This past May the Fourth weekend I was at a flea market and picked up “Riders in the Void,” which is issue #38 of the vintage Marvel Star Wars comic series. It was great to replace the issue I had as a 12-year-old back in August 1980 – although it cost me $4.60 more this time around. A few weeks after buying the comic, I attended Motor City Comic Con in Novi, Michigan and almost by chance met the illustrator of this issue, Michael Golden, who signed it for me as well as a larger print that awaits a spot in my Star Wars Room. Needless to say, “Riders in the Void” has been on my mind a lot and I thought I’d spend some time talking about why I love it. When it first came out in 1980, I remember absolutely hating this issue. Now it’s easily my favourite in the series, although issue 17, “Crucible,” would be a very close second.
Following a ten issue run illustrated by Howard Chaykin, the artwork for Marvel’s Star Wars series was taken up by Carmine Infantino whose work in the series is what I immediately go back to when I think of this title. The funny thing about Infantino though was that I never liked his work in this comic. The characters were always just…weird looking. Exaggerated arched eyebrows, awkwardly held blasters, a different interpretation of R2-D2 in almost every panel and his drawings of Chewbacca weren’t exactly screen accurate. That said, the stories during this era of the series were really good and Infantino could draw ships like no one else (even if they weren’t always screen accurate) and his odd style became the norm for Marvel’s Star Wars. I got used to it and devoured each issue as it came out. This style of artwork continued until issue 38 which was supposed to begin Marvel’s adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back. But instead of seeing a cover of the first Star Wars sequel on the spinner rack of my local Mac’s Milk, this was in its place:
Nothing about this issue looked like anything I read before in the previous run of 37 issues. Instead of the very stylized artwork of Infantino, readers were presented with the work of legendary comic book artist, Michael Golden. For the first time since the six-issue movie adaption we saw Luke and Leia looking more like their actor counterparts. Although his drawings were as distinctive in their own way as Infantino’s, the characters looked like Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, more than we had seen before. But, since Infantino’s odd style dominated the book for over 20 issues, the shift to Golden’s pencils were initially jarring. The colouring is often muted for example, but in the context of this issue it works as the story takes on a sort of dreamscape theme. And his illustrations of Star Destroyers and TIE fighters just felt like Star Wars. More so than any issue that came before.
“Riders in the Void” finds Luke and Leia travelling alone in an unfamiliar Rebel starship. This isn’t the Blockade Runner that we have seen them pilot in previous issues. As the story opens, our heroes are under attack by the Empire. They attempt to escape through hyperspace but they have mechanical issues and find themselves lost, as Leia exclaims, “We’re beyond the galaxy!…Lost somewhere in the void!” It makes me wonder all these years later if this is the same void that we experienced with Col. Meebur Gascon in The Clone Wars. After all, that story arc did feature a skeletal Jaxxon who of course has his origins in the old Marvel series.
Our heroes are captured by a ship that looks more like an alien body part, a heart maybe? It turns out that they are prisoners of a being that has fused its spirit with the ship itself, or to put it more directly, as the book does, “A LIVING STARSHIP!” Luke and Leia are then subjected to what the being refers to as “games” as it basically toys with the heroes in a twisted, sort of funhouse way. The games end however when Luke destroys a lightsaber-wielding droid and the being realizes that his new guests are actually “real” rather than simulations created by the ship’s computer. The being tries to blow our heroes out of the ship by opening its hull to the vacuum of space.
The plot takes on a decidedly “un-Star Wars” angle from this point as Luke, doing a pretty good Spider-Man impression in one panel as he tries to save Leia from being sucked out into space, proclaims his love for her. Remember this is pre-Return of the Jedi so Luke was unaware how creepy this might have been. The being suddenly decides to not kill his guests after experiencing the care Luke and Leia feel for each other.
To me the remainder of the story reads more like an episode of Star Trek. Luke and Leia meet the being on the bridge of the ship where he shares the story of his people and how he came to be part of the ship. For years I assumed the physical form of the alien was its skeletal remains but I later realized the panel that first introduces the reader to him shows a spacesuit of some sort, similar to the suits seen in Alien. It is sort of fused to the ship’s controls. For the longest time I confused the visor of its helmet to a gaping mouth (think Ultron).
The being explains that he fused with his ship after war had decimated his planet. Alone in the galaxy he essentially lost touch with reality. The being/ship returns our heroes to their galaxy only to come under attack from the Empire. The alien releases “anti-matter pods” (very un-Star Wars) that destroy the Imperial forces. The story quickly wraps up as Luke and Leia depart on their now repaired ship as the alien bids them a fond farewell. To be honest, there’s a lot of smiling and warm fuzzy thoughts going on where a few panels before our heroes were dumbstruck as the Imperial forces were destroyed.
With mysterious aliens, spaceships that are essentially alive, and a moral that doesn’t reflect the normal ‘good will triumph over evil’ that we have grown accustomed to with Star Wars, ”Riders in the Void” stands out in the vintage Marvel series as an almost calm before the storm that is The Empire Strikes Back.
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