The Best Manga You’re Not Reading: Star Wars

I was five years old when Star Wars: A New Hope blasted its way into movie theaters. Like most members of Generation X, the film cast a long shadow over my childhood, dictating my Halloween costumes, afterschool play, Happy Meal purchases, toy collections, and clothing; I had Princess Leia action figures, Star Wars drinking glasses, Star Wars t-shirts, and a Star Wars beach towel. One of the few tie-in products I didn’t own, however, was a comic book adaptation of the movie. I’d purchased The Star Wars Storybook at a Scholastic book fair in 1978, but never knew that Marvel Comics or manga publishers were peddling something similar.

That’s a pity, because Star Wars has a long and fascinating history in print. Marvel’s six-issue adaptation of A New Hope, for example, was cooked up by a Lucasfilm executive to drum up business for the film — in essence, it was a trailer for comic geeks, arriving on newsstands a month before the movie opened. Though Marvel executives had been reluctant to license Star Wars — according to former editor Jim Shooter the “Prevailing Wisdom” at Marvel was that “science fiction doesn’t sell”  — it proved one of the company’s best business decisions of the 1970s. “The first two issues of our six issue adaptation came out in advance of the movie,” Shooter observed:

Driven by the advance marketing for the movie, sales were very good. Then about the time the third issue shipped, the movie was released. Sales made the jump to hyperspace. Star Wars the movie stayed in theaters forever, it seemed. Not since the Beatles had I seen a cultural phenomenon of such power. The comics sold and sold and sold. We reprinted the adaptation in every possible format. They all sold and sold and sold.

By contemporary standards, Roy Thomas and Howard Chaykin’s version is skillful but a little stodgy, relying on voice-overs to introduce key characters and explain plot points, rather than allowing the art to shoulder the responsibility of telling the story. Nonetheless, as Star Wars fever crossed the Pacific, Weekly Shonen Magazine republished Thomas and Chaykin’s comic, touching off a Star Wars manga blitz in Japan.

Japan caught Star Wars fever again in 1997, when the Special Edition trilogy hit theaters across the globe. Kadokowa’s MediaWorks division churned out a new set of Star Wars manga, hiring Hisao Tamaki (A New Hope), Toshiki Kudo (The Empire Strikes Back), and Shin-Ichi Hiromoto (Return of the Jedi) to handle the adaptations. And while all three are good, faithfully reproducing the main beats from each film, Tamaki’s version of A New Hope is that rarest of tie-in products: it captures the look and feel of the movie without slavishly copying it, offering both a fresh perspective on a canonical text and a point of entry for someone wholly unfamiliar with Star Wars. 

Part of what makes Tamaki’s version so fascinating is how he compensates for the absence of a soundtrack — no mean feat, given how noisy the Star Wars universe is. While Tamaki uses plenty of hand-lettered sound effects, he never uses them as a crutch, instead finding nifty ways to help us imagine the sound of a landspeeder skimming the desert floor or a Stormtrooper firing his blaster. Tamaki’s most effective tactic is careful attention to the velocity and direction of moving objects; through deft placement of speedlines and artful manipulation of the panels’ shape and size, he conveys the same information that a well engineered roar, squeak, thud, or electronic rumble might.

Then there’s the film’s lush, Wagnerian score, the kind of movie music that had been fashionable in the era of Ben Hur and Lawrence of Arabia but was considered unhip in the gritty, naturalistic world of early 70s cinema. The opening fanfare and dense web of leitmotifs are unquestionably part of A New Hope‘s appeal, goosing fight scenes and capturing the melancholy of a young Luke Skywalker as he gazes at a Tatooine sunset. Absent those musical prompts, however, Tamaki is forced to think about how to elicit the same emotions in words and pictures. One of the most dramatically successful attempts to bridge sound and silence occurs in volume one of Tamaki’s adaptation, right after R2D2 and C3PO land on Tatooine:

In the film, John Williams accompanies C3PO’s trek with music cribbed from The Rite of Spring — a decent choice, as Stravinsky’s dour ostinati and octatonic harmonies imbue the harsh landscape with an otherworldly quality. Tamaki, however, distills this two-minute scene to an evocative two-page spread in which a wide-angle view of the Tatooine desert unfolds beneath the individual panels, reminding us just how small and vulnerable both droids are. These images track closely with Lucas’ own vision, but the implied silence of the first and final panels in this sequence more powerfully conveys C3PO’s isolation than any musical gesture could:

