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How Star Wars saved Marvel comics

When Disney purchased Lucasfilm for a whopping $4 billion in 2012, it put Star Wars under the same corporate roof as Marvel Comics, opening up all sorts of possibilities for synergy—including a new line of Marvel-published Star Wars titles that has filled in untold corners of the saga while introducing fans to brand new characters along the way. But this isn't the first time Star Wars and Marvel have come together. In fact, if it weren't for Star Wars, Marvel Comics might not even exist today. Here's a look at how a derided adaptation of an unknown sci-fi film saved Marvel and paved the way for four decades of geek heaven.

Just What The Heck Is Star Wars?

It's hard to believe now, but in the mid-1970s, Marvel Comics was on the verge of financial collapse. Rising paper prices, declining reader interest in played-out superhero clichés, and an antiquated distribution system left Marvel struggling to sell even half of the comics they were printing. Marvel needed a game-changer, and it unexpectedly arrived in the form of an offer to adapt the upcoming George Lucas sci-fi epic Star Wars. Just one problem: Marvel had no idea what that actually was.

Marvel Shoots A Gift Horse In The Mouth

After years of development, Lucas finally began filming Star Wars in 1976. And it was a mess from the start, with cost overruns and studio interference. Lucas needed Star Wars to be a hit, or his nascent career was done. One of his big ideas to promote the film: galvanize the fanboy community with a Star Wars comic book to generate hype. As co-owner of a comic book store, Lucas knew the power of geekdom. So he sent his comic book buddies to Marvel publisher Stan Lee with his proposal—and Stan said 'no.' Whoops.

The Galaxy's Only Hope: Roy Thomas?

Luckily, there was one person Stan listened to: his padawan, former Marvel editor-in-chief Roy Thomas. In 1970, Thomas had convinced a very reluctant Stan Lee to take a gamble on licensing the comic book rights to an obscure fantasy character by the name of Conan. That had turned into a huge hit for Marvel. So George Lucas sent his buddies over to deliver an amazing offer to Thomas: if he could convince Marvel to make a Star Wars comic, Lucas would give Marvel the publishing rights absolutely free. Armed with an early draft of the script and some secret Ralph McQuarrie concept art, Thomas went to Marvel and, despite widespread scorn from his peers, somehow talked Stan into it. Now he just had to convince the fans.

Marvel's Crazy Idea: Bring Star Wars To Comic-Con

Comic-Con today might be the biggest movie showcase in the world, but back in the 1970s, it was all about the comics, and the comics only. That changed when Thomas and artist Howard Chaykin showed up at the 1976 San Diego Comic-Con with posters and images promoting their adaptation of Star Wars. It was the first time a film was the center of a Comic-Con panel, and for many fans, it was the first time they had ever heard of Star Wars. Like door-to-door salesmen, Thomas and Chaykin hawked Chaykin's promotional Star Wars poster to fans for a buck, hoping to somehow start some buzz for the film and the comic. Could it possibly work?

Spoilers? Who Cares About Spoilers!

Finally, in April 1977, the first issue of Marvel's Star Wars comic hit the stands. Yes, April. Given the intense security around the release of potential spoilers from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it probably sounds incomprehensible, but the first two issues of Marvel's six-part Star Wars adaptation actually came out before the movie premiered in theaters. Lucas, in fact, insisted on it in the original contract, hoping that comic book readers would be intrigued enough by what they read to go see the film. Readers actually got more than they bargained for; since Thomas and Chaykin were working off an early version of the script, their adaptation had additional scenes that never made it into the final film.

Star Wars Mania Defeats The Grim Reaper

The first two issues sold well for Marvel. And then the movie came out, and boy howdy...with Star Wars mania suddenly sweeping the entire world, sales went crazy, hitting over a million copies a month, or more than four times the amount their top book, Amazing Spider-Man, had been selling. The sudden financial windfall couldn't have come at a better time for Marvel, which was on the verge of financial ruin. "The success of the Star Wars comics was a significant factor in Marvel's survival," former editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter said on his blog. "Roy Thomas saved Marvel."

Star Wars And Marvel: A Match Made In Pop Heaven

Which brings us back to the present. Funny thing: with Disney now owning both Marvel and Star Wars, the comic book rights to Star Wars have once again reverted to Marvel. The result? Almost all of the best selling comic books of 2015 have been Star Wars titles, with some issues hitting close to a million copies sold. It seems pretty fitting that Star Wars and Marvel are back together. Because without each other, it's possible neither might still be around for us to enjoy at all.