This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on April 14, 2016.
In “Crocked Critics” two comics critics are joined by their favorite companions: booze and sequential art. With minimal editing and maximal drinking, a pair of typically insightful writers take a serious look at a new comic while putting back drinks. For this particular journey we are joined by comics critics Daniel Elkin accompanied by Gin Gimlets (Spring is HERE) and Chase Magnett accompanied by a 2013 Three Thieves Cabernet Sauvignon (gifted to him by one his absolute favorite co-workers) as they take a look at Star Wars Special: C-3P0 #1 from writer James Robinson and artist Tony Harris.
Chase Magnett: I’m upset, Elkin. I’m really not pleased right now.
After last week’s Crocked Critics we decided to pick an easy target for the both of us like shooting empty bottles off an old fence. Star Wars Special: C-3PO #1 was just that sort of target. It’s a comic book that really shouldn’t be any good.
To start with it takes the most unlikeable subject from Marvel’s Star Wars comics franchise and makes him the hero. Nobody has ever gone to the toy store and looked for a C-3PO action figure, or waited for him to show his shiny face in the movies, or asked for a spin-off comic book featuring the golden killjoy.
On top of featuring this unloved spoilsport, this comic is focused on the one loose plot thread of Star Wars: The Force Awakens that nobody really cared about: What happened to C-3PO’s arm? Even in the movie it’s a joke as the droid raises the question and is promptly ignored by everyone who actually matters to the audience. Yet that’s the central premise of this comic book, simply telling us how his golden arm was replaced by a red one.
The icing on this particular cake comes in the form of the creative team of writer James Robinson and artist Tony Harris. This pairing is best-known for their character defining run on Starman, one of the true all-time great comics stints at DC Comics. Yet recent years have not been kind to either creator with Robinson’s break from DC Comics and maligned Image mini-series Airboy, and Harris’ uninspiring work on series like Ex Machina and impassioned rants against young women in cosplay. Giving this once widely renowned team a C-3PO one-shot felt like Marvel poking fun at their distinguished competition’s fallen fortunes.
But then you read Star Wars Special: C-3PO #1 and discover that it’s actually quite good. There’s an enjoyable story at its core, it raises some haunting concepts and themes, and there are some pretty great page layouts. This issue even manages to make C-3PO himself a compelling character. It’s a pretty good Star Wars comic, perhaps the best single issue of Marvel’s relaunched Star Wars line. It’s everything that I didn’t expect it to be.
Damn it, how did this comic turn out better than it had any right to?
Daniel Elkin: Because at his core, C-3PO is all of us. In the Star Wars films, he’s always been the one who mouths the words that most of us would be saying. Sure we like to think of ourselves as the swashbuckling leading characters, the one’s who have passion and grit and are fighting for the cause, but really, deep down, we know that given the situation, we’d be whining and correcting and pointing out and trying to save our own asses.
And we’re embarrassed by this face in the mirror, and so our embarrassment leads to our slagging of 3PO, because that’s what we do in order to justify ourselves.
So thank goodness James Robinson and Tony Harris have finally put the proper spin on this character and give us access in which to relate. Finally, C-3PO is given the opportunity to show empathy, understanding, and sacrifice. Finally, C-3PO allows us to be heroes too.
I just don’t understand why the fuck they had to put it in a comic book…
Magnett: Not only a comic book, but a one-shot. There’s a lot going on in this one issue and the damnable truth of the matter is that I want more. At the heart of this comic is a heroic journey and romance that I think has swept you away. That’s something I want to hear more about because it really nails the joy of a fun Star Wars story, but the thing at the forefront of my mind walking away from reading this book twice is something a bit more philosophical.
The issue is subtitled “The Phantom Limb”, which on the surface is a joke on the loathed “The Phantom Menace”. Yet as it goes on this title takes on a greater meaning. C-3PO and his frenemy Omri discuss their status as protocol droids, focusing on longevity, servitude, memory wipes, and higher consciousness. Both of these two characters know they have lived longer than any of their companions, but are unsure as to just how long due to being continually wiped by their masters.
