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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

On Star Wars Volume 3: Rebel Jail - Comic Book Spotlight

            Well everyone, the new Star Wars film is less than a week away and it will finally answer the long sought after question as to how the rebels managed to steal the plans of the original Death Star without the help of the all-important Bothans.  In all seriousness though this film does have A LOT going against it.  It has the same problem that all prequels have, where we already know the outcome of the story, which eliminates a good deal of narrative tension for the viewer.  The initial trailers looked poor and seemed like it was going for a dark and gritty tone, which is quite literally against everything that the franchise is about.  To add to this, it turned out that a good chunk of the film had to be re-shot due to Disney executives not liking what they saw and to make it even worse, the film’s director is none other than Gareth Edwards, a man whose entire directorial resume consists of one terrible independent monster movie and a Godzilla film so dull that it made the 97’ Roland Emmerich film look entertaining by comparison.  In short, there isn’t much hope for the rebellion in this film, (although the reviews are overall pretty positive so what do I know?).
            However, in spite of all of that, the film does have one thing going for it; its focusing on a mostly original cast of character.  Save for a few connections to the various Star Wars animated series’ and a few cameos here and there, all of the main characters seem to be the original creations of the creative team and look as if they will show us sides of both the Rebellion and the Empire that were never explored in the previous films.  If nothing else, one can at least look forward to that aspect of the film.  It is quite a shame though that the main Star Wars comic series doesn’t seem to have any similar ideas.

            For those of you who aren’t aware, the Star Wars franchise is one that has had comic tie-ins since the series debut back in 1977.  At first the series was in the hands of Marvel comics until 1986 when the rights moved over to Blackthorn Publishing until it finally ended up in the hands of Dark Horse Comics where the rights remained for over twenty years and produced hundreds of Star Wars titles.  Sadly, like the rest of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, this was all declared non-canon after the Disney Acquisition of Lucasfilm back in 2012 and the comic rights found their way back into Marvel’s hands, (another Disney subsidiary), in 2014.  Not long after a brand-new Star Wars series was announced under the penmanship of Jason Aaron, best known for his incredible work on the recent Thor and Doctor Strange series. 
            The hype and anticipation for this book cannot be understated.  It was the first official Star Wars…well anything to be released since the Disney acquisition and the first Marvel Star Wars comic in nearly 30 years.  The first issue was also projected to be the first comic to sell over a million copies since the early 90s when the industry was at its peak when men like Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane were in their prime.  And it made those numbers.  The first issue of Star Wars sold over a million copies within two months of its release and the series has maintained high sales numbers since, usually ending up in the top ten sales numbers each month.  Which in turn, makes it all the more infuriating that Aaron and company decided to tell the most generic Star Wars story imaginable, using the safest Star Wars formula possible.

            The first twelve issues of the new Star Wars series were, to put it quite frankly, a rehash of the plot and story structure of The Empire Strikes Back.  You have an initial rebel operation that isn’t a complete failure but doesn’t go quite according to plan, followed by Luke taking off to continue his Jedi training.  In the meantime, Han and Leia engage in a flirtatious, “will they, won’t they” relationship while being pursued by the Empire before one group is captured and has to be rescued by the other.  It can’t help but feel like one long recycling of ideas.  Now, to be fair, these issues aren’t bad by any means.  The art is, for the most part, decent and it does try to answer questions that the films never even bothered to bring up.  But, they don’t really answer these questions in interesting or satisfying ways and one cannot help but be astounded at just how safe of a direction the creative team decided to take on a book that was guaranteed to be a monster hit regardless of what it was about.  And sadly, today’s subject matter isn’t all that different.
           
             Star Wars Volume 3: Rebel Jail revolves around Leia and smuggler Sana Starros as they take Darth Vader’s ally, Doctor Alpha to a rebel prison while Luke and Han earn money for some much needed supplies for the rebellion.  Matters, however, are quickly complicated when a radical member of the Rebellion attacks the prison and is determined to wipe out its population due to a more hardline stance against the Empire and its up to Leia and company to stop him.
            Since the comic started back in January of 2015, this is probably the best idea that the comic has come up with.  Unlike every single story arc that came before it, this idea actually focuses in on an aspect that hadn’t been explored in the Star Wars universe before; primarily the issue of prisoners in the Star Wars universe.  Apparently the Rebellion does take prisoners and doesn’t just execute everyone who surrenders. This idea alone opens up a boatload of questions and issues that could be explored.  Even the book’s primary antagonist seems to represent a darker side of the Rebellion that we never saw in the films and again looked to be another unexplored aspect of the universe that opened up tons of story possibilities.  Unfortunately, whatever good ideas that the creative team may have had quickly devolved into another generic sci-fi yarn that feel like nothing more than filler arc; as if Aaron and company were contracted to do the book but lost interest in it after coming up with the initial premise.

