As a student of tie-in material, the Star Wars Expanded Universe stands apart from all other works. Sure, there are Star Trek books, a library’s worth even, but they aren’t canon and everybody knows it. Comic books get novels frequently and while they’re good, they have to put the toys up at the end of the story. It doesn’t matter the franchise, canon must be respected.
Star Wars ignored that with the EU. The characters actually changed. Han & Leia got married and had kids. Luke got married and founded a new order of Jedi. Chewbacca died. Boba Fett undied. The SW universe moved forward in a way that felt like actual canon.
Then of course Disney bought it and none of it was canon. This has been met with mixed reactions. Many genuinely had come to love the EU and felt it effectively became canon. Characters like Thrawn were too good to throw out. (They were right. Thrawn is now hard canon on Rebels with a novel coming from his creator.) Others, myself included, felt like it was only fair for the new films to stand on their own, unencumbered by years of books.
I’ve argued the case against the EU, now known as Legends, in an earlier entry. Now, I feel like I want to take a different angle and do a retrospective on what I see as the 3 defining eras of the EU: The early years with Marvel and Del Rey, the Bantam/Dark Horse years, and the Del Rey return. I’m giving each era its own entry which I hope will allow me to do justice to each. I stress I’m not covering every single book or comic. In fact I cover the specific reasons I quit the EU in entry 3. But this is hopefully a fairly comprehensive study of the EU, at least for me.
So we begin!
Era I:(Marvel/Del Rey, 1977-1986 with a side trip in 1992)
The great myth of fictional universes is that they emerge fully formed. Often a work is pushed out even before the creator has figured it out completely. Nowhere is that clearer than with Star Wars. Look at the licensed fiction released before 1991 and you see a mass of world building but it’s not for a cohesive world. Characters aren’t who they’ll ultimately become. The universe feels off. Yet it all coalesced into a form of canon.
Splinter of the Mind’s Eye: There may not be a more important tie-in book ever. Written to serve as the basis for a potential low budget sequel, the book feels like an artifact from an alternate universe. It suggests a strange, offbeat low budget film complete with limitations such as a limited setting. That said, it’s a really fun novel and a very cool side story. Sure it gives away that Lucas had no idea Luke and Leia were siblings, but that’s the charm. Written by Alan Dean Foster, ghostwriter of the original novelization and writer of the novelization of The Force Awakens, this is a ride worth taking.
The Han Solo Adventures: There are only three of these but there could’ve been 60. Brian Daley treated Han Solo as a generic space action hero and frankly that felt right. These are fun, goofy pulp stories. I have little trouble believing these stories fit in with Star Wars. I think spinning off Han makes the most sense as he’s cut from the same cloth as Buck Rogers and Doc Savage.
The Marvel Series: This is probably the biggest source of canon in this age and what a surreal source it is. It’s extremely clear what Lucasfilm allowed (almost nothing) and what they didn’t (anything that furthered the plot.) As a result, there’s a ton of wheel spinning which tends to spin the books into genres such as epic fantasy and spy thriller. Often the characters go down strange paths which you can’t fathom being welded into canon. None of this feels like Star Wars.
That said, I recommend the hell out of at least the comics until Jedi. Marvel put their absolute A-team on the comics. Archie Goodwin, Roy Thomas, Howard Chaykin, Carmine Infantino, Chris Claremont, and Walt Simonson were among the greats working on the series and it really shows. Divorced from the license, these are just glorious pulp. They don’t feel like SW but they feel great anyway.
As I noted, post Jedi, things kind of fall apart. That makes sense as the end of Jedi destroyed their major villain. Without the Empire, what was Star Wars? What we got instead was the surreal side stories taking over with an increased focus on new alien threats. It got silly. (I hope you’re all taking notes on these points. They will repeat.)
Marvel did nearly get one series but it moved to Dark Horse post announcement. I’m going to cheat so I can discuss:
Dark Empire: This is a beloved story in some circles. Opinions are not wrong but fans of this? You are in fact wrong. This story is such an utter mess. I cannot believe Lucas, who personally approved this mini, actually allowed this to go forward. Whereas the other works were bound by limits, this giddily throws everything to the winds. The Emperor has clones and wants to possess Leia’s unborn child. Force storms! Boba Fett is still alive. Luke turns to the dark side. This is just so silly. It’s badly made in writing and art. Not a classic at all.
I’m also going to stop here to make room for 6 books that don’t really fit the next age but deserve to be studied.
The Jedi Prince Series: The amount of work I’ve seen people put forward to make these baffling books canon is almost comical. These are 6 kids books which do ultimately fit into canon but only after so many retcons they might as well have never happened. There are such odd beats as a son of Palpatine and a different wedding for Han and Leia (which was among the retcons.) These are odd books but honestly, I was surprised as I studied them to find they actually aren’t that off. The presence of a kid hero marks them as obvious children’s books but they do feel like Star Wars ultimately. I’d even go so far as to say I wouldn’t mind them back in print. They’re not as good as things would get but there is that wonderful weirdness.
So what can I conclude from looking at early canon? It’s pretty clear that what Star Wars is, the essence present in the new movies, wasn’t defined yet. There’s still traces of things like Buck Rogers and John Carter throughout the early works. That results in something shaggier and less individual but also less predictable. Rather inevitably, SW was strongest in the hands of greats like Alan Dean Foster and the Marvel team. Early canon will likely frustrate fans of the later EU but I think there’s real charm to it.
Next: The EU hits a golden age at Bantam.