Yet their personhood is clear. Both have distinct personalities and retain fragments of their past life, in spite of their owner’s best efforts to create a clean slate. Their memories remain with them like a phantom limb, haunting them. C-3PO has a much more pleasant attitude compared to dour Omri, but when asked about this topic he retreats into a state of uncertainty as he hints at the life-defining events readers will recall from the prequel trilogy. Those are part of him and they were taken away.
It’s a lot to take in and contemplate, evoking thoughts of slavery and mental unwellness that are too big to unpack in this one comic, but it still gives readers plenty to chew on in a concise manner.
Elkin: There’s this exchange early on between C-3PO and Omri in which Omri talks about how fascinating it is that their programming makes them like humans yet they are not actually “alive” (whatever the hell that means, really). Omri then says, “…yet thanks to programming we’re all so ready to fight for this side or that.” The fundamental existential questions that are raised in this book are kinda outta nowhere — yet, because of this, they end up being all that much more profound.
C-3PO talks about their memories being in the hands of “their creators” later on. Omri talks about the necessity of protocol droids having “an extra degree of sentience”. And then, given that they have these “Phantom” memories of which you alluded to, Chase, he then wonders “How important have I been?”
Which hits right to the core of all of us. Right? As we are essentially the summation of our experiences (sprinkled, as it were, with a fine dusting of genetics), it stands to reason that the ultimate human question is “How important have I been?” To have these words come out of a construct, a droid, throws so much sand in the eyes of philosophy that I kind of went weak in the knees when I read it.
What the hell is James Robinson’s end-game here? How much of this is pre-ordained by the corporate concerns of Marvel/Lucas Films/Disney — and how much of this is the expression of an artist who, given the simple task of explaining how C-3PO got his fucking red arm, takes that narrow conceit and shows his true artistry?
Magnett: This really feels like an example of someone being given an inch and taking a mile. I’m sure when Marvel Comics was given the task of filling in the smallest of gaps in the new Star Wars universe, it was because the folks at Disney didn’t believe they could do any damage. Most of the big universe building outside of the films seems to occur in novelizations and cartoons, two vastly more profitable and wide-reaching forms of media. Yet when Robinson and Harris were told they had a few dozen pages to make something up, they expanded on the Star Wars concept in a more profound way than anyone could have anticipated.
Not only did they make it clear why C-3PO is a great character (something I’m just accepting now), but they added a philosophical depth unseen in any individual story since George Lucas let the Mouse take over. Robinson and Harris may have been down, but it’s clear they are not out. Even if they don’t win any awards or get an ongoing series, they delivered something special here. It’s like Rocky in that even though the Italian Stallion doesn’t win the fight, he keeps going to the very end. Given a nothing shot, these two creators made a statement. They aren’t done with comics yet.
I was already excited about the ideas and narrative of this comic, but what it means for these two old pros adds another layer on top of all that. You ask these two how C-3PO got a red arm and they’ll look you in the eye and make you question not only the underpinnings of morality regarding droids in the Star Wars universe, but what exactly makes you a man. Well done, gentlemen. I’m sorry for doubting you.
Speaking of that artistry, I know we both went into this comic acting very skeptical to say the least. What was that first hooked you into what’s being done here?
Elkin:“Skeptical” is an understatement, Chase. I was expecting to have to eviscerate this book in ways I haven’t torn something apart in a long time. As I started reading this book I felt assured that this was the book worthy of bile, too. From the opening page with the “space goat” and the rather phallic looking rocket careening through the all-too convenient hole in a rock formation, to the rather ham-fisted way in which the six characters were introduced, I was juiced for loathing. But then came Omri’s talk of “programming”…. and I started to let off the gas.
Thankfully there was the introduction of “Spice Spiders” and I got to self-righteously climb up on my high horse again… only to be dismounted by C-3PO saying something about one of the droids sacrificing himself for the others, and Omri saying “He was programmed to.” From then on out, I couldn’t shake the sense that there was a bigger picture, a larger sense of artistry going on here.