The absence of sound has another unexpected benefit: minus the actors’ desperate attempts to make George Lucas’ dialogue sound… well, like conversation, the script has more room to breathe. Tamaki plays the earnest stuff straight and ramps up the comedy whenever someone is surprised or indignant. Luke, in particular, benefits from such an approach, given his age and naivete; in Tamaki’s hands, he’s Monkey D. Luffy with a lightsaber, freaking out over chores, the Millennium Falcon’s shabby appearance, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s death, a kiss from Princess Leia… you get the idea. Tamaki’s elastic deformations of Luke’s face transform him from blandly handsome farm boy to Shonen Jump hero, equal parts brave and ridiculous:

One of the manga’s other great virtues is its ability to expand and contract time in ways that a purely temporal medium like film can’t. The ability to speed up and slow down the unfolding the plot isn’t unique to comics, of course; filmmakers can use slow motion imagery or cross-cutting to manipulate the viewer’s perception of time, but a good manga artist takes advantage of the fact the reader can, in fact, stop time by poring over an image or a scene for minutes, savoring small but telling details that would otherwise get lost in the cinematic flow. Writing for Animerica in 2004, Patrick Macias offered a thoughtful explanation of how this kind of creative expansion of time adds new layers of meaning to Tamaki’s story:

It is in Tamaki’s take on destruction of the planet Alderaan that he really shows off his stuff. A scene that took mere moments to depict on-screen is drawn out to fill half a dozen pages. He inserts images of the Alderaan populace looking up to the heavens, and you can almost hear those “millions of voices suddenly crying out in terror” with more dramatic impact in the manga than in the film.

Of course, none of this would matter if Tamaki lacked the precision to bring Lucas’ vision to life on page. Again and again, Tamaki delivers amazingly detailed drawings of space ships, aliens, and weapons that pulse with the same life as Katsuhiro Otomo’s AKIRA and Shirow Masamune’s Ghost in the Shell; if you’d never seen or heard of Star Wars, you might reasonably infer that Tamaki dreamt up this world on his own. Tamaki proves equally adept at staging deep space dogfights, too, conveying both the dizzying speed with which the ships are moving and the maze-like surface of the Death Star:

For readers coming to the manga from the films, the biggest stumbling block will be the character designs: did Tamaki get them right? The short answer is yes, if you can tolerate a little artistic license with hairdos and body types. Not surprisingly, R2D2 and C3PO look most like their big-screen counterparts — no pesky noses or mouths to draw — but the rest of the cast bear a passing-to-strong resemblance to the actors who portrayed them, though Obi-Wan Kenobi looks and moves more like Chuck Norris than Sir Alec Guiness. Tamaki does an even better job of bringing Darth Vader and his Stormtroopers to life on the page, adding an extra touch of menace in the way he draws their helmets; you can almost see the soldiers grimacing under their plastic armor from the way he draws their browlines.

If I’ve sold you on manga Star Wars, you’ll be happy to know it’s a relatively inexpensive way to relive the original trilogy. The digital versions — currently available through Amazon and ComiXology — retail for $1.99 per volume. There’s also a Phantom Menace manga for the morbidly curious; Kia Asamiya is the author, and he’s been given the truly thankless task of condensing that stinker into two volumes. At least it won’t be as interminable as the movie.


Macias, Patrick. “Star Wars, The Manga.” Animerica, VIZ LLC, 7 Apr. 2004, Accessed 27 Dec. 2017.

Rickard, Ron. “Retro Foreign: Japanese Weekly Shōnen Magazine #18 – 23 (1978).” Star Wars Comic Collector, 20 May 2016, Accessed 27 Dec. 2017.

Shooter, Jim. “Roy Thomas Saved Marvel.” Jim Shooter, 5 July 2011, Accessed on 28 Dec. 2017.

Spellman, Ron. “A Long Time Ago: The Strange History of Marvel’s Original Star Wars Universe.” Comics Alliance, Townsquare Media, 28 Jan. 2016, Accessed 28 Dec. 2017.

Tamaki, Hisao. Star Wars: A New Hope, adapted from an original script by George Lucas, Marvel Comics, 1998. 4 vols.

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