From World War to Star Wars: Comic Books

Wartime propaganda -- the building blocks of greatness.

It’s July, the month when Star Wars fandom turns toward Comic-Con International in San Diego. Not only is it the largest comic convention in the world, its history with Star Wars goes back to 1976. Yes, even before a Star Wars film hit theaters, there were comic books telling stories of the galaxy far, far away. And just as the history of Star Wars and comic books are interwoven, the creation of comic books as we know them today is inseparable from the Second World War. From the classics that inspired Star Wars to the Golden Age creators who helped bring the Star Wars issues to life, let’s take a closer look at comic books in this month’s edition of From World War to Star Wars.

Star Wars comic book cover

It’s impossible to tell the story of comic books without remembering World War II. Just as the war in Europe and Asia swelled, this new format and characters inhabiting it grew to unexpected popularity. At the peak of the conflict in 1944, the Golden Age of comics was in full swing with characters like Superman, Captain America, and Captain Marvel leading the way. In fact, Captain America was depicted punching Hitler on the cover of his first comic book months before America even entered the war.

Comics served an important role in the war. They were entertaining and easy to carry, a highly popular medium for troops at home and abroad. Additionally, comics were important informational tools, used to instill a growing sense of patriotism and disseminate important training and propaganda. They remained important after the war as well.

Growing up in the late 1940s, George Lucas was reading comics long before he dreamed up Star Wars. “I read a lot of comic books, everything from Uncle Scrooge to Superman,” Lucas said in an interview with the Bantha Tracks newsletter. “I still have all the comic books I ever bought. They fit into one small brown cardboard box, and the face value could not have been more than $50.00, which I paid out of my own pocket money.”

Many years later, comics played an important role as Lucas created his space opera. As he explains in a DVD commentary, “when I was pitching the film, all I had was a 14-page story treatment. It was very vague. I said, ‘It’s kind of a 1930s action/adventure Saturday afternoon serial based on the kind of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, comic book future.’ That’s about all they knew about it.” Those early comics were a key inspiration. Lucas continues, “Some people like to call [the films] comic book stories but they aren’t the comic books under the superhero genre, they’re comic books in a very early part of the century when adventure serials first started.”

World War II officers

From Golden Age to A Galaxy Far, Far Away….

Even today, millions of us have enjoyed Star Wars stories told in comic form. Yet few realize that so many creators who got their start during the war remained active in the industry well into the Star Wars comic runs of the late 1970s and 1980s.

One example is George Roussos, a colorist who worked on multiple issues of Marvel’s classic Star Wars series. He began his career in comics in 1939, and by working on wartime informational comics he received a deferment from the draft. His illustration skills were put to use in the war effort.

Another is inker Vince Colletta, who served in World War II by painting nose art on bomber aircraft. Colletta broke into comics after the war, and after a long career working alongside greats like Jack Kirby on numerous Silver Age comics, he contributed to Star Wars 64: Serphidian Eyes.

Chic Stone was another artist known for his collaborations with Kirby. Stone broke into comics at the age of 16 and spent part of the 1940s working for Timely Comics, the company that later became Marvel. Decades later, he leant his talents to Star Wars 45: Death Probe.

Gil Kane’s cover art adorns multiple issues of the classic Star Wars series. This Eisner Hall of Fame member’s prolific comic career began in 1942 at the age of 15. Soon after doing his first work for Timely Comics in 1944, he went to war in the Pacific Theater, serving in the armed forces until December of 1945.

Of all of the artists from the Golden Age who contributed to Star Wars comics, none can match the number of issues that penciler Carmine Infantino created. He provided art for more than 30 issues of the classic Marvel run, picking up the series with issue #11. Like so many others from the era, he entered the business very young, freelancing for multiple companies while he was in high school during the early 1940s.

Finally, fans of the classic Star Wars newspaper comic strips might be surprised to know that illustrator Alfredo Alcala served a unique role in World War II. As a student in the Philippines, Alcala put his artistic abilities to service during the Japanese occupation of the country. After observing Japanese camps, he drew what he saw from memory and gave valuable intelligence to the Allies. His professional career began after the war, including work on comics in the Philippines and abroad. While comic fans know him for his legendary speed at drawing a page, Star Wars fans might be more familiar with his work on Han Solo at Stars’ End, a syndicated strip adaptation of Brian Daley’s novel. The strip with Alcala’s art ran in newspapers in 1980 and 1981.

Whether you are a longtime fan of these classic comics or just discovering these Legends stories for the first time, key an eye out for all of these creators whose careers literally spanned from World War to Star Wars!

Cole Horton is a historian and co-author of the upcoming book, Star Wars: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know from DK Publishing. He also contributes to Marvel.com and runDisney. You can follow him on Twitter, @ColeHorton.

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