Sure, at the end, I felt that the whole “red primer” being immune to acid thing was Robinson trying to fulfill his corporate duty, but even that was just a grass seed in the larger meadow of thought going on in this book.
On top of that, being given the opportunity to watch these characters actually develop over the course of this story was impressive. The line, “I’m not choosing sides, I’m choosing friendship” could be sappy as fuck in any other context, but I honestly believe that Robinson earned the right to use it given all the work he had done prior.
This book was redemptive in so many ways. It redeems C-3PO as a character, allowing him to finally be silent in all the right ways. It redeems us for being the C-3PO in this whole fucked up scheme that is the Star Wars universe. It redeems Robinson after his missteps in Air Boy. It almost redeems Harris after his missteps into misogyny.
This fucking C-3PO comic may be the ultimate validation of the idea of “second chances” I have read in a long time.
And I soooooo wanted to get all crocked and be mean, too.
Magnett: I don’t know if one good comic redeems Tony Harris being an asshole towards women, but I do think you’re onto something here. You pointed out the introductory scene as being ham-fisted and it absolutely is. As someone that has read a lot of James Robinson and who really adores his writing on Starman, I’ll be the first to admit that he has a peculiar way with words. His dialogue is unlike anything else in comics, but once it starts to work for you it can really work.
Star Wars Special: C-3PO #1 is an example of Robinson really working. Even when he hits on notes of sappiness or fist-to-face exposition, after you get adjusted they all click into place. I think it might be the forthright manner in which he expresses the big concepts underlying the drama and the purity of the drama that make all of this land for me. Let’s just look at that red primer scene for one moment.
When Omri walks into the acid rain, sacrificing himself to save his friend, he looks at his forearm, quickly turning from gray to red, and says “Red primer… I never knew. When was it applied? How long ago?” It’s a quiet reverie, a brief moment of reflection before his impending death. Even under his lifeless, orb eyes, it’s possible to imagine a mind thinking about what experiences he has had and which of those he will never even remember.
Looking at it now, I’m reminded of the “C-Beams Speech” from the end of Blade Runner, as someone previously seen as being villainous displays the depth of their humanity and self in a very direct manner. Not only does this brief moment make us think of Omri as a person, not just a mechanical object, dying for his friend, but it forces us to consider once again the troublesome nature of existence and how droids are treated in this world.
Is it blunt? Is it melodramatic? Yes on both counts. But the more important question is: Does it work? Again, the answer is yes. Robinson and Harris pull this moment off perfectly and it makes the following page when Harris details Omri’s collapse all the more affecting and tragic.
Elkin: I totally agree with you on this, Chase. And it speaks to Harris’ work a great deal in this book. Talk about Harris’ art now, Chase, as you are apparently more lucid than I at this point. His layouts, especially.
Magnett: My lucidity increases as I drink right up until the moment it plummets into an abyss, let’s hope that moment isn’t now.
Harris is someone who I run hot and cold on. His painterly style certainly appeals to the sort of folk who believe Alex Ross to be the second coming of comics artists. But he definitely has a leg up on Ross in that he actually strives to tell a sequential story rather than string together beautifully composed paintings of nostalgia in a comprehensible fashion. Harris is a guy who seems to want to work in comics, not covers. Even when his work appears unmoving and framed, as was often the case in Ex Machina, it’s clear that he’s here to connect panels.
That’s definitely the case in Star Wars Special: C-3PO #1, and I think the arrangement of this comic plays to his strengths. The most panels Harris ever includes in a single page is six and these often feel jam-packed with close ups. He understands that his work needs room to breathe and arranges the pages in a format to suit this need.
I really love how he looks for symbols and shapes to sort heads and landscapes, making each new page turn feel like a step forward. The layouts are not simply a matter of ease, but showmanship as well. Each page has the effect of being crafted as its own unique moment. Even in an early scene on page nine where the droids are simply conversing, he composes a segmented circle to give them each their own space and that also divides space in order to promote the rugged landscape and a panel of them all together.