            The first problem is the setting as it’s not very well used.  We don’t learn anything new about the Rebellion.  It doesn’t give us any insight as to how the prisoners live or give us any insight as to how living in such a prison might affect them physically or mentally.  We aren’t told how they interrogates high value prisoners or even why the rebellion would waste resources on keeping prisoners who are clearly complete monsters.  Heck, it doesn’t even use its obvious Raid/Dredd potential as the main antagonist ends up killing most of the prisoners himself while yelling at Leia for what he perceives to be the Rebellion’s shortcomings.
            The main antagonist himself is probably the comic’s biggest letdown.  With him we once again had an opportunity to see another angle on the Rebellion; someone who takes a more hardline approach to fighting the Empire and disapproves of the Rebellion’s current way of fighting.  The problem is that the book goes about it in a very black and white way.  He is presented as little more than a murderous psychopath whose actions are no better then that of the Empire; a mad man who ruthlessly kills defenseless prisoners and eventually holds key characters hostage in order to make Leia do things his way.  But what’s even more bizarre about it is that in spite of the fact that we are clearly meant to be against this guy, the book doesn’t really give us any reason to be up until the very end.  Everyone he kills are shown to be monsters and we’re never given a compelling argument as to why these guys shouldn’t be dead.  Leia’s entire argument against this guy begins and ends with “We don’t kill prisoners.”   There are no philosophical debates between the two on the nature of war, rules of engagement or the simple fact that they are fighting the Empire precisely because the Empire does horrible things like that and that stooping to their level makes themselves no better than the Empire.  As a result, the premise and obviously horrible actions of the main antagonist are undercut, lacks any potency and ultimately fails to justify its own existence;  making it feel as if the writers just did this story to fill in time before the next, hypothetically, more interesting arc begins.

            This becomes especially obvious when the actual filler parts of the book occur.  The book contains a comedic subplot where Luke and Han are forced to find a way to make money after Han loses all of the Rebellions funds while trying to cheat during a poker match.  What follows is a road trip, (space trip?), full of hi jinks where the two are forced to smuggle a heard of 'nerfs' to a planet that is blockaded by Imperial forces.  And, strangely enough, this part of the book works.  The dialogue is funny, the situation is well set up and its clear that the creative team was trying to have a good time with this part of the story.  Similarly, a chapter that involves Obi-Wan’s time on Tatooine is clearly an issue that was meant to kill time between story arcs.  But unlike the main plot of the book, there seems to be genuine enthusiasm in the writing and actual points to telling the story.  The first is to show that even at a young age, Luke was showing force sensitive and that Obi-Wan really wanted to protect him despite his uncle’s protests.  The second is telling us just why it was Owen wanted Obi-Wan to stay away.  It turns out to be very good, well executed explanation and does in one issue what the main story fails to do in four. 
            The opening chapter of the book is also a great example of a done in one story that has an actual point for existing.  Containing Star Wars Annual #1, the chapter/issue was actually written by Darth Vader writer Kieron Gillen and the difference between the chapter and the main story of the book is as clear as night and day.  Taking place on Coruscant, the issue follows a rebel spy who has managed to infiltrate the Imperial Government and uses his position to give intelligence reports to the Rebellion.  He quickly becomes involved in a plot to kill the Emperor after discovering where he will be at a certain time and it goes about as well as one would expect in a story that takes place before Return of the Jedi.  But while the plot of the issue is fairly predictable, the world building elements are not.  Within the issue we get some insight as to how it is the Imperial Government works as well as how it runs its propaganda machine against the Rebellion.  It also gives us a look at how the Rebellion runs its spies and the fact that it might be a bit more of an incompetent organization then was ever hinted at in the films.  Granted, the issue’s clear purpose was to be the set up to a sub-par twist in the main series; but it goes to show that even if you’re just killing time in a story while you wait to go back to the better stuff, you can at least care about what you’re writing and try not to suck at it. 

            In the end, Star Wars Volume 3: Rebel Jail is just sub-par.  Not great.  Not terrible.  Just mediocre; and continues on the path that made the first twelve issues forgettable.  There are a few good ideas here and there but the quality is at best inconsistent and at worse a rehashing of great formulas into lesser stories.  While Jason Aaron has proven that he has great ideas in his other works, his writing in Star Wars seems to lack any of these.  In fact, one cannot help but wonder why he’s even bothering with this series if he’s not going to even try to contribute anything meaningful to the series.  After all, what does a story really mean if there is no point in its existence?

            And those are my general thoughts on both Star Wars Volume 3: Rebel Jail and the series as a whole.  While I will more than likely continue to read the series, it’s not very likely that I’ll revisit this series here on Comic Book Spotlight unless the series does a complete 180 in quality, as I would more than likely end up repeating myself.  Next time, however, we’ll be looking at another series that, like this one, really didn’t have a reason for existing but somehow manages to justify its own existence.    So until next time, please Like the Nerd Hub Facebook Page, checkout The Nerd Hub Facebook groupFollow us on Twitter and be sure to check out my own personal blog, Trey’s Take On…as well as giving my Facebook Page a Like and checking me out on Twitter.and until then, may the force be with you.        

Written by, Trey Griffith
Edited by, Jack Flowers and Trey Griffith

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