Legendary comic strip and comic book artist Al Williamson died on June 12. Williamson walked in the footsteps of his artistic idol, Alex Raymond, working on Raymond's creations Flash Gordon, Rip Kirby and Secret Agent Corrigan during his long career. For George Lucas, and myself, he was the ideal artist to adapt 'Star Wars' to comics.
I knew Williamson's art before I collected comics. When 'The Empire Strikes Back' came out in 1980, I was eight years old. I have a vivid memory of seeing it in a theater with my dad and two brothers because it was so packed we had to split up. Dad and my brother John sat separately. My brother Eric and I, the two youngest, sat together. In the beginning of the movie, the 'Star Wars' logo boldly appears and shrinks away. "We saw this one," Eric said, somewhat irritated, thinking it was the first one. Given that we hadn't seen the original since three years ago beforehand and only once, this statement still shocks me. Around this time my parents bought me the comics adaptation in paperback. I don't know if it was before or after we saw the movie. I wasn't so concerned with spoilers back then. I recall the following year that I read the 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' novelization before I ever saw the movie.
The paperback was just one of several formats for the comic book adaptation of 'Empire Strikes Back' from Marvel Comics. It was serialized in the monthly 'Star Wars' comic (issues #39-44). It was released in magazine-size as Marvel Comics Super Special #16. It was also released in treasury/tabloid size (10" x 13") as Marvel Special Edition #2. Only 'Battlestar Galactica' (1978) had received this four format treatment. 'Star Wars' must have just missed the 'Marvel Super Special' format, though it began in 1977. And by 'Return of the Jedi' in '83, Marvel had stopped releasing books in the Treasury format.
Now for the art, which is credited to both Williamson and Carlos Garzon. Williamson explains - "Marvel gave me a fairly good price, and it turned out to be about 104 pages, which had to be done in about three months, and no way could I do that myself. So I talked to Carlos Garzon and told him we'd split it, put his name on it, and said let's go. Carlos does backgrounds and hardware, but I always ink the figures myself."1 Rick Veitch did the lettering and some additional art, which he recently described on his blog.
This next one needs a little explaining. Williamson didn't see the film he was adapting. Photo stills, scripts and reference material was provided, and apparently some of it was lacking. That's how we end up with purple Yoda. I believe Yoda was originally purple in some of the concept designs, which may be what Williamson had used. Yoda was soon fixed to the green version, but in early versions/printings he was was purple with white hair. His size is also inconsistent. I guess Yoda in the move is about three feet tall. In the comic, he sometimes appears to be about 18 inches!
The adaptation found new life when Dark Horse Comics took over the Star Wars comic book license in the 1990s. It was reprinted as a two-issue mini-series in 1994 called 'Classic Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back' and then again as one book in '95. Dark Horse began reprinting the Marvel series in consecutive order in tpb format under the heading 'Classic Star Wars: A Long Time Ago...'. Williamson's 'ESB' adaptation is in volume 3, Resurrection of Evil (2002), which reprints issues #39-53 as well as the volume 2 of the larger Omnibus version, reprinting issues #28-49. The difference in these newest reprints is the use of digital color separation technology. If you want the originals, though, no problem. The paperback and Marvel Super Special are easily found on Abe Books and Ebay. As for Williamson's other 'Star Wars' work, he went on to do the 'Star Wars' comic strip and the 'Return of the Jedi' comics adaptation.
1Van Hise, James, The Art of Al Williamson, 1983, Blue Dolphin, San Diego