comic book. I am doing my best to evoke a memory so that I can best put you in the mindset I had upon acquiring it.
So I was watching the film for the umpteenth time when I was tasked with buying my family some refreshments. This was back when they could give you $20 and you would get a fair amount of change back. I don't even remember what snacks I bought, I just remember it being about The Empire Strikes Back comic book. In fact, I actually think my parents had purchased it for me before. I think some friends borrowed it and never returned it. Whatever the case was, I was 7 years old, the comic was right there and it was only $2.50. I had more more than enough change so I bought it.
I triumphantly returned to my seat. Did my parents and brother thank me for the snacks I showered them with? At first. Then they saw what I bought. I didn't have permission. Even worse? They remembered buying it for me. So they made me return it. This was during the middle of the movie! I was crushed. At the same time, I somehow knew I would see The Empire Strikes Back again. More to the point, I would have another chance to purchase the orange comic book. Eventually, I did and sadly lost it to time.
Over the years I have continued going to the movies. My love for seeing moving images hasn't changed. Even if the movie business is completely different than what it was back in 1990. I never forgot the experience of buying The Empire Strikes Back comic book. It was like a mini-event attached to one of the most important filmgoing experiences I would ever have. In many ways that comic encapsulates everything that's changed about tentpole movies over the years. And recently, with The Last Jedi calling more attention to how much big budget films (and the franchise as a whole) have changed over the years, it seemed fitting to look back at why that little comic has stayed with me over the years.
Movies didn't used to be book stores and toy shops.
Remember when going to the movies was just that? Nowadays, you take a family of 4 to the movies and you're in for $100 before the first frame of film strikes the light. Movie theaters always sold concessions. Today? They sell toys, books, memberships, and just about everything else to give you the complete viewing experience. Why in the world anybody pay such a premium to sit in chairs they can lay back in? Why not just stat]y home and wait until the movie becomes available if you want to do that? Without getting into all that, the lack of pizzazz is precisely what made The Empire Strikes Back comic book stand out. Here I was, excited about getting popcorn AND what essentially amounted to a storyboarded version of my favorite film. I was thankful for the ability to own this piece of Star Wars merchandise. This had never been available to me before. I didn't take this for granted. And at the same time, I didn't think that it would always be like this. The next weekend I didn't expect to go to the theater and get the comic book for The Shining. Though, that would've been rad too. Movies just feel impersonal now. Maybe they always have and I'm just noticing this because I'm older? Whatever the reason, The Empire Strikes Back comic book was both a blessing and a curse. A special piece of memorabilia that made the movie feel like an event, and a harbinger of how every aspect of the filmgoing experience would eventually be squeezed for its last dime. For a big budget film not to feel this way (but still be every bit a big budget film) is a pretty impressive feat even today.
The Empire Strikes Back comic was really well made.
The Empire Strikes Back was thick, stapled, colorful, and quite in-depth. I guess I shouldn't be so surprised. The comic book was published by Marvel. Again, it may have been because I was 7 but I just remember the images jumping off the page. Everything was so intricate. There were all these nuances to the panels that I didn't notice in the film. In fact, in many ways the comic book alerted me to thinks to look for upon re-screening The Empire Strikes Back. It could've been the look of Boba Fett, the body language of Lando Calrissian, or the dialogue of C-3P0 and R2-D2 or Princess Leia. Having this comic book gave me a greater understanding of film language. How to tell a story. What the best ways to convey emotion were. What might be the best way to breakdown an action sequence? I didn't know this at the time but I was essentially putting myself through a film class. I was seeing the colors of the Marvel artists being used against one another. This comic was breaking down how those little things I had taken for granted in the movie, could be used to greater storytelling effect in the long form experience that a comic book provides. Even then, as a young, impressionable child, I had no idea of the experience I was having. As I mentioned before, I wasn't one to read a book, comic book, or graphic novel (were they even called that in the 1980s?), before seeing the film on the big screen. Oftentimes, I would see the film and then, if I really, really liked it (as in the case of Rocky 3 or A Nightmare on Elm Street, I would go back and read the book. In the case of The Empire Strikes Back, I was in a whole different world. The film and comic book were melding together. Eventually, I wouldn't be able to think about scenes in The Empire Strikes Back without thinking of those incredibly detailed, colorful, comic book panels first.
The Empire Strikes Back Comic showed the whole movie.
That might seem like a no-brainer but for a 7 year old it was incredible. Up to that point in my life, I hadn't seen a film quite like The Empire Strikes Back. First of all, the bad guys essentially won. Secondly, the effects and action sequences were imminently re-watchable. Lastly, the tone and pacing were perfectly orchestrated for a child of my age. All of this is probably what allowed me to repeatedly sit through a movie that was over 2 hours. To get this all encapsulated in a comic book was EVERYTHING. I could, essentially, on-demand, replay all the events of The Empire Strikes Back in my mind. Now, as grand as that film is, it can't compete when a comic book is filtered through the mind of a 7 year old. Utilizing the well manufactured Marvel comic book, I was able to fast forward, rewind, and essentially move The Empire Strikes Back at light-speed if I so desired. I could play it out of order. I could view this movie in any way I chose. Oftentimes, I was so enamored with the ending, that that was where I would start before turning those glossy pages (at least that's how I remembered them) back to the beginning. In fact, there was a big debate amongst some of my friends. When Darth Vader asks Luke to join him and rule the galaxy, Luke's cry of "Never!" was interpreted in different ways. It was spelled out to mimic how he yelled it out in the movie. "NEEEEVVVVEEERR!!" (Or, something like that). However, in the movie it sounded differently than how it read on the page. We went back and forth about how to pronounce that word even though we both know the correct way. It was having the whole film, perfectly laid out in comic book form, that enabled a deeper understanding of the film to take place. And, even though I read through that comic numerous times, I never ceased to get caught up in the storytelling. The magic of both mediums was never lost. It was truly something special.