A long time ago in the galaxy of the early 1980s, several Chinese publishing houses put out comic book adaptations of George Lucas’ science fantasy film Star Wars.
Three decades later, one of these vintage curiosities has been scanned and uploaded to the internet, thanks to the efforts of Montana State University assistant history professor Maggie Greene, who purchased the book at a Shanghai fair for about a dollar.
Packed with fanciful illustrations depicting scenes from the original 1977 film, Xing Qiu Da Zhan — Putonghua for Star Wars — it is a far cry from the multi-paneled, contemporary comics of today.
Featuring single images accompanied by short descriptions, this Chinese retelling of the film is more akin to a picture book. Formally, it is a lianhuanhua – the name given to palm-sized collections of sequential drawings that were widely produced in China in the early 20th century.
Lianhuanhua were the ancestors of modern comics, and when they weren’t being used for propaganda purposes, usually featured stories taken from Chinese history.
But these “serial pictures,” as they were also called, sometimes adapted tales from Western cinema, usually without obtaining official authorisation.
“I suppose one of the defining features of modern Chinese cultural production (or perceptions of it, at least) is rather rampant [intellectual property] violations,” Greene writes on her blog . “But at the same time people are amazed by the speed with which Chinese pirates hop on all sorts of reproduction, [and] I think we often forget how quickly culture circulated before the internet.
“So it shouldn’t be a surprise that in 1980, an enterprising press in Guangzhou put together a lianhuanhua of a popular Western movie — one that had come out three years before in the US, and a year after that in Hong Kong!”
Likely created without any input from George Lucas, the Xing Qiu Da Zhan comic gets the basic structure of the original 1977 Star Wars movie correct. All major characters are accounted for, and the general plot of Luke Skywalker rescuing Princess Leia from the clutches of Darth Vader is mostly intact.
But the presentation is a bit off. Aside from Darth Vader and the robots R2-D2 and C-3PO, everyone looks slightly different from their movie counterparts — a sign that the artist drawing the comic had probably never seen the film.
Most notably, all of the book’s spaceships and uniforms have a cold war space race feel to them, and Chewbacca, loyal wookie retainer to smuggler Han Solo, occasionally resembles an ape instead of his “shaggy dog” movie look.
“I do think the art style is fascinating,” Greene told the Post. “A number of the depictions of women in particular really read to me as 1980s [and] early 1990s propaganda posters. [Princess] Leia also looks vaguely Uyghur at points, which is likewise interesting …
“I’ve [also] long been fascinated with the ‘Kennedy Space Center’ appearing on the star map Darth Vader paces in front of [on page] 75. What were the artists working from? It’s an interesting puzzle.”
Ultimately, this forgotten fragment of Star Wars history was a “pretty creative solution to disseminating popular culture in the pre-instant bootleg world,” Greene says.
It is also far from the only one of its kind. A look at posts on Star Wars Forum , a message board for Chinese fans of the series, shows images from other rare lianhuanhua based on the Star Wars sequels The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
“It’s clear that those who created these comics hadn’t seen the films,” one forum poster wrote. “The characters and scenes are always slightly off.”
Other commentators were more forgiving, and called the illustrated artefacts “eye-opening”.
“Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if there had never been such a popular invasion of Japanese comics,” one wrote. “Would China’s comics of today more closely resembled this?”
China’s lianhuanhua interpretations of Star Wars were not the only comics produced in the wake of the original film’s release. In America, Marvel obtained the rights to the films in 1978 and produced several series until losing the licence to competitor Dark Horse Comics in the early 1990s.
Meanwhile, in Japan, a Star Wars comic was created in the late 90s and depicted Luke Skywalker and friends in the doe-eyed, highly expressive style of Japanese manga.
UPDATE: An ongoing English translation of the comic can be accessed here .