As a reader you can see the work and are encouraged to appreciate the presentation. This benefits the story too, as it helps you to slow down. Even if the opening scene of exposition does this narrative no favors, Harris’ craftsmanship is going to make you want to linger a moment longer with what comes next. It not only helps you read the words on the page, but stick around and ponder them.
On top of all that, he provides these droids with a real sense of humanity. While C-3PO may be vaguely humanoid, at least half of these characters are most definitely not. Harris’ painterly qualities and strong emphasis on lighting against these metal forms works to his benefit here though. We get to see and understand them as people, which is how we end up with our brows creased and eyes focused in each moment of sacrifice.
This issue is a strong showcase for Harris and it also helps us understand why his work with Robinson has consistently revealed the best both of these creators had to offer. Now I’m curious which moment(s) crafted by Harris struck you most strongly?
Elkin: I am not at a point in this drinking conversation to point to specifics, Chase. I can barely have my fingers respond to the proper key-strokes, if I’m being totally honest. Still, what I was impressed with was the various ways in which Harris chose to structure his pages. This is, for all extents and purposes, a very corporate comic. It’s in service of the much larger Marvel/Disney/Lucas goals, plain and simple. Given this, one could easily expect Harris just to plod out page after page of six panel compositions. Thud, thud, thud… this is not a comic for comic book readers, after all.
But he didn’t. He actually stood up and said, “I’m a fucking artist and I’m going to make this shit a work of art.” I agree with everything you said about what he accomplished, Chase, and I applaud him for not selling out in a cash grab situation.
While I never quite connected with his individual panels in this book, I kind of felt like that was the point. These aren’t human beings, after all. These are robots. There needs to be some staticness to their presentation. The ends justified the means, as it were.
But I sure as hell wasn’t prepared to see pages where the expected progression of panels was so artfully done, so much in service of story. Between what Robinson is laying down and what Harris crafts, this book transcends the cash-grab obviousness of its publication.
This is what Haunted Mansion could have been. Maybe? And it stands as notice to other creatives that hack work doesn’t have to hack. It can be something else.
I wanted to start talking about Mantlo and Buscema’s work on Rom or Hama’s work on GI Joe or Mantlo (again) onMicronauts, but I’m too far crocked to make my point. Help me, Chase Magnett, you’re my only hope.
Magnett: Don’t worry, I got your back and I’m ready to make some grandiose statements.
Star Wars Special: C-3PO #1 is the reason why even the most corporate of comics like Haunted Mansion #1 deserve a shellacking when they turn out as terrible as that one did. The truth is there are no inherently bad ideas (except land wars in Asia), just bad creations. You named three incredible works from the 1980s that have a deep, lasting impact on comics today and were based upon toy lines. There’s simply no good excuse for churning out bad work.
I’m confident saying that because Robinson and Harris had every excuse in the world. Just look at how I opened this column. We walked in ready to write this thing off and not even blame the two guys given cash to make it happen. I won’t blame anyone for making their green and the numbers on the paycheck stay the same no matter how good a C-3PO comic turns out to be. This could have easily been garbage and almost no one would have wanted to tear down the people who made it as a result.
But it wasn’t, and that’s so very important.
Rather than getting a self-aware ironic joke about everybody’s least favorite Star Wars character, we got a comic that made this character matter. They didn’t change who C-3PO was, but revealed why we ought to relate to him and helped us empathize with his struggles. They delivered melodrama better than all of the other Star Wars comics out there today, stuff that really feels like the movies we love. They packed in ideas that make this comic worth reading more than once and more than twice. They made it all beautiful to look and linger with.
All James Robinson and Tony Harris had to do was write a comic about C-fucking-3PO, and they chose to write the fuck out of C-3PO.
What we walk away from this with isn’t just the knowledge that we can get a good C-3PO comic, but that we can get a good comic out of just about anything. It’s a reminder that as comics readers we should stop lowering expectation and making excuses, and start demanding more. Comics are a great medium and their content never diminishes that potential.
Elkin: Dammit, Chase. You took the words right out of my drunken mouth. I’d give my red arm for you anytime.
Love you, man.