See-Threepio once noted that he was “not very good at telling stories.” While the validity of that claim may be debatable, given his Ewok fireside chat in Return of the Jedi, it turns out that Threepio wasn’t the franchise’s real storyteller anyway. That distinction, it appears, goes to Artoo-Detoo.
More on that in a moment.
Many fans are well aware these days that Marvel published a number of Star Wars comics exclusive to the United Kingdom. Since Marvel UK released issues on a weekly basis, as opposed to the monthly schedule of the company’s American publications, it was inevitable that the British run would eventually exhaust its existing lore. When that happened, the firm began producing new material.
Some of these tales were released in the United States as a pair of Marvel illustrated digests, as well as in the pages of Pizzazz magazine, while Dark Horse colorized seven remaining tales for Classic Star Wars: Devilworlds #1-2. This year, Dark Horse reprinted all of the above, along with the long-unreprinted “Death Masque,” in its Star Wars Omnibus: Wild Space Volume 1, making the entire span of Marvel’s Star Wars line available in America at last.
Well…almost the entire span; the 1988 Ewoks Annual has yet to see a US reprint. But that isn’t the only Marvel lore not yet repackaged by Dark Horse. That’s where R2-D2 the bard comes in. In 1985, Marvel UK published two additional Star Wars tales under the banner “R2-D2’s Tales from the Data Banks.” Never heard of them? Well, that’s not surprising, as they were pretty obscure.
In fact, they were so obscure that technically, they weren’t even Star Wars tales.
In January of that year, the first of the two “R2-D2’s Tales” appeared in Return of the Jedi Weekly issue #83. The conceit, as the title suggests, involved Artoo presenting a new adventure to Star Wars fans, stored in the droid’s memory banks.
The story was actually not so new, however, nor was it even set in the Star Wars universe. In fact, it had already been published more than 20 years prior, in April 1963 — a full decade before George Lucas began writing the original Star Wars film — in the pages of Marvel’s Tales to Astonish #45. That anthology comic presented a handful of science fiction tales, including “Bronson’s Brain,” scripted by Stan Lee, with inks by Steve Ditko and lettering by Art Simek.
In “Bronson’s Brain,” title character Bruno Bronson (or possibly Boris Bronson, as he was identified in one panel) was the smartest man on Earth. A child prodigy, he grew more intelligent each year — and more conceited. As an adult, Bronson was unbearable to work with, openly condemning his “brainless” coworkers. Rather than help the human race abolish sickness, poverty, crime and war, Bronson sought only to use his vast intelligence to benefit himself.
To that end, Bronson designed a spaceship powered by thought alone, to search other universes for his mental equals. The genius discovered an advanced extraterrestrial world, the natives of which warmly welcomed him, offering an exchange of knowledge. However, when Bronson donned an educational helmet, he understood none of the information (which the aliens learned as children) entering his brain. Floored at such simple-mindedness, they locked Bronson in a cage marked “Alien Moron (Do Not Feed),” deeming him too brainless to fend for himself.
While repackaging “Bronson’s Brain” for Star Wars fans, Marvel UK made several format alterations. In addition to changing the tale from color to black and white, the publisher also removed the original title and trimmed away three panels. These included an opening close-up of Bronson’s condescending face, as well as two other panels showing how the would-be genius discovered the alien world and its wise inhabitants, using a “mento-meter” to register a high degree of brain power coming from a particular sector.
Ironically, the close-up of Bronson bore more than a passing resemblance to Beavis, one of the brainless title characters from MTV’s Beavis and Butt-head.
It should be noted that aside from a graphic of R2-D2 added alongside the opening narration, this story was otherwise unconnected to the Star Wars mythos. The same was true of the second “R2-D2’s Tales from the Data Banks” entry, presented in the Star Wars Summer Special published in June 1985. That story was reprinted from Tales to Astonish #42, which debuted in January 1963, by the same creative team of Lee, Ditko and Simek.
Originally titled “I Am Not Human,” this second tale introduced a mechanical being called Robot E-1, modeled after the human form. The scientist who built E-1 frequently chided the droid, “You must never forget — you are not human. You are only a robot.” Since he was human-shaped and had been created to think and speak like a human, however, E-1 decided he should lead a human life. To that end, he fashioned a human skin mask and escaped into the world of men.
Obtaining an office job, Robot E-1 was shocked at how unfriendly and untrusting his employers were, and at how hostile his coworkers were regarding his strong work ethic, which made them look bad. Upon witnessing the crime, war, poverty and disease outside his creator’s laboratory, E-1 grew disenfranchised with mankind, who had squandered the amazing life they’d been granted. Depressed, he rejected society and returned to the lab, where the scientist reminded him that he could never be a human’s equal. Sadly, E-1 replied that “perhaps no robot would ever want to be.”
Thematically, Stan Lee’s scripts for both tales were quite similar, condemning mankind’s weaknesses from an outsider’s viewpoint. Whereas “Bronson’s Brain” employed a Twilight Zone-style “twist ending,” “I Am Not Human,” with its central theme of droid discrimination, could actually fit quite well into Star Wars mythology — well, aside from its Earth-centricity, that is. In fact, the relationship between the scientist and E-1 was not dissimilar to that displayed by Wheel administrator Simon Greyshade and his droid, Master-Com, in Marvel issues #18-23.
