In keeping with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 — and in celebration of Star Wars Volume 3 winning the 2019 Eisner Award in its category of “Best Archival Collection/Project—Strips” (grateful thanks are extended to all who voted for it) — the theme of our July spin of the LOAC Wheel of Fortune is space opera. Here are our sixteen books that belong in that subgenre, in the order they were released:
I could have labeled them our “science fiction books,” but one could argue that certain portions of other series (Superman, for instance) are science fictional in nature, so I opted for the somewhat-more-junior “space opera” term instead. In the 1960s and early ’70s, as increased emphasis was placed on auctorial style and a New Wave movement was sweeping the SF community, “space opera” was viewed as something of a pejorative term, harkening back to E.E. “Doc” Smith and his Lensman series and the works of Edmond (Captain Future) Hamilton; it was a blanket term for interplanetary action-adventure that emphasized plot over characterization, with a thin veneer of pseudo-science wrapped around the package.
Then came 1977 and the movie now referred to as Star Wars: A New Hope, and the science fictional sphere suddenly shifted …
Proponents of “hard science fiction,” such as Ben Bova, sneered at Star Wars as a giant step backward for the genre. Stylists like Harlan Ellison dismissed it as lowest-common-denominator entertainment (“I submit that when filmmakers begin thinking that pyrotechnics can replace stories about people, then the ambience of the toilet has set in”). But those few naysayers were drowned out in a sea of positive reviews and glad cries that science fiction was embracing its more light-hearted pulp roots, even as writers like C.J. Cherryh brought Star Wars-like universe-building back into the prose form (and received a Nebula Award nomination for her 1978 novel, The Faded Sun: Kesrith). Suddenly, space opera was no longer the unwanted visitor at the science fictional inn — space opera was cool. And it has stayed cool ever since.
Here at LOAC, our reading contains multitudes: we absorb both Ellison and Doc Smith, as well as Faulkner and Sturgeon and Hammett, John D. MacDonald mysteries and Pauline Kael movie reviews and Mike Royko newspaper columns. We grew up with Star Trek in its initial network run on NBC, we were on hand for original-release showings of Star Wars, we saw the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon series play on our TV screens, and had our eyes widen even farther around the close of the 1970s, when we first saw Alex Raymond’s original visions of Mongo. So it made perfect sense for us to include Raymond’s original Flash (plus his Jungle Jim “topper” strip) in our early publication plans, and it was a pleasure to be able to add Star Trek and Star Wars to the list, along with two other comic-strip projects we view with great fondness: Star Hawks and Beyond Mars. Those series encompass the sixteen volumes listed above, and here they are, randomly loaded into the LOAC Wheel, ready to be taken for a spin:
And once the Wheel has gone round and round, it comes out here, smack-dab in the middle of the Barnum System:
As Ron Goulart discussed in his introductory essay of the first volume in the series, Star Hawks directly grew out of Star Wars-mania, launching in 1977, in the wake of A New Hope. The NEA syndicate approached Goulart for a space opera and he had the Barnum System, setting for several of his novels, ready-made to serve as the backdrop for a space-police-force known as the Star Hawks. Artist Gil Kane shaped the looks of the Silver Age Green Lantern and Atom in the 1960s before moving to Marvel Comics and working on Spider-Man, drawing a bazillion covers, revamping the look of the Kree Captain Marvel, and co-creating Adam Warlock with writer Roy Thomas; he brought his comic-book sensibilities to Star Hawks, and enjoyed full use of its original “double-tiered” format, which made it as tall as two “normal-sized” daily comics.
Early on, reading Marvel Comics in the 1960s and ’70s, Gil Kane was not one of my favorite artists — the sharply angular faces and “up the nose” shots he favored during that period just didn’t resonate with my youthful self. Gil won me over during his return to DC Comics in the 1980s, when he teamed with Marv Wolfman portraying Superman’s adventures in Action Comics and rebooted Ray Palmer as a micro-sized barbarian hero in Sword of the Atom; I was also fortunate enough to meet him at a Boston convention during that period and found him polite, affable, and opinionated, all qualities I admired. My appreciation of Gil’s work only grew from that point onward, and allowed me to look at his prior work through fresh eyes.
While I had read few of Ron Goulart’s novel-length works (well, under his own by-line, anyway; I purchased and read as they were released the dozen Warner Paperback originals Goulart ghosted as “Kenneth Robeson,” featuring all-new adventures of Richard Henry Benson, a.k.a. The Avenger), I habitually read Ron Goulart’s short-form fiction when it was published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and elsewhere. So when it was reprinted in earlier editions, I was in the target audience for Star Hawks, and when we got the opportunity to produce our own complete and definitive reprinting of the series, I was all for us jumping in with both feet!
Howard Chaykin and Ernie Colon filled in for Kane in the midst of the run, while Gil recovered from illness, and the syndicate eventually replaced Ron Goulart as writer first with Archie Goodwin, later with Roger Mackenzie (Goodwin’s first work on the feature is contained in Volume 2); economic realities eventually forced the strip to abandon the two-tier format and resort to a single, conventional tier. The supporting cast members changed with time, as did the mission of protagonists Rex Jaxon and Chavez, but throughout its run Star Hawks offered the two key elements that mark all noteworthy space operas: a sense of wonder and a sense of fun.