This observation is reinforced by the definite physical resemblance between E-1 and C-3PO. Ralph McQuarrie’s original aesthetic for Threepio was heavily influenced by the design of Maria, the Maschinenmensch robot portrayed by actress Brigitte Helm in Fritz Lang’s 1927 expressionist science-fiction film Metropolis. Clearly, E-1 was modeled after Maria’s likeness as well.
The stories’ Earth-centricity is less of a continuity issue than it may seem, as the franchise is replete with terrestrial references, from Luke, Leia, Ben, and Owen to the Millennium Falcon. The Expanded Universe has mentioned cobras, calamari, hammerheads, walruses, ducks, eagles, dandelions, hot chocolate, cigars and countless other Earth terms — as well as oblique references to Big Bird and the Trix Rabbit. And the album Christmas in the Stars featured Chewbacca and the droids singing Christmas carols. What’s more, Indiana Jones appeared in Star Wars: Yoda Stories and Star Wars Tales; E.T.’s species cameoed in The Phantom Menace; and Disney’s Star Tours: The Adventures Continue placed Spaceport THX1138 in the “Earth System.” In fact, Robert J. Sawyer’s canceled novel Alien Exodus would have established Earth as humanity’s birthplace, and even would have tied the film THX-1138 into the mythos. Clearly, then, “Bronson’s Brain” and “I Am Not Human” can be shoehorned into continuity with little fanfare.
Perhaps the most astounding aspect is the team behind these stories. Stan Lee, the co-creator of Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Thor, Doctor Strange, and other iconic characters, was Marvel’s publisher when the firm obtained the Star Wars license. Initially, Lee rejected George Lucas’ proposal for an adaptation of the first film, preferring company-owned concepts over licensed titles. In fact, he only gave in after Charles Lippincott, Lucas’ advertising publicity supervisor, enticed writer Roy Thomas to champion the proposal (using production drawings from Ralph McQuarrie), and upon learning that the film would co-star Alec Guinness. Lee later penned the introduction to The Marvel Comics Illustrated Version of Star Wars, which collected that same adaptation. Ironically, given his reluctance to sign off on the series, the Star Wars line has widely been credited with sparing Marvel from bankruptcy.
Stephen J. Ditko, meanwhile, co-created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange before a falling-out ended the Lee-Ditko collaboration, reputedly regarding credit for Ditko’s contributions, and/or the revelation of Norman Osborn being the Green Goblin. Ditko also breathed life into characters such as Captain Atom (for Charlton Comics); the Question, the Creeper, Shade the Changing Man, and Hawk and Dove (for DC Comics); and Mr. A (for the underground comic witzend).
Ditko and Lee are both considered legends, but neither has been associated with Star Wars, aside from Lee’s Marvel publisher credit and the above-noted intro, as well as Ditko’s illustration of card #90 for Topps’ 1993 Star Wars Galaxy line. So the fact that these two icons actually wrote and drew a pair of tales peripherally part of the Star Wars universe — and for Marvel, no less — but which have been long-overlooked by most Star Wars fans, is huge.
Art Simek worked as a Marvel letterer during the Silver Age of comic books; he and Sam Rosen lettered and designed logos for almost every Marvel title released during the 1960s. Other than Tales to Astonish, he does not appear to have any other connection to Star Wars.
Although Marvel UK’s weekly Return of the Jedi comic ran for another 72 issues, no further installments of “R2-D2’s Tales from the Data Banks” were presented beyond these initial two offerings. The reason for the concept being dropped is unknown, but it’s probably for the best. Despite thematic similarities and a single drawing of Artoo, nothing about these comics truly tied them to Star Wars continuity. Even labeling them Star Wars comics, in fact, may be a bit of a stretch, given that they both predated the franchise by more than a decade.
Incidentally, Marvel UK did something similar with its Planet of the Apes line, repackaging several issues of its War of the Worlds spinoff Killraven as a POTA storyline. The result was rather disastrous, with alien invaders given pasted-on gorilla heads! Thankfully, nothing so horrific appeared in Marvel’s Star Wars work.
In any case, for diehard completists who revel in finding even the most obscure of Star Wars lore, “R2-D2’s Tales” definitely fit the bill. To download PDFs of both Tales to Astonish issues, as well as their UK Star Wars analogs, visit www.hassleinbooks.com/pages/resources.php#R2D2Tales. Special thanks to Luke Van Horn and Peter Noble for providing these scans.
Rich Handley is the editor and co-founder of Hasslein Books (hassleinbooks.com), the managing editor of RFID Journal, a frequent contributor to Bleeding Cool Magazine and the author of four reference books (Timeline of the Planet of the Apes, Lexicon of the Planet of the Apes, The Back to the Future Lexicon, and The Back to the Future Chronology). He has written numerous articles and short stories for the licensed Star Wars universe over the past two decades, and was a columnist and reporter at Star Trek Communicator magazine